Kiran Millwood Hargreaves’ 2020 novel The Mercies is inspired by a real storm in 1617 that wiped out all of the menfolk on the Norwegian island of Vardø while they were fishing, leaving the women to survive without them. In one scene, Maren, the novel’s watchful young heroine, arrives at the home of Kirsten, a physically strong woman and would-be leader, and is surprised to find her wearing her dead husband’s trousers.
“What?” Kirsten looks down at herself. “Oh, come now, Maren, you’re not going to faint, are you?”
“Of course not,” says Maren. She has seen Sámi women in trousers, after all. [...] But there is something about Kirsten, standing as she is with her legs wide apart like a man, which unnerves her.
Although we’re no longer constrained to some of the 17th century’s more restrictive dress codes, it’s good to be reminded that the right of women to wear trousers has been a war with many battles – and not all of them ended in the mists of time. It was only two years ago – the same year that Richard Branson announced Virgin Orbit’s mission to Mars – that Virgin Atlantic offered its female flight attendants trousers as part of their core uniform for the first time. That same year Sudan finally repealed Article 152 of its memorandum to the 1991 Penal Code, which had prohibited the wearing of “obscene outfits” in public. “Obscene” included women in trousers, and the offence was punishable by 40 lashes.
So it’s perhaps understandable that some of us still thrill when women, even under circumstances in which it’s socially acceptable, opt to wear trousers. Whether it’s a presidential nominee campaigning in a pantsuit, an actress accepting an award in a slick tuxedo, a singer who makes them her signature (hello Patti Smith, Annie Lennox, Janelle Monáe) or just a daughter picking pants over a pleated skirt for school, it feels good to see that choice exercised. Women’s trousers are political.
Granted, such stirring thoughts might not have crossed your mind when watching the bubblegum-pink and turquoise washed-denim, paper-bag trousers strutting along the spring/summer ’21 Chanel catwalk. But it’s relevant to the topic at hand that the collection was created as a tribute to actresses, the very women who, alongside Gabrielle Chanel herself, popularised trouser-wearing at the start of the 20th century. Where would trousers be today without glamorous and androgynous ambassadors such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and, my personal favourite, Katharine Hepburn – who used to have her jeans confiscated from her dressing room when she was on set, until she began walking around the studios in her knickers; and who, in 1951, opted for the staff entrance at London’s Claridge’s hotel rather than abide by its rule forbidding women from wearing slacks in the lobby.
Hepburn and those other flagrant trouser-wearing screen goddesses gave expression to their personal style preferences, but also to a different way of being a woman, in attitude as much as in clothes, both in real life and in front of the cameras. It was subversive, if glossily done, and helped pave the way to women wearing trousers when we liked.
I could see Hepburn et al approving of the premise of Louis Vuitton’s offering this season. The house describes the collection as a step into a “stylistically vague” territory. “What kind of cut can dissolve masculine and feminine?” was a question the design team posed. “What wardrobe might s/he look good in?” A high-waisted, wide-cut trouser appears to be one answer. They come in linen and silk satin, Lurex jacquard, wool, floral embroidery and sequin-smothered, all cinched with a belt – the broadly accepted way to style trousers this season. Balenciaga’s big pants and jeans boast legit skater volume and slouch, while Max Mara’s have an easy fluidity that looks as good worn with an oversized sweatshirt as with an elongated, softly tailored blazer.
For her final runway at Chloé, Natacha Ramsay-Levi lends a feminine mood to the masculine cut of her trousers by using pastel and neutral tones and spriggy floral prints, while Stella McCartney’s elegant tailoring with trousers ballooning under slim-cut jackets offers a new way to suit up. Jonathan Anderson has taken the idea of volume to the nth degree in his collection for Loewe, which he describes as “an extremisation of fashion, magnified in all its theatricality and sculpturality”. That includes hu-u-u-ge trews festooning above the knee, exuding the most Big Trouser Energy of the season.
Designer Nick Wakeman of British brand Studio Nicholson believes “every great outfit should be built from the trousers upwards”. The silhouette of her cropped, wide-legged Dordoni pant features in every collection, often in new colours and fabrications. “Pants drive your entire outfit, which is why it makes sense to avoid transient trends and search out a style you can rely on,” she says. She thinks the reason the Dordoni style has been so popular this past year is due to a desire for relaxed clothes. “Working from home or walking in the great outdoors, a wide-leg, comfortable trouser makes the most sense,” she says. “A tight cut is restrictive and more prone to becoming misshapen over time, as the seat repeatedly stretches with your daily movements, but the legs don’t.”
Even though they were designed in a sober climate, many of this season’s trousers were conceived for fun. The pretty colours of Chanel and Chloé, the vibrant red of Fendi’s slacks, the voluminous pink and silver metallics at Isabel Marant and the extraordinary circus silhouettes found at Loewe make for proper party pants. These are trousers that celebrate not just a new season, but also the joy of being a woman in trousers – a figure, it seems, who still has the power to provoke, wow and unnerve.