Who wears the pants in this relationship? If someone asks you this question, you probably understand what they mean. Who is the dominant one in the relationship? Who holds the power, the influence, the final say? From its earliest utterances, it was intended to challenge women who dared to seize too much autonomy in social relationships, and to shame men who failed to exert their dominance over women per the expectations of ‘manliness.’ Is that what people today are implying when they jokingly ask about pants in a relationship? Probably not. It is certainly possible. This is still a patriarchal world, after all. But seriously… why pants? Why do pants carry such weight? Why not a pocket watch? Or a bowler cap? Why not “who has the penis in this relationship” if that’s what you really mean? Why pants? The answer is a lot of things. Penises and pocket watches might be symbols of manliness as well, but few articles of clothing have so fraught a history as pants, particularly for defining gender, displaying manliness, and indicating dominance. Today we’re talking about pants; we’re barely going to scratch the surface, but in the end, you’ll at least know why pants are such a big deal when discussing relations between men and women.
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Other Episodes of Interest:
Transcript of Struggle for the Breeches: Pants, Women, and Power
Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD
Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Averill: Who wears the pants in this relationship? If someone asks you this question, you probably understand what they mean. Who is the dominant one in the relationship? Who holds the power, the influence, the final say? From its earliest utterances, it was intended to challenge women who dared to seize too much autonomy in social relationships, and to shame men who failed to exert their dominance over women per the expectations of ‘manliness.’ Is that what people today are implying when they jokingly ask about pants in a relationship? Probably not. It is certainly possible. This is still a patriarchal world, after all. But seriously… why pants? Why do pants carry such weight? Why not a pocket watch? Or a bowler cap? Why not “who has the penis in this relationship” if that’s what you really mean? Why pants? The answer is a lot of things. Penises and pocket watches might be symbols of manliness as well, but few articles of clothing have so fraught a history as pants, particularly for defining gender, displaying manliness, and indicating dominance. Today we’re talking about pants; we’re barely going to scratch the surface, but in the end, you’ll at least know why pants are such a big deal when discussing relations between men and women.
I’m Averill Earls
And I’m Hermione Granger! No, just kidding, I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins.
And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig
Sarah: Let’s start with the origin of pants. When people first figured out how to weave and make the cloth that would be clothes, they didn’t start things off by wrapping a piece of fabric around each leg and Bob’s Your Uncle: pants. Forensic anthropologists and archaeologists have long since asserted that the first garments of any length were skirts and dresses, simple rectangular lengths of woven cloth or animal skin wrapped around the body and secured with a belt. There were also loin cloths and shorter versions of the skirt that covered the genitals, as Marissa and Elizabeth will discuss in their episode on undergarments, but pants were not a thing for a long time. They were likely invented once people started riding horses into battle. Pants protected the legs from the rough hair of the horse, gave more freedom of movement, and protected certain tender external reproductive organs.
Averill: So pants were important for the warrior life. Even in cultures where men continued to wear dresses and skirts as everyday wear — like in the Middle East, or Japan — their warriors would have adopted some style of pants for a military uniform. Janissaries, the slave soldiers of the Ottoman empire, for example, exclusively wore some kind of trouser for the freedom of movement and battle readiness from their founding in the 13th century, whereas merchants, artisans, and most regular people continued to wear long tunics and robes through the early 20th century. The Middle East is a more complicated example, however, because — as we’ll discuss later — Western women were inspired to start wearing bloomers after seeing Ottoman women wearing “Turkish trousers” in the 19th century. Japan is a great example because loose but discernible pants were a staple of the samurai warrior in the Tokugawa period, whereas men and women otherwise exclusively wore kimonos until the Meiji emperor encouraged Westernized clothing at the end of the 19th century. While there were still different styles and patterns for ‘mens’ and ‘womens’ kimonos, the contrast between the warrior’s pants and the everyday man’s long belted skirt or robe is stark.
Sarah: We’re using pants as an umbrella term for a range of clothing items that people wear to cover their bottom half, in which material wraps separately around each leg. Up until about the 16th century, this garment was more of an undergarment than a primary garment like the pants we think of today. Hose, usually wool or silk, were more like modern-day tights, and made to be worn under doublets and tunics. When men’s doublets got really short, the codpiece was added to cover the exposed genitals, because hose only reached to the upper thigh. By the 17th century, hose were effectively phased out in Europe and the US by breeches. Breeches as a term has been used to refer to both an outer garment and an undergarment. Knee breeches in particular are probably what you are used to seeing in paintings of men from the 16th through the 19th century. These were close-fitting bottoms that fastened around the knee or calf with a buckle; if they were for riding, they would be flared around the thigh for ease of movement. Breeches are still in use today for things like equestrian sports or royal ceremonies in England. But in general breeches were replaced by trousers in the 19th century in Europe and the US.
Averill: Feudal Europe was more or less constantly engaged in some kind of warfare. That is one of the reasons the feudal system was so effective. As a king you granted land to vassals in return for military service; you wouldn’t be getting much bang for your buck if you didn’t call them up to fight in wars! Because pants were essential to effective mounted warfare, they were associated with power and masculinity in early modern western Europe. They became the standard of male dress, with kings and princes donning the breeches, and their subordinates and subjects following suit. European colonists took their breeching preferences with them to settle in the Americas, and by the 18th century, even the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, had seen the power of pants. In 1701, he issued a decree on Western Dress:
Western dress shall be worn by all the boyars, members of our councils and of our court…gentry of Moscow, secretaries…provincial gentry, gosti, government officials, streltsy, members of the guilds purveying for our household, citizens of Moscow of all ranks, and residents of provincial cities…excepting the clergy and peasant tillers of the soil. The upper dress shall be of French or Saxon cut, and the lower dress…–waistcoat, trousers, boots, shoes, and hats–shall be of the German type. … Likewise the womenfolk of all ranks… and their children, shall wear Western dresses, hats, jackets, and underwear–undervests and petticoats–and shoes. From now on no one of the abovementioned is to wear Russian dress or Circassian coats, sheepskin coats, or Russian peasant coats.
Sarah: Most cultures have gender-specific clothing; in Europe and the US, men wore pants. Women continued to wear dresses or long skirts. This was standardized in the rituals that helped to define male and female spheres. From the 16th century through the late 19th century, the first rite of passage for boys was their “breeching.” Babies and small children were effectively reared solely by the women of a household: mother, older sisters, servants, spinster aunties, grandmothers. Little girls, of course, remained in this domain for their lifetime. But there was a threshold for little boys. Eventually they had to go out and join the male workforce in the fields or towns, or be taken under their aristocratic father’s wing to learn how to ride, hunt, fight. On the day when that education began, the boy received his first pair of breeches. As Laurence Stern, a 19th century writer, described the day his father decided it was time for his breeching. “‘Tis high time… to take this young creature out of these women’s hands, and put him into those of a private governor.” It was a jaunty occasion – family and neighbors were invited to celebrate the little boy’s passage into manhood, eat some cake, and might give him small coins to fill his little boy pockets. Mother would lament the loss of her sweet baby, and father would rejoice that his heir and legacy was finally at his side. Baby boy might not find the restrictive new pants all that thrilling though. As another 19th century memoirist, Samuel Coleridge, wrote, “[The boy] did not roll and tumble over and over in his old joyous way. No! It was an eager & solemn gladness, as if he felt it to be an awful area in his Life.” It was an important milestone, and the little boy’s life would most certainly change.
Averill: Up until the breeching, though, all little children wore petticoats – effectively dresses of undyed muslin or wool that could easily be hemmed as the child grew, and could be passed down from one child to the next. Though children from aristocratic families would have the income to create new dresses for every child, and use particular laces, colors, and garnishes that would allow people to distinguish between little boy and little girl (ie, pink for boys, and blue for girls!) the petticoats of youth were smart, economical, and simple. No pants to unbuckle to get to a dirty diaper or to pull down when potty training. Just babies running around with in cute little dresses. The significance and silliness of the breeching was embedded into 19th century culture. You can see this in a late 19th century poem from a children’s book of verse.
You may be sure that I was glad;
I marched right up and kissed her,
Then gave my bibs and petticoats,
And all, to baby sister.
I never whine, now I’m so fine,
And don’t get into messes;
For mamma says, if I am bad,
She’ll put me back in dresses!
It’s not often that we say, you know who did things right? The early modern Europeans. But seriously. This petticoats for all the babies is the most sensible practice that we’ve ever abandoned as a culture. Fucking capitalism.
Sarah: In the 16th and 17th centuries, boys wouldn’t get breeched until they were 7 or 8 years old. By the 18th century, particularly among the middle and upper classes, the age started dropping; in the 19th century, boys were being “breeched” around 3 years old. And not all were thrilled about breeching, either. For George Nicholson, a printer and vegetarianism advocate — so, up there with Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg — breeching boys was bad. Like so many 19th century philosophers, Nicholson had particular theories about how external and internal forces shape and inflame the sexual passion (and, by extension, immorality). According to Nicholson, putting boys in breeches was right up there with eating meat.
Writes Nicholson, “In his frock the boy was easy, and free to gambol at his pleasure; in his breeches he is, 1. Pent up and shackled, and by way of compensation his mind is stuffed with opinion and folly. He bears the burden of his breeches without murmur, because he is taught to believe his breeches fine, honourable, and manly. 2. During the first and second year the boy can neither button nor unbutton his breeches, and he is continually in a sad condition. 3. To make water he must pull and strain his little pipe to get clear of his breeches; for a year and more he is unable to perform this operation himself; children, maids, and valets, lend their assistance in pulling and playing with his private parts. By this pulling, handling, and playing, the boy (and the girl too who frequently assists, and to whom the innocent boy often tries to return the friendly office) acquire an intimate acquaintance with the genitals. And this is one source of that hurtful practice which Tissot as proved to be so injurious to the human race… From the third year of his life, sometimes earlier, the boy wears breeches, which in general are made of wool. Every avenue of the beneficient air to the testicles is shut up, they are not cooled, not braced, not quieted..”
The Tissot that Nicholson refers to is the Swiss Calvinist Protestant neurologist, physician, professor and Vatican adviser who, in 1760, published L’Onanisme — a tract on the dangers of masturabtion.
Averill: This is actually a really interesting confluence; on the one hand, pants are an important symbol of masculinity and defining maleness. In many Western nations, it was even illegal for women to wear pants. But Nicholson’s point also gets to the heart of what New England Puritans and later 19th century Victorians thought about masculinity. Self-control – not masturbating – was also important to appropriate manhood. And a man’s ability to be his own master, to control his urges, is what set him apart from baser creatures, like women. The fact that Nicholson wanted little boys to keep wearing dresses to preserve their masculinity is an amusing contradiction of the period, but if wasn’t for contradictions, I suspect we’d never see societal change at all.
Sarah: But in between the New England Puritans and the ‘respectable’ Victorians, the eighteenth century was rife with amusement – perhaps self-effacing? – surrounding the centrality of pants as symbols of masculinity. One satirist wrote a silly history of the “Noble Order of the Breeches” in 1750 or so. This pokes fun at the various royal orders, including the Noble Order of the Garter, to which knighted British men belonged. “This order,” the anonymous author asserts, “was instituted by Adam, in a short period of Time after the Creation, and appears to be founded on that most amiable Virtue, called Modesty, for he no sooner arrived at the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but he immediately made himself Breeches, to cover those Parts he was directed by Decency to conceal; but as Arts and Manufactures, had not in those earlier Times been established, he was obliged to convert the Badges of Ensign of his Order from Figleaves, the most proper Materials those Times would produce.”
Averill: Pants, breeches, and trousers were exclusive to the masculine domain. Women’s attire in the 18th and 19th centuries – petticoats, skirts/dresses, with or without hoops and padding, corsets, etc – sucked. It was not particularly convenient for moving around, performing the tasks of physical labor, or breathing. This was challenging enough in the early modern period, when women’s labor was largely utilized at home, in the family shop, working at the family trade, or on the farm. As Elizabeth discussed in her episode on shirtwaists, clothing for women – even poor and working class women – got heavier and more restrictive throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. This made labor nearly impossible for those women who had to turn to industrial work to meet labor demand and support their families. The Industrial Revolution needed women in the factories, in manufacturing, in coal mines. But wearing pants – “dressing like a man” – was heavily restricted. There was a law passed in France in 1800 that required women to ask permission of local authorities to dress ‘like a man.’ That law wasn’t formally abolished until 2013! Yay, lady pants in France!
Sarah: Elizabeth also discussed the Dress Reform Movement of the 19th century, which was responding to a lot of these concerns. Women like Amelia Bloomer – a temperance advocate and suffragette – adopted pants as a political act of resistance. The “Turkish trowsers” that Bloomer made famous — what we call ‘bloomers’ now in her honor — were embraced by many suffragettes, including Elizabeth Smith Miller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. In the 19th century, women were wearing between 10 and 12 pounds of petticoat, plus the stays, whalebone corset, full-skirted dresses that “reached to the ground, sweeping up dirt and debris from country roads and unpaved city streets.” Trousers offered mobility, and were considered by their proponents more hygenic. Though first popularized in the 1850s, the ‘bloomers,’ as the Turkish trowsers came to be known in the US, were embraced throughout the Western world in the 1890s with the advent and spread of the bicycle. For middle class women, the bloomer and bicycle was a literal emancipation after centuries of oppressive gowns and jerking carriage rides. Suffragettes, as students of history are surely aware, were quite controversial in their time, and intentionally so. They could not shake up the status quo, which relegated them to the private sphere and denied them a voice in their nations across the West, had to make waves. Wearing pants was most decidedly a rebellious act for them.
Averill: For other women, though, wearing pants was a mode of survival. When the industrial revolution moved labor and production out of the home, many women — and children — had to join their husbands, fathers, and brothers in the mines and factories just to make ends meet. Though they were paid an unconscionable FRACTION of what male laborers were paid, their meager wages contributed to the overall household income. In the 1840s, the British government set up an commission to investigate the conditions in the mines and colleries, specifically looking at the role of children in the mines. While the children were the initial focus, the women in the mines quickly took center stage, as English gentlemen looked on in horror of the English coal mines.
Sarah: There was a general discomfort in Britain at the time with the idea of little children laboring in dangerous and unhealthy conditions; this is what prompted the Mines and Colleries Commission in the first place. But it was the observations of women doing “men’s work” in the coal mines that shocked the investigators and dominated the reports of the Commission. I can just imagine these Victorian men in their fine three-piece suits fluttering a handkerchief over their mouths both to keep the coal dust out of their refined lungs and in revulsion at seeing the immorality of women doing ‘men’s work.’ Coal mining is dirty, hard work. With little automation and machinery, as was the case at mid-century in Britain, all of the hardest work was done by people. Pick axing the deposits, loading up carts, and hauling the heavily-laden carts up steep mine shafts to the surface for sorting — all of this was labor performed by men, women and children, all employees of the coal mining companies. It was hot, the air was saturated with coal dust, and it was literally back-breaking work.
Averill: But the Commissioners weren’t necessarily concerned with the work itself, or the ridiculously low wages women were paid. Instead, they were scandalized that the women working in the mines were stripped to the waist – like all the men and boys around them – and wearing — you guessed it — PANTS. As the reports started rolling in to the Commission office, the stories got picked up by local newspapers. The Halifax Guardian reported that coal-mining was “taking woman from her proper sphere and degrading her to the dress of man and the drudgery of the mine.” Pants, hard work, and wage-earning — these were all of a man’s sphere. The unholy product of industrialization was bare-breasted and pantalooned for all the world to see, and the British government could not stand it. While the Commission was set up to investigate child labor, women became the focus of the resulting Mines and Colleries Act. The bill went through the House of Commons with almost no discussion after an impassioned speech by Lord Anthony Ashley, who headed the Commission. It met more resistance in the upper chambers, however, because the Act would prevent women from working in the mines, and those who opposed it, individuals like Josephine Baker, who also fought tooth and nail against the Contaigious Diseases Act, were concerned that women deprived of wage labor in the mines would be forced to turn to ‘other immoral work’ (aka prostitution).
Sarah: The final report included a number of quite graphic woodcut illustrations depicting the labor conditions. Though challenged and revised in the House of Lords, the resulting Act did indeed ban women from work below ground in the coal mines. It also banned boys under the age of 10 from working in the mines — a change from the original 12-year-old threshold of the Act as it was presented in the lower chamber. The members of parliament serving in the House of Lords were, apparently, far more susceptible to the desires of the mine owners who capitalized on the labor of both women and children, who received far lower wages than men, and cared less about the morality of women and children laboring in the first place.
Ave: The Act was full of loopholes. Women were banned from going below ground, but continued to work in the colleries. The public, though, became fascinated with these pants-wearing women, who continued to don the breeches in order to do their work effectively. These ‘pit brow lasses’ were made famous by the news reports on the parliamentarian discussions of the Mines and Colleries Act. Tourists started heading to mine country to take pictures of these women in pants — they were a novelty, a sideshow. By the late 1840s these women were reported to wear their pants under long skirts, which they could tuck into their waistband while at work, and then drop to conceal their offensive pants on their walk home.
Sarah: One young woman made headlines in Boston when she went about town in ‘men’s clothing,’ and was arrested for ‘donning the breeches.’ Emma Snodgrass had worked on a steam ship on the Mississippi, and found that dressing like a man earned her higher wages (surprise, surprise). But her penchance for pants brought her all kinds of legal troubles, of which the Boston Herald and New York Times Daily simply could not get enough. An article on Nov 30, 1852, the New York Times Daily reported:
“Miss Emma Snodgrass, a young woman of seventeen, belonging to New York, has a second time been taken into custody by the police of Boston for donning the breeches. The first time of her appearing in male apparel was, it will be remembered, when she applied for and obtained a situation as clerk at the clothing establishment of John Simmons & Co., Water street, from whence, on the discovery of her real sex, she was taken to the police office, and thence to the house of her father, a respectable city official in New York. A day or two since she returned to Boston, and in female apparel put up at the Washington Coffee House. Yesterday she left the house, but soon after returned, dressed in a frock coat, cap, vest and pants. The bar-keeper at once recognized her, and informed the Chief of Police of her whereabouts. What her motive may be for thus obstinately rejecting the habiliments of her own sex, is not known.”
Averill: In a variety of news stories following her various arrests – she is taken into custody some half dozen times – Emma Snodgrass is referred to as “the foolish girl.. Who goes about in virile toggery,” and “the wanderer in man’s apparel,” and various other unflattering names. Finally, in 1856, the “unfeminine freak–a girl in man’s clothes” was arrested and charged with vagrancy.
Charley is a ‘gallus’ character, and while in Court was the observed of all observers. He — we mean she — heard the complaint preferred with apparent indifference, and replied to it by a simple plea of not guilty, and was then sentenced to two months imprisonment on Blackwell’s Island.
“Charley chews tobacco with ease, and enjoys a mile Havanna. Her teeth, though, are good and white, and appear to be an object of great care. Her face is full, plump, and smooth, and her hair, short and black, is neatly arranged. Charley’s tile is a la mode, shines like a mirrow, and is usually worn ajaunt, as becomes a gay young man about town. Her coat and br– pants are new, neat and well fitting.
Sarah: The journalist cheekily hints here at breeches. Though largely out of style, they would have still carried specific connotations that readers would pick up on. Here was Emma Snodgrass, alias Charley, who dared parade about as a man. The offense stretched beyond donning the breeches though. “Charley has broken some little hearts in his — we mean her — day, without intending any such calamity; but, generally, by a proper method, succeeded in getting rid of the lovers. There was one exception — a confiding creature — who for some time would not believe her story as to how things stood. It was very hard to convince her. But when the true state of affairs was made apparent she was inconsolable, and refused all offers of comfort from another source. Charley says she retired to a convent; but Charley is a wag.”
Averill: In comparison with our coal miners, though, Emma Snodgrass used breeches in a far more effective way. When asked by a reporter, “But why do you dress in male attire?” she replied, “Well, because I can get along better. Can get more wages. A poor girl, (here Charley’s voice showed more feminine, and her big eyes grew bigger and milder,) has no chance. I acted wrong once, I dont’ deny it; but I didn’t like to, and it was to prevent the necessity of continuing to act bad that I put on boy’s clothes. I am not a vagrant, never have been, and never will be so long as I have hands to work. See there; my hands are hard — harder and bigger than yours; that looks like work. Yes, my hands are big, and homely too. They were little once, when I was living at home with my mother. But then there is no use crying about it, is there? I have roughed it so long, and I may as well be rough. All I want is that folks will let me alone. I can get along.” Unlike the women of the English coal mines, bare breasted and covered from head to toe in coal dust, Emma Snodgrass was able to use pants to disguise her identity and circumvent the sexist devaluation of female labor. Until, that is, she got caught.
Sarah: Obviously there’s a lot going on here. She was cross-dressing – that was an offence in and of itself. There is an insinuation in this report that Snodgrass may have had some sexual affairs with other women. That, too, was an offense. For the coal miners, wearing pants was a mode of survival, and when ‘discovered,’ the British government sought to ‘protect’ those women from the indecency of wearing pants and working side-by-side bare-chested with men. But those women were not seeking to live as men; only to work as men. For Snodgrass, wearing pants was part of the masculine identity that she created for herself, and also a mode of survival. But the government officials in the US did not see her donning of the breeches as something society forced her to do in order to survive; they saw it as her deception, her wrong-doing, and shaming and punishing her was their way of protecting society from her. Ultimately in both cases, though, the powers-that-be are doing more than policing pants. The impact of the Mines and Colleries Act on English coal-mining women, the American prosecution of Emma Snodgrass — these are glaring instances of the regulation of women’s bodies. What parts are allowed or not allowed to be seen in public, what articles of clothing they are allowed to wear, what labor they are allowed to perform.
Averill: And pants in particular, but also what women wearing or not wearing pants represents as a mode of policing and controlling women’s bodies, is NOT a 19th century problem. In 1939 a woman in Los Angeles went to jail for wearing pants to court. Women in the US senate were banned from wearing pants on the Senate floor until the 1993 “Pantsuit Rebellion” overthrew the formal rule. Women in some countries are still unable to wear pants. In 2009 Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese journalist, was fined for public indecency because she was wearing green slacks in public. In that case, she was actually sort of fortunate to only be fined; the maximum punishment was 40 lashes. When she refused to pay the fine, she was taken to jail. FOR WEARING PANTS. In 2017, the LPGA in the US issued a new rule that will fine women up to $1,000 for wearing leggings or ‘plunging necklines’ while golfing. This is not a case of “once upon a time.” This is an on-going f***ing thing. And those are just instances of official legislative action regulating women’s bodies.
Sarah: We could talk for a million years about the informal and formal ways women’s bodies are constantly being regulated. But we won’t. Because this episode is about that one quaint, fairly misogynist, but otherwise harmless phrase, “Who does wear the pants in this relationship?” And women of the world: it’s you. It’s all of you. Don your breeches. Hitch up your pantaloons. Keep wearing those pants. We will not go quietly into the nightdresses. We wear the pants now. And we’ll keep fighting until every woman who wants to wear pants can.
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