Commissioned by BBC Radio 4, ‘When Women Wore the Trousers’, is a documentary which explores the history of trousers in the workplace and in fashion and discusses the impact that this everyday garment had on society. Presented by Laura Barton, the documentary discovers how women have worn trousers as a means of empowerment and the enduring appeal of workwear in contemporary fashion. Also featured are readings from the actor Maxine Peake, a discussion with Pit Brow Lass, Rita Culshaw about her choice of clothing in the pits, and interviews with fashion curators Amy de la Haye and WLP's own Fiona McKay, and Wigan historian Alan Davies, as well as fashion designers Faye & Erica Toogood and chef Angela Hartnett.
Since discovering the very existence of the Pit Brow Lasses a few years ago, these women have continued to inspire us not only from a sartorial point of view but has also initiated a dialogue and debate regarding both historic and contemporary gender politics and notions of identity.
With what women wear to work being a continual the focus of both praise and scrutiny, the subject has never been more timely.
The Pit Brow Lasses
Portraits of the Pit Brow Lasses are some of the earliest photographic examples of women wearing trousers. We first discovered these portraits when writing an article for SHOWROOM for The Vintage Showroom in 2013. The article centred around the re-appropriation of men's workwear by these women and exemplified an interest in how the historic can be made relevant to not only contemporary audiences but can contribute to new ideas and design.
These women worked within the collieries of 19th century Wigan, Lancashire, and were unique in their re-appropriation of men’s ‘breeches’ worn underneath hitched up skirts. This was originally adopted as a functional response to working within mines, prior to the 1842 Coal Mines Act, which banned women and children from working underground. Nevertheless, the practical nature of their clothing proved popular even beyond the enforcement of this act, establishing an unofficial uniform. The impact of wearing such clothing made them controversial figures for the time and the subject of numerous Victorian Cartes Des Visites sold around the world as curiosities.
The Pit Brow Lasses reached a degree of notoriety because of their clothing and occupation and as such, were documented almost obsessively by 19th Century anthropologist Arthur J. Munby. We are lucky that a majority of these photographic portraits survive from the time and remain as part of the Munby Archive at Trinity College Library in Cambridge. Part of Munby’s collection, is a large selection of Munby’s sketches in his diaries, which also document their day to day lives both at the pits and at home.
From Function to Fashion
For the Pit Brow Lasses, the trouser became a political symbol for overarching issue of whether they should be allowed to work in the mines. In retaliation to this strong opposition, protests took place in 1887 and then in 1913, alongside the Suffragettes. In parallel, the Society for Rational Dress was established in 1881 to counteract restrictive dress and subsequently, bloomer trousers were embraced by women for sports and leisure.
It was the advent of WWI and WWII that had the biggest impact on women and workwear, and contributed towards the normalisation of trousers within womenswear. In the documentary, curator and fashion historian Amy de La Haye looks at the influence on The Woman’s Land Army who were forced to adopt trousers out of necessity; making them an acceptable garment for working women and charts how function became fashion starting with 1950s youth culture and beyond. Hollywood also had its part to play with stars such as Katherine Hepburn, contributing towards the growing acceptance of trousers within female fashion.
Over time, the meaning and function of trousers for women has evolved. From its roots as an utilitarian workwear garment and a political symbol, today the re-appropriation of work-wear has never been more popular. It continues been used as an inspiration by many fashion designers who value the stylishness of utilitarian clothing and its ease of wear for both men and women. Designers such as Toogood (who feature in the documentary), Margaret Howell, Junya Watanabe and Nigel Cabourne have shown the power of vintage workwear inspired trousers for women as a point of departure for style and comfort.
Even in the supposedly liberal times we live in, disdain over women in trousers is still taking place in other parts of the world and also in certain work environments in an effort to upkeep tradition.
Even after the article for The Vintage Showroom was published, we found ourselves still with a desire to bring the Pit Brow Lasses story and highlight their legacy to more audiences. With the original material still in existence, we felt that the subject matter was ripe for an exhibition, showcasing it alongside contemporary workwear examples within women’s fashion and style.
However, there were numerous challenges with putting on an exhibition of this type, particularly when it came to locating a venue with sufficient enough conservation standards. It was here that we came upon a brick wall. This challenge however, has helped us to think in a more creative way, looking for different ways of communication and curatorial techniques, such as digital environments.
As believers in a multi-disciplinary approach, we have always looked outside the traditional remit of how an exhibition or project might take shape. However, it is safe to say that we did not even consider that the subject matter could manifest as a radio documentary, perhaps because we mainly work with visual material.
Belinda Naylor, a producer at BBC Radio 4, introduced us to this possibility and together, we shaped a synopsis that would, like the exhibition, take the Pit Brow Lasses as a point of departure to analyse different points in history and look at how that legacy has manifested in contemporary fashion and ways of dressing. 'This synopsis which combined our different disciplines resulted in a successful commission from BBC Radio 4.
Communicating this story through the form of a radio documentary meant that we could experiment with different layers of texture and voices through sound. Without the use of visuals, we needed to be more inventive when describing a topic and conveying emotion, inciting people’s imagination. As opposed to film or other more visual types of media, it is a more intimate connection as the narrative takes a centre stage. Overall, the documentary successfully brings the listener on a journey to show how relevant and inspiring these pioneering women of the past are today.
‘When Women Wore Trousers’ is available until June next year as a podcast, you can listen to it online or download it here.