A Short History of Capri Pants, on the 100th Birthday of Their Inventor

Once considered a controversial item of clothing, fashion designer Sonja de Lennart's creation is now a bona fide classic.
Dolores Guinness, 1965, by Slim Aarons
Dolores Guinness, 1965, by Slim Aarons

Let’s take a moment to celebrate fashion designer Sonja de Lennart, who turns 100 years old on May 21. Happy birthday, Sonja! Born in 1920 in Breslau, Prussia, de Lennart achieved fame for her design of the capri pant, the cropped, close-fitting trouser that has become a fashion staple.

After the war, de Lennart got to visit Capri. In an era when women in trousers were frequently barred from reputable establishments and could even be arrested for wearing men’s clothes, de Lennart designed and donned pants.

While she was walking on the beach in one of her creations, its legs got wet, and she realized that they needed to be shorter and tighter. She redesigned the garment and in the process, helped to bring into the world the classic silhouette we know today.

During World War II, a pregnant de Lennart and her three-year-old daughter escaped advancing Russian troops and fled to Bavaria, where she set to work designing clothes to support her family. She chose the name Capri for her first collection, which debuted in 1945, because the island represented the peace, freedom and good times for which she yearned.

Sonja de Lennart with models wearing her fashion designs, including capri pants. Photo by Earl Harman

Although capri pants are often associated with Emilio Pucci, he was just one of a group of Italian designers who promoted the style in the 1950s. Among these, Alessandro Ruocco, who owns Wonderland Capri, a prestigious vintage store that has done business on the island since 2012, has a decided preference.

“My grandfather was the tailor who people say invented those pants,” Ruocco states, referring to Sebastiano “Nello” Spinella (born 1934). Spinella, a talented clothier who sewed garments for the international elite, including Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy and Brigitte Bardot, was said to whip off a pair of capris in just eight minutes.

De Lennart, however, seems to have precedence. Archival photos from 1945 attest that her capri pants predate the Italian ones by a number of years. Of course, fashion designs, like other ideas, can and do emerge independently from different creators.

Baron Sterling Henry Nahum
Sweet and laughing Filmstar Marilyn Monroe is laying on the green, 1954
Sweet and laughing Film star Marilyn Monroe is laying on the green, 1954, by Baron Sterling Henry Nahum

Two examples of de Lennart’s creations from the 1940s were featured in the 2017–18 exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The capri pant symbolized a shift in the acceptance of pants as a fashionable style for women,” says Stephanie Kramer, a fashion historian and teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who worked on the MoMA show and wrote its catalogue entry on the trousers.

Their “positioning as a casual piece of leisure and vacation wear,” she adds, “blurred the onetime distinctions between private and public, utilitarian and fashionable.” This blurring allowed capris to be sported in a variety of settings. In other words, thanks to the capri, women got to wear pants more and more.

Audrey Hepburn with Broom, 1955, by Milton Greene
Audrey Hepburn with Broom, 1955, by Milton Greene

And thanks in part to the numerous celebrities who adopted capris, women increasingly wanted to wear them. Pictures of Audrey Hepburn, who wore capris in the 1957 movie Funny Face, helped to popularize the pants, and Marilyn Monroe was photographed in the sexy little trousers a number of times. Mary Tyler Moore pushed the envelope further in the 1960s by wearing capris on the Dick Van Dyke Show, despite the reservations of the show’s sponsors. Broadcasting into American homes the image of a woman living her life in pants normalized the look and helped make trousers socially acceptable female dress.

So let’s celebrate Sonja de Lennart, her bravery and pioneering spirit, and let’s celebrate her capri pants, which helped dismantle outdated dress codes and freed women to take bigger and bigger strides on the road to emancipation.

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