Pants & Progress: Women that Made an Impact

Photo credits here, here, and here.

While ModCloth is known as a destination for unique dresses, we also happen to hold a deep reverence for pants. A challenge to the patriarchy, a tool of resistance, pants have an inherently political history that deserves its time in the spotlight. The next time you go to reach for your favorite distressed jeans, your go-to retro trousers, or those stretch skinnies you can’t live without, take a moment to reflect on the iconic women and their groundbreaking work that made this outfit choice an option.


Amelia Bloomer

Born in 1818, this native of New York advocated for dress reform alongside her work in the women’s suffrage movement. Her activism began with penning pieces about social issues for her husband’s newspaper. By 1848, Amelia held the First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, and created “The Lily” a year later. It began as a publication dedicated to women and the abstinence of alcohol, but later evolved into focusing on women’s issues with the encouragement of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

It was Bloomer that suggested women adopt a new, more sensible style of dress, trading in constricting corsets and heavily layered petticoats for looser tops and skirts that stopped at the knee with pants underneath. Though this style existed before, Amelia brought the look to popularity, leading to the dress-and-trousers combo acquiring her namesake. She later stated, “As soon as it became known that I was wearing the new dress, letters came pouring in upon me by the hundreds from women all over the country making inquiries about the dress and asking for patterns—showing how ready and anxious women were to throw off the burden of long, heavy skirts.” She later came to focus more on the women’s suffrage movement over dress reform, but her impact was one that rippled across the nation.


Gladys Bentley

Bentley was an openly lesbian entertainer of the Harlem Renaissance, rising to fame in niche circles during the 1920s and ’30s. After moving to New York City in her late teens, Gladys quickly began performing at rent parties and clubs for tips. While playing at Connie’s Inn one night, a friend mentioned The Mad House was in deep need of a replacement pianist, but wanted a man for the job. “There’s no better time for them to start using a girl,” Bentley boasted of her talents, and it paid off. Following her first performance there to incredible audience acclaim, she convinced the manager she was right and was hired. She eventually went on to play at the neighborhood’s most notorious gay speakeasy, Harry Hansberry’s Clam House.

The blues singer possessed a unique style that included yodeling and growling. She made waves with her customization of popular songs, which involved swapping out the original lyrics for more risqué ones. Gladys also secured her place as a fashion icon of the time. Her penchant for polished male eveningwear became a signature of her piano performances, with bow ties, top hats, and tuxedos bolstering her stage wardrobe. She was a champion of creative, sexual, and aesthetic expression, all of which were no easy feat for the era.


Barbara Mikulski

First elected to the House of Representatives in 1976, and then the Senate in 1986, Mikulski shook up the sphere of public office with a clear vision shaped by years of activism. Barbara has a long-standing list of firsts: she was the first Democratic woman to serve in both houses, Maryland’s first state-wide elected female, the first woman on the Democratic leadership team, the first chairwoman on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress. However, her most famous first was not so much in her work, but instead what she wore. Barbara Mikulski led the pantsuit rebellion of 1993.

What began as the simple act of wearing pants and encouraging staffers to do the same became a protest to the misogynist dressing expectations of the U.S. government. In Mikulski’s words, “For a woman to come on the floor in trousers was viewed as a seismographic event.” The pantsuit has now become a style norm in political spheres and professional settings, and we owe much—if not all—of that to Barbara’s boldness.

+Who is your favorite iconic fashion figure?

Amelia Bloomer: here and here.
Gladys Bentley: here, herehere, and here.
Barbara Mikulski: here, here, and here.


About Savannah

If something's happening on stage, you can probably find Savannah there, from house shows and dramatic theater productions to faraway metal gigs and full-on festivals. Otherwise, she spends her days elbows-deep in carb-heavy meals, rattling about years spent overseas, and testing the creative limits of an all-black wardrobe.

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  1. Avatar
    Allie 08/21/2018 at 10:14 am #

    This is lovely! I really enjoyed this nice read before getting my day started. I’m from Maryland and I remember hearing of Barbara Mikulski (I was a child when she started the pants suit revolution). Gladys Bentley sounds like my kind of woman and I love knowing where “bloomers” come from. Thanks!

  2. Avatar
    Keisha 08/21/2018 at 4:58 pm #

    This is such an awesome article. What a refresher to read and take a glimpse at where all of this great style derives!! Love it!

  3. Avatar
    Alecia Debose 08/22/2018 at 4:42 am #

    Excellent piece! I was entertained and learned some things.

  4. Avatar
    Jamie Hale 08/22/2018 at 8:10 am #

    Katherine Hepburn has always been my pant icon. Great to learn about others.

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