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Taylor’d With Style: You Can Wear the Pants

By JeanAnn Taylor

pants, purse and shoes

A few weeks ago I spoke to a ladies group about finding your signature style. During my talk, I admitted to not owning a single pair of pants. They couldn’t believe it.

How can you not own a pair of pants? Now, of course I have leggings for Pilates and dance practice, and I have jeans—in both indigo and pink for hiking or other very casual settings, but I don’t own a single pair of slacks, khakis, chinos, or trousers.

They are just not “my” style. I realize I’m unusual—or an “odd duck” as my mother calls me—because most women enjoy wearing pants, and many women throughout history have fought for the right to wear the two-legged garment.

In Europe, men have worn pants since ancient times. As cloaks, robes, and tunics were cumbersome, pants were created for warmth and ease of activities such as riding horseback. The first pants were actually two separate, matching pieces. Each piece consisted of one pant leg with a tie to wrap and secure around the waist. This explains where the term “pair of pants” originated.

Pants prevailed as a man-only garment for centuries. Finally, in 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller became frustrated as she struggled to work in her garden while wearing a corset under a caged, ankle-length dress consisting of several yards of fabric gathered into the waist.

As she toiled, she thought about a new trend in Europe where women were wearing trousers underneath their skirts. This idea led her to design and create a baggy-fitting style of pants to be worn under a knee-length skirt. This revolutionary idea was admired by her friend Amelia Bloomer who happened to be the publisher of the newspaper, The Lily. Amelia supported the idea by promoting it in her publication.

Women then began wearing “bloomers,” as they were called, for bike riding and other casual activities. Elizabeth is credited as the first modern American woman to wear pants in public; however, while the idea of wearing pants was desirable, the trend didn’t last because the bloomer was exceptionally radical and not particularly attractive.

Fashion designer Paul Poiret brought the idea of women wearing pants back to life in 1911. His “harem pant” was more appealing than the baggy bloomer. The feminine and functional harem pant was made from silky fabric and embellished with intricate embroidery and beads.

In 1917 harem pants were featured on the cover of fashion magazines, finally indicating the acceptance of pants for women. However, once again the pant lost favor as they were considered too sexy.

Coco Chanel is best known for catapulting the “Little Black Dress” into fashion fame, but she is also credited with accelerating the pant-trend with her “yachting pant” design.

The unintentional pant phenomenon began when she wore a very wide-leg pant to an outing simply out of her desire to cover up. When women saw her outfit, they began to emulate the look and soon this pajama-style pant became fashionable.

Although her design affected the course of fashion history, she later regretted this influence. At the age of 86, she said, “I came up with them by modesty. From this usage to it becoming a fashion, having 70% of women wearing trousers at evening dinner is quite sad.”

The Second World War created a necessity for women to wear pants. As millions of men fought the War across the ocean, American women were left at home to work and support the War effort. When the War ended, pant fashion faded as a strong desire for home values and domesticity became the focus.

By the mid-1960s, a safe and secure country afforded women the liberty to once again search for an acceptable way to wear pants.

As Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), Mary Tyler Moore insisted on wearing pants to update her character’s image. She convinced her producers that real women did not wear pretty frocks while vacuuming or washing dishes.

She was known to sneak capris and jeans into her costume collection. Her influence was eventually accepted and became characteristic of the modern woman.

Growing up, I was not allowed to wear pants to school until 1972. Even then there were strict rules—the top had to be of the same material as the pant, and the length had to meet at the wrist to ensure adequate coverage of our derrières.

I remember lining up, with our arms straight down, and having our teachers check the length of our top. Of course, it was unthinkable for a top to be sleeveless or low-cut. The ensemble had to be a “pantsuit” and if it didn’t meet the requirements, we were sent home!

While wearing pants eventually became acceptable for casual settings, it took years for them to be allowed for professional or formal events. In 1972 Pat Nixon was the first First Lady to publicly pose in pants.

Her pink pantsuit became a symbol of acceptance, but it took 20 more years before female senators were allowed to wear them to work. Fast-forward to 2019 when wearing pants is acceptable for all events and occasions, and with very few rules, if any at all.

Nowadays we have so many styles to choose from: dress, wide-legs, flared, capris, and many more. With pants you can look elegant, sporty, or professional. The key to looking attractive is in the fit—skirts hide, pants tell. Pants hug the body at the waist, derriere, hips, and thighs.

Ill-fitting pants will make you look and feel uncomfortable. They’ll also draw attention to areas you may not want emphasized.

Dress pants are often made with wool or polyester. They may have darts or tucks, and are usually snug around the hips. The hem should graze the top of your shoe. The fitted, tailored design gives them a professional, polished look.

woman wearing pants

Capri pants are hemmed anywhere from below the calf to above the ankle. They are a tricky style to wear because they can easily look frumpy. If you are short, they can make you look shorter, and if you have full legs they can make you look heavier.

The reason is that the hem often falls at the widest part of your leg, and the eye will always go to the area where fabric meets skin. Cargo pants are exceptionally casual. The large pockets offer convenience, but they also add volume. The most challenging is the drawstring-waist pant. While comfortable, they can look shapeless.

Wearing leggings under a dress or loose-fitting top is considered to be a new trend, but it is actually where the concept of women wearing pants began. I imagine Elizabeth and Amelia are giggling about this “new” fashion sensation.

Capri, cargo, and drawstring pants can look chic by adhering to a couple of fashion rules. First, if the bottom is full, the top should be fitted; if the bottom is fitted, the top can be full. This gives your ensemble a pleasing balance.

Second, clunky shoes will emphasize the boxiness of cargo and drawstring pants. A simple slip-on will be more flattering. High-heels can work with capris on special occasions, but a ballet flat is always a good option.

Pants are practical and appropriate for nearly every occasion. With a basic pair of black or navy trousers, you can mix and match with various tops to create a new look every day. Still, with all their attributes, I realized at a very young age that pants were not for me. They don’t fit my body type or my personality.

The allure of the dress has stayed with me my whole life. Dresses are comfortable, feminine, and easy to style. I feel like “me” when I wear a dress.

And that is what style is all about.


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