History of Women Wearing Men's Clothing

By Kirrin Finch
History of Women Wearing Men's Clothing

Today most people wouldn't bat an eye at a women wearing pants or a bow tie (in the western world), but it wasn't always this way. In fact, prior to the late 19th and early 20th century, social customs were very strict regarding women’s clothing, with women wearing dresses, underskirts and painfully tight corsets. 

In the 1850's, women's rights activist, Amelia Bloomer, started to shake things up. She advocated for women to ditch the tight corsets and heavy petticoats worn under their skirts. Initially inspired from Turkish dress, the wide lose fitting pants worn under a knee length skirt, were aptly named the "Bloomer".  The Bloomer became a symbol of women's rights in the early 1850s and was worn by famous feminists, like Susan B Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Then in the 1920's, there was another big shift in women’s clothing with women entering the workforce during WWI and gaining the right to vote. They had to think more practically about their outfits, and demanded less restrictive, more casual attire. Although women continued to wear skirts, their clothing became more masculine, loser and sporty.

One of the most influential fashion icons of the 20’s was Coco Chanel. She rebelliously dismissed the feminine styling of her day and embraced androgynous style. She accelerated the already growing movement towards female empowerment and paved the way for menswear-inspired clothing, designing elegant suits, tweed blazers and simple everyday-wear for women. She was best known for wearing nautical stripes, trousers, and chunky knit sweaters.

The 30’s brought menswear-inspired fashion to the forefront, with actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Katharine Hepburn sporting suits and bow ties in popular movies. 

Left image: Marlene Dietrich. Right image: Katherine Hepburn.

Although Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn rocked trousers before the 30’s, it was really only considered socially acceptable for women to wear pants in specific situations, like sports or during the wars when they took over many of the men's jobs. With their husbands away at war, women took on what were previously male dominated roles such as farm or factory work. Since traditional women's attire wasn't appropriate for the more physically demanding work, they raided their husbands closets and altered them to fit.

In 1939, Vogue illustrated a woman in a pair of pants on the cover of it's May issue. The editors wrote, "Our new slacks are irreproachably masculine in their tailoring, but women have made them entirely their own by the colors in which they order them, and the accessories they add." However the article goes on to depict when, where and how these slacks may be worn, stating  ‘One Iron Rule is that they are well-cut and well-creased to appear properly ‘feminine’ and stresses the necessity to avoid the ‘mannish accessories’ that characterised the ‘early, experimental days’ of  trouser-wearing. So women could be free to wear whatever they wanted as long as they still looked like a stepford housewife and looked pretty for their husbands!

After the war ended, women returned to their role as housewife and mother, and with that they went back to dresses and skirts. The 50's was subsequently hyperfeminine with clothing made to accentuate a women's hips and bust with tight waisted dresses, and curved jackets. However there were still pockets of women breaking free from the trends. For example, there was a group of women in London called Teddy Girls who rejected the traditional notions of femininity, dressing in jackets, rolled up jeans and flat shoes.  

Image of Teddy Girls sourced from Ken Russell's photography exhibition

Although there were instances of women wearing men's clothes throughout the 20th century, it really wasn’t until the 60's and 70’s that menswear inspired fashion was no longer considered a rebellious political statement. In the 60's women made large strides toward equality with the passing of Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which both gave women more rights in the workplace. In 1961 Audrey Hepburn wore black capri's in the movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's", inspiring a new resurgence of women breaking away from traditional feminine clothing. 

Yves Saint Laurent took menswear-inspired styling to new heights with his “Smoking” Tuxedo Jacket,  hailed as the alternative to the Little Black Dress. As he said himself, “For women, the tuxedo is an indispensable outfit, which they feel comfortable with, so they can be who they are. This is style, not fashion. Fads come and go, style is forever.”                


Another influence was credited to the 1977 movie “Annie Hall” starring Diane Keaton, where Diane Keaton’s menswear-clad character donned bowler hats, vests, wide ties and button-up shirts. 


Then the 1980's was all about the power suit, which included a tailored jacket with large shoulder pads and a knee length skirt. A recent article from Vice magazine about the evolution of the pant suit, stated, "These big shouldered jackets and pants disguised a women's figure and took the focus off her gender, creating a feeling of authority as the traditional sex roles continued to blur." UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, always wore a suit, saying that "she was in a man's world, and she had to look the part." 



Images of the 1980's power suit sourced from Pinterest

In the last twenty years, “menswear-inspired fashion” has increased in popularity from sculptural shoulders, buttoned vests, plaid patterns, classic fedoras and trench coats to slouchy boyfriend jeans and suit sets. But, until recently it still had a feminine element with cinched waists, addition of ribbons or lace, and pastel colors.

 In the last five years this trend for menswear-inspired fashion has continued to grow, but there has also been a growing demand for women’s clothing that is masculine without the feminine touches; so no longer just inspired from menswear, instead it is actual menswear designs fitted to the female body. This style has been given many names, but most commonly referred to as androgynous fashion, tomboy style, or menswear-inspired fashion.

Images sourced from Jessi Poo Tumblr, Marimacho, SJW, and Dapper Chicks of NY. 

This is exactly what we aim to create at Kirrin Finch. Growing up as tomboy's we always envied the clothes worn by the boys. And as adults, we felt uncomfortable in the womenswear that we were forced to wear. It accentuated our curves with things like darts and cinched waists and typically had feminine details, like frills or lace that had our noses turning up. But neither could we just shop in the men's department. Menswear was too big or tight in all the wrong places. But what could we do? We took it into our own hands and decided to make clothes for ourselves and all the other people out there who didn't feel comfortable wearing or struggled to fit into traditional menswear or womenswear. Check out our menswear-inspired clothing

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published