The Feminist Past — and Present — of Culottes

A history (and the present state) of the so-called divided skirt.

Torso-truncating, leg-bisecting, billowing: Culottes are aggressively unsexy. Which is perhaps why men tend to hate them. But that’s kind of the point. Culottes are about women more than men, about what it feels like to wear them rather than how people respond to them. From their earliest associations with suffragists and female athletes to their newfound popularity, these breezy pants are about liberation, and, really, what could be more sexy than that?

The style first emerged at the turn of the last century, owing in part to the era’s bicycle craze. Thanks to what was essentially a split-leg skirt, women were suddenly much more independently mobile. But not everyone was onboard: In Paris, women were arrested for wearing them in public; a French law forbade female trouser-wearing unless “the woman is holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse.” In the 1930s, when tennis player Lili de Alvarez dared to wear a Schiaparelli version at Wimbledon, The Daily Mail suggested that she “should be soundly beaten.”

They still have their haters (see below for Grace Coddington’s utter disdain), but after lying dormant for decades, culottes are, well, back. Céline’s Phoebe Philo — in keeping with her impertinent ideas of sex appeal — showed them on the runway several seasons ago. This season, they’re everywhere, from Hermès to Zara. Like other bordering-on-awkward comfort items that have recently been fast-tracked to the height of fashion — jumpsuits, Birkenstocks, clogs — they are beloved by women who dress for their own pleasure, and no one else’s.

Silly or Chic? Seven stylish people weigh in.

Mindy Kaling: “I love culottes on other people. I saw Ruth Wilson wearing them at the Veuve Clicquot polo thing — she completely pulled them off. I go to work every day with seven people I adore  but whose job is to make fun of things. Culottes are low hanging fruit, as they say.”

Grace Coddington: “I can’t stand them. I really can’t.”

Liv Tyler: “Anything that looks like a dress but is actually shorts I’m really into. I’m a little bit of a tomboy. I love all-in-ones and jumpsuits and skirts that look like skirts but are secretly shorts. Skorts? Is that what they’re called?”

Petra Collins: “I just bought my first pair today. They make me feel sorta Palm Beach–y grandma, which is very cool. I’m going to wear mine with a baby tee.”

Jill Kargman: “I’m anti because I don’t wear pants at all. I’m like one of those Hasidic women but without the wig. I only wear skirts and dresses. I feel, like, raped by denim. I don’t even own jeans.”

Rachel Zoe: “Way pro. I love them. I wore them as a kid and I wear them now. My husband 100 percent has said they’re man repellers, but I love them. I like when women wear them with slides. It’s so chic and resort-y. I also love them with a lady pump.”

Casey Neistat: “What’s to like about culottes? They’re shorter than pants, but not as good as shorts.”

Additional reporting by Diane Gordon, Suzanne Weinstock Klein, Alex Ronan, and Kat Ward.

*This article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

The Feminist Past — and Present — of Culottes