I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book called Juliana by Vanda, which is set in early 1940s New York. The narrator in the story is initially a naïve young woman who doesn’t understand her attraction to a talented singer, Juliana, and fights the idea that she is one of ‘them’ – the pariahs that mainstream society then considered homosexuals to be. Still the case, I know, in many places now. But there was no public recognition at all back then.
Vanda’s portrayal of the times has been well researched. And I know I’ve read about it before – the time when women could be stopped by police and asked to prove that they were wearing the requisite number of items of women’s clothing. But in Juliana, the author really brings home the terror of just wearing trousers in public that could to lead to not just verbal and often physical abuse but also the threat of being imprisoned. (Read more about Vanda’s work here)
I was never subjected to abuse of this kind growing up as I did, mainly in Canada. At the schools I went to there wasn’t a uniform but girls were expected to wear skirts. In winter I would wear trousers to school with the understanding that I would change into a skirt when I arrived. However, I would try to get away with keeping the trousers on as long as I could.
The one time I was challenged about wearing trousers at work happened almost thirty years ago in London. My boss didn’t seem to mind that I wore trousers in the office. Then one day we were attending an event at Canada House and I spent an enjoyable few minutes conversing with the Canadian High Commissioner. The next morning my boss called me into his office and asked me if I was trying to make a statement.
I didn’t have a clue what he meant. He had to spell it out for me. It turns out he was enraged by the fact that I dared to talk to the CHC dressed as I was. I have no idea how I responded to this verbally but I’m sure the bubble over my head would have said, “silly old fart”, or words to that effect.
This was at the time when I had just started seeing the woman who is now my wife. I told her about my boss’s comment and that evening she came over to the office after everyone else had left. We took a great deal of pleasure in making out on his office floor. Thinking about that still makes us smile…it’s the little things…
Nancy Spain also came to mind when I was writing this. Rose Collis’s biography of her was called A Trouser-wearing Character. One of the stories told about Spain is that when she appeared on TV she was allowed to wear trousers as long as she was seated behind a desk.
If you’re wondering about the title of this blog, Hebden Bridge, near where I live now, was known as Trouser town. Mills in this area were famous for manufacturing corduroy fustian cloth. When considering a suitable installation for the town’s square, a large-scale replica of a fustian knife was eventually commissioned. The sculpture also serves as a giant sundial with the point of the knife facing north.
No surprise then that this year’s Hebden Bridge Arts Festival had a Trouser town theme.
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