Humans are such frail creatures, willingly submitting themselves to the capricious whims of fashion! In 1908 one such capricious whim landed with a resounding thud in Cincinnati: the dreaded sheath trousers.
With the new century, men’s fashions had grown bolder and more adventuresome, though less so than women’s styles, which we explored last week. The staid grey/brown fog of Victorian propriety melted into the innovative Edwardian styles in which, it seemed, anything was worth a try. A dispatch from New York in September 1908 proclaimed the daring clothes awaiting Cincinnati men:
“Green—full rich hunter’s green—will lead in the colors of the garments but it may be relieved with stripes. To go with the green suit one must have a green hat. Soft hats, preferably made of plush, are being carried by leading hatters. They are known as Yodels (the hats, not the hatter) and evidently are of Swiss origin. Following close in the wake of the yodel hat is the Marathon tie, whose chief point of excellence seems to be that its colors are fast.”
One can only imagine a striped green suit topped by a plush green yodel and accented by a Marathon tie, whatever that is. But the fashion mavens saved their pièce de résistance for the nether extremities:
“But perhaps the most striking novelty of all is the sheath trousers. In these the leg seams on the outside, instead of running down to the bottom, will stop at the knee and be laced from that point on.”
Where did that come from? It turns out that the idea of lacing slitted clothing came from women’s fashions. The spring fashions for 1908 included the sheath skirt, sometimes known as the “directoire” style, slit up the front to expose women’s legs clad in tight-fitting trousers. According to The Enquirer [May 22, 1908]:
“When French modistes first introduced them at Longchamps a few weeks ago the shapely girls wearing the new garments were unceremoniously hustled out of sight by unfeeling policemen, whose sense of the artistic had not been sufficiently educated. Whether Cincinnati modistes will succeed in popularizing the garments remains to be demonstrated.”
Sheath skirts did not dare to flash onto Cincinnati’s staid sidewalks. The idea of women wearing trousers was still very offensive, even illegal. By autumn, though, the boffins of fashion had cast their designs upon the masculine side of humanity. Walter L. Hurley, a salesman at Shillito’s, drew the short straw and actually donned a pair of these pantaloons for a photograph in The Cincinnati Post [September 25, 1908]:
“The new sheath trousers are on tap in Cincinnati, to be had by anyone who will step right up and pay the $5 a pair and they are actually being worn. And really, as a matter of fact, they are not such awfully bad things to look at—not even as bad as their progenitor, the sheath gown.”
A Shillito spokesperson told The Post that the department store had not, in fact, actually sold any sheath trousers but that there had been some interest.
“Since the trousers were put on sale last Saturday, two and three calls have been had at the John Shillito store daily by people who were thinking seriously of wearing them. By next week the company expects actually to have sold some, and by the week after, it is confidently expected that either every man in town will be wearing them or else the police will be under instructions to arrest anyone who does.”
While no reports of arrests for wearing sheath trousers have survived, it is also notable that no reports of anyone actually wearing the daring dungarees have survived either.
Condemnation of the style arrived rapidly. In his A Dictionary of Men’s Wear, published later in 1908, William Henry Baker pounced upon sheath trousers and rent them into shreds and lint:
“Sheath trousers—one of the idiocies of 1908, ascribable, doubtless, to the hysterical feminine revival of directoire immodesties and their pernicious effect upon some men too invertebrate to uphold the precious responsibilities of their sex.”
While no living man appears to have actually purchased or worn sheath trousers in Cincinnati, the humor columnists and cartoonists enjoyed the fad and milked it for ideas. In one cartoon, a fashionable young lady upbraids a sheath-trousered fellow:
“Copy cat! You’ve used our corsets and buttoned shoes and now you’ve appropriated our sheath idea. In another year you will be wearing a rat in your hair.”
Another cartoon suggested that sheath trousers promulgated the feminization of men to the extent that women will be giving up their seats on crowded streetcars to make room for sheath-trousered dandies. Despite the implication that sheath trousers were sissified, one cartoonist showed manly President Theodore Roosevelt admiring the sheath trousers worn by his Secretary of War William Howard Taft and his Vice President Charles Fairbanks.
The fashion influencers learned their lesson, and the 1909 forecast for men’s clothing predicted the end to “freak clothes” and a return to grey, grey, grey.
“Plain effects will distinguish the best-dressed man from the one who is wearing his last year’s suit.”
Almost. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [December 15, 1908] predicted the return of the sheath effect in stylish men’s overcoats. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!