I was out shopping the other day observing what was in fashion for fall. The one item I was most excited to see again were vintage wide leg pants. Thank goodness! I despise skinny pants with a passion, so seeing so many great wide leg pants, especially those with high waists, makes this vintage loving gal very happy.
Wide legs and high waist pants or trousers have been a fashion staple from the 1920s to the 1950s, with the occasional recurrence before and after then, too. The current trend borrows the look from the 1970s, which originally borrowed the look from the 1930s, so to me they are 1930s. But let’s not take my word for it just yet. Instead, take a look at some pictures of wide leg pants through the decades and see where today’s wide leg pants take inspiration from.
1920s Wide Leg Pants
With a great deal of 1910s to1920s fashion being inspired by Asian clothing, we first begin to see the silky lounge pant. The lounge pant or pajama pant was worn by high fashion stars at home for entertaining or just beautifully lounging around the house. The pants sat at the natural waist and hung down to just above the ankle in a straight cut with a roomy fit. They often came with a matching tunic, also with an Asian design.
Some silk pants were also worn with a silk or velvet lounge jacket, a style borrowed from men’s smoking jackets.
These wide-leg lounge pants became increasingly popular in the late 1920s. They were not just for movie stars. Regular folk were wearing them, too – mostly at home or on vacation to seaside destinations.
Read more about 1920s women’s pants history.
1930s Pants and Beach Pajamas
By the 1930s, pants for lounging at home (or sleeping in – the pajama), pants worn for casual summer beach attire (Beach Pajamas), and sport pants were a regular part of everyday fashion.
The sleeping pajama was very similar to the beach pajama. Wide legs and a tunic or button down blouse with a matching belt was the pajama style for most of the 1930s. Nightgowns were still worn, too, but there was something less personal about pajamas that made them more likely to be worn at home without the need for a robe as a cover up. I image many women just wore them all day long to do their chores in, too.
There were, however, lounge pajamas that were not meant to be slept in (although they certainly could). Instead, they were designed to be worn as leisure wear, especially to tropical destinations or cruises. Light and airy, they were perfect in hot weather (they are amazing to dance in too!). They were called Beach Pyjamas instead of pajamas, although the latter was used more often. They could be just pants but often were jumpsuits with suspenders, halter tops, or a scoop neck shirt in contrasting color. The front was modest, but the back was all skin!
The 1930s gets the credit for having the widest legs and wildest pattern in the century. They started at a nice roomy fit and went crazy with oversized pleated legs. Clown pants come to my mind when I see these monstrosities.
The beach pajama was not the only resort clothing or sports attire women wore in the 1930s. A more modest blouse and pant set became part of leisure wear for non-beach goers. Designed as sports clothing, they were adopted by women regardless of if they played or not. “Play clothes” was another term used to label this new set of clothing. Women’s pants were still not acceptable outside of playing sports or vacationing.
With a matching top and bottom set sewn as one, the Jumpsuit was born. The 1930s jumpsuit usually had sleeves to keep with modest, but most of today’s jumpsuits are sleeveless like they were in the 1970s.
The pants were high waisted and wide legged but not the oversized drapery of extreme beach pajamas. The trend was a nautical one with big white sailor buttons up the fronts and a stripe down the side. A wide cuffed hem was also part of the fashion.
The culotte was a short pant with wide flowing leg. It looked like a cross between a pant and skirt. It often came with a matching blouse or two (one modest, one not). Today, the culotte is also sometimes called the gaucho pant and can be long or shorter.
Overalls were also part of the wide leg pant set. They were mostly a workwear item, but could also be worn for leisure.
1940s Wide Leg Pants
In the 1940s, women continued to wear sporty pants as leisure wear. The beach pajamas were out of fashion as rationing during WWII made the beach pajama a waste of valuable fabric. The new need for women was pants to work in. Sturdy cotton twill, denim pants, and overalls were modified from men’s work clothes to make factory workers out of women.
With more and more women working and getting used to wearing pants in public, it wasn’t long before fashion followed and women could wear pants outside of just work or leisure. Read more about the history of 1940s pants here.
Pants were still wide leg with a high waist band and full hips, too. Some pant legs tapered a bit during the war years.
Culottes were still worn in the 1940s, but they thinned down from the skirt-like shape of the 1930s to a short pant or long short with a knee length.
1950s Wide Leg Pants
The 1950s is where we say goodbye to wide leg pants. In first few years, pants fit much like they did in the 1940s with high waist, full hips, and a wide but tapered leg at the ankle. Denim jeans remained fuller than cotton pants for a little while longer, but even they narrowed. The 50s pant shape was now an inverted triangle.
In the mid 50s to the end of the 60s, pants became slimmer and slimmer. Only with the boho hippie movement going into the ’70s did wide leg, bell bottom pants come back into fashion again. They copied the 1930s style, too, with a revival of flowing fabrics and extra wide shape. There were also tailored high waist pants with flared bottoms and bell bottoms jeans.
Shopping for Wide Leg Pants this Fall
Now that we looked at some vintage wide leg pants what about those fabulous new wide leg pants I saw in stores for fall? I pulled some of my favorites into these shop pages:
- 1930s Women’s Pants – Flowing extra wide beach pajamas, jumpsuits, culottes and sailor pants. Many of these will work for the 1920s, too.
- 1940s Women’s Pants – Wide leg, high waist sailor pants, overalls, coveralls and denim jeans.
- 1970s Pants and Jeans – Wide leg, bell bottom jeans, palazzo pants and jumpsuits