The Butch Mystique

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Women in PantsWomen in Pants: Manly Maidens,
Cowgirls, and Other Renegades

by Catherine Smith and
Cynthia Grieg
Henry N. Abrams.  184 pages, $35.

 

Women in Pants-1
Young couple, early 1900’s
Women in Pants-2
“Mother” (as labeled on the back), albumen print, c. 1890

THIS beautiful volume of terrific black and white photographs, printed on thick, glossy paper, brings to life a largely hidden history of women who traded their restrictive dresses for the clothes that “made the man.” Women in Pants is a collection of over 150 photographs collected by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Grieg, and includes daguerre-otypes from as early as the mid-19th century and the full range of photographic types—cartes de visites, postcards, gelatin silver prints, boudoir cards, and so on—as photographic technology advanced. The pictures display women in pants in a range of situations and circumstances that would undoubtedly astonish most contemporary viewers.
The authors begin with a discussion of the dress reform movement of the 19th century and the fashion for ethnic clothing, such as leg coverings. An ongoing story throughout this period is the process by which trousers on women went from being the object of ridicule to complete acceptability by the 1960’s and 70’s.

The book is organized, not chronologically, but in sections corresponding to the setting or context in which they were taken: women of the American West, actresses, working women, military women, and mock weddings. Clearly, some of the photographs in the working women section show women whose choice of pants, bloomers, or their husband’s overalls was a utilitarian decision. On the other hand, in the mock weddings and romantic women section, the choice of trousers is clearly about projecting a certain image to one’s peers and to the camera. Thus, for example, groups of women having their picture taken with false mustaches and men’s dress suits in the mid-1800’s, say, were making a statement that goes far beyond utilitarian dress. As the authors point out, “thousands of photographs show young women who masqueraded as men as a form of social entertainment and raise compelling questions regarding the motivations for such gender play.”

Each section is prefaced by a short piece that sets the historical context for the grouping of photographs. They are informative as well as scholarly in setting the scene for the photographs that follow. Many photographs also have lengthy and interesting captions that give specific details about the picture. Some of the photographs capture women whose names we know well: Dr. Mary Walker from the Civil War; Charlotte Cushman, the famed actress, as Romeo; the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay as Marchbanks in Candida while a student at Vassar; singer and dancer Josephine Baker; and, of course, Calamity Jane.

For a viewer looking for subtext, these photos are a gold mine. A college photo from the 1890’s shows a faded photo of three couples in a parlor seated on a couch, three of them wearing bowler hats, ties, and suit jackets, each paired with a prim-looking women in a dress, the men’s arms around the women. A full page photo from the early 1900’s pictures an African-American couple, one in a floor-length white dress, the other in hat, collar, and tie, the woman’s arm around the “man’s” shoulders, both looking directly at the camera. A sunlit, outdoor photo from 1890 reveals a weathered figure in a hat and suit, sitting in a chair, one leg crossed with the right ankle resting on the left knee, inscribed on the reverse (we are told) with the word “Mother.”

While it can serve nicely as a coffee-table book, sure to elicit laughs, sighs, and moans from browsers, Women in Pants is also a book of serious scholarship that will, as the authors suggest, “encourage more questions than it answers” and thus send at least some readers on a search for more information about the historical and cultural context for these fascinating images.

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