A History of Trousers and Pants in Western Culture
While the words pants and trousers are often used interchangeably, trousers generally refer to tailored garments with a fitted waistline, pockets, and a zipper. Pants often used to refer to undergarments, is a broader term and can refer to trousers, bloomers, knickerbockers, breeches, slacks, jeans, shorts, and Capri's.
Leggings are often referred to as pants, but are more akin to hose.
Until the 20th century, Western culture restricted the wearing of pants as an essential garment to men. Before the 20th century, women wore loose pantalettes or drawers under dresses for modesty and warmth. Though actual pants were sometimes seen on women in the late 1800s and in the early part of the 20th century, it was not until the 1970s that the wearing of trousers by women was accepted for business or dress occasions.
The phrase "who wears the pants in the family," refers to the head of that family and equates the wearing of pants with power and masculinity.
Though pants seem to be a modern form of dress, pants were worn by ancient people and were mentioned in The Bible as well as in Ancient Greek mythology.
The King James version of The Bible mentions pants in Exodus 28:42: "and you shall make them linen trousers to cover their nakedness from the loins even to the thighs." And in the Book of Daniel, 3:21: 'Then these men were bound in their coats, their trousers, and their turbans..."
Woman wearing pants 470 BCE
The wearing of pants in Western culture probably arose with the equestrian warrior cultures of Asia minor. The Sythians of the area encompassed by today's Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania wore loose pants tucked into boots. A portrait of a warrior wearing pants appears on a cup found in a burial site from 770 BC.
The Greek historian Herodotus mentions the Sythians waring pants. Herodotus also mentions that the Amazons (female warriors of Greek mythology) as clad in trousers. An Amazon depicted on a vessel in 470 BC is obviously wearing pants.
Pants were adapted from the Sythians by the Persians (of modern Iran) by the 5th century BC.
The Celts, a nomadic people of Central Europe, wore pants, though documentation is sketchy at best. The style, copied from Sythians and Persians, spread through Central Europe around the third century BC.
Ancient Greeks and Romans equated the wearing of trousers with savagery and referred to those early trouser clad people as barbarians. When the Romans conquered Celtic Briton in the first century AD, they called the Irish "wild people." But as cultures mixed, Roman soldiers took to wearing a form of pants called braccae that resembled a pair of tight Capris, and were much more appropriate for cold weather climates than togas.
Braccae is the Latin root of the word breeches, a type of knee length trouser. Braccae, however, had adjustable hems and could be worn knee length or ankle length.
The Thorsberg Trousers pictured on the right are a relic from the 4th century AC and were found in Denmark.
Damendorf Man, a bog body found in 1900, perished between 140 - 380 AD. A pair of neatly folded pants was found near the corpse.
The Evolution of Pants in Europe
Men of medieval Europe wore snug fitting pants or leggings with a short tunic. Women wore a kind of legging or loose britches under dresses in colder weather for warmth.
The snug pants evolved into a tighter form of leg covering, and began to appear more like hose with attached foot coverings.
Some of the pants that women wore were more like 2 joined tubes attached to a drawstring at the waist.
By 1500, men wore voluminous knee breeches with attached hose. Fashionable men wore them in bold colors. The breeches were lined and slashed to reveal a brightly colored lining. By 1550, the breeches became a greatly exaggerated fashion, stuffed to balloon around the upper leg.
The 1600s saw these pantaloons embellished with buttons and ribbons while working men of the lower classes wore ankle length pants.
Large pantaloon styles gradually slimmed into simple knew length breeches that were fastened below the knee. During the French Revolution, breeches came to be seen as an aristocratic conceit and men adapted the longer, ankle length styles of the working class.
Women's pants were, at the time, an undergarment worn beneath the skirt and were called pantalettes.
Victorian Pants and Trousers
In the early part of the 19th century, men's pants were tight and occasionally fitted with stirrup straps that fit under the soles of the feet to create a smooth line, a style that would reappear for women in the 20th century.
Mid century saw a looser fit trouser with a button fly front instead of the earlier "falls," a front panel that buttoned around the sides. Men's pants now began to appear in the dark or neutral colors that would rule menswear until present day.
Victorian society strictly regulated propriety in attire. Unlike Sumptuary Laws of earlier periods, when the Church and government dictated the types of garments people wore, Victorians were ruled by societal expectations. The concept of women in pants was considered inappropriate, though a few appearances of trouser clad women shocked, or amused society.
In Victorian England, young female mine workers wore pants under tucked-up skirts. A famous photograph depicting a Wigan pit girl is hardly risque; and though convenient, was deemed inappropriate female attire.
In the middle of the 1800s, a group of women began to clamor for freedom of movement. The Dress Reform Movement, pioneered by feminists, sought a new style of dress for women at work, or for athletic activities.
Elizabeth Smith Miller invented a type of long, puffy pants that were gathered at the ankles. Worn with a short (knee or calf length) dress, and made famous by Amelia Bloomer, these "bloomers" caught the attention of the media who ridiculed the style.
Pictured at right is Lucy Stone who met Amelia Bloomer in 1852. Stone, an American abolitionist and suffragist, appears in an 1853 photographs wearing trousers under her dress.
But by the end of the 19th century, women began to appear in public wearing toned down bloomers or knickers for bike riding and other sports.
Jeans, or dungarees, were introduced in the late 19th century, created and marketed for California gold miners. Double stitching added to the durability of the pants that have changed little since the turn of the last century. Embraced by farmers and laborers, jeans ultimately became the iconic garment of the late 20th century and are, today, a staple of every wardrobe.
The Prince of Wales Set the Tone for Men's Pants in the 20th Century
Queen Victoria's eldest son, Edward the Prince of Wales, who would become Edward VII gave his name to the Edwardian fashion period, and is credited for setting the tone for men's trousers in the modern era. Edward introduced trouser cuffs to lift the trouser hem above the dirt, and popularized trouser creases.
While cuffs add weight to the pant leg for a smoother line, cuff can visually shorten the leg, so should be restricted to taller men.
Edward was also known to wear a type of shorts while on safari. The shorts had an adjustable hem.
20th Century Pants
Paul Poiret, the famous early 20th century fashion designer, introduced a line based on the Ballet Russes' Sheherazade which featured a long tunic worn over harem pants. The loose style pants eventually found their way into women's wardrobes as hostess or palazzo pants, sometimes worn at the beach. They became quite popular in the 1930s and were seen on fashion icons like Coco Chanel and Katharine Hepburn.
During World War I when British women took over factory and farm work, replacing men gone into the military, pants took on a new role for women as a practical garment.
World War II put women back into the work force and back into pants. Famous posters of female workers encouraged women to wear practical bib overalls and dungarees, or what we now call jeans.
The later 20th century saw an explosion of trouser styles for men and women. Though men's dress pants have changed little since the 1930s, it is not unusual to see men wearing shorts, a type of pants once worn only by children. Jeans evolved from practical work garments to the symbol of outsider fashion, to the classic garment no one can be without.
Various styles of trousers have come and gone in the past 112 years with certain styles disappearing for decades, then coming back full force. The stirrup stretch pants of the early 1960s returned in the 1980s. Capris have disappeared and made a come-back.
Trousers became acceptable dress and business wear for women by the late 1970s, with pants suits worn by women in high positions.
The zipper closure was invented by Whitcomb Judson, an American traveling salesman. First used as shoe fasteners, zippers did not become a garment closure until the 20th century.
Elsa Shiaparelli introduced a zip garment closure and decoration in 1935.
By the end of the Great depression exclusive men's tailors incorporated zippers into fly closures. By the 1950s, zippers had become the main closure for trousers.
In the mid 20th century, women's pants generally featured a side zipper. Social norms of the 1940s and 1950s dictated a feminine modesty that seemed threatened by the easy removal made possible by front zip slacks. Side zippers also created a smoother line in the form fitting slacks of the day. Front zippered jeans can appear and feel bulky.
Types of Pants
Capri Pants were introduced by Sonja de Lennart in 1948. Named after her favorite vacation spot, the fitted mid calf length pants became an instant classic worn by Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Laura Petrie, the female lead on the Dick Van Dyke Show played by Mary Tyler Moore wore Capri pants in her role as an early 1960s housewife. TV wives had, until that time, usually worn skirts or dresses.
Gauchos are loose, skirt-like pants with just below the knee hems, and look well paired with boots.
Shorts, at first worn only by children and boys under 8 years of age, gained popularity as the 20th century advanced. Burmuda shorts feature hems just above the knee and were popularized by the British in warmer climates. Burmuda shorts were paired with high socks, dress shirts, ties, and jackets.
In the United Kingdom, children still wear shorts as part of their school uniform paired with a school blazer and high socks.
Daisy Dukes are very short shorts.
Cut-offs are jeans that have been re-cut into shorts, usually without a finished hem.
Pedal Pushers appeared on the August 28, 1944 cover of Life Magazine. Shortened Capri's or lengthened shorts, Pedal Pushers, also called Clam Diggers, end just below the knee, convenient for bike riding or clam digging. They are very similar to knickerbockers.
Knickerbockers are a form of kike pants or golf pants ending just below the knee with a fastener and were usually worn by boys or men.
Bell Bottoms, popular in the 1960s counterculture movement, widen into a bell just below the knee and came in high or low waisted styles.
What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costumes From Ancient Times to the 19th Century; Edited by Melissa Leventon; St. Martin's Press; New York; 2008
Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet; Tim Gunn with Ada Calhoun; Gallery Books; New York; 2012
The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; Edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library of Daily Life; Charles Scribner's Sons'; New York; 2005
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Dolores Monet