Reimagine Fashion: Radical Women Who Wear Pants

(Reimagine Fashion: a series about TechStyle heroes who challenged the status quo)

Joan of Arc a an original radical woman in pants.

Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was an early example of an heroic, radical woman in pants. Joan wore britches, and for good reason.

Imagine leading troops into battle, engaging in combat, and riding on horseback in a dress!

Additionally, Joan’s almost impenetrable getup had the advantage of blocking soldiers’ groping hands. But dressing in drag has never been taken lightly. Joan’s clothing enraged religious leaders to such an extent it became one of the reasons she was burned at the stake.

Fast forward to the beginning of the American women’s suffrage movement, when the ‘Turkish pant’ was made famous in 1851 by Amelia Bloomer, who took the design and ran with it. ‘Bloomers’ provided women with more physical freedom. Polite society frowned upon women wearing pants, maybe for just that reason. Meanwhile, women on the western frontier all wore pants as a matter of practicality; there were no fashion police out on the range.

Even today, women have to fight to wear pants. In 2016 British Airways female cabin crew members were awarded the right to wear pants as part of their uniform. This came after a two year legal battle, which began when 83% of their union demanded the freedom of pants.

Our favorite pants crusader is Los Angeles kindergarten teacher, Helen Hulick. Helen pushed the boundaries of attire in 1938, when she arrived in a courtroom to testify in a case against two burglary suspects. All eyes were on the pants Helen was wearing. The judge, enraged, insisted that she come back ‘dressed as a woman.’ ”You tell the judge I will stand on my rights,” Helen said to the reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “If he orders me to change into a dress I won’t do it. I like slacks. They’re comfortable.”

The old fashioned judge forbade Helen Hulick to testify while dressed in pants. He claimed that she ‘drew too much attention from spectators.’ Numerous times, Helen was ordered to return to the courtroom, ‘properly dressed.’ Helen continued to show up in pants. Eventually she was jailed for five days for contempt of court.

“Listen,” Helen said. “I’ve worn slacks since I was fifteen. I don’t own a dress except a formal. If the judge wants me to appear in a formal gown that’s okay with me. I’ll come back in slacks and if he puts me in jail, I hope it will help to free women forever from ‘anti-slack-ism’.”

Although Helen Hulick was jailed and handed a prison-issued denim dress by the prison matron, she was soon released, after numerous letters protesting her treatment were sent to the courthouse, letters overwhelmingly in favor of Helen’s right to choose. Her contempt citation was overturned and she was free to wear slacks to court.

Our heroine’s punishment was not on par with Joan of Arc’s, but still, the stakes were high. These women paved the way for the freedoms we, as modern women in our jeans, often take for granted.

Reimagine Fashion: These African American Women Made Fashion History

Elizabeth Keckly, Anne Lowe and Zelda Wynn Valdes. These three, African American women from different times in history had much in common. Each used her design talents and skills in dressmaking to push through barriers of both race and gender, achieving success and fame in careers that primarily excluded women, especially women of color.

Designer Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) was born a slave in Virginia. A “house slave” who learned to read and write, she acquired fine dressmaking skills. When her owners fell upon hard times, with the help of her patrons, Elizabeth was able to buy her freedom. In 1860 she made her way to Washington D.C., where she created her own dressmaking business, catering to the wives of the political elite. There, Elizabeth met First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. A year later she took on the role of Mrs. Lincoln’s personal dressmaker, dresser, and confidente. She wrote a book about her time with the First Lady, entitled Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868).

Designer Anne Lowe

 

Ann Lowe (1898-1981) came from a long line of seamstresses, and was considered ‘society’s best kept secret’ by New York’s elite. Early in her career, the one-of-a-kind designs Ann created for major stores like Chez Sonia refused to include her name on the labels. Believing she had not received proper credit for much of her high-profile work, Ann opened Ann Lowe’s Gowns on Lexington Avenue in New York City in 1950. The first African American fashion designer of note; Ann made history in 1953 when she designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s silk wedding gown for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. Lowe was the creative brains behind the dress worn by Olivia de Havilland the night she won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1946. Calling herself a ‘terrific snob,’ Ann would only design for the very crème de la crème of society.

Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2001) once told The New York Times, “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.” A fashion and costume designer best known for her skill in highlighting the curves of the female body, Zelda was the go-to favorite of Hollywood starlets in the 1940’s and 50’s. Joyce Bryant, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Mae West were among her early patrons. Later on, she designed for Gladys.

Designer Zelda Wynn Valdes

Knight. She even caught the eye of Playboy founder and CEO, Hugh Hefner, who commissioned Zelda to design the first-ever Playboy bunny costume. The low-cut, skintight, sexy outfit remains an iconic symbol of sexuality to this day. In addition to her work in Hollywood, Zelda designed costumes for The Dance Company Of Harlem, until her death at ninety-six.

Elizabeth Keckly. Ann Lowe. Zelda Wynn Valdes. Three sadly obscure fashion pioneers who deserve to be better-known. TechStyle salutes these talented, African American designers who broke barriers for all women, by designing for America’s elite.

by Amelia Fleetwood features writer and former West Coast Associate Editor for Vogue.

© 2017 Amelia Fleetwood.  Ojai, California 

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