In ancient times, everyone—men, women, and children—wore skirts. But when the ancient nomadic tribes of the European Steppe domesticated horses, they quickly realized that skirts weren't ideal for riding. So they split the skirt into two legs, and their warriors became the first people to wear trousers, a concept the tribes spread to the nations they battled, from the Chinese in the East to the Romans in the West.
Even after pants had been introduced, in some cultures skirts remained the standard dress—pants were reserved for battle regalia. For example, in Japan, civilians of both sexes wore kimonos, but male samurai warriors wore loose-fitting pants. The Greeks were impressed when they battled Scythian nomads from the European Steppe and encountered women, suited up in armor and pants, fighting alongside the men. Staring around 4th century B.C., Greeks romanticized these fierce women in their visual and literary arts as "Amazons."
However, when those nomadic tribes of the Steppe stopped wandering and put down roots around the Black Sea, which they used as a port for trading, the mythical Amazon women lost their freedom and power. As in many other cultures, the tribesmen believed it was a sign of their society's affluence that they could afford to forbid women from working, riding horses, or participating in any of the same activities as men.
It wasn't until 8th century A.D. that pants became standard attire for European men, a fashion change that coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire. The region was then ruled by warriors on horseback, also known as knights. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and into the Victorian Era, skirts for European women became more elaborate and cumbersome, restricting their movements and opportunities. For women who lost their families or husbands, they sometimes disguised themselves as men to find a way to make a living, often on a ship or serving in the military. Pants were an essential element of their disguise. For example, in the 18th century, a woman named Hannah Snell donned pants to join the British Marines, which she served for years.
In the United States, at least 400 women put on pants and pretended to be men so that they could serve in the Civil War (1861-1865). Women in the American West also preferred trousers to the elaborate dresses with tight-laced corsets, hoop skirts, and layers of petticoats that proper 19th century ladies were expected to wear. Pants made the dirty, back-breaking chores of farming and mining easier. Women also disguised themselves to dig for their fortune during the California Gold Rush, but they could be harassed or arrested if they were caught walking down the streets of San Francisco in a pair of slacks.
Around 1850, women activists involved in the abolition and temperance movements began to push for "dress reform" or "rational dress." In 1851, temperance leader Libby Miller began to wear a short dress and vest over pajama-like baggy trousers that were gathered at the ankles, a garment that was already popular with women in the Middle East and Central Asia. Soon suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton copied her look and temperance-magazine editor Amelia Bloomer began promoting trousers in her publication, scandalously encouraging women to get exercise. Women who started wearing these pants referred to them as "bloomers." However, those brave souls were taunted and harassed so severely, they gave up their trousers by the end of the decade. In 1881, women in London established the Rational Dress Society, which championed the notion that women should shed some of their heavy undergarments to permit freer movement.
But it was technological innovation that sparked a real change what women wore. In the 1870s, the easier-to-mount safety bicycle replaced the high-wheeled penny farthing. By the 1890s, everyone was biking, including women, who were eager to experience the freedom of movement bicycles promised. Women's bloomer pants, also known as "split skirts," made a comeback. Still, many people were scandalized, believing that wearing pants and riding bicycle would encourage women to be promiscuous. And what if pants-wearing women also expected the right to vote? Wouldn't men become weakened and emasculated if women wore their clothes? What would happen to the social fabric of society upheld by the traditional family?...
By the 1910s, popular dresses for women were becoming looser-fitting and more comfortable, as corsets started to fall out of fashion. The chicest young women, eventually known as flappers, even wore scandalously short, sleeveless, skin-baring dresses without the extreme wasp waists of decades before. Paris designer Paul Poiret introduced his billowing ankle-cuffed "harem pants" for women, based on the costumes of the popular opera "Sheherazade," in 1911—despite the pearl-clutching his sensual "Orientalist" style inspired, illustrations of his pants were often depicted on the cover of "Vogue" early in the decade.
During World War I (1914-1918), many women had to step into the jobs servicemen had vacated, and they wore bloomers or their husbands' trousers, overalls, and coveralls to build the guns, tanks, ships, and airplanes needed for the war effort. After the war, French designer Coco Chanel began wearing her boyfriend's slacks for sporty activities liking swimming and horseback riding. She decided to offer women's pants as a part of her line. While Chanel intended her pants for sporting, celebrities who wanted to seem modern, chic, and rebellious were photographed wearing them. In 1939, "Vogue" magazine included a photo of a woman wearing designer trousers in a fashion spread.
Then again, during World War II, pants became a practical matter for the hordes of Rosie the Riveters building desperately needed warships and high-tech weapons. After the war—even as Christian Dior's postwar "New Look" insisted women go back to big, flouncy skirts—hip, young actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich were photographed relaxing in pants. In the 1960s, Andre Courreges designed chic long trousers and jeans for women, sparking a trend for among couture designers that eventually led to pantsuits. In 1969, Rep. Charlotte Reid from Illinois became the first woman in Congress to wear pants to work.
The women of the 1960s counterculture embraced pants—and even jeans—to the dismay of their conservative parents. Thanks to women's lib and the sexual revolution, in the 1970s, pants—and particularly professional pantsuits—became a symbol of women claiming their place in the corporate workforce. More and more designers began producing stylish jeans cut for women's bodies, so women started donning jeans on their days off work, too. In 1972, the U.S. government passed Title IX, which outlawed gender-based discrimination and prevented schools from forcing female students to wear skirts.
It took a couple of decades for the Senate to catch up with the House of Representatives. In 1993, Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun led a group of women to flout the rules and wore pants on the Senate floor. That same decade, Hillary Clinton made history as the first and only First Lady to have her official portrait done in a pantsuit.
Despite producing some of the earliest women's trousers in fashion history, France didn't strike the law restricting women wearing pants until 2013. In the United Kingdom, female flight attendants for British Airways only won the right to wear slacks to work in 2016. And in the United States, some fundamentalist Christian sects still ban their female members from wearing pants to this day.