Spotlight On: Wearing the Trousers, by Don Chapman

Alumnus Don Chapman (1952, English) published his latest book in September: Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman (Amberley Publishing, Stroud). Don’s interest in the campaign for women’s trousers dates from the hot-pant craze of 1971 when a reader came to him with his grandfather’s papers relating to the Western Rational Dress Club. Exploiting his knowledge of the newspaper industry and his long experience as an investigative reporter, he has pieced together the first comprehensive history of what became known as the Rational Dress Movement.

In 1851 a new craze swept the world inspired by an American woman’s decision to jettison her petticoats and adopt Turkish trousers. Swiftly christened bloomers by the press after Mrs Amelia Bloomer, the woman who publicised them in her temperance journal, The Lily, it inspired free-thinking women everywhere to abandon their constricting corsets and combustible crinolines, provoking a funny, often farcical, male-chauvinist, anti-feminist backlash.

In his book, the first in-depth study of what became known as the rational dress movement – rational being the Victorian buzzword for any cause right-thinking people should espouse – Don reveals how Bloomerism became a stick to beat the women’s rights movement with.
He follows the careers of the two women who championed the cause in Britain, neither of them militant feminists, both passionate advocates of Women’s Liberation. In 1851 Caroline Dexter, an obscure, well-educated Nottingham woman with surprisingly good connections, toured the length and breadth of Britain promoting the new dress. In 1880 the better known Lady Harberton took up the baton, finally becoming so exasperated with the Liberal Establishment she scrapped her subscriptions to every other body and funded the suffragette cause.

With side-long glances at the rag trade, female prostitution and trafficking Don shows how away from the spotlight women’s trousers gradually became accepted wear around the world for a whole range of activities from agriculture to sport, inspiring novelists from Charles Reade to H. G. Wells, playwrights from Pinero to George Bernard Shaw. The advent of the bicycle and the First World War helped the rise of the modern woman. But as Don points out, thanks to Islamic State and the Taliban she is now under threat in the very countries where women have worn trousers for centuries.

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Don was born in Oxford. On leaving St Catz in 1956 he became a graduate trainee with the Westminster Press. In a 37-year career as a journalist he did everything from reporting the Great Train Robbery to interviewing the East German spy code-named Sonya, who passed Britain’s atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. As the Oxford Mail’s university correspondent he introduced the Norrington Table. For 35 years he was the paper’s theatre critic reviewing everybody from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to the then unknown Rowan Atkinson.

Since retiring he has written Oxford Playhouse: High and Low Drama in a University City (The Society for Theatre Research with the University of Hertfordshire Press), the first full-dress history of one of the pioneer theatres of the repertory movement, for which Leicester University awarded him his doctorate in 2006.

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