She Wears the Pants
By Lucy Wormald (she/her)
Two weeks ago I bought a pair of high-waisted suit trousers. They are grey and soft with a beautifully cut pleat front. They have a wide leg and are a little long, puddling around the top of my shoes.
I relish putting my hands in the pockets – a luxury not often bestowed upon women’s pants. In doing so, my walk turns into a saunter, my expression slips to nonchalant, borders on icy. This character I take on, I have yet to fully make sense of. But I know when I am wearing these pants I feel shockingly powerful. I feel both magnetic and repellent. I feel brazen. Entirely in control of how those looking at me consume my image.
It is undoubtedly strange that a pair of pants is having such a profound effect on me. But try to take them from me
and I will come to your house and shred your shoes.
I am up with the play enough to understand that I am engaging with a symbol laden with an elaborate history of feminist discourse. The battle to unbind women from the restraints and trammels of corsets, crinolines, and bustles was one of the first iterations of negotiating gender power dynamics through clothing. The casting off of the corset in the 1920s, together with adoption of a shorter dress, loose-fitting on the frame, coincided with the gaining of voting rights; a release of the body mirroring a political liberation.
But pants were a doorway to another world entirely. Starting with the bloomers, popularised by women’s rights activists, the baggy trousers were scandalous and controversial, allowing women to stretch their legs outside of their social seat for the first time. In the 20th century, women’s pants were sanctioned for ‘occasional dressing’. Pants were to be worn at designated times as hostess pajamas or horse-riding breeches. By the 1930s, stars like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn dared to wear full pantsuits to movie premieres. The statements, both sartorial and social, were iconic and inspiring, but the consequences for such an act of rebellion were buffered by their celebrity. The rules that bound everyday women remained. The two World Wars saw pants deemed practical for women as they joined the workforce. But upon the return of men to the economy and business, this freedom was ripped away. As women were expelled back out of the workplace, plants were relegated back to sports and leisure. Women have returned to the workplace many times since this. In each case, claiming power in these environments has been a near impossible campaign. Defying the male gaze and obtaining recognition took negotiating. That negotiation began, in part, with the 1980s power suit. Women appropriated men’s styles of dress in an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling.
Evolving in tandem with female emancipation, the pant as symbol has come to signify women’s power. Pants are for big strides, bike-riding, picnicking, protection, for softness, for sensuality, for security, for politicking. Pants are for whatever the hell you want. They are a form of armour; clothing weaponised. They are for self-possession. They announce.
It is curious that I, who by no means is navigating a corporate or social environment where such a symbol is prevalent, find a pair of suit pants such a loaded political arena in which to sight and strain the parameters of my own power. I wear them to the supermarket. I wear them to class. I wear them in the mirror while dancing to music. I march in them, glowering, past men leering out of their car windows. I wear them sitting at my desk writing.
Pants are for big strides, bike-riding, picnicking, protection, for softness, for sensuality, for security, for politicking. Pants are for whatever the hell you want.
Sometimes I worry that it is because pants are associated with men that I am associating them with power. Women have borrowed from men’s dress to claim the authority long-associated with it. The move has not always worked and some feminists critique that it comes at the cost of reinforcing the gender binary in which feminine attributes are not viewed as powerful. If clothing has been used to introduce new ways of expressing womanhood, it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic and, political opportunities attached to their appearance. These debates hover over the meaning of female identity and womanhood. Did non-traditional, androgynous, or "masculine" self-presentations help to create a new feminist version of womanhood, free from socially constructed gender roles? Or did rejecting traditional feminine gender presentation
signal that feminists sought to abandon their heterosexual female identities?
And so I am unsure as to whether I find the fact I feel this powerful in a traditionally masculine piece of clothing problematic or fantastic. I feel torn between imitating masculine symbols of power as a woman, and the power that comes with commandeering and subverting the same symbols. Perhaps what is crucial is to not reduce women to their appearance, as is too easily and frequently done. But to acknowledge and interpret clothing as part of our communications of power. If, as a feminist, I ignore clothing, I am ceding my power to influence it. History has shown that we can harness clothing and use it for political purposes.
Self-presentation, particularly through clothing, is a deeply personal experience. Feminists have worn a multitude of styles, expressing the multiplicity of womanhood. Yet debates on gender presentation seem to return to a common question: what does it mean to be a woman in an era of women’s liberation? Though this question remains unanswered, and perhaps rightly so, I feel closer to feeling the truth when wearing my pants.
As gender fluidity becomes more visible, power dressing continues to be an agent for negotiating gender roles in the mainstream. Of course, wanting power is not the same as having it. Putting on a pair of power pants does not grant its wearer power. But as a symbolic act, it projects a prowess that tells the world its wearer knows their own power and is ready to take on another day.