The recent announcement that Minnie Mouse has joined Pantsuit Nation, or at least Pantsuit Magic Kingdom, temporarily swapping her red dress for a polka-dot pantsuit designed by Stella McCartney, triggered a mini-meltdown on Fox News. Conservatives tend to be, by definition, change-adverse. Minnie’s new clothes — coming on the heels of culture-war skirmishes over the green M & M’s “progressive” sneakers and Hasbro’s dropping of the “Mr.” from Mr. Potato Head — may have been the straw that broke Candace Owens’s brain. The right-wing pundit went on “Jesse Watters Primetime” to slam Disney for making Minnie “more masculine” in an attempt to “destroy fabrics of our society” — an interesting Freudian slip, conflating “fabrics” (that is, textiles) with the social “fabric,” or structure.
Of course, as many pointed out on social media, Minnie has worn pants (and shorts) in the past. And at least she’s fully clothed, unlike some pantsless male Disney characters. (Looking at you, Winnie the Pooh and Donald Duck). But the move still riled the right because the politicization of women’s pants is an American tradition. Critiques of women’s fashion have often served as thinly veiled attacks on women themselves, and wearing pants — in the West, reserved for men from the late Middle Ages until just recently — is a convenient metaphor for appropriating historically masculine privileges, from voting to running for president.
In the 19th century, early suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton experimented with wearing voluminous pants — also known as “the freedom dress” — but suffered so much mockery that they ultimately rejected them as unhelpful distractions from their cause. The 19th Amendment actually preceded women’s right to wear trousers in public, which was granted by the U.S. attorney general on May 29, 1923.
Yet for several decades wearing pants remained a crime of fashion, punishable under state laws banning cross-dressing by both sexes, which aimed to keep women (and men) in their places. In 1933, Joanne Cummings was arrested for wearing pants in public in New York. In 1938, Los Angeles kindergarten teacher Helen Hulick was barred from testifying in a burglary case when she arrived at the courthouse wearing trousers. Evelyn Bross was charged for wearing trousers on a Chicago street in 1943, even though she was dressed for her wartime job as a machinist in clothes “more comfortable than women’s and handy for work,” as she explained. Bross was acquitted. As the judge explained to The Journal Times, “I think the fact that girls wear slacks should not be held against them when they are not deliberately impersonating men. Styles are changing.”
They changed slowly, however. Pants remained on the fringes of women’s fashion for much of the 20th century, banned from offices, nightclubs, country clubs, churches, classrooms and restaurants. Mary Tyler Moore was a pants-wearing pioneer on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the sitcom that premiered in 1961. But her character, Laura Petrie, was a suburban housewife, and initially the actress was allowed to wear pants in only one scene per episode. When Moore went on to play a big-city career woman in her eponymous show, she typically sported office-appropriate skirts
Even as pants gained social acceptance, many women resisted, whether by choice or because the social and physical “freedoms” pants purportedly offered were largely illusive.
Shirley Chisholm, who became the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and later ran for president, was known for her boldly patterned dresses and skirt suits, many of which she designed herself. Once, her staff persuaded her to wear a pantsuit in the House of Representatives, as some other female legislators had begun to do (Rep. Charlotte T. Reid was the first, in 1969). Even though she hid it under an ankle-length sleeveless coat, her press aide recalled: “She was so embarrassed, she kept her head in her newspapers. She must have read the New York Times seven times that day.” For a woman who was never shy about jumping into a debate, it was an uncharacteristic posture. Though Chisholm wore pants and culottes in private, when it came to her political career, she was more comfortable — psychologically if not physically — in a skirt.
Pants for women remained controversial until the peak of the second wave of feminism in the mid-1970s, and even longer in professional settings. In the 1980s, Puerto Rico attorney Ana Irma Rivera Lassén was told she could not enter a courtroom in pants. She sued the judge and won. Yet some New York law firms didn’t permit their female employees to wear pants until the early 1990s, and they were barred from the floor of the Senate until 1993, when Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) led what she called a “pantsuit revolution.” Before then, as historian Richard A. Baker told The Washington Post, female staffers and senators “needed to keep a dress to put on quickly or they had to borrow one if they had to appear on the Senate floor.”
These aren’t just quaint fashion history lessons. Legal disputes over policing pants are timelier than ever, and they’re increasingly tied up with broader controversies over sexual identity and gender nonconformity.
As recently as 2016, a lesbian student in Harrisburg, Pa. was refused admission to her Catholic high school’s prom for wearing a tuxedo; a school official even threatened to call the police. And fears of covert discrimination aren’t mere paranoia. Multiple studies have shown that women who work with conservative men (whether politicians or plumbers) are more likely to win their respect if they wear skirts and other conventionally feminine garments. “Blue-collar men react negatively to women wearing pants,” John T. Molloy wrote in the 2008 edition of “New Women’s Dress for Success.”
While suggesting that wearing pants makes a cartoon mouse (or any human woman) look “masculine” may be laughable in 2022, Minnie’s pantsuit — designed to honor International Women’s Day and the 30th anniversary of Disneyland Paris in March — is more of a cynical corporate branding exercise than a profound feminist statement, just as swapping a cartoon M & M’s high-heeled boots for flat, unisex sneakers screams “performative,” not “liberal.”
Women no longer need to wear the pants to wield power, or dress like men to compete with them. Pants are an option, but they’re not the only option.
They’re not the only option for men anymore, either, as prominent male skirt aficionados like Harry Styles, Billy Porter, Jared Leto and Lil Nas X have demonstrated. Yet even as nonbinary, genderfluid and trans celebrities have redefined red carpet fashion, trans rights and “bathroom laws” remain political hot buttons. The day after news of Minnie’s McCartney makeover broke, actor Sean Penn made headlines by disparaging “feminized” men with “cowardly genes that lead to people surrendering their jeans and putting on a skirt.” Maybe it’s not Minnie’s wardrobe that the conservative media is worried about, but the possibility that, if Minnie can wear pants, there’s nothing stopping Mickey from donning a dress.