In August 2021 Henley Royal Regatta changed its dress code to allow women to wear trousers in the Steward's Enclosure after a petition the previous year by University of Oxford rower Georgia Grant called the dress code ‘draconian’.  The news item did not generate a great deal of interest and it quickly disappeared down the news feeds. Comments, where they did appear, expressed some surprise - the general perception of modern-day dress codes is that women are free to wear trousers if they so choose – and while a few supported the action the majority (mainly from men it has to be said) were offensively critical of the change.
And in case you think that’s an isolated case, think again. In June 2021 MP Condester Sichwale, a female Tanzanian lawmaker was ejected from the National Assembly because of her tight-fitting trousers. ‘Go dress up well, and ... Join us back later,’ the Speaker told her citing Parliament’s rule forbidding female legislators from wearing tight jeans (it was not made clear if there was a similar rule for men wearing tight jeans). The video of Sichwale being escorted out of the chamber went viral generating many comments about men yet again policing how women dress.
One of the difficulties, when considering how women’s dress and behaviour has been controlled throughout history, is that a traditional image has been constructed of women bound by social conventions and limited in their ability to do what they wanted, when they wanted. However, this is flawed.
From the earliest of times thousands upon thousands of women broke the rules, put on banned clothing, travelled, worked, and even lived whole lives as men. Numbers soared in the second half of the nineteenth century, when access to newspapers and books increased and women took inspiration from the myriad stories that littered the world’s press and literature.
There were many reasons why women wanted to break out of social conventions - to escape constricted lives; to watch a hanging or visit a museum; eloping with a lover; committing a crime; to see family; or escape domestic abuse; some wanted to earn a decent living when women’s wages could not keep a family. Some were quickly arrested and put on display in court, hoping to deter other women from such shameful behaviour, but many more got away with it.
A shame that was rooted in the Biblical command that:
'The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.'
Deuteronomy 22.5 (KJV)
and while the UK never went as far as making the Biblical edict an illegal act, many other countries did. Yet despite this so many women were cross-dressing, cross-working, and cross-living it meant the authorities had to remain on constant alert. Despite being barred from voting and taking any significant part in politics, some women attempted (and others probably succeeded) to force their way in. And what better than the apex of UK political life – the House of Commons itself.
The Strangers’ Gallery, from which the proceedings in Parliament could be watched, was barred to women but in 1802, Elizabeth Ann Sheridan, wife of the playwright and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was said to have gained entry to the gallery in male attire in order to hear her husband speak. Eighteen years later the Liverpool Mercury wearily noted that ‘the curiosity of many ladies’ had frequently ‘induced them to gain access to the gallery in male disguise.’
Scotswoman Jane, Duchess of Gordon, who raised the Gordon Highlanders regiment at the time of the French Revolution, was known to ride around in military-style clothing, even being painted in ‘uniform’. In 1836, she wished to hear William Pitt the Younger speak and went to the Strangers’ Gallery dressed as a man. When it became known she was present, the Sergeant-at-Arms pointed out that females were not allowed in but Jane was not to be beaten. ‘Pray Mr Sergeant,’ she asked, ‘is there any order that ladies who have once got into the gallery, shall be turned out?’ which stumped the Sergeant and he made a dignified retreat. Jane’s sister, Lady Wallace, was described as ‘a woman so eccentric and so entirely void of feminine delicacy that she was shunned even by the society of those indelicate times.’ After a separation from her husband, she developed some extraordinary peculiarities and would constantly dress in male costume; she was even ‘known to push her way into the Strangers Gallery in the House of Commons during important debates while clothed in that indecorous fashion.’
A few manged to vote
Similarly, elections proved too tempting for some women. In 1853 in Cincinnati, a woman passed herself off as a man and voted. When she was caught, she was sentenced to 20 days’ imprisonment on bread and water. In 1897, a woman doctor, Mrs Andrew Bird, went to vote for her friend who was standing for a position on a London school board. However, on a previous occasion, her name had been erroneously recorded as Dr Andrew Bird and the presiding officer refused to give her a paper. ‘I suppose that if I had come in male attire no question would be raised?’ asked Mrs Bird. ‘None at all,’ said the officer. Mrs Bird hurried home, changed into men’s clothing and went back to the polling station. However, things did not work out as planned and she was spotted and sent home. This time, she collected her own documentation and birth certificate and managed to vote.
In a 1908 by-election, one British woman was caught impersonating her dead husband. There were probably many more who were never caught.
Suffragists should walk into the House of Commons in male attire
The wearing of trousers gained a new impetus with the suffragists and suffragettes in the late nineteenth century.
Scottish feminist and writer, Lady Florence Dixie, pointed out:
'It will surprise some people to know that there are not a few voters in the United Kingdom who are women in men’s clothes, who have been forced to adopt that attire in order to attain work, and who, passing as men, exercise those rights which are denied them as woman. I myself know several of these people, and am willing to confess that I have advised them and helped them to play their role.'
A Newcastle Weekly Courant journalist was appalled, ‘there is no touch of repentance in that awful confession; for her ladyship avows her determination always to give similar counsel and aid! who can say how far this insidious invasion of man’s domain may go.’
Florence wanted to go even further. ‘Women, as women, can write and lecture,’ she wrote ‘but this will avail nothing unless they enter the haunts of men, partake of their chances, go into Parliament, and prove themselves capable of ruling … Let them disguise themselves.
Campaigner for dress reform, Lady Harberton, agreed and suggested suffragists should walk into the House of Commons in male attire and thus ‘gain admittance by stratagem.’
Women did of course finally gain admittance into the House – the first seated female MP being Nancy Astor in 1919. She was criticised for her dress - and so developed a constant theme from then onwards of women’s appearance dominating their media coverage rather than their policies.
While UK women are now free to wear trousers in Parliament and elsewhere it is still worth bearing in mind a few current facts – In Orthodox Judaism Deuteronomy 22:5 is still adhered to; various Christian and Muslim movements also enforce a ban, some just in church, others a permanent ban; and in some countries women can be publicly whipped for wearing what is regarded as revealing garments.
And at Henley Regatta some private clubs still ban women wearing trousers.
This blog article was written by Norena Shopland. Norena is a writer and historian specialising in the history of sexual orientation and gender identity. Her books include Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales (2017); The Veronal Mystery (2020); A Practical Guide to Searching LGBTQIA Historical Records (2021); A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment (2021). Norena also writes on Welsh history and works include The Curious Case of the Eisteddfod Baton (2019), The Welsh Gold King (forthcoming 2022) and is currently working with the Big Pit Museum on the first exhibition of 19th century Welsh women working in the coal industry.
 BBC News 2021 Henley Royal Regatta dress code allows women to wear trousers 12 August
 DNA 2021 Woman MP removed from Parliament for wearing tight-fitting trousers, video goes viral 3 June
 Derby Mercury, 15 April 1802
 Liverpool Mercury, 2 March 1820
 Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 23 June 1836
 Hampshire Telegraph, 4 December 1886
 Belfast News-Letter, 4 May 1853
 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 28 November 1897
 Evening Express, 7 November 1908
 Newcastle Weekly Courant, 14 January 1893
 Pembroke County Guardian, 5 April 19