Trousers are a ubiquitous piece of clothing worn by women, men, teenagers and even children. There is an overwhelming variety in terms of colour, design and style, which includes jeans, chinos, joggers, and formal trousers for men. But, there was a time when people who wear pants were seen as barbaric! When the Greeks first encountered Persians who wore pants, they ridiculed the Persians and thought the garment to be a marker of barbarians. But when the Romans took over and the empire expanded, trousers caught up with the European world as it was perfect for the cold weather. While the British, Portuguese and Dutch popularised the garment in India, pants were worn by Indians long before that.
Soldiers of most civilisations wore pants underneath their armour as it was easier to fight wearing these, than tunics. This was particularly comfortable while riding horses as it protected the thighs from chaffing. For this reason, pants have been around for millennia. But the rest of the people in India mostly wore mundu, or dhoti. While ancient paintings and inscriptions portray women wearing trousers and riding horses in many parts of the world, things played out much differently in the centuries that followed.
While today people across genders wear trousers to all kinds of occasions. Formal trousers for men, cotton trousers for men and women, chinos, jeans, cargo trousers, the variety is mind-boggling. But the interesting aspect is the power relation at play which is symbolized by trousers.
In the west, power struggle around trousers were between men and women. For a very long time, women were not allowed to wear trousers, as it was claimed to be men’s clothing exclusively. In fact, it became a crucial aspect of liberal feminist movement. As increasing number of women started taking up jobs, trousers naturally seemed more meaningful and convenient in the 20th century. But it’s only during the end of the century that these rights were won, and schools started permitting girls to wear trousers.
In India, however, trousers represented the British, and the associated racial superiority. As the colonial masters left the country in 1947 after granting our country independence, the vacuum of power was soon filled by the English speaking emergent educated bourgeoisie, the native elites. The men of this class were characterised by their attire- formal trousers for men and suits. Throngs of men, mostly from privileged communities, took up foreign education to join the club. There was yet another set of people who started wearing cotton trousers for men. The educated members of the depressed classes who strived for upward social mobility and empowerment. A noted figure of such community is Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who explicitly advocated the use of suits in a symbolic rejection of Brahmin hegemony, Sanskrit and the associated paraphernalia.
Feminist discourses about women’s right to wear trousers came much later, in India, towards the tail end of the century. Here, women wearing western clothes is loaded with multiple connotations. It symbolises her rejection of traditional values of the society to adopt ‘modern’ western notions. It is perceived as a breakdown of morality wherein women rejected their gendered roles to step out of the boundaries traditionally set for her. Having said that, it cannot be ignored that this is a largely urban discourse. Majority of Indian women live in rural India where feminism is still in nascent stages where the primary issues are female foeticide, child marriage, right to education for girl children, rapes, etc. But with extensive intervention from socially committed people and the government, the scenario is fast changing. Soon, trousers will be claimed by Indian women too. Once the right to wear whatever they want is won, whether cotton trousers for men should be worn by the ladies is entirely their choice.