Who wore the trousers first?

posted in: History of fashion | 13

I am still thinking about adopting a work “uniform” – moving away from my 1960s skirt suits – to a more androgynous look, based on trousers.

I have therefore been wondering what it means to wear the pants, and about the meaning of women wearing trousers historically. I don’t know if you follow American Age Fashion but Lynn Mally has a great interest in women (in the US) wearing the pants. I love her posts, but often find the material she presents to be very US focused (unsurprisingly – the clue is in the name of her blog). I was wondering about the early adoption of trousers for women here in the UK.

Through my friend Alison Inman OBE, my attention was drawn to a recent radio programme about the history of women in trousers. I am not sure this is accessible outside the UK or for very long, so I will share a couple of the ideas therein.

The radio programme brought the Pit Brow Lassies to my attention. Banned (eventually) from working underground (although some dressed and acted as men to retain their jobs) these women worked on the surface in the Wigan area of Lancashire, shovelling and sorting the coal during the 19th century. Their job was to identify and discard the stones and other waste from the coal supply. They wore men’s trousers, held in at the waist with a belt. They would generally wear a long or short apron over the top and wooden soled clogs on their feet, and a scarf on their hair. Picture postcards were sold of the colliery women such was the novelty of women in trousers. One woman in the programme was reported as saying that she would flash her trousers to passing men for a small fee. Presumably the ability to see her outline much more clearly, in the days when skirts were voluminous and very long, was sufficient thrill for the voyeur.

Colliery worker

Over the years the trousers made of cotton or corduroy would be patched and repatched with a wide variety of fabrics. Over a short time the coal dust would land on the fabric and turn it all blackish brown. Apparently each pit had its own “uniform” and women could be identified through their clothes. I am assuming the Worsley pit women (below) are carrying woolen shawls, as well as baskets and flasks. It seems likely they have trousers on underneath their aprons.

Worsley Pit women

A picture from 1890 shows women in Wigan wearing tight headscarves in an attempt to keep their hair clean. It appears they wore shawls or heavier scarves over the top for warmth in cooler weather. I love the classic football team pose!

Wigan colliery workers

Many of these women were photographed by Arthur Munday, an upper class Victorian who was fascinated with strong, dirty working class women. Ellen Grounds posed next to Munday in her workwear, apparently to show how “big and strong” she was. He married a maid and had her dress up in many guises as he photographed her. His box of candid shots, left to one of our major museums, contains interesting information on contemporary working class women. 

A very thorough piece on Victorian working women is provided by Witness2Fashion. 

While working women were wearing men’s clothes in order to enable them to participate in the workforce, upper class women in England were adopting bifurcated garments to allow them to participate in sporting activities. The wonderful outfit below is probably made of velvet, with leg o’ mutton sleeves, a neatly shaped bodice and important buttons. It looks smart, comfortable and stylish. The full bloomers/plus fours are elegant and made mounting a bike both possible and decent.

Stylish Cycling Costume

At the same time the rational dress movement was formed by intellectuals, and involved middle class women refusing to wear corsets and choosing clothes influenced by the Romantic and Arts and Crafts movements.

The Rational Dress Movement (1881)

These photographs come from Letchworth Garden City that used to be run by a friend of mine.


In the end trousers were chosen increasingly not only for their comfort but also for the message they convey. Women are as capable as men. They can compete on a level playing field – especially in relation to work and sport. Why have men in the UK been unable to appropriate the skirt? Probably because they do not want to compete on women’s playing fields – the field of housework, childcare and caring.


13 Responses

  1. Amt

    The last set of photos. The one in the middle is fascinating. Two women turned away from the photographer. A busybody woman in the background peeking in a window!

  2. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    Love it! And did you notice that the Colliery Girl and the lady cyclist are both corseted? Probably most of the others are too, but those two are particularly noticeable. My African cotton steampunk cycling outfit came from the Laughing Moon pattern taken from that fashion plate.

  3. Lynn Mally

    What fascinating pictures of colliery girls–I am thinking this kind of early, institutionalized pants wearing might be unique to the UK. Maybe we should start an international investigation on women in pants. (And many thanks for the mention!)

  4. Dagmar

    Thank you for a fascinating post. I love learning more about the history or reasons “why” of fashion. I would love to comment on how things have changed in terms of being able to determine our personal choices of clothing, but it still seems that we are heavily influenced by social custom on what is acceptable today. Very few people really have the nerve, desire and creativity to stand apart from the crowd. We are a species with a herd mentality (not that this is a bad thing, but that is a whole other topic). In terms of dress, we simply are more comfortable with the messages and clues that dressing within a somewhat narrow set of parameters convey to us. In this way, clothing really is a critical communication tool about us as individuals which is something you have frequently discussed.
    I wonder if the middle photo of the last set was a posed one or if the photo bomber and the women turned away from the camera were accidental. It really is most peculiar.

  5. jay

    Love the photographs Kate. I did not realise that women in coalmining wore trousers, though obviously it would be far more practical than skirts.

  6. Sue

    I really want to see you in a pair of plus fours! I agree with others about that middle last photo and whether it was posed this way and what it meant to communicate. Clothes are such an interesting concept really, in that they do more than protect us from the elements, they really do give observers a sense of who we are. When I worked I often felt defined by what I wore and went to a lot of trouble to transmit an image, which wasn’t always who I really was, but it did seem to work. I like the idea of morphing your work wardrobe into something simpler and perhaps more practical.

  7. Trish

    Being a fifties child, I’ve gone through the ‘women shouldn’t wear trousers’ – on public occasions anyway – now to women of my age (60s) only wearing trousers! (Mind you, I live in a Cathedral city so maybe it’s my own fault?) But why all the constraint. I agree with the rational dress society, we should consult our own taste, so long as ‘decent’! Society’s view of women is very peculiar and I find it all very wearing ?

    • fabrickated

      I am a fifties child too so I know what you mean. But I went to a semi-formal dinner last night in trousers and got gently upbraided by the (female) chairman!

  8. Kim

    A very thought provoking post – imagine not being allowed to wear trousers now! (Semi formal dinners aside 😉 )
    The photographs are wonderful. Thanks for all the effort you put into your posts.

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