Building a Vintage Wardrobe: Pants


This is part 4 of 10 of the Building a Vintage Wardrobe Series

In western civilization, women began wearing pants for work or sport wear in the late 1800's. Amelia Bloomer wore "Turkish trousers" under a long tunic. Designer, Coco Chanel popularized the "Little Boy" look in the early century with menswear trousers, jackets and accessories but few women were bold enough to run with the idea. In the 20's, ladies often wore lounging pants or pants for yard work and housework. It wasn't until the 1930's that ladies trousers became very chic, but even then, it was seen as scandalous to many people.

 Actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn brought elegance and class to the menswear-inspired pants suit. Shockingly, some ladies wore evening slacks in place of gowns!
In the 1940's, with the men at war and the women in the factories and farms, ladies ditched their skirts and slipped into their hubby's jeans and overalls.

By the end of the war, women in pants was a very common occurrence. Ladies pants grew more bold with tight fitting cigarette pants and pedal pushers.

Play costumes of the mid-century often involved shorts with matching skirts. However, even in the 50's many prim and proper ladies -never- wore shorts in public! My great grandma was one of them. On a road trip when my grandma was a girl, Great Grandma sewed shorts for her two sons and a matching skirt-short set for her and my grandma.

Grandma was allowed to wear shorts in the car but if they stopped for gas, restroom or a bite to eat, the skirt went on right away!! I guess that shorts were still too scandalous for Great Grandma.
The majority of my vintage wardrobe consists of dresses and skirts and tops. There are those days when I'm in a "jeans a t-shirt" kind of mood and I want something a bit more relaxed.

With cooler weather just around the corner for much of the world, I'm sure we're all on the hunt for some sort of pants option.

Palazzo Pants-These wide-leg, very long pants were popular in the 1930's as lounge or beach wear. These pants can still be found today in the form of ladies formal pants or in a stretchy "gaucho pant" fabric. Palazzo pants are so glamorous and -very- comfortable!

The gorgeous Romanian beauty Renee Perle looking fabulous in these creamy palazzo pants

Gaucho Pants- Much like palazzo pants, but cropped to below-knee length. Remember 2005 when these things were all over the place? I know I still have a few pairs in my closet. This 1930's simplicity pattern is a perfect example of how you can use modern gaucho pants in your vintage wardrobe.

Trousers-Nothing says classic 40's to me like a pair of perfectly tailored high-waist trousers. You can pair trousers with a classic vintage blouse, sweater, bolero, the list goes on. For a curvy gal, the wide-leg style conceals thick thighs but shows off the curve of your hip. I recently made a pair of 40's style trousers using the modern Butterick pattern 5250.
In the 40's. a lady's trouser wouldn't have a vulgar front fly, like this pattern, so I modified mine with buttons at the hip. For those of you who don't sew, I completely adore these reproduction swing trousers by Heyday.

Overalls- Nothing makes me feel more adorable than my vintage inspired overalls! I made these myself, using the pants pattern above and drafting my own pattern for the top and straps.

If you're not feeling the "create your own pattern" vibe, check out this lovely 1930's sweetheart overall pattern from Decades of Style.

For those who don't sew, you can find a selection of beautiful overalls and jumpsuits (including the adorable ones pictures below!) at NudeeDudee on etsy

Cigarette Pants- Not everyone can pull off the skinny leg of the cigarette pants (especially me!) but when they do, they look great! Cigarette pants, very popular in the 50's and 60's are fitted to the leg and taper down to the ankle. Skinny jeans and pants are still available today at most modern clothing stores and of course, thrift shops.

Pedal Pushers/Clam Diggers/Capri Pants-Capri pants were designed by Sonja de Lennart in 1948. These fitted pants range in length from knee-length to just below mid-calf. Clam diggers tend to be more loose fitting than capris and pedal pushers. These short pants provided more modesty than shorts but allowed a gal to ride her bike and play outside without the fuss of a skirt.

Pedal pushers and capris are often fitted at the knee or calf, where clam diggers are loose around the calf. Like cigarette pants, these cropped style pants are still in style today and can be found anywhere. If you have a pair of jeans or pants that are a little shorter than you like, cut them off and hem them up to make your own vintage inspired cropped pants. All varieties of cropped pants can be seen on some of history's most glamorous ladies.

Below is a good example of "clam diggers". Notice the hem of the pants are loose around the calf as compared to the snug fitting capris and cigarette pants above.

Play suit/Romper- This summery ensemble was designed for women to play on the beach or in the park and stay cool in the warmer months. Typical vintage or vintage inspired play suits can be one or two piece outfits. In the old days, play suits often came with a matching skirt and belt or a jacket. Today, most vintage repro companies offer play suits. You can see some of these lovely rompers on a previous post of mine about play suits here

Jodhpurs- I have always thought that the strange silhouette created by these pants is SO cool! This style of pants isn't traditional or common but they really do make a unique statement while staying true to the vintage spirit. If you're ever fortunate enough to come across a pair of these vintage classics in your size, snatch them up!!

Jodhpurs have been worn by equestrians and aviators alike and they are such a chic addition to any vintage wardrobe. For curvy gals, I suggest trying this style on before making a purchase because they may help to conceal a large thigh but they may make hips and thighs look bigger than they really are. Not all curvy bodies are created equally, though so do give them a try-on, you never know! There's something about Jodhpurs on a woman that says "tough and sexy"!

Sailor pants- Sailor pants are a common pants staple for the modern vintage girl. There are many reproduction companies and crafty gals creating these adorable button-detailed pants. Many sailor pant styles for the vintage world have a wider leg than the real deal, more like the trousers mentioned above. While antiquing with Amanda one day, she scored a great pair of 1940's military issue wool sailor pants, which are quite different from the repro pants but just as cute!!

My step dad, Dan was in the U.S. Navy so he was able to provide some helpful information about modern day navy issue pants. The U.S. Navy dress uniform still has the 13-button front closure and lace-up back. These pants are made of navy blue wool. I can't imagine having to wear wool pants all the time but according to Dan, he never experienced any itchiness!

I guess that's just something you get used to. On the ship, the sailors wore dungarees made of a cotton-like material and all US navy issue pants have the "bell" or flare bottom on the legs. I have read that the US Navy is re-vamping the traditional bell bottom pant with a more straight-leg style, so keep your eyes out on military surplus websites and stores for the traditional flare style!

Vintage 1940's sailor pants. image from
You can find your own vintage inspired sailor pants at Starlets and Harlots These pants go up to a hip size of 48 inches and waist of 38.

Today's Friday Night Fashion and a Movie post will come later today!


  1. hey i've been following your blog for quite a while. i just wanna say that i really appreciate all the efforts that you have made to explain all the different types of pants, skirts, blouses etc.

    you must spend a lot of time on each post! REALLY APPRECIATE IT!

    i love your blog! :D

    p.s.: and i love cigarette pants... especially those that are slightly above the ankles...

  2. Those 40s high waisted pants, I gotta find some! Also playsuits and rompers should never go out of style

  3. Thank you! yes- I do spend a LOT of time on these posts, researching and finding images but I REALLY do enjoy it!! Fashion history has always been such a fun subject for me, so I could do this all day. And sometimes I do! :)

  4. amazingly informative and illustrative post!! I LOVE the overalls you made yourself! I must admit I just got a pair of jodhpurs for $15 on Ebay and am eager to try them out. xoxo.

  5. Pants can be a fantastic thing. The long sailor like pants look fab on so many figures. I however hate how constricted I feel in pants!So being forced to wear them as a chid and well into my teens, I rarely wear themnow, and I hate having a job that imposes them.

    Maybe if I make some I really like, I will actualy want to wear them.

    Great post :)

  6. Wonderful post, Brittany! I have a pair of WWII Navy pants, and you would think they'd be itchy, but they really aren't. There are different weights of wool as well. I'm not sure if they are all standard issue or not. It wasn't unusual for men to have uniform parts custom made or to have the inner waistbands embroidered to customize them. I found mine in an antique store that had a whole collection of uniforms, books and tools from one man. My husband bought most of it for his collection, and I kept the one pair of pants that fit me. The unused pair also! This guy was tiny and seems this pair was a little too big for him! I wish a pair of the lighter weight wool ones fit me, but I've got hips, and they're just a little too snug!

    My mom still talks about her and my aunt's favourite outfits being rompers with skirts that my gramma made for them. As soon as school was out, they'd rip off the skirts!

  7. Great tips. I must admit I have such trouble buying trousers, because of my bootylicious thighs. Everything tends to be fine around the calves, and then start strainging and it just looks terrible.

  8. Oh! I want clam diggers and sailor pants!

    Glamour Daze posted a fab post about a 1947 woman's wardrobe plan. I think I'm going to use it along with your building a vintage wardrobe tutorial to work on my wardrobe. Here's the link:

  9. I love the way Kate Hepburn rocks those pants! I love the wide leg trousers, they way they swoosh when you walk, full of glamour. The story about grandma was a hoot BTW!

  10. As. Always thanks for all you do. Great information
    I am going to run get that butterick pattern
    I Have to make some trousers.

  11. I want! The vintage woman make it look so sexy but tough.

  12. I live in clam diggers/capris in Summer, I love dressing up pretty but I like being able to get on with stuff without worrying about damaging a pretty dress. I also love my trousers er pants sorry! However as I'm super short and a little wide I really don't suit those lovely wide legged styles, shame really, but they just make me look shorter & wider!

  13. I love playsuits unfortunately I don't think my thighs are ready for that kind of exposure yet! Great post x

  14. Wonderfully thorough pants pictorial! Love all of the different shapes!
    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge

  15. OMG, I want that 30s overalls pattern soooo bad!

  16. Love the B&W photos you put in this post - I've got a pair of sailor pants! And I love that you featured jodphurs - I used to wear them a lot when I was younger - now you've got me thinking I need to hunt down another pair.

  17. What a great post, I am obsessed with finding high waisted 40s slacks. And your overalls are adorable, makes me wish I could sew.

  18. I think vintage fashion will net get old.

  19. Help....I'm looking for some baggy high waisted pants for my BFF....I like Kate Hepburns style

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  21. Hi.
    Enjoyed the article.
    Can you link it to the other's in this series. Cant find them. Thank you!

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