10 March 2004

Kenya: Trousers: a Symbol of Revolution


Nairobi — In the past few weeks, there has been a great deal of debate over whether or not women should wear trousers. OMWA OMBARA looks at the origins of this item of clothing that has generated so much controversy.

Deputy Police Chief Stanley Kilonzo has assured Kenyan women of police protection against trouser haters and warned that anybody who tries to strip or harass women wearing trousers will meet the full force of the law.

His assurance came in the wake of the recent stripping of two women in Mombasa's Mwembe Tayari and Kongowea markets and leaflets circulating in the coastal town that gave March 1 as the deadline for women to stop wearing trousers and minis.

The leaflets did not, however, indicate whether women in the armed forces or departments of the civil service, whom the law allows to wear trousers to work, would also be affected by the dealine.

In January this year, 54 women were stripped naked in Oyugis town in Nyanza Province by local youth for wearing trousers or "dressing shamelessly". Shortly afterwards, an Oyugis resident telephoned a local station, Ramogi FM, and not only justified the action but warned that, "If they continue dressing in ways that make us (men) suffer, we shall rape them".

The general feeling among the critics of trouser-clad women is that trousers are strictly a male item of clothing, and that by wearing them, women are intruding into male fashion.

In recent weeks, local radio stations have been receiving calls from emotionally charged men - and some women as well - claiming that by wearing trousers, women are not only provoking men to rape them, but are also largely responsible for the spread of HIV/Aids in the country.

Most of the callers argue that only men should wear trousers, with some quoting verses from the Bible to the effect that women should not wear men's clothing and vice-versa. Others even claim that some women wear trousers to disguise their intention of usurping their husbands' role as the head of the family.

Trousers come in various styles, some designed for women but the question is, do men really have the exclusive right to wear them? And just where did this controversial item of clothing originate anyway?

Trousers were first popularised by the British colonisers. Well, we adopted their language, why not their mode of dressing?

Trousers: "Two-legged outer garment for a man or a boy reaching from the waist to the ankles," says my dictionary.

But where did the British find them?

Nowhere in ancient history can they be found. Egyptians had something resembling African cloth. The Greeks preferred to go naked, or simply clad in a sheet. The Romans had their toga. All were basically a one-piece, loose-fitting garments.

Even though men and women dressed differently, the men's version was closer to a dress than to a pair of trousers. The Scots wore kilts. Africans wore leaves or skins around their waists, while some like the Maasai wore wrap-around skins - skirts really - or sheets round their shoulders, which were more like dresses.

There were exceptions of course. The indigenous "savages" of Western Europe, who did not want to be conquered by the Romans, wrapped fur around their legs and bound it with rope. Perhaps that may be considered the origin of the design for trousers. The fur clothing may not have been as convenient to wear as modern trousers, but it not only made the wearers' movements easy, but also kept them warm in winter.

After some time, the "savages" conquered the Roman empire and found the luxury of linen cloth and knitted wear. So they made all kind of clothes in different colours, but based on a design to wrap the legs separately. Some went up to the ankle, some were knee-length, some wide, some tight, some went round the foot.

The new rulers later became the kings and queens of the European empires, and the richer they became, the more elaborate their trousers got. Soon a person's dressing became a reflection of one's standing because every stratum of society had its own design. But at that time, only men wore trousers; women wore dresses.

Since clothes were a symbol of status, especially trousers, it was not surprising that the leaders of the French Revolution did away with the different styles. They produced a standard version of trousers, which they called "culotte". The culotte was a white, body-hugging garment that made the wearer appear naked from afar.

As a result, the opponents of the French revolution disparagingly referred to them as "sans-culottes" (without culottes). But the culottes marked a radical departure from the old empire's way of doing things, and the era of elaborate trousers was gone.

But the revolution did not last, and Napoleon, the first post-Revolution French leader, who wanted to build an empire, introduced trousers as we know them, together with the bowler hat. The hat has been forgotten, but the trousers were imitated by the Germans and the British, and crossed the Atlantic to the New World.

With the industrial revolution, trousers came in particularly handy because they were well-fitting, thereby reducing their chances of getting caught in the machines in the factory. So trousers were there to stay.

Fashion changed a lot, but the basics remained the same. And trousers were worn by men - until the women's liberation movement used the garment as a symbol of revolution.

Sources attribute the popularisation of trousers in the New World to a poor German Jew called Levi Strauss, who migrated to the US. in search of a better life. After crossing the US without finding gold, he ran out of money. With no money to buy clothes, he cut off some of the material covering his horse-drawn wagon, which was made of a very thick cloth, and used it to make a pair of trousers.

Other gold-prospectors liked the sturdy cloth and Strauss's trousers became a hit. Strauss thought of a fancy name, hiding the fact that he had made them himself, and said they came from Genua, but the gold prospectors somehow just named the trousers "jeans". Strauss had found his goldmine.

Gradually, the jeans got improved, with steel studs were added for reinforcement. In 1930, some engineer invented the zip, not for clothes, so the story goes, but for wastebaskets, and other containers. The rest is history.

Now men think it is normal masculine dress, but its roots are to be found in the wilderness of savage Europe.

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