When people think of the Women’s Liberation Movement, they know that it began in the United Stated in the Edwardian Era with marches for the women’s right to vote, and the 1920’s generally is known for having androgynous fashions that began to dismantle gender stereotypes for fashions. However, women began wearing controversial fashions in the Edwardian Era, too. When we think of Edwardian clothes for women, we don’t typically think of pants, but harem pants came into fashion in 1911 and remained controversial items of clothing for the entire era. We may remember the repulsion of Aunt Violet at Lady Sybil’s Harem Pants in the hit television show Downton Abbey. These pants were not well received by everyone in the era, especially older individuals who were used to women wearing primarily dresses, but harem pants were a huge step towards equality for women and an important fashion trend nonetheless.
Western harem pants were originally borrowed from the Turks and then reinvented to be more fitting for Western culture. The general structure of the pants is a flowing, large pant leg that tapers in at the ankle. The pants were received with disgust by the public, but their original designer, Paul Poiret of Paris, said that he wanted to liberate female fashion. The public generally thought that the pants were too sexualized, that they needlessly emphasized the legs of a woman, and were unladylike (sometimes even vulgar). Despite this harsh criticism, the trend eventually caught on. The pants were worn mainly as evening dress, when they could be paired with elegant, beaded tops and heels. There were also pants for the day, which had longer coats to go over them. The legs of the pants were oftentimes so large that at first glance, you wouldn’t notice they were pants at all, but rather typical Edwardian clothes.
Edwardian clothes were certainly diverse, and didn’t follow the rigid structure that we normally think of. When we think of the political and cultural motivations behind the clothes we wear, we can understand the society we live in a lot better. For the women of the 1900s, Edwardian clothes didn’t chain them down—instead, they used them as a tool. In modern times, harem pants have come back into fashion as a sort of bohemian chic style, but most people know them for their connection to the famous rapper MC Hammer—they were even referred to as Hammer Pants for a length of time. However, this style of pant has a long and colorful history that needs to be told.