On 1 February 1933, Women’s Wear Daily reported on the ‘controversial subject’ preoccupying the consumer press and the popular imagination: ‘Will women wear trousers?’ This enticing conundrum unravelled across newspaper columns and the pages of fashion and lifestyle magazines. Researching early editions of Vogue in the archives at the Gladys Marcus library at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York turned up a striking visual response to this question. Although the late 1930s are often identified as landmark years in terms of the magazine’s representation of women in trousers, references to and images of women wearing divided garments appear much earlier—from advertisements for riding habits and ‘equestrian breeches’ in October 1907 to regular images of women in beach pyjamas and ski trousers in the 1930s. The covers of Vogue also tell an intriguing story about the advance of trousers for women (or, more specifically, fashionable and affluent women). As early as 1917 a cover image (which appeared in both American and British Vogue) depicts an illustration of a woman, wrapped in furs and wearing tight trousers, killing a polar bear against an arctic backdrop. A few other (less disturbing) highlights include: Pierre Mourgue’s illustration of a woman in a ski-suit on the 15 December 1927 issue; Georges Lepape’s illustration of a woman in trousers for the 22 June 1929 ‘summer travel number’ (a copy of which is held at the Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection at the New York Public Library); and Eduardo Garcia Benito’s illustration of a woman in loose, blue trousers, running across a beach with a greyhound, on the 5 July 1930 cover.
By the end of the 1930s, slacks were making significant strides across the pages of Vogue. The 15 April 1939 edition of American Vogue featured on its cover a photograph of a model dressed in ‘sharkskin slacks and a buttonless jersey shirt (both of Celanese), a turban and Moroccan slippers’. Distinct from earlier covers portraying images of women wearing trousers for the beach, sailing and skiing, the April 1939 cover very conspicuously presents trousers as a more formal fashion garment (signalled partly by an Oriental aesthetic that harks back to Paul Poiret’s harem pants—an illustration of which, by Helen Dryden, appeared on the cover of the 1 July 1913 issue of the magazine).
The April 1939 issue includes in its pages a fashion spread and article, ‘Slacks and Skirts for country living’, which very specifically advocates trousers as an essential garment for the fashionable modern woman: ‘SLACKS: Whatever else you have, you’ll want—if you weigh under a hundred and fifty—a pair or two of slacks. They’ve come a long way from their early duck-pants beginnings, they’re an accepted part of nearly every wardrobe to-day.’ Still, if slacks had become an ‘accepted part’ of ‘nearly every wardrobe’, they nonetheless came with an intricate array of caveats. Eminently wearable at any hour—and in deluxe versions—on the American Riviera, slacks should be ‘more conservative’ for English country weekends; similarly, while ‘smart women wear them on Palm Beach golf courses’, those belonging to more formal clubs ‘might think twice before playing in them’; and, welcome attire on beaches and small boats, slacks are ‘usually restricted to the sports deck on ocean liners.’
Having set out the where of acceptable trouser-wearing, the article goes on to hem in the how. ‘One Iron Rule about slacks’, it avers, is that they are ‘well-cut and well-creased’ to appear properly ‘feminine’: ‘Not necessarily tailored like a man’s—after all, your figure isn’t the same. And keep an eye out for firm materials—heavy linens, flannels, sharkskins, gabardines that hold a crease. […] In the early, experimental days, slacks too often were accompanied by too mannish accessories. A blouse, with soft fullness (like that on the cover), whopping big jewels, and ornamental turbans are good foils for slacks. And – please – never, never anything but low heels, except at night.’
The 15 April 1939 cover of American Vogue was reproduced for the 17 May 1939 issue of British Vogue. (A photograph of this issue, taken at the Bath Fashion Museum study facilities, where some of this research was undertaken, appears above.) The British edition also included a lengthy article on trousers; however, while its accompanying photographic fashion spread remained visually identical to that appearing in its American counterpart, there were intriguing departures in the editorial content of the article. These are signalled by the disparity in the articles’ titles: where the American version of the article offers the rather prosaic ‘Slacks and Skirts for Country Living’, the British editorial unfolds under the somewhat more suggestive heading ‘The Case for Slacks’. The relatively prescriptive and tempered tone of the American article gives way to a more spirited tenor:: ‘It all started about ten years ago, when women on the Riviera began to appear to garments known—rather self-consciously—as beach-pyjamas. Their cut lacked conviction, and they were worn with a faint air of apology.’
Bemoaning the diffidence of the beach-pyjama, the article goes on to declare that ‘[w]e have come a long way from those earlier beginnings; and nowadays if you’re less than fifty and weigh anything under ten stone your wardrobe is not complete without a pair or two of the superbly tailored slacks of 1939.’ No longer worn by just a ‘hardy few’, slacks now have ‘a much more important role’. More particularly, invested with a ‘sense of happy-go-lucky freedom’, they represent emancipatory possibilities that are explicitly identified with the mobility of the (young and slim) modern woman. While American Vogue stresses the necessity to avoid the ‘mannish accessories’ that characterised the ‘early, experimental days’ of trouser-wearing, British Vogue entreats its readers to let their imaginations ‘run riot’ when deciding how to accessorise their trousers: ‘And if people accuse you of aping men, take no notice. Our new slacks are irreproachably masculine in their tailoring, but women have made them entirely their own by the colours in which they order them, and the accessories they add.’ The fashionable, modern woman should wear slacks ‘practically the whole time’—unless, of course, she is staying with a hostess who is ‘an Edwardian relic with reactionary views’.