History hasn’t always been kind to the women who aspired to adventure beyond the confines of the kitchen. For centuries women often found themselves excluded from anything particularly interesting, a footnote to the great events of their time.
Those who did succeed in propelling themselves into the heart of the action had to be canny and for at least a few, trousers provided the ultimate leg up.
So this week Women of the Sky celebrates trousers and the women who wore them. Now, of course, just about anyone reading this will be familiar with the joys of pants but, for the early adopters of the fashion staple trousers meant more than comfort…they meant freedom.
So here is the first installment in our five-part series examining the unlikely adventures of the trouser-wearers…
If she existed, the legendary warrior Hau Mulan may be one of the earliest adopters of men’s clothing. She high-kicked her way into the hearts of a new generation in the Disney film, Mulan, but her true identity remains unclear. The earliest record of the Ballad of Hua Mulan, transcribed in the 6th century, tells the story of the dutiful daughter who pretended to be a man so she could spare her elderly father the discomfort of war.
She’s said to have travelled ten thousand miles in the company of the army, fighting for 12 years and, eventually, appearing before the Emperor who offered her a post in his government in return for her service. Mulan declined, asking instead for a horse that could carry her the long distance home.
According to the ballad, Mulan’s comrades only realised she was a woman when they visited her at her family home. Something may have been lost in translation but the last verse of the Ballad sums up Mulan’s story rather neatly
“The male rabbit’s feet kick up and down,
The female rabbit’s eyes are bewildered.
Two rabbits running close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am male or female?
Mulan’s adventures inspired not only the original Ballad and the Disney remake, complete with talking dragon side-kick. Her story was expanded into a novel during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and had provided the inspiration for silent films, TV-dramas, even an opera film in Hong Kong. Whether Mulan lived or was simply the work of popular legend remains unclear but her ability to capture hearts has kept the tale alive for centuries making her fine icon for trouser-wearing adventurers everywhere.
Throughout history Mulan would be joined by women who donned trousers, cut their hair short and swaggered onto the frontlines. Not all would share her more daughterly motivations. Some were motivated by patriotism, others the desire to uncover a scoop, and some, like our next cross-dressing heroine, seemed simply to be spoiling for a fight.