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Despite the popular belief, women did wear trousers in the 1800s. A search will find dozens of records of diarists who noted British and European members of the fairer sex in pants throughout Turkey, India, the American frontiers, Australia, &c. However, there is also evidence that women were having trousers made in Europe, Great Britain, and the settled portions of the Americas. Having blogged about the 19th century for a while now, I’ve come in contact with a great deal of enthusiasts. It is always enjoyable to receive a note from someone with an interesting question, or who would like to provide me with some information. This article was suggested by a curious young lady from Llanbadarn Fawr, Wales. I’m not an historian, but like to research, and approach any topic with an open mind. If you have appropriate period photos or artwork to add here, please send me a message through the contact page. What follows is a varied collection of images for whomever might be interested. Note: It was the Great War (1914-18) and the need for women to toil in combat, industrial, and heavy agricultural settings, that led to wide acceptance of feminine trousers for daily wear in the Western World, although it was illegal in Paris for ladies to appear publicly in pants without a police permit up until 2013.
“At the meet, a friend introduced him to some ladies, one of whom, dressed to death, was mounted on a perfect hunter. Her costume was a blue habit edged with scarlet, with gold buttons down the front, white buck-skin trousers, and patent leather Wellingtons upon feet of exquisite symmetry. Easy to see that her habit came from Saville Row.” Who is the Heir, by Mortimer Collins, 1865. This sounds very much like the lady was wearing a habit crafted upon a man’s hunting suit, and looked fantastic.
It is not known how many women donned uniforms and fought in the American Civil War (1861-65). Perhaps I shouldn’t include them here, but I feel they deserve recognition, and they definitely wore trousers. It is a safe bet that many adopted male clothes for certain tasks after the war.
While mentioning women soldiers, the Vivandières have to be examined. The tradition of wives travelling with their husbands on campaign goes back centuries. Some time around 1700 the French Army formalized a system where certain wives were given the right to maintain a regimental canteen, which also brought them into the fold of military discipline. The word vivandière comes from vivand, meaning an article of food. Cantinière (from canteen) came into use in the 1790s, particularly with the French during their revolution (1789-99), but other countries favoured the old term. A canteen was a place soldiers could purchase alcohol, extra food, personal items like socks and handkerchiefs, perhaps bring their laundry and mending, or whatever else the women could do to make a little money and help look after the “regimental family” as a whole. In garrison the canteen may have been a room within the fort, or just a corner of the barracks, while on campaign it would have been a tent, probably set up near the cooks.
Vivandières served with many European armies during the 1800s; Spain, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, the Netherlands, and German states. The Dutch and Belgians called their female soldiers Marketentsters, the latter country allowing one per company, and there is a statue commemorating their service at Leopoldsburg, in the north-eastern Flemish Region of Belgium. The Austrian high command stipulated that their vivandières could march with the men provided they had no children and were supplying the troops with brandy, otherwise they travelled with the baggage train.
Britain never instituted such a system, but did bring nurses to conflicts starting with The Crimean War (1853-56). Of course many wives and camp followers trailed any army, but they didn’t have the official status of the Vivandières. In France the tradition lasted until it was suppressed in 1906, and finally abolished when the positions were filled by disabled vets during World War I (1914-18). But the lady soldiers had been a common sight in their bright smart regimentals (which they started wearing during the 1830s) in any town with a garrison, and on any campaign, for over seven decades. Remember, at that time, soldiers wore their uniforms all day every day, seldom possessing any other clothes. The women’s uniforms were designed to match their husband’s regiment, but some were quite different, and most included a practical apron for canteen duties. The ladies were usually depicted with a brightly painted canteen (a small cask) hanging on their hips.
If you would like to read more about the Vivandières and Cantinières please visit Thomas Cordoza’s website.
For dozens of images depicting women as soldiers check out Kate’s sister soldiers on Pinterest.
Note: Mass produced pants were usually made baggy, providing ample room for different physiques and upper layers of clothing to be tucked in, sewn by hand in the first half of the 19th century and then with sewing machines in the second half. Middle-class and wealthy people had their clothes tailored to fit close, following the contours of their bodies. Cavalry uniform trousers and civilian riding breeches ranged from quite roomy (but designed not to bunch up), to tight (providing support for hours in the saddle).
Just stumbled upon your site. FABULOUSNESS.
Great photos. I think practical dressing must have existed in every century.
I just wanted to add, women also wore trousers or bloomers while ice skating. I’ve seen antique fashion plates (1860s-1870s) of ladies dressed in fur-trimmed knee-length skirts with matching trousers beneath. Quite fetching! And undoubtedly safer than trying to skate with an ankle-length skirt on.
This is very interesting. I’d like to read a book or see a film that follows a cantiniere through a war.
Good day very cool blog!
Thanks for the information!
this a great blog!!
“…although it was illegal in Paris for ladies to appear publicly in pants without a police permit up until 2013.”
2013??? Shirley some mistake? Don’t you mean 1913??
It’s true, Andy, the law wasn’t struck off the books until 31 Jan 2013. In 1892 and 1909 it was amended to allow females to wear trousers, “if the woman is holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse.”
Feminine woman look great in historical menswear for the simple reasons of showing their feminine curves & derrière off as assets to normal males plus usually wearing the sleekest & fanciest of menswear for a “killer combination” of attractiveness. The bad side is than these sexy menswear become “tainted” by heavy female usage and becomes associated now as feminine, hence, womenswear, now “lost to males” forever! That is sexism but females don’t care one iota about male fashion losses. Besides tight & fancy pants lost to females, so has leather military boots now offered to females the last 65 years as their “fashion boots” or kinky boots. Boots are sexy but now only for females.
Thanks for this information. Not many speak of this and I was interested in this piece of history.
Thank you for this information. I am reading a book that is constantly mentioning that “she would rather wear riding britches.” It had me curious as to what they looked liked in the year 1892. I appreciate it.
This is brilliant! Anyone who has read Gail Carrigers’ (steampunk) novels will know of certain characters who wear beautifully tailored masculine clothing…the most notable one being an inventor of French extraction, whose suits are always perfect. 🙂 Brilliant info, thanks!
I stumbled upon your fascinating site wanting information on 1800’s women’s fashions. I thought I knew a lot about the basics concerning what was worn. I have been enlightened! Truly fascinating! I never would have thought women would have been able to leave the house with these shorter dresses and pantaloons without being thrown in the paddywagon!!
Here’s a link showing Dr. Mary Edward Walker wearing trousers.
Surely you don’t mean “2013” when you cite the date that women no longer needed a permit in Paris to wear trousers!!!
It’s true; the law wasn’t amended until 2013. (It probably hadn’t been enforced since the 1940s.)
I have a pioneer day at my school for the fourth grade. More and more in recent years girls do not want to wear dresses with bonnets etc. In what situations, conditions, circumstances would a girl of 9-11 years dress more like a boy during the 1860s in America? Thank you for your help.
Hi Theresa. Girls doing hard labour would often wear trousers under their skirts, and wide-brimmed straw hats if outside. Indoors they might only wear a kerchief on their heads to keep hair under control. Poor families would hand down clothes, so a girl with elder male siblings might dress in shirts and trousers. And the girls would have worn trousers to ride horses, as pioneers weren’t hauling around sidesaddles. Respectable urban girls with any money in their family wore dresses and bonnets. I hope that helps.
Thank you! Very helpful!!
Hey I just found your blog and I’m really thrilled that I found it, it’s very interesting!! I was doing some research for a character design I’ve been working on (for illustration purposes), and my character is a woman who wants to be independent in the 19th century. Now I know that women actually wore pants during this century and I had no idea, so thank you very much for this article!
Hello, thank you for the interesting blog! I have a question: I am assuming the bloomers would be closed legged, unlike the trousers used as underwear? If this is the case, would the woman have to undress every time they used the lavatory?
Hi Belle, yes, the bloomer trousers were very much like harem pants, and pulled on with the jacket or coat. Women could just undo a button or two to get at the drawstring of their bloomers, then pull them down, split-drawers underneath.
It was enforced but very loosely. I always find it interesting that they show women on Little House on the Prairie slaving over a plow in the fields or on a camping trip with a dress dragging on the ground. Its dumb even for that time. I don’t care what anyone says, if something doesn’t make sense it isn’t true. This just doesn’t cut the mustard. Maybe in public women were in dresses but while doing labor jobs they must have had some form of outfit accordingly.
R.S, Fleming, very interesting article and I like the pictures. It is my understanding that the first trousers were worn by the horse riders of the area surrounding the Black Sea and into Central Asia and that women and men wore these garments so it may be that women were among those who first wore trousers. Tom
Interesting. Thanks, Tom.
Very interesting. Thank you. Paris law not changed until 2013 is crazy. Wonder what other crazy laws are still on the books…