Wednesday, February 24, 2016

From Breeches to Trousers to Pantaloons - A Take-Charge History of "Wearing the Pants"



She Wears the Pants - Official Page

She Wears the Pants is a New Jersey cover band.  Their lead singer, a woman, literally (and perhaps figuratively) wears pants in the band; not very controversial today, but that has not always been the case.

The band draws their name from an ancient English idiom, “to wear the pants/trousers.”   Traditionally, men wore pants and women did not.  Men also liked to imagine themselves to be in charge (or project the image of being in charge), so “to wear the pants/trousers” means, “to be the person in charge.”  The idiom is frequently used to refer to the person in charge within a marital relationship, but it is also used figuratively to refer to any person in a position of authority over others.

The idiom dates back to at least 1612, in one form or another; and perhaps earlier.  In its earliest form, it was generally formulated as, “wears the breeches.”  Over the years, it has since appeared as, “trousers,” “pantaloons” or “pants,” as the language of fashion evolved or changed.  Today, the two common forms are, “wear the trousers” and “wear the pants;” trousers being British and pants, American.


Breeches – Circa 1600

The earliest example of idioms that I could find is from a bawdy poem, or epigram, by Sir John Harington; a courtier and inventor of the flush toilet (the word, “John,” for toilet, is believed to be named for him).[i]  The epigram was published posthumously in 1633, but he died in 1612; so the idiom is at least that old.  Although Harington was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth (he was her 102 godsons), he was banned for a time for his racy writing; the epigram is an example of his style:

Of a House-hold fray friendly ended.

A Man and wife strove earst who should be masters
and having chang’d between them household spee-
The man in wrath brought forth a paire of wasters, (ches
& swore those should prove who ware the breeches.

Sir John Harington Epigrams, London, George Miller for the Duke of Buckingham, 1633 (appended to a volume of Harington’s English translation of Orlando Furioso).

I do not pretend to understand all of the poem, but the meaning of “ware the breeches” is unmistakable; the couple was trying to determine who was in charge.

Throughout the rest of the poem (it runs to only 24 lines), she gets him to promise to let her hit him first because she’s is weaker.  He agrees, upon which she puts down her cudgel, proposing a kiss instead.  She said that if he would promise to always let her hit first, she would promise to never hit him in the first place.  In response, he called her a “slut” and taunted her; accusing her of being afraid to fight him.  Then, she asserted her right to choose the location of the duel, a right guaranteed “by the law of the challenge.”  She chose the location, “Cuckhold’s haven,” after which he agreed to cease hostilities:

 “Peace, wife, said he, wee’le cease all rage and rancor,
Ere in that Harbor I will ride at Ancor.” 

Ben Johnson, a contemporary and rival of Shakespeare, is said to have written a play based, part, on that epigram.  The play, Honest Whore, the Second Part , was published in 1630, but never performed.[ii]

The idiom was used in the sub-titles of at least two comedies written during the mid-1600s:

Ghost, or The Woman wears the Breeches; a Comedy writ in the Year 1640. And printed quarto Lond. 1650.

City Wit, or the Woman Wears the Breeches, a Comedy printed in octavo Lond. 1653.

Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, Oxford, 1691, pages 532 and 35.[iii]


Other early uses of the idiom appear in a book about depression, and a palm-reading tutorial:

We have many such fondlings that are their wives pack-horses and slaves, (nam grave malum uxor superans virum suum, as the Comical Poet hath it, there’s no greater misery to a man than to let his wife domineer) to carry her muff, dog, and fan, let her wear the breeches, lay out, spend and do what she will, go and come, whither, when she will, they give consent.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 7th Edition, London, H. Cripps, 1660,  Part III, Sect. 3, page 599.
Observe the finger of Mercury, or the little finger, if the end thereof exceed the last joint of the Annular, or Ring-finger, such a man Rules in his House, and hath his wife pleasing and obedient to him; but if it be short, and reach not the joint, that man hath a Shrew, an imperious commanding woman, that wears the Breeches; . . . .

Richard Saunders, Saunders Physiognomie, and Chiromancy, Metascopie, London, 1671, 2d ed., page 89.

The idiom appears in print regularly, if not often, throughout the 1700s.

It was the title of a song in the early 1700s:


Jonathan Swift used the idiom in his poem, Palindonia (Horace, Book I, Ode XVI, 1726):

Have done! Have done! I quit the field,
To you, as to my wife, I yield:
As she must wear the breeches:
So shall you wear the laurel crown,
Win it, and wear it, ‘tis your own;
The poet’s only riches.

Washington Irving used the idiom in, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent; the same volume that included the first publication of Rip Van Winkle:

Great is the contention of Holly and Ivy [(at Christmastime)], whether master or dame wears the breeches.


Pants, Pantaloons and Trousers

Over the years, the idiom transformed from breeches to trowsers, trousers, pants, and pantaloons, as the language of men’s fashion evolved or changed:

Larry: [(A servant, having just hired on with a second master – the second one a woman)] Oh, good luck to your ladyship! (Aside.) I’ll have two masters now, but what will I do with the one that wears the trowsers?

J. Thomas G. Rodwell, More blunders than One, or, The Irish Valet, London, J. Miller, 1825.0

Modesty. – The extreme modesty attributed to females of the present day appears to have been productive of some benefit to married men.  We heard of a husband yesterday who has thereby become master of his house gain – a matter he has been unable to accomplish for some years past. – On a slight squabble in the morning as to who should “wear the pants,” the wife got the best of it and had put them on, when he suggested that the buttons had eyes! Her modesty was so shocked that she cried, and pulled the pants right off!

The Yazoo Whig and Political Register (Yazoo City, Mississippi), April 29, 1842, page 1.

A report of an early women’s rights convention in New York City in 1856 prompted the humorist, Philander Doesticks to complain:

I have recently attended the annual Exhibition of ripstaving females who have sworn a solemn oath to snatch the pantaloons from the legs of the tyrant, Man, usurp the stove-pope hat, and monopolize all the standing collars in the country. . . .

Then they began to do what they called business – couldn’t see much business in it – it was all about the monster; Man – how the monster, Man, was abusing frail Woman – how the monster, man would not let frail Women vote, and objected to frail Woman’s wearing his pantaloons; and didn’t want frail Woman to make she laws, and would rather have frail Women stay at home and tend the babies, than go to Washington and try to govern the Nation.

The Star of the North (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), December 24, 1856, page 3.

The idiom often ended up in the punch-lines of jokes:

Waker: “Say, Meeks, how did you ever pluck up courage to propose to your wife?”

 Meeks (whose wife wears the trousers); “Why, I didn’t.”

Dodge City Times (Kansas), October 3, 1889, page 4.

We hear of a man in town who pawned a pair of trowsers to secure money to go to the circus.  The joke is principally upon his wife, as she wears the pants, so to speak.

Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio), August 3, 1876, page 3.

The Clothier and Furnisher, volume 14, February 1885, page 42.



Wearing the Pantaloons in the White House

In a little known domestic kerfuffle in the White House, President Grover Cleveland and his new bride tussled over who would “wear the pantaloons and who the pantalettes in the White house.”  Ironically, the subject of the dispute was a revealing dress - well, it would have been revealing, without the quick action of President Grover Cleveland.

Mrs. G. Cleveland - Photo by C. H. Bell, 1886

In 1886, bachelor President Grover Cleveland married Frances Fulsom in what was the first and only White House wedding of a sitting President.  After the wedding, the new First Lady was to pose for a photographic portrait that would be distributed nationally to introduce her to the people.  As a young (21), modern, college-educated woman, Frances wanted to show off her “mammarial beauties” in a low-cut Parisian gown; the older (much older; nearly thirty years older) President objected to such an overt display of the “presidential bosom.”  It took all of the President’s superior diplomatic and dress-making skills to avert a full-figured crisis:

Washington, Sept. 11. - The large picture of Mrs. Cleveland, taken by Bell, has at last been the cause of the divulgence of a secret; a state secret, too. . . .  You will observe that the bodice is cut very low in front, and would display the larger portion of the presidential bosom, even though covered with beaded lace; were it not for the fact that a piece of dark material appears to have been placed across the upper portion of the breast, inside the lace covering.  The bodice was originally intended (apparently) to be of the low-and-behold style, and the rich lace which covers the arms and bosom is not in any sense a disguise of the naked fact.  Well, how came that intruding piece of heavy dark material beneath the lace, thereby hiding the mammarial beauties of the presidential bride? That’s the story.

It has been whispered by a lady friend of the young and really charming bride that there were tears and reproaches over that little matter of a dress.  It was a sort of effort to ascertain who was to wear the pantaloons and who the pantalettes in the White house.  Grover said that the dress was too immodest to be photographed and sent over the land.  Frances wouldn’t be taken in any other.  Grover wanted her to change her dress.  She wouldn’t.  If she couldn’t be photographed in that dress, she wouldn’t be taken in any.  She would never have even a little tiny picture taken in any other dress. . . .

Then Grover showed himself a diplomat.  He found that the presidential authority was about to be either over-ridden or entirely destroyed.  Hence, he studied the young heroine thoughtfully for awhile, and then smilingly said, “Frances, it will never do for you to go that way, but we can compromise.  I will consent to the dress, if you will oblige me by inserting something under the lace, about so,” showing her with his broad hand the portion of bridal loveliness that should be covered, or words to that effect.

St. Paul Daily Globe, September 12, 1886, page 11.



They Wore the Pants

Amelia Bloomer

In 1851, temperance advocate and early women’s rights advocate, Amelia Bloomer, popularized a new style of clothing for women; a short skirt over loose-fitting pants – it became known as a “Bloomer dress,” or simply Bloomers.  Bloomers were modeled on a “Turkish dress” that had already found some popularity at health spas, where it was encouraged for health reasons.  Amelia Bloomer’s advocacy sparked a brief Bloomers-fad in 1851, but the fashion mostly faded away – but never completely disappeared.  Bloomers, or other forms of pants or trousers, were regularly worn by independent-minded women, women’s rights advocates, and anyone who wanted to be comfortable or athletic, without the restrictions of standard women’s fashions of the time.

Mary Walker

Mary Walker was the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for service during the Civil War.  She also “wore the breeches”:

Doctor Mary Walker visited Middlesex Hospital [(London, England)] on Saturday, and was conducted through the establishment.  The students were somewhat surprised at her appearance, for it seems that she has not only donned the M. D. but the breeches as well.  She wears a low-crowned plain felt hat, a dark plush coat, not quite reaching to the knee, and black cloth trousers.”

The Columbian (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), December 15, 1866, page 2.


Mary Walker - 1870

Memphis Daily Appeal, August 6, 1867 - Mary Walker in Paris.


But before she made an international sensation, she served with the United States Army as a nurse and field surgeon:

She was apprehended in General Johnson’s lines in Georgia, in 1863, we think, and sent to the Castle [(a Confederate military prison in Richmond, Virginia)] upon suspicion that she might be a spy in disguise.  Her arrival in “Richmond created a sensation, as well it might, as she was the most outre looking creature that could be well conceived.  Her costume when she entered the Castle, blended the Bloomer with that of the Exquisite – blue frock coat, buttoining up to the throat, with brass buttons, blue trowsers, full Bloomer hat, and neat little boots.  She exhibited the commission of a Surgeon in the Federal service, and the insigna of her dress also denoted that rank.

Good looking she was; face fair and oval eyes blue, a figure petite and round, small and lithe. Good humored she was too, and laughed instead of cried, and when brought into the presence of the Commandant, she saluted him with a “Hallo Captain! At your service, sir.”

The Western Democrat (Charlotte, North Carolina), December 3, 1867, page 1.

"A Chamber of Female Horrors" (Dr. Mary Walker at far left) - Puck, April 3, 1901.


She received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865.  The Army stripped her (and 910 others) of her medal in 1917 as part of a review coincident with the passage of a new pension act for Medal of Honor recipients; hers did not make the cut.  President Carter restored her medal in 1977, one of only six of the 911 to regain the award.  During the 1910s, she testified before Congress twice in support of granting women the right to vote, but died in 1919, one year before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Thomas Nast - 1912


A New “Mary Walker” Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon

A New Mary Walker.
The Mother of Avenger and Retaliation Elliott.

[Chicago Times.]
A new Mary Walker has arisen before the startled gaze of the nation.  She is Susi Dunli Elliott, wife of Tom-ri-jon Elliott, and mother of Retaliation and Avenger Elliott. As she appears on Broadway her garb consists of a long, gray frock coat, white pantaloons with a red stripe, and a crimson hat with a flaming band.  She peddles Tom-ri-jon’s Volcano, an eruptive sheet, edited by her husband. For four years she has worn this queer costume, but, as a crowd gathered around her the other day, she was arrested for obstructing the street.  She maintained her right to wear what she pleased, and was allowed to go unfined.

The New Orleans Daily Democrat, May 19, 1877, page 1.

Mrs. Tom-ri-jon and her husband, “Doctor” Tom-ri-jon, as they were familiarly known (it is unlikely that was an actual doctor), had just recently moved to New York City from Boston  with their hippie-named children, Retaliation and Avenger.  Before moving to Boston, Mr.Tom-Ri-Jon worked for Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, where he spent much of his time exposing the various wrongdoings of the Tweed Ring.  Greeley, it is said, once jokingly told Tom-Ri-Jon that he wrote so much stuff that he did not want to publish, that he should just go off and start his own paper; so he did - but he moved to Boston first.

Mr. Tom-Ri-Jon was born Suzi Donli in Smyrna, Maine in about 1850.  When still “very young, her birth-place became too limited a field for the exercise of her large abilities, and she moved to Boston, where she learned the trade of dress-maker,” enabling her to live independently.  When she met Mr. Tom-Ri-Jon, it must have been love at first sight; she like him because he encouraged her clothing choices and supported women's rights, and he liked her because she lived his fiery brand of politics.  She encouraged him to start the paper which they named, The Lunatic, and later renamed, The Volcano – Red Hot.  They brought the business with them to New York in 1877. 

The Lunatic, and later The Volcano, were fiery anti-establishment newspapers that advocated in favor of women’s rights and against all kinds of political fraud and corruption.    Mrs. Tom-ri-Jon was on the streets selling the paper when she was arrested. 

Before moving to Boston, "Doctor" Tom-Ri-Jon, a native of Kentucky, was policeman in New Orleans, Louisiana, before being thrown off the police force for “erratic” conduct.  He then published perhaps his first newspaper, the “immensely successful enterprise, the velocipede express.”  When news of his The Lunatic reached New Orleans in 1873, those who recalled his time in New Orleans found the title of his new paper appropriate:

His dismissal [(from the police force)] nearly killed him, and he has been nearly crazy ever since.  In fact, he is now editor of the Boston Lunatic – at least he writes that he is – and no one will doubt his word on this occasion.

New Orleans Republican, November 23, 1873, page 5.

Even after establishing themselves in New York City, Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon’s mode of dress continued to get her in trouble with the authorities.  In defense of the New York judicial system, she was never punished or fined; but that did not stop others from lodging complaints:

The fantastically-attired Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon was again in the Tombs Police Court yesterday, having been arrested at the instigation of Rev. Mr. Mulcahey, of St. Paul’s Church, for causing a crowd to congregate in front of the church-yard railing.  After questioning the prisoner relative to the case, and coming to the conclusion that she had not committed any offense, Justice Murray discharged her, remarking, with a merry twinkle in his eye, “that as long as she behaved herself like any other gentleman he did not see why she should be molested.”

New York Times, April 27, 1878.

When she was arrested on Staten Island ten years later, she said she wore the clothes to avoid unwanted advances - and they let her off:

Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon, once a familiar figure on Park Row, New York, was arrested at Tottenville, Staten Island, yesterday, for masquerading in male attire.  At the police station she explained that she dressed as a man to avoid insults while pursuing her occupation of selling perfumery.  She was discharged.

New York Times, July 24, 1888.

Although her clothes may have spared her some annoyances, they were not fool-proof.  She filed several complaints against unwanted suitors.  One man claimed to have merely asked her out for a beer; the judge let him off with a warning and a restraining order.[iv]  Another man persisted after she declined his offer of a kiss; he received a fine of $10 had to put up a $500 bond.[v]

When she first arrived in New York, she was heralded as “the New Mary Walker,” but twenty years later, everything came full-circle when Dr. Walker was compared to Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon after scaring a woman in the gallery of the United States Senate:

The . . . lady retired hastily to the corridors in tears and informed the doorkeeper that ‘that man’ had insulted her.”  It is too bad that such an eminent reformer should be mistaken for one of that sex for whom she has no great respect.  But in this she but follows in the path of the late lamented Tom-Ri-Jon.

The Saint Paul Globe (Minnesota), July 5, 1898, page 4.

The reference to the “late lamented Tom-Ri-Jon” may be an indication that she had died by this point.   I have not been able to find a notice of her death.  Her husband, on the other hand, wound up in the Los Angeles County Hospital in 1906, after he failed in a suicide attempt like he failed at so many other things in his life:

Los Angeles, Dec. 22. – Tom Ri Jon Elliott, an old-time New York and Boston journalist, seems to be nearing the end of his career in a Los Angeles County Hospital; dying of discouragement and old age after what is supposed to have been an attempt at suicide.  Early on the morning of December 20 he leaped from the second story of the lodging-house where he had been staying, but apparently without suffering any injury beyond the laceration of his left leg.. . . .

For more than a year Elliott, who has passed the age of three score years and ten, supported himself meagerly by selling cheap perfumes on the streets of Los Angeles.

The San Francisco Call, December 23, 1906, page 57.

Wearing the Pants

Although early women's rights advocates like Mary Walker and Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon may not have lived to see all of their hopes realized, they did live to see some changes in the acceptability of sensible clothing for women, particularly in athletic pursuits, where freedom of movement is particularly important.


"Bloomer" bathing costumes were a novelty in 1851, but were increasingly acceptable, and even standard, by the 1890s:



By the way, I heard it slyly intimated that some of our fair had on board, under lock and key, the Bloomer costume, as a bathing dress.  Pretty good, thought I; certainly not an inappropriate dress for an experiment in amphibious life.

The Daily Crescent (New Orleans, Louisiana), August 30, 1851, page 1.




The Austin Weekly Statesman (Texas), July 8, 1886, page 7.
Broadway Magazine - 1901


It was shocking in 1857 when early feminist Dr. Lydia Sayres Hasbrouck (who frequently reminded people that she had worn "Bloomers" for two years before Amelia Bloomer made them famous) signed up for an all-woman horse race with Bloomer-wearing jockeys.  But it eventually became commonplace:




Woman as a Horse Jockey.

Twenty-three women entered, among them Dr. Lydia Sayres, now Mrs. Sayres Hasbrouck, of Orange county, New York, Bloomer habit and hat, with a lace basque; check silk dress, straw hat, with green strings; black veil and yellow gloves.


The Evening Star (Washington DC), September 10, 1858, page 2.

The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, Maryland), February 16, 1861, page 1


London: A Complete Guide - 1872

Abercrombie & Fitch Outfitting Catalogue - 1916


In 1870, when bicycles were still new, bloomers were still "shocking," but by the time of the bicycle fad in the 1890s, "Bloomer" bicycle suits were de reigeur:

The Sun, April 16, 1893, part 3, page 6.

The Courier (Lincoln, Nebraska), August 18, 1894, page 8.





Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a young lady, in bloomers, of course,
Who rings with abandon the bell on her wheel,
And makes poor pedestrians cold shivers feel.

The bloomers and the pantalettes and all the other natty divided bicycle costumes are here to stay.  The time is not distant, ladies and gentlemen, when there will be no such a thing as a lady’s bicycle any more than there will be a lady’s typewriter; the ladies will use wheels, just like those the men use.

The Los Angeles Herald, February 10, 1895, page 24.


By the mid-1890s, one observer believed that women in pants was becoming so common that the idiom itself would soon be obsolete:



Trousers for Both Sexes.  
They Have Been Adopted by the Canadian Women for Winter Use.

A fashionable woman . . . read that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Canadian women now wear trousers during the Canadian winters.

“Well,” said she,”that tends to show that trousers may be going to become a common general garment peculiar to neither sex.  It destroys the point of a homely old saying that credits a masterful wife with ‘wearing the trousers,’ for in these days what wife does not wear them at some part of the day or the week, or in at least some one season?”
 

 The Evening Star (Washington DC), February 17, 1894, page 18.

And if women could wear trousers - what else might they do?




In the days emancipated
Will you squirt tobacco-juice,
A-loafing on the corners
Like a Venus on the Loose?

Will you come home in the morning
When the air is damp and chill,
And go fumbling for a key-hole 
That refuses to stay still?

O Emancipated Female,
You may do these things, indeed;
But we fear it isn't sewing
That has planted such a seed.
 
Puck, Volume 15, Number 371, April 16, 1884, page 101.

"Under Her Thumb," from, Stanley Waterloo, How it Looks, New York, Bretanos, 1888.


The band, She Wears the Pants, and the very existence of this article, firmly demonstrate that the idiom, "to wear the pants/trousers," is anything but dead, despite a one-hundred and fifty year tradition of women wearing pants . . .

. . . or, at least that's what she told me to say.

Harper's Bazaar - 1921








[i] Ellen Castelow, The Throne of Sir John Harrington, historic-uk.com; Kinghorn, Jonathan, A Privvie in Perfection: Sir John Harrington's Water Closet", Bath History, (1986), pages 173-188.
[ii] Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, Oxford, L. L. for G. West and H. Clements, 1691, page 122.
[iii] Richard Broome, the author of City Wit, may have been familiar with Ben Johnson’s Honest Whore, the Second Part. See, W. R. Chetwood, The British Theater: Containing the Lives of the English Dramatic Poets, London, R. Baldwin, 1752 (“Mr. Richard Broome, Was Amanuensis to Ben Johnson, who gave him an yearly Sallery . . . .”).
[iv] The New York Times, July 4, 1877.
[v] The New York Times, March 3, 1878.

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