The first modern Western woman to wear pants in public was likely Fanny Wright in the early 1800s. However, many working and fighting women throughout history likely wore some version of pants making it difficult to discern the first woman to ever wear them.
Ancient Women Who Wore Trousers
Other names for pants throughout history include slacks, trousers, pantaloons, breeches, and knickerbockers. In Ancient China as early as the first millennium BCE, historians believe working-class men and women commonly wore trousers or leggings. In Ancient Greek culture, you can see warrior women depicted wearing pants on painted pottery in the late 400s BC. Early nomads and coastal peoples near Ancient Greece, such as the Scythians, commonly wore pants. The oldest pair of preserved trousers ever discovered were dated from about 1200 to 900 BC and were thought to have been worn by both male and female horse riders. In the 1700s women like Hannah Snell donned pants and took on secret identities so they could fight alongside men in battles. Much later, as many as 400 to 750 women wore pants and posed as men to serve in the American Civil War.
Pantaloons, as they were called at the time, were made popular in the modern Western world by another suffragette, Amelia Jenks Bloomer in the mid to late 1800s. Bloomer published a bi-weekly newspaper called The Lily. It contained Bloomer's views on temperance and women's issues. Well-known feminist and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton also contributed articles to The Lily. In addition to temperance and women's equality, The Lily promoted the concept of dress reform. Bloomer advocated a style of dress that would be less restrictive for women than the traditional style of her time: corsets, petticoats and floor length skirts.
Which Woman First Wore Pants?
Elizabeth Smith Miller is often credited as the first modern woman to wear pants. Miller was a suffragette. Her goal in the 1800s was to help women in the United States win the right to vote. She also aided slaves seeking freedom - her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Miller claims to have created her Turkish-style pants one day in 1851 while working in the garden. They were long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankle and were worn under skirts. These early pants were designed to give women more freedom of movement while still preserving the decency expected of Victorian dress. After Miller debuted this style of pant, she shared them with her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who then shared the style with her neighbor, Amelia Jenks Bloomer. However, they were highly criticized in the mainstream media. Most of the women who wore them were active in the women's rights movement.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton perhaps best summed up the significance of women wearing pants when she said, 'The question is no longer how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?"
Although Miller received a lot of attention for her sartorial choices, it was most likely Fanny Wright who was the first modern Western woman to wear pants. Wright was a Scottish woman who became a U.S. citizen in 1825. She is known as a writer, feminist, abolitionist and social reformer. Wright was the co-founder of the Free Inquirer newspaper, which she used to share her views on society.
For a few years of her adult life, Wright lived in a socialist commune called New Harmony in the 1820s. There she dressed in loose bodices and ankle-length pantaloons with dresses cut to the knees. Today, Wright's style would be considered bohemian.
Trivia About the First Woman to Wear Pants
Women like Wright, Miller, and Bloomer were strong advocates for women's rights and advanced the equality movement with their brazen dress and strong opinions. However, the sight of women in pants remained controversial for many, many more years.
- Charlotte T. Reid, a Congresswoman from Illinois, caused a stir in 1969 when she became the first woman to wear pants on the floor of the House.
- The powerful woman's group, The Committee of 200, an invitation-only group of successful women entrepreneurs, lists among its members the first woman to don pants for a White House event.
- Katherine Hepburn was the first actress to wear pants in a major motion picture.
- Mary Tyler Moore created a controversy, wearing capri pants as Dick Van Dyke's television wife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
- Charline Arthur, a country western star, was the first female singer to wear pants while performing on stage in the mid-1940s.
- During World War I, as women went to work in factories, they started to wear pants. However, the practice was still frowned upon.
- Marlene Dietrich furthered the cause when she wore pants in the 1930 film Morocco.
- Rosie the Riveter, the iconic symbol of women during World War II, made pants more popular for women.
- By the 1950s, jeans and capris had become standard attire for women.
Blazing the Fashion Trail
While it may not be possible to know who was the first woman ever in the history of the world to wear pants, many notable women were the first to wear them in different time periods and situations. Thanks to women like these, women today have the freedom to wear nearly anything they like.