Women wearing men’s suits (as women), 1890s-1920s

I’m going to refrain from making any comments or assumptions about the gender identity, sexual orientation, or lifestyle practices of any of these people– I’m just interested in the details of their clothes.  Relatedly, and specifically, what I’m looking at is pictures of women wearing men’s suits, without significant obvious modification to flatter a woman, but without bound/hidden breasts, or without hair cut or worn to look like a close man’s haircut.  Women passing as men wearing men’s suits is a different subject.

I’m also excluding images that clearly seem like a costume– a photo of a man wearing an ill-suited dress and a woman wearing a suit, or two women posed in front of a studio background wearing suits one of which is several sizes too big, seems to me more likely a goofy thing among friends and family, and not indicative of contemporary fashion practices.  I might do a separate post for costumes– there are some amazing ladies-styled-men’s-suit costumes, and really snappy male impersonators, plus of course the cross-dressed couple cabinet cards.

For once I’m going to try to put the pictures in chronologic order, at least by decade.

1890s

Three women, two wearing men's suits, ca. 1890 Cabinet Card c. 1890, White River Junction, VT, collection of Catharine Smith

Click through for discussion of an article about the gender signifiers of putting one’s hands in one’s pockets when posing for photos.  In the photo: one three-piece suit with lapels on coat and vest, coat falling to hips, maybe with piped/corded edges.  White shirt with folded collar, mid-tone necktie, white pocket square, straw boater.  The figure at left I’m not actually certain is a woman, but the bangless wavy hair might be the indicator there.  Also the shoe.  White vest with lapels, black coat a very little past hip-length, mid-tone pants, maybe bowtie, chauffeur cap, and below-ankle low-heeled shoes.  These and the shoes at right seem pointier to me than I expect for men’s shoes, but I don’t actually know a lot of details of men’s fashion in any period.  The “Fellows” script at the bottom is an amusing coincidence; you can see a photo taken by George Fellows of White River Junction here: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2003/08/13e.html

From the same blog:

“Group of women having a smoke, gelatin silver print, c. 1896” from Women in Pants by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig.

I hope somebody somewhere has the left-hand side of this.  So– three women, wearing men’s suits but with long hair worn in waves and rolls.  The standing woman is wearing a notched lapel suit coat that goes down to the widest part of her hips, pants that appear to go to her natural waist, and a relatively short notched-lapel vest with a watch and fob, all with cloth-covered buttons.  She has a stand collar with a white tie, a bowler hat (sitting up high over an up-do), and small round glasses, plus a cigar that looks not yet lit, and a plain band ring.  The woman on the left has a shorter collar and a dark tie and wears her coat closed, and the third (partially seen) woman also has a bowler.

Three women wearing Kew Garden gardener uniforms, circa 1900
Lady gardeners – Gertrude Cope, Alice Hutchins, Eleanor Morland (Image: RBG Kew) Probably between 1898 and 1902.  Click the picture to go to the Kew page about women’s employment in their history.

This is not really the same as a woman wearing a three-piece suit in a social situation, but it’s also not a costume for performance or an attempt to pass as a man.  From 1896 to 1902, Kew Gardens hired young women as gardeners; this was under the same director who required gardeners to wear uniforms, so it’s not a surprise he expected all gardeners to wear gardeners’ uniforms.  The Kew page about this says it was to “not distract the men,” but given some other quoted statements, I would (admittedly, prefer to) believe that the policy was at least as much “You qualify to be a gardener, we hired you as a gardener, you dress like a gardener.”

This is a small photo, of uniforms, and I’m sure I don’t know the right words to describe them anyway, so I think I’ll let this one stand as-is.  My guess of 1898-1902 is based on names and dates mentioned in the linked article.

1900s

I haven’t seen a date cited for this one, and I’m not really sure about it myself, but the top hats and hair styles look very-early-twentieth to me…

Two women in suits and top hats with canes.
Two women in suits and top hats with canes.

High-neck patterned vests contrasting with no lapels.  Standing shirt collars with rounded corners, skinny neckties.  I’m not actually sure if these are two-piece suits, or separate coats and pants that match closely.

1910s

“Couple posed in a relaxed embrace, c. 1910”

Piping-edged suits, no lapels on vests, one high neck vest and one medium, women’s heeled shoes.  And note that these women have hats that look possibly too small to fit on their heads, which are worn entirely on top of their hair– in contrast to the next image.

Three women wearing men's suits, ca 1912 UK, ca. 1912

Only the figure in the middle really meets my “not trying to pass” criteria, although possibly the shoes with giant bows (center and right) also count.  Anyway– dark single-breasted suits with corded edges (or self-color piping or whatever it’s called), coats falling to mid-thigh with flap pockets.  White shirts with rounded collars and neckties, vests with at least three pockets but without lapels and with fairly high necks (except the middle figure), two of the three wearing double-length watch  chains, one with a fob.  It looks like the pants waists have come down lower than in 1896, although I’m not even sure where I’m getting that hunch.  Pants are looser, and worn cuffed to about anklebone height.  Black socks and shoes.  Regrettably, I don’t even actually know if those are men’s or women’s styled shoes.  Likewise, I’m only mostly sure the names for two of those hats are porkpie and boater.  It looks like the woman in the center and maybe the one on the right has a hat larger than her proper size, probably to accommodate her hair.  All three are holding medium-color leather gloves.

1920s

This is generally labeled 1920s. I haven’t found a source on it that’s authoritative.  Hard to say whether this should be eliminated as costumes for a photo op and thus not necessarily representative.

Notched lapels, pocket flaps tucked in, fedoras and newsboy caps.  Some pinstripes, but mostly solid and about half dark suits.  One bowtie, some neckties, lapels mostly pretty short.

Edna Best, by Dorothy Wilding c.1925
Edna Best, by Dorothy Wilding c.1925

I’m not really sure what to make of this one (performance costume?  artistic attire for one-time portrait?  eveningwear?), and (again) I don’t know the right words to describe the clothes, so I think I’ll just leave it here.  Her Wikipedia entry doesn’t say much, but it does describe her involvement in some extremely efficient divorce proceedings:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edna_Best

Finally, I haven’t had much luck getting past the superficial on French writer Colette’s pants habits (including things like what year various photos were taken) during this Highly Technical Pinterest Research, but here’s an article with a gallery showing several of her looks… plus her Moulin Rouge Cleopatra costume, and one from Le Petit Faun.
http://www.thegloss.com/2012/01/28/fashion/81-years-of-style-french-writer-colettes-never-ending-influence-on-fashion-434/

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Women wearing men’s suits (as women), 1890s-1920s

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