Should women wear trousers?: The question is antique but some people, astonishingly, are still asking it. Brenda Polan reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT IS arguable that Lisa Cresswell, the young woman who was awarded more than pounds 4,600 compensation by an industrial tribunal last week, was as much a victim of covert size-ism as sexism. It appears that her male employers found the trouser-clad sight of her more robustly built female colleague 'horrendous'. Ms Cresswell was the victim of a blanket prohibition, of which the unfortunate colleague was the true target.

And yet, would any employer adopt such an approach if the excess flesh were male? It is unlikely. An employer, particularly a male employer, might take a view on the appropriateness of male dress, but its aesthetic qualities are unlikely to concern him greatly. Only women are supposed to be simultaneously good at their jobs and pleasing to the eye. In the great and still unresolved women-in-trousers debate, it is interesting how often the nay-sayers resort to the argument that women are built wrong for trousers. Their hips are too wide, their legs too short, their thighs too plump. The disproportionately high number of Punch cartoons which tackled the subject focused on two aspects: grotesquely large female bottoms and a deeply unattractive, threatening, butch quality. In this at least, Punch always hammered home the establishment line: women in trousers are not proper women. As St Paul asserted 2,000 years ago, women in male dress are an abomination.

He, of course, was not thinking of trousers. No one wore trousers in the Roman- conquered Middle East of two millennia ago. But a traveller venturing slightly further East would have discovered that, in very many cultures, both genders were trousered. They still are. It is only our occidental culture which has consistently denied women the comfort and convenience of pants.

Puritans argue that trousers delineate the forked nature of woman, impelling the innocent male towards speculation, lubricious imaginings and inflamed and uncontrollable passions. Poor things. In fact, and historians of dress agree on this, a woman in trousers is provocative in a much more disturbing way. Trousers, breeches and leggings are the prerogative and the definer of the active, dominant sex: he who sits astride a horse, scales the rigging of a ship, swaggers out into the dangerous world. The skirt, encumbering, hobbling, is a symbol of passivity. Members of an older generation will still gaze in disgust at an uxorious or hen-pecked man and remark that: 'You can tell who wears the pants in that household.'

Despite such powerful taboos, women have been attempting to snitch the breeches for more than a century. Among the many dress-reform movements from the mid-19th to early 20th century (all with a rationale of rationality), Mrs Amelia Bloomer's campaign for the addition of trousers to women's outdoor and sporting wardrobes caused most consternation. George Bernard Shaw may have argued for unwashed, fragrantly lanolin-rich wool all-in-ones as the future of fashion, but his sanity was never questioned. Unlike poor Amelia's.

Nevertheless, women of bold character began to wear trousers for riding, cycling, hiking and golf and, in the 1920s, on the beach and for lounging on the terrace at cocktail time. The arrival of the Ballets Russes in Paris inspired a fashion for harem pants, wonderfully elaborated by Paul Poiret, and the pragmatic Coco Chanel appropriated the matelot's wide pants for negotiating the decks of the Duke of Westminster's yacht.

'It is possible,' says the historian of dress, Elizabeth Wilson, 'that the advance of the trouser for women is the most significant fashion change of the 20th century. For centuries women's legs had been concealed. Trousers and pantaloons were worn by actresses, acrobats and others of dubious morality. Until the 1900s only women engaged in the coarsest labour wore trousers.'

The most famous cross- dresser was, in fact, the music hall star Vesta Tilley. As she sauntered across the stage in top hat and tails singing 'Champagne Charlie', the men in the audience found her cheekily sexy; the women sniggered at the subversiveness of it all.

Tilley only cross-dressed on stage, however. Later, Hollywood-hatched role models like Garbo, Dietrich, Hepburn and Bacall chose trousers for their private leisure wear. Fans who tried to follow suit, however, would have been mocked back into skirts. When Dietrich visited Paris in 1932, the Chief of Police took it upon himself to attempt to ban her from wearing trousers in public. It would, he argued, corrupt the weak- minded. Respectable women did not wear trousers unless practical considerations left them with no choice.

The world wars did just that. Generally doing men's work, women were allowed to answer the need in trousers for the sake of comfort, safety and economy. Even then, Picture Post, in introducing a series of Bert Hardy's photographs of working women, wondered: 'Should women wear trousers?' Women seemed to think so. After the Second World War, trousers had become a leisure-time staple in most women's wardrobes. Yet they were still rarely worn for any formal function. Truly 'smart' trousers, which could be worn in the workplace or to a social event, were only reintroduced in the early 1960s when Yves Saint Laurent paired them with a long tunic or jacket to produce the trouser suit. Establishment resistance was firm. Every grand London hotel claims to be the site of the legendary confrontation between Maitre D' and trouser- suited female person. 'I'm sorry, madam, you cannot go into the dining room like that. Ladies in trousers are not properly dressed.' Female person gives exasperated sigh, unzips her trousers, steps out of them and, now clad in buttock- skimming mini dress, is led to her table.

In many industries like the arts, the media and advertising, the right of women to wear trousers to the office was asserted long ago. It shocks those who only wear skirts for a job interview or a power lunch to discover that conditions are different elsewhere.

But in a workplace unfair in so many respects, the right to wear trousers is not perceived by many women to be a high priority. 'There are more important inequalities to worry about,' says Judith Burne- White, assistant chief executive at the Equal Opportunities Commission. 'Like pay.' The EOC does get a steady trickle of inquiries from women who have been ticked off for wearing trousers to work but very few decide to make a case of it. 'The situation we would like to address,' says Ms Burne- White, 'is that of the nurses who claim that they actually injure themselves by bending or lifting while trying not to show their knickers. But you need a test case and no one has yet come forward.' Nurses, too, have more important fights.

Lisa Cresswell was sacked for wearing trousers by the Stoke-on-Trent Community Transport Charity Committee. Alfred Follett, its chairman, told the press that paying Ms Cresswell's compensation is likely to deplete its resources to the extent of closing it down. The observer is torn. Transport for the wheelchair-bound is more important, in the immediate term, than women's right to wear trousers. But in the long-term, there is an important issue to be resolved of women's acceptance in the workplace as equals rather than threats or treats. And, anyway, the petty sexist and size-ist dictates of Mr Follett's committee would make any self-respecting woman vengeful. Wouldn't they?

(Photograph omitted)

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