DDBspotlight: Trousers – about Women’s Fashion, Clothing Reforms and Self-determination

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editor)

In addition to the International Women’s Day on 8th March, in the USA, Great Britain and Australia the whole month is devoted to the history of women’s rights. Each year, on the occasion of the “Women’s History Month”, women and their contribution to society are emphasised and celebrated. This is important since, for a long time, women were written out of history, their fight for equality played down and their commitment ignored by politics and science. Examining women’s history means, therefore, also to put the focus on the private sphere, on areas which were often devalued as of marginal importance, but which were anything but.

Even in 1940, trousers were still not a self-evident article of clothing for women: “Marlene Dietrich (Los Angeles, 1940) (archive title)”, photo: Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Museum of Film and Television) (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International)

A cultural-historical look at everyday life is particularly helpful here. We are devoting this Spotlight to women and their clothing. We shall examine striving for emancipation as self-determination through fashion, as a struggle to be able to move around freely and to appropriate the male article of clothing par excellence – trousers.

From Ötzi to knights: A short history of trousers

The gender-specific, binary classification of trousers being equal to male and a skirt, respectively dress being equal to female, is relatively young and has its origins in Europe. In other cultures, men wear long tunics or wrap-round skirts, like the South Asian lungi or the South East Asian sarong for example, up to the present day. Loose-fitting harem trousers are widespread as women’s clothing in the Arab world and in Asia.

This Albanian wedding costume consists of a pair of baggy trousers (dimija) with a blouse, waistcoat and a large triangular shawl, which is wrapped around the hips: “dimija” (1932/33), photo: Christian Krug. Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Museum of European Cultures, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

In Europe, trousers have probably been known since the Ice Age; the famous glacier mummy Ötzi, for instance, is wearing trouser-like leggings. Among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, both men and women wore tunics; trousers were considered to be “barbaric” and were ridiculed. Among the Celts and the Germanic peoples, they were also worn quite naturally by women. In the first place, it was the temperature which was the main reason for deciding between a skirt or trousers: whereas long, flowing garments were of particular advantage at high temperatures, fur trousers provided warmth in cold regions.

The word “Hose” (German for trousers) is derived from the Old High German “hosa” and this originally referred to long stockings which were worn as part of a knight’s armour under the actual (under) trousers, the so-called “bruch” (breeches). Trousers became a male article of clothing in the Middle Ages. First of all, there were stockings which were attached to the doublet, then tights, wide harem trousers and finally culottes, tight trousers ending just below the knee which were worn with silk stockings.

More a skirt than trousers: “Ein stehender Mann mit Rheingrafenhose” (“A standing man wearing Rhinegraves” (1657-1714), Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

Between 1650 and 1680, Rhinegraves, a wide form of a divided skirt, were modern for the men of the aristocratic upper class. In the meantime, even a divided skirt was no longer an option for women. Instead of this, the corset had been part of the dress code for aristocratic women since the Renaissance. From 1550 onwards, the strict Spanish court fashion set the tone: the corset laced in the breasts and thus formed a flat upper body. Around 1640, a form of corset was developed at the French court which pushed up the breasts, emphasised the cleavage and made the waist as slim as possible into a wasp waist.

Liberty, equality, fraternity? New dress codes after the French Revolution

In 1791 the French Revolution wanted to replace the Ancien Régime and its social order – from the political organisation up to the calendar. The dress codes up to that time were also questioned. The revolutionaries not only wore the red liberty cap, but also long “pantalons”, which were cut straight down to the ankle and which were actually reserved for the working population. The revolutionaries rejected the aristocrats’ culottes and thereby were soon known as sans-culottes (from the French “sans” meaning without).

Old and new fashion – the lady on the left and the gentleman on the right are wearing conservative, respectively pre-revolutionary clothing; she a dress with “panniers” (hip pads) and a corset, and he culottes and a “justaucorps” (long, knee-length coat). The lady on the right and the gentleman on the left are wearing Empire or revolution fashion; both of them have dispensed with wigs, he is wearing long trousers and she a flowing dress without a corset, which was inspired by ancient garments: “L'Ancien et le Nouveau” (around 1800), photo: Dietmar Katz, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Art Library, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

Women also wore the revolutionary article of clothing and organised themselves in political clubs. Nevertheless, freedom and equality remained solely the preserve of wealthy men and the women’s clubs were banned as early as 1793. In Paris, women now had to make an application to the city authorities if they wished to wear trousers.

Even after Napoleon was banished to St. Helena and the Congress of Vienna decided on political restoration, the revolutionary fashion still partly remained. Men wore long trousers and short, unpowdered hair. Voices called for doing away with the woman’s corset. It was, above all, the effects on health, from deformations and breathing problems up to organ damage, which were emphasised – self-determination did not play a role here. The criticism was successful at first and the Empire fashion of the early 19th century did without a corset. However, as early as 1825, the waists were laced in tighter than ever before and the s-silhouette, in which the breasts were pushed forwards and the abdomen pushed backwards, became fashionable. Corsets also became fashionable for men for a short time, but these were never laced in as tightly as the lady’s corset and were forgotten again relatively quickly.

In addition to a slim waist, the crossed-over straps of the corset forced a completely upright posture on their wearers: “Geradehalter Korsett” (“An upright-holding corset”) (around 1880), photo: Stephan Klonk, Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Museum of Decorative Arts, National Museums in Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

Fashion, power and representation

Whereas men’s fashion did not return to the pre-revolutionary style, wigs disappeared from public and knee breeches were worn at most as knickerbockers, there was a restoration of fashion for women; a return to the corset and to heavy dresses with a circumference of several metres. This was true, above all, for ladies’ clothing of the wealthy upper class. Working women not only had no money for expensive creations, but they were also dependent on freedom of movement in their daily life.

Thus, clothes from the middle of the 19th century also tell a story of power structures and the understanding of one’s role. The wealthy woman was dependent on the help of servants for dressing and undressing, respectively could afford this. Clothes were changed several times a day. The “Mistress of the house” fulfilled a representative function, which was also expressed in her dresses and in the inability to move which arose from them. The corset brought her body forcibly into shape and forced an upright posture – the narrow, limited and fixed position of the woman in society, her restricted possibilities and the reduction to a decorative purpose were clearly reflected in fashion. It was understood that the more magnificent and sumptuous a woman’s dress was, the wealthier her husband.

Whereas the man proclaims, “I would rather die than let my wife wear the trousers; the man should always rule the roost,”, the woman says ,“The female was born to rule, not to obey,” and is supported in this by her neighbour, who is already wearing trousers under her dress: “Großer Zank, zwischen einem Mann und seiner Frau, wer von beiden die Hosen tragen u. im Haus die Ober-Herrschaft haben soll” (“A great quarrel between a man and his wife about which of them wears the trousers and who should reign supreme in the house”) (around 1840), Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

The fight for trousers

In the course of the French Revolution, a claim had formed for the right to a say in society which, in the meantime, had become substantially quieter, but had not become silent. The demand for political influence was also accompanied by the desire for self-determination, which attached itself, among other things, to trousers, which had become the standard male article of clothing in the meantime. In the middle of the 19th century, it was a scandal that women laid claim to trousers and were thereby claiming equality and a right to have a say in society. The question of who was actually wearing the trousers here, who had power and influence, now received its proverbial character. It was, above all, women who were financially independent and thereby able to escape from the patriarchal system who wore trousers in public, despite social taboos and legal constraints.

Double provocation: In the 19th century, ladies’ trousers were not only emancipatory, but also had erotic connotations: “Portrait der Schauspielerin Klara Ziegler” (“Portrait of the actress Klara Ziegler”) (around 1895), Universitätsbibliothek Kassel, Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek der Stadt Kassel (University Library Kassel, State Library and Murhard Library of the City of Kassel) CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

In the USA, the New World, in which the possibilities of a new social order were being hotly debated, an emancipation movement formed in the middle of the 19th century, which also wanted to introduce trousers for women. In 1851, Amelia Bloomer, the editor of the feminist magazine “The Lily”, made a trouser suit popular, which consisted of ankle-length loose trousers worn with an approximately knee-length dress over them.

The bloomers, as they soon became known, were a sensation and also caused a great stir in Europe. The courageous wearers were not only looked on in suspicion, but also with ridicule. Satirical magazines like the British “Punch“ devoted numerous disparaging caricatures und reviews to the bloomers, from which, above all, an uneasiness emerged against female self-determination. Repeatedly, there was a clear fear that women could change over the social order and in their turn oppress all men. Feminists still hear this accusation up to the present day.

A world in which women take part in public life: “Bloomeriana. A dream” (around 1851), HeidICON – Die Heidelberger Objekt- und Multimediadatenbank (The Heidelberg Object and Multimedia Databank) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Change: Reform clothing, self-determination and early ladies’ trousers

At the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution led to changes in society: electricity and technical progress heralded a new way of life and created more possibilities for women in the public sphere. For this reason, the requirements for women’s clothing changed: functionality and freedom of movement played an ever greater role.

Resistance arose once more against the corset. In contrast to earlier discussions, the voices of women who rejected the corset for emancipatory reasons were now added to doctors’ warnings. Reform efforts such as that of the “Verein zur Verbesserung der Frauenkleidung” (“Association for the Improvement of Women’s Clothing”) developed alternative dresses. These included, for example, a loosely cut reform bodice instead of a corset or a combination of a skirt and blouse, which could be worn on several occasions and which had fewer layers of fabric than conventional dresses and thereby offered more freedom of movement.

Suitable for everyday use: “Schaufenster mit Reformkleidung” (“Shop window with reform clothing”) (around 1905), Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

Amelia Bloomer’s approach of combining a dress and trousers was taken up in various ways in the following years. In 1910, inspired by the very popular “orientalism”, the designer Paul Poiret designed a trouser-style dress which combined a pair of baggy trousers with a calf-length straight-cut dress. There was an uproar when his new creation was presented at the Auteil horse races in Paris. Regardless of this, the daring creation was worn as a “jupe-culotte” or divided skirt.

The wide, baggy trousers were sometimes worn without an upper garment: “Mode 1911!) (“Fashion 1911!”), Historic picture postcards – University of Osnabrück (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

Women who wore trouser-like clothing in public at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century showed courage, since they were not only laughed at, but also attacked or arrested. A woman in a divided skirt was paradoxically considered to be equally unfeminine and lascivious. Fashion postcards took up the debate and promoted the divided skirt in different ways: as emancipatory clothing (as in the image below); emphasised the inner values of the wearer by skilfully asking questions “Whether one is attractive to men when wearing trousers? That depends only on the content, like with a book” or portrayed the clothing as audacious and especially daring.

Fashionable emancipation – the caption reads “Now, everyone really sees it: Who is wearing the trousers now?”: “Im Hosenrock” (“Wearing a divided skirt.”) (1911), Historic picture postcards – University of Osnabrück (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

Ladies’ trousers had their breakthrough due to the increasing popularity of sporting activities. Even though special corsets were designed for sport at first, it was trousers that prevailed. From then on, for instance, it was acceptable for women to wear trousers for gymnastics, riding, hiking and skiing. Moreover, the triumphal advance of the bicycle was also important here. Since, in addition to physical activity, this enabled women to move around relatively independently in the public space. Against the resistance of conservative circles, women were already riding bicycles at the end of the 19th century and wearing comfortable dresses or divided skirts in doing so.

Trousers as sports clothing for women: “Turnerinnen auf dem Heiligengeistfeld” (“Gymnasts on the Heiligengeistfeld”) (1905-1909), Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Museum of Art and Design Hamburg) (CC0 1.0 Universal - Public Domain Dedication)

In the First World War, due to the crisis, women took over jobs in factories and production facilities which had previously been carried out by men up to then. In the course of this, overalls and trousers prevailed as practical work clothing. Admittedly, trousers remained mainly a substitute article of clothing for sport and work up to the 1940s, but their socially explosive nature had been mitigated after the First World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, ladies’ trousers appeared again and again as leisure clothing. Thus, they had found their way into the private sphere and it was merely in public that women wearing trousers was frowned upon, which did not stop designers like Coco Chanel from designing elegant trousers as part of their functional women’s fashion.

Elegant leisure clothing: “Frau in Jacke und Hose von Warschauer und Krieszki“ (“Woman in jacket and trousers by Warschauer and Krieszki“) (1927), Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Deutschland)

Marlene Dietrich and the short 20th century

In the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich not only adopted trousers, but also, at the same time, the full trouser suit – from the Arabian-inspired riding costume up to the elegant tailcoat. By doing so, she broke traditional gender roles and revolutionised the world of fashion along the way. The high-cut wide-leg trousers found many imitators and are known as Marlene Dietrich trousers up to the present day.

From the estate of Marlene Dietrich: “Smoking, wahlweise mit Rock oder Hose zu tragen (Archivtitel)” (“Tuxedo, to be worn with either a skirt or trousers (archive title)”) (1932), photo: Michael Lüder, Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum für Film und Fernsehen (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International)

Up into the 1970s, women’s trousers still had the reputation of being an extravagant or inappropriate article of clothing. Women in trouser suits were refused entry into hotels and restaurants and there was an uproar in the Bundestag (German Parliament) when the SPD politician Lenelotte von Bothmer made a speech wearing a trouser suit. Prior to this, the CSU Bundestagsvizepräsident (Vice President of the German Parliament), Richard Jaeger, had even threatened to expel any women from the room who appeared in a trouser suit at the plenary session. The 1968 protest movement criticised the political structure of the post-war society and defied its dress code. Not only wearing the miniskirt was part of doing this for women, but also wearing trousers. Jeans und parkas were worn by both men and women. In the 1970s, an optical convergence of women’s and men’s clothing took place, which had a lasting effect on the world of fashion. Today, women wear trousers in public quite naturally – even though equality between men and women has not yet been achieved due to this, striving for female self-determination has made quite a lot of progress in the past 150 years.

At first glance, the clothing a person wears may appear to be trivial. Women’s fight for self-determination in fashion, their demand for functional clothing and to be able to wear trousers shows in an exemplary way that “The private is political”. Clothing not only determines how people are perceived in the public sphere, but also how they can move around there, what activities they can pursue and how they can participate.


The virtual exhibitions “Mode in Hessen” (“Fashion in Hessen”) and “STATUS MACHT BEWEGUNG”. (“Movement through Status”) tell you more about fashion, dress codes and power structures. Our article on the “Marlene Dietrich Collection” in the Deutsche Kinemathek is about Marlene Dietrich.

The Europeana has also put together an abundance of historic objects, exhibitions and information on women’s history and thus examines the diverse roles of women in culture, research and society.

You can find more on Marlene Dietrich’s clothes, divided skirts, gymnasts, dresses and fashion drawings by Paul Poiret and elegant leisure suits in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.



Wikipedia „Hose“: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hose#Geschichte_der_Frauenhose

Wikipedia „Trousers as Women’s Clothing“: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trousers_as_women%27s_clothing

Planet Wissen: https://www.planet-wissen.de/gesellschaft/mode/hose/pwiederkampfumdiehose100.html

FAZ: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/stil/mode-design/hose-als-politisches-kleidungsstueck-15205717.html

DLF Kultur: https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/von-frauenhosen-und-maennerroecken.1013.de.html?dram:article_id=165364

Galatea Ziss (Modeatelier): https://www.galatea-ziss.de/journal/frauen-in-hosen.html

Astrid Ackermann: „Einschnürungen: Kleidungsreform und Emanzipation; Das lange Band vom 18. ins 20. Jahrhundert“ (2009) bei Genderopen, Repositorium für Geschlechterforschung: https://www.genderopen.de/bitstream/handle/25595/1393/Ackermann_2009_Einschn%C3%BCrungen.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Hanne Loreck: „Whoso doth the breeches wear lives a life as free as air“, in: Frauen Kunst Wissenschaft 17 als pdf.

Historisches Museum Frankfurt: Special Exhibition „Kleider in Bewegung. Frauenmode seit 1850“: https://www.historisches-museum-frankfurt.de/kleider-in-bewegung

Online-tour (in German): https://www.historisches-museum-frankfurt.de/de/kleider-in-bewegung/online  

Overview als pdf: https://historisches-museum-frankfurt.de/sites/default/files/uploads/hmf_kib_leporello_8-seitig_200421_ansicht.pdf