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Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls, and Other Renegades
By Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig
Review by: Rhonda Jenkins Armstrong


ISBN: 0810945711

Pants-wearing women are no longer revolutionary in America. From sloppy jeans to neatly tailored silk, women wear pants in virtually any situation on any given day. If we were to stop to consider those who came before us, those who made then-daring choices in dress, we might think back as far as Mary Tyler Moore in her slim capris, or Katharine Hepburn in her classic brown trousers. Or perhaps to Rosie the Riveter, muscular in her denim overalls. If we remember a little bit from history class, we might even reach as far back as Amelia Bloomer, with her politically motivated costume.

These examples form a good start, but Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig are prepared to blow away our preconceived ideas of women defying dress codes. Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls, and Other Renegades, published in September to coincide with Women’s History Month, collects 150 photographs of pants-wearing women from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Starting in the 1850s, the photographs chronicle women wearing pants for a variety of reasons. In addition to the Victorian-era feminist dress reformers like Bloomer, the women in Smith and Greig’s collection wore pants for labor, recreation, performance, and much more.

Smith, an Associate Professor of Art at Mott Community College in Michigan, and Greig, a photographer and curator, keep their focus on the photographs. They provide brief historical commentary, including extensive quotations from historical documents such as letters and newspaper accounts. But for the most part, the pictures are allowed to speak for themselves. This choice is on the whole a successful approach: the images selected for this collection serve to shatter many of our assumptions in a way that makes extensive textual explanation superfluous.

The earliest photographs reproduced here are from the 1850s, around the time that the invention of glass-plate negatives made casual photography possible. Instead of expensive, one-shot daguerreotypes, photographs could be produced in multiples, to be shared with family and friends. Within thirty years, the advance of hand-held cameras and photographic development labs made amateur photography popular. The newfound ease of photography led to a shift in the content of photographic images; in addition to carefully arranged formal portraits, playful candid photographs started to appear. Women who in earlier times might have been stiffly posed in conservative dress began to be photographed in boundary-pushing costumes.

Women in Pants collects seventy years worth of such photographs into fourteen chapters. Each chapter explores a particular group of women pants-wearers: the dress reformers, who used pants to make a feminist statement; women who wore pants out of necessity for work in mining, farming, ranching, or manufacturing; military women; actresses and other performers; and others. Some of these images are familiar enough: we have seen images of dress reformers in bloomers and the women who disguised themselves as soldiers to fight alongside their husbands in war, though perhaps not to the extent and level of variety that Smith and Greig collect here. We will also recognize many of the famous “women in pants” chronicled here, from Calamity Jane to Josephine Baker to aviator Ruth Law.

Other photographs here flout pretty much everything we thought we knew about those stuffy Victorians. The most fascinating chapters are those that cover the various cross-dressing women—those who wore pants not out of necessity or for formal performance, but as a means of transgressing gender roles in their personal lives. These photographs are collected in four chapters. Two focus on women who fully disguise themselves as men; one looking at those who pass as men in public (permanently or just for the day), the other at women who dress as men within romantic relationships with other women. Two additional chapters focus on specific performative elements popular among young women: the practice of “mock weddings” performed entirely by young women who dress up to be grooms as well as brides, and the social events of all-women colleges in which various girls dressed up to take on the role of the absent males.

These chapters are particularly interesting because they show us decidedly unexpected images. First, I expect that most of us who have made no formal study of the incidence of cross-dressing think of it as a fairly recent development. Even if we are aware of its occurrence in earlier times, our more prevalent examples seem to be men dressing as women, and most are in formal performance venues. Our popular conception certainly is not of middle-class Victorian ladies donning suits, hats, and jaunty tobacco pipes to be photographed with their live-in girlfriends. Neither do we commonly consider the numbers of women who dressed as men in their everyday lives, either for employment, to live as a married couple with another woman, or for any other reason.

The performance photographs reveal a mischievous sense of humor that we forget existed in our great-grandmothers’ generations. Young women are shown in elaborate male costumes for mock weddings or plays. They swagger, smoking cigars, twitching giant mustaches, and striking decidedly non-feminine poses, knees apart and arms possessively draped around their female companions. The women stare boldly into the camera’s lens, bringing the viewer in on their elaborate, transgressive joke.

These photographs were not without scandal, though: the accompanying reproductions from letters, magazines, and etiquette books reveal that not everyone possessed the same jovial spirit displayed by the women grinning from behind mustaches and cigars. One mother responded to a photograph of a mock wedding with dismay, writing a stern admonition to her daughter at college: “I don’t care how much a male character is needed, nor how much fun it is, it is not to be done again. It is perfectly disgusting and revolting to me, and I am positively ashamed to think of all the letters that have gone to all the homes describing my own dear daughter dressed up as a man!” (134). The letter indicates that it is not the first time Mother has forbidden such behavior. The young women involved boldly defied these proscriptions, continuing to pose in elaborate setups representing poker games, weddings, and literary scenes.

Women in Pants is a delight to peruse, beautifully designed and chock full of fascinating images. It does not provide a thorough historical analysis of the images or the social roles they represent. The authors acknowledge that the book is not intended to be an exhaustive account of this slice of social history; rather, they write in their introduction that their work is intended to raise more questions than it answers, with the hope that others will pick up the subject for additional exploration. Smith and Greig provide context for the images in brief discussions of the prevailing social conventions, and they reproduce excerpts from enlightening primary sources. But the text provides only the broadest overviews and little is known about the women who appear in the photographs themselves. Readers who desire extensive historic detail will have to look elsewhere. To that end, the authors provide a bibliography for each chapter, covering the primary sources cited therein as well as major secondary texts on the subjects.

As a result, the book works as an enthralling casual read, and it works especially well as a teaching tool. Smith and Greig have contributed a worthwhile addition to the fields of women’s history, photographic history, and popular and material culture.


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