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The history of capri pants, the design that encouraged women around the world to forget skirts and dresses

The garment’s creation is attributed to German designer Sonja de Lennart, who launched it 75 years ago. But Audrey Hepburn popularized Capris at a time when women seldom wore pants

Audrey Hepburn wearing capri pants in a promotional image for 'Sabrina.'
Audrey Hepburn wearing capri pants in a promotional image for 'Sabrina.'GETTY

Seventy-five years ago, women’s wardrobes did not include pants. The always-irreverent Coco Chanel had managed to introduce certain changes by integrating pants into her outfits as a symbol of emancipation and empowerment. However, the functional garment was reserved for men. When a woman wore them, it was considered newsworthy, a provocation or even a crime depending on the country. Just ask Katharine Hepburn who is remembered for wearing pants, an accomplishment celebrated almost as much as her four Oscars.

In the middle of the last century, a then-unknown German clothing designer named Sonja de Lennart made history by creating pants for women that have since become a staple in every summer wardrobe. Launched in 1948 with the name Capri pants, they were very different from men’s trousers. To begin with, the garment’s design emphasized feminine shapes; unlike the men’s pants of the period, they highlighted the shape of the legs. The waistline rose above the hips and visually slimmed the waist, but their most unique aspect was the hem, which was located above the ankles and had a small side slit.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1960.GETTY

Pants that changed the world

But why were a German designer’s pants named after an Italian island? The story goes that De Lennart herself gave the garment that moniker as a tribute to her family’s connection with Capri, where they had taken vacations. In fact, capri pants were part of a collection of the same name that also included blouses and skirts. In a historical context shaped by the end of World War II, the German economy was struggling. But De Lennart managed to position herself as one of the country’s most influential designers, and the pieces she made in her Munich atelier outfitted hundreds of women who were tired of dull clothes. Ingrid Bergman was one of the first actresses to fall in love with the designer’s offerings, but costume designer Edith Head was the one responsible for the success of De Lennart’s designs in Hollywood.

In terms of fashion, Edith Head was the film industry’s most influential figure; she won eight Academy Awards and created the classic styles worn by Hollywood’s most famous actresses, from Grace Kelly to Natalie Wood to Tippi Hedren. For the outfits in Roman Holiday (1953), the film that catapulted the still-unknown Audrey Hepburn to stardom, the costume designer chose several garments from De Lennart’s aforementioned Capri collection. The pieces included the blouse and skirt Hepburn’s character wears as she rides on a Vespa with Gregory Peck through the eternal city. But the most iconic image of Hepburn in capri pants came from another film. Roman Holiday had not yet been released when Hepburn began shooting Sabrina (1954). In a promotional image for the film, the costumes of which were designed by Head and Hubert de Givenchy, Hepburn highlighted her slender figure by wearing the black capri pants that soon became synonymous with the actress’s relaxed style: she replaced high heels with flats and eschewed the corseted dresses of the time that emphasized a cone-shaped chest in favor of designs that respected her bust’s natural shape.

It was only a matter of time before the garment became fashionable. Fellow actress Marilyn Monroe also fell for the relaxed elegance of capri pants, a garment that she wore in her private life. A 1953 Life magazine article shows Monroe wearing a simple black sweater and white capri pants (Ana de Armas wore that same outfit in a scene in Blonde), a far cry from Monroe’s exuberant on-screen wardrobe. The multifaceted Doris Day, the French actress Brigitte Bardot and the popular Elizabeth Taylor couldn’t resist capri pants either; they were the standard bearers of an incipient feminine emancipation. That change was reflected in clothing, with women gradually starting to wear pants in most parts of the world.

Ana de Armas
Ana de Armas in 'Blonde.'Cordon Press

From housewives to the jet set: Everyone loves capri pants

Along with the actresses on whom the era’s demanding movie-star system depended, one woman brought capri pants into millions of homes in the United States in the 1960s. Mary Tyler Moore, the star of the hit TV show The Dick Van Dyke Show, played Laura Petrie, a housewife who was married to the show’s main character. In a 2004 interview, the actress explained that the fact that her character wore capri pants on the show was not a coincidence: “I had Laura wear pants, because I said, ‘Women don’t wear full-skirted dresses to vacuum in.’ CBS…made [the show] promise not to let me wear pants in more than one scene. We went along with that for about three episodes, and then finally, I was just wearing the pants.” Little by little, the image of the modern woman was beginning to take shape.

The garment’s connection to the island of Capri acquired new meaning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the European and American jet set turned the Italian coast into the epicenter of glamour. When they weren’t basking in the sun on a yacht anchored at some secluded cove with crystal clear water, the most powerful women of the day strolled down cobblestone streets from Taormina to Capri, clad in summery pants that revealed their ankles and highlighted their legs. Jackie Kennedy is a case in point. After her husband John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the former first lady married the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis and spent long periods in Greece, although she also frequented Italy during her summer getaways. The photos of the former first lady on the island of Capri in the 1970s are unforgettable; in them, she combines discreet capri pants with oversized sunglasses and a headscarf.

Jacquemus
A Jacquemus outfit

For decades, capri pants have remained an all-purpose garment that allows one to put together an impeccable look with minimal effort. Meghan Markle and Ivanka Trump opt for the garment’s most formal version. The transgressive choices of Bella Hadid and Julia Fox are at the opposite end of the spectrum. In any case, capri pants’ versatility have made them a mainstay in different labels’ summer collections, from ultra-fast fashion stores to the most exclusive luxury boutiques. On today’s catwalk, the styles inspired by the fashion of the 2000s have updated capri pants while retaining the garment’s summery essence. Take, for example, La Vacanza, the capsule collection created by Donatella Versace and Dua Lipa for the Italian label, which features capri pants with a butterfly print (GenZ’s favorite insect). The capri pants presented by Jacquemus, a brand that designs almost all its styles around the concept of sun, summer and beach, are much more classic: they are a few centimeters above the ankle and the label suggests pairing them with a wicker bag and a cropped shirt. The garment’s most comfortable and simplest version comes from The Row; recently, Jennifer Lawrence has been photographed wearing their oversized Lisa pants on several occasions. While capri pants have been reinterpreted to adapt to all kinds of trends, they remain a powerful wardrobe basic for another season and show no sign of going out of style any time soon.

La Vacanza capsule collection
The La Vacanza capsule collection created by Donatella Versace and Dua Lipa.

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