October 30, 2016

The Girl With the Brown Striped Pants

It was the summer of 1970. My mother and I were shopping for back to school clothes at the popular bargain clothing store, Robert Hall. Http://triblive.com/neighborhoods/yourmonvalley/yourmonvalleymore/3437771-74/hall-robert-charleroi My eyes lit upon a beautiful pair of pants. They were a rich brown color with gold pin stripes. The soft material was a blend of combed wool. I pointed them out to my mother and she agreed that they were very nice. But she noticed a detail that was socially problematic for the times in which we lived. The zipper was located on the front of the pants.

On line clothing historians claim that pants were generally not acceptable social wear for women and girls until the 1970s. I do recall those that were available at that time and prior often had the zipper placed awkwardly in the back. So that was why, when my mother looked at the pants that I had chosen to dress in for my return to school in the autumn of 1970, she was instantly at odds with style and social anxiety. She pulled the pants towards her and mumbled, "But the zipper is in the front." Nevertheless, she acquiesced, and decided to buy the potentially socially controversial pants.

It was certainly not the first time my mother had provided pants for my school days. Even pre-1970, she and a friend created a few sets of vests and pants. Was the zipper at the side or the back? I cannot recall, but most likely it was on the side. So when did zippers start being placed in the front in women’s pants? I looked a little longer and found at least a few examples.

Looking through sewing patterns for women’s clothing from the late 1960's in an online search, I did find patterns for ladies’ pants that had zippers placed in the front: http://www.rustyzipper.com/shop.cfm?viewpartnum=278809. So clearly they were out there, just perhaps not common.

In the context of the 1970 public school system of Dutch Neck, New Jersey, however, pants of any kind, wherever the zipper was located, were not universally welcome as trappings for girls. This was a restrictive thing for girls in spring and autumn, but could be most unkind in the winter months. To understand this, we have to revisit how the middle of the day was organized in public schools during the late sixties and early seventies. Unlike today, where elementary, middle and high school students are expected to wolf down a meal in twenty minutes and return to class without playground exercise (Childhood obesity anyone?), students back in my day had a forty-five minute lunch period followed by forty-five minutes outdoors in the playground. During the winter, New Jersey could frequently have below freezing temperatures. I recall several single digit temperature readings during our winters on the playground. Try exposing bare legs to that for forty-five minutes. Yet that was what girls were expected to do when they wore skirts to school. Some, like me, would not conform to the skirt wearing rule in any climate, let alone frost-bite inducing weather.

Pants wearing girls were met with ire, however, and I recall this causing controversy at my school. At one point, there were panel discussions organized for students to discuss whether or not girls should be allowed to wear pants to school at all. These were assembled on a stage in our school auditorium and we were all required to attend. I wore pants to every one of these forums. Girls were not allowed to submit their views in this public forum so I simply had to make a fashion statement. I recall one small boy reading his prepared response about pants wearing girls being an affront to his sensibilities. With all the zeal of a budding member of the moral majority, he outlined how the wearing of pants would cause girls to adopt masculine behavior and his stern warnings that they might even become involved in physical fights. (I tried to recall here whether I was wearing pants or a skirt the day I counter-attacked a bully on a school bus). His view was countered by a more liberal leaning boy who decided that comfort, safety and freedom should prevail and that this extended to girl’s attire. There was the pro-pants group and the anti-pants group.

Against this backdrop, I attended school in the autumn of 1970, not only wearing pants, but pants with the infamous zipper in the front. As expected, I was greeted with taunts, jeers, and obscene remarks. These were generally confined, however, to a table of like-minded fellows in my home room class. Boys at other tables just rolled their eyeballs in chagrin at the imbeciles making their sex look bad.

One female classmate came over to me and confessed that she and her mother had seen the very same pants I was wearing when they had gone to Robert Hall over the summer. They had come to the same conclusion that the brown pants with the gold pin stripes were stylish but intimidating with that zipper in the front. Lois, my classmate, admitted that she too, admired the pants and had wanted them badly but neither she nor her mother could muster up the courage to buy them. Lois asked me after that, how I could bear all the taunts and verbal abuse from the boys. I quickly pointed out to her that they were a very vocal minority.

"Give it a few days....a week tops." I told her. "The boys will see that I’m not intimidated, that their jeering is getting them nowhere, and then they’ll get bored with it and stop." This turned out to be correct. The jeering boys seemed to come to some sort of epiphany after a few days that they were making idiots of themselves because I wasn’t frazzled and they were indeed getting nowhere.

I never mentioned the incident to my mother, my sister, or to my six brothers. I did not wish my mother to feel that she had made an error in purchasing the pants with the zipper in the front and I felt strongly that this was my battle to fight and win.

I’ve often wondered where this early fighting nature and self confidence emanated from.

Perhaps my early proclivity for wearing pants and having that fighting tenacity was more in the genes than in the jeans. A recent genetic test indicated that my mixed Irish, British and Eastern European (Ukranian) ancestry was seasoned with a touch of Greek - one percent to be exact. Recent cultural historians have speculated that the Greek Amazons were most likely genuine and that their migrations can be tracked in to what is now Ukraine. Knowledge of their clothing can be ascertained by looking at their images depicted on ancient pottery. Looking these over I am struck by the standing figure of an Amazon wearing pants! https://bellatory.com/fashion-industry/A-History-of-Trousers-and-Pants-in-Western-Culture

My holding out for my right to dress in comfort and style had a ripple effect throughout my middle school. In the weeks and months that followed, girls started wearing more pants, and pants with zippers side, back or audaciously in the front. And at the year’s end, on the very stage where that unseemly and unfair panel discussion about the rights of girls to wear pants took place, I performed in a play that required me to wear trousers and carry a play rifle. I got a standing ovation after my performance.

Whatever the reason for being so tenacious, looking back, I realize that this small feat of trail blazing could not have been accomplished were I not in an environment in which there were just enough broad minded and democratic adults to allow someone like me to squeak through arbitrary barriers and help pave the way just a little for others to follow. Thank you.