February 03, 2010

Keep Your Trousers On, Ladies!

A little while ago, Rose C’est La Vie made mention on this site of her interest in female masculinity, and lamented the demise of trousers’ significance as symbols of feminine defiance. One of the lamentable things about throwing out all the rules is that it becomes much more difficult to act subversively. Absolute freedom might, so it seems, come at the price of being dull.

I’m not actually sure I buy that last thought, for complacency is the biggest risk to the freedoms attained. We must remain vigilant. Last night I saw some BBC News footage from Banda Aceh about the stiffening of Sharia Law in that unfortunate place. It is a story of gendered segregation, invidious policing, and a slew of strictures that prescribe what it is moral and immoral to wear. Naturally, the BBC took a left-leaning – or should that be Occidental – perspective, and sought out those brave womanly souls refusing to don headscarves, who cling desperately to long pants. Indeed, the new clamp down includes a ban on women wearing tight trousers. A bewildered trouser seller exclaimed: ‘what we wear doesn’t reflect our morality’. No, but in that setting trousers remain politically dangerous.

We are not given to think about these things any more, but that is a sign of how far we have come in the West. It is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that the matter-of-fact ubiquity of women in ‘men’s clothing’ is an emblem of our liberality. These things are matter-of-fact only after significant struggle; they represent other struggles of greater weight, about which we are also now dangerously blasé. Indeed, trouser wearing is the thin end of the wedge. That is precisely what the Aceh authorities are afraid of. And it is precisely why we should not cease to celebrate the history embodied by all women who don their slacks without a second thought.


  1. Could you suggest a nice book to read on manners for men and for women ? You could leave a note for me on my blog.
    or email me at marquis.mode@gmail.com

  2. On the history of manners, I would recommend Norbert Elias, 'The Civilising Process', which is not easy going, but has some glorious examples.

    On contemporary manners I am on uncertain ground, since the best guide is one's parents and one's social schooling. Still, you could no doubt do worse than John Bridges, 'How to Be a Gentleman', and of course, Miss Manners, 'Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior' won't send you astray.

    All references can be found in the 'Being Manly Recommends' bar to the right.

  3. Thank you for your reply. You indeed are a gentleman :). I will try getting a hold of those books and get back to you when I am done reading. Thank you for inspiring me to learn more about manners.

  4. I am so sorry I missed this post at the time. Thank you for picking up on my comment. I see you have used an image of a Wigan pitbrow girl collected by the Victorian philanthropist Arthur Munby who, it can be safely said, fetishised female masculinity. He was a 'suitable case for treament'! His lover Hannah Cullwick's memoirs document their strange folie a deux

    Originally men enjoyed women in 'travesty' on the stage because it was their only chance to see their legs delineated. That of course is the thinking behind the Shariah law restrictions. Society can still be residually disapproving of women in trousers hence the shock horror news pic of The Queen leaving hospital in a trouser suit a handful of years ago.

  5. I am glad you found this Rose. I admire your keen eye for identifying the photograph. If I could give house points or something similar I would.

    Your point about The Queen is an interesting one. Is it because she is not an 'ordinary woman'? If so, the general lack of fuss about women in trousers in the West is surely a back-handed compliment.

  6. I can't wait to read Rose's blog, and as a fellow historian, I love the photos taken by Munby, whatever his reasons for taking them.

    A few books I like that discuss etiquette are:

    "Simple Social Graces" by Linda Lichter

    "Inside the Victorian Home" by Judith Flanders

    "Inventing the Victorians" by Matthew Sweet



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