As we all know, historically, women wore dresses of various levels of impracticality, while men—and only men—wore trousers. Back in the day, a woman in trousers looked as wrong to the people of Western society as a man in a dress does to most of them today. In the 1850s, Elizabeth Smith Miller scandalised the American nation when she designed big, baggy trousers for women, which were tied at the ankle and worn underneath long skirts—aka ‘bloomers.’ While a small group of women embraced bloomers as more suited to daily life than the unwieldy floor-length skirts of the time, there was a moral outcry across the nation. The press ridiculed women in bloomers, claiming that they had been robbed of their femininity and that it was just plain wrong for women to ‘dress like men,’ while the church branded bloomers as ‘devilish.’ Eventually the extreme social pressure led women who had adopted the style to revert to the customary, cumbersome clothing of the day, saying that they had worn bloomers for greater physical freedom, but ‘what is physical freedom compared with mental bondage?’ It took a long time for trousers for women to re-surface and to become as socially acceptable for women as they always have been for men.
These days, we tend to think, women and girls are allowed to wear trousers whenever they like. After all, they are clearly far more practical than dresses and skirts—they don’t show your knickers when you bend down, climb a ladder, or sit cross-legged in a school assembly, they are less likely to get caught in the wheels of a bicycle, a car door, or on the branch of a tree that you’re scaling, they are warmer in winter and less revealing all year round, and, most important of all, they don’t come up over your head when you try to do a cartwheel. So too, we now realise, they are just an item of clothing—they don’t turn women into men, or cause them psychological problems, and they don’t bring the social order collapsing down. This all seems completely obvious to us in retrospect. We laugh at the historic press’s over-zealous reaction to women in trousers, and balk at the idea that these items were so scandalous that they had to be banned from colleges and other public establishments. Yet, the battle for women and girls to be allowed to wear trousers, which began in the 1800s, is, surprisingly, still going on in the 21st century.
In the UK, many schools still require female pupils to wear skirts as part of their uniform. As a result of pressure from pupils and their parents, as well as campaigns like Trousers For All, however, this is slowly but surely beginning to change. In 2000, a pupil called Jo Hale won a legal victory against her school (Jo Hale vs Whickham Comprehensive) when the school settled out of court by changing their uniform policy to allow girls to wear trousers. Hale and her mother claimed that the former uniform policy was discriminatory, and as Hale, quite rightly, pondered at the time: “if you’re in class and doing your work then what does it matter if you’re wearing trousers?” Despite this, there are many schools still to follow suit—in particular, many private schools still require girls to wear dresses and skirts, while the boys are required to wear trousers.
How can this be? The UK government website says, on the subject of school uniform, that ‘each school decides its uniform and must not discriminate based on gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or belief.’ However, on the same page, it explicitly says that ‘schools can decide if girls can wear trousers.’ Is it just me, or is this contradictory? The first statement seems to say that you cannot treat pupils differently on the grounds of sex alone—this is discriminatory—while the second statement says that schools can treat one sex differently by requiring that members of that sex only wear skirts. Bizarre.
While some schools—and the government—are clearly behind on this issue, last week Lewes school in East Sussex made the news when they changed their uniform policy to require that all pupils, regardless of sex, wear the same thing—trousers or shorts, and never a skirt in sight. Whether you like the removal of skirts from the list of allowed items or not, you’ve got to give them credit—requiring the same practical outfit of every pupil in the school is certainly non-discriminatory, which is more than can be said for many uniform policies in the UK currently. Other schools side-step the discrimination accusation by allowing both sexes to wear either trousers or skirts. Indeed, this is the move that was made by the aforementioned Whickham Comprehensive, who kept their uniform policy the same, and just removed the restriction of certain items on that list to pupils of one sex rather than the other.
Yet, this latter change to uniform policy has been declared ‘bizarre’ by many in the media, while Peter Maughan (one of Whickham’s governors at the time) declared that the boys could “come to school in the girls’ skirts—but they would be bonkers if they did.” So too, the recent change to the labeling in John Lewis stores was met with a backlash from many, with Piers Morgan declaring the move an indication that Britain has gone ‘officially bonkers,’ while Twitter users claimed that the move was ‘ridiculous,’ that boys should be dressed as boys and girls as girls, and that, as a result of this, we should ‘expect mental health issues to sky rocket.’ Furthermore, the decision of some men and boys to wear skirts to their places of work or education has been treated as an hilarious way of getting employers and policy-makers to allow them to wear shorts, because—it is assumed—everyone realises that men wearing skirts is just down-right ridiculous.
I contend, however, that with respect to boys in skirts, we, as a society, are now in the position that previous generations were in with respect to women in trousers. Our ancestors looked at women in trousers and thought they looked wrong, were trying to be men, and were—or would be sent—mad by not being clothed in a skirt. I don’t need to point out that exactly the same claims are now being made about boys in dresses. Boys dressing as girls? Bonkers. Skirts on people with XY chromosomes? Stop the press! Don’t you realise you’re subverting the whole order of our society? Don’t you know that this is going to confuse our kids about their gender, send them mad, or worse? Yet, we’ve seen, with trousers, that allowing women to wear clothes that were once deemed appropriate only for men, does not give them mental health issues, does not turn them into men, does not make them confused about their gender, and does not bring society crashing down. Likewise, allowing boys or men to wear skirts and dresses without ridicule or moral outcry will not have these effects either. I put it to you: if you are a woman who wears trousers, or a person who thinks it’s fine for women to wear trousers—and I take it, this is most of you—then why the hoo-hah about a boy in a dress?