Tag Archives: breeches

The truth about pants (dedicated to a disgruntled Toronto Star reader)

4 Oct

People tell me I’ve hit the big time when I receive hate mail.

I write as the men’s entrepreneurial image expert in the  Toronto Star‘s Small Business section, and one day, I got a 4 am  email from an intelligent but angry reader who couldn’t believe that I would waste his time talking about something as unimportant as socks.

He got personal, saying that I was the best journalist this side of Fox news, and expressed an interest in reading future posts he envisioned such as, “Belts vs Suspenders, which one makes you more money?” and “The Truth About Pants”.

I thought the latter would make a fine blog topic, so in honour of  this disgruntled reader, I’m pleased to tell you the truth about pants!


Costume is divided into five major types of clothing: draped (a wrapped cloth – e.g. togas), slip-on (over-the-head – e.g. poncho), closed sewn (e.g. tunic, shirt), open sewn costume (long cloth closed, stitched, worn over other garments – e.g. coats, caftan, Russian tulup), and sheath (sewn and tubular, fitted closely to the body – e.g. breeches, skirts).

There is evidence in Bronze Age paintings found in the Spanish Levant that men wore some kind of leather trouser that was adorned with fringe and sometimes garters, and there is mention of  “linen breeches” for all “the sons of Aaron” in Exodus XXVIII, but it wasn’t until people started riding horses that these leg tubes caught on.

Before this, men wore the types of clothing women wore – robes, mantles, and tunics. When horses became the prime mode of transportation, riding with two free legs was preferable, so the garment  was adopted by individual riders and mounted armies who, over time, made them part of military uniforms.

Heavily pleated Japanese hakama

Civilizations in Asia and Europe had some form of pants. In Japan, the Samurai wore a kind of pleated split skirt called the hakama, Turks had harem pants, and the Gauls and Celts wore breeches (brit-chez) and trousers. European breeches morphed into hose or chausses, which looked like hip-waders made of wool that tied to the braies, short drawers tied around the waist.

Chausses tied to braies

Bracae, Latin for breeches took a while to catch on in Rome, though Italy was surrounded with cultures that wore some kind of leg covering. Ancient Roman men generally avoided wearing trousers or pants of any kind, considering them barbaric, and worn by “uncivilized” people who lived outside areas controlled by Rome, like the Gauls who lived in present-day France, or the Celts in the north. But during the Roman conquests of cooler northern Europe, the chilly Roman army adopted the local dress of short, tight leg coverings for warmth and protection, which were eventually brought to Rome.

These breeches they would have worn looked like pajama bottoms, tied to the waist and held to the legs by criss-crossed bands of linen or other material. Feminalia were snugly fitting knee-length pants that covered the length of the thighbone, or femur (hence the name). Augustus Caesar (63 B.C.E. –14 C.E. ), the famous Roman emperor wore feminalia through the winter “to protect his sometimes fragile health”. (Source)


Parti-coloured hose in Medieval Spain

In the 14th century, the cut and construction of men’s hose improved, and parti-coloured hose, hose with different coloured legs, were popular in Europe. These hose were made of knitted wool, sometimes lined with linen, and often coloured red, black, or brown – popular colours of the period made so with dyes of iron ore.

During Henry VI’s reign, men’s hose got a little more structured and laced to the doublet which, I assume, gave an increased feeling of security to the wearer. The 15th century saw the inclusion of the infamous codpiece that began as a triangle of fabric laced to the crotch to cover a gentleman’s tackle.

Early codpiece

By the time of Henry VIII, codpieces were the order of the day, padded and exaggerated in size, sometimes used as pouches for coins and such. Codpieces peeked out from the divide of a Tudor gent’s waistcoat skirts, not to be ignored!

Hose separated into two parts in the middle of the 16th century, becoming upper and lower hosen. The lower hose were more like a stocking and the upper hose looked like puffed shorts, made of brocades if the wearer could afford it. This upper piece was known as trunk hose.

16th century trunk hose

From this point in time, the trunk hose grew in length, becoming nether hosen during the Elizabethan reign, then into huge pleated knee-length slops in 1600, and heavily pleated bag breeches later in the century. For the next few hundred years, the lower garments grew longer and slimmer, becoming pantaloons by the 19th century.

Long pants as we know them today appeared during the early 1800s and have kept on since, varying in widths and rise lengths (the distance from waistband to crotch) during different eras. Front openings have evolved from tie-on crotch covers (codpieces) to button front flaps (fall-front) to a modern zippered fly.

Lots of changes, lots of forms. That is the true story of pants, an interesting and complex evolution of leg tubes developed for equine travel.

Further reading: article on pant origins in The Atlantic.

Guess the era!

5 Apr

This week, we’re going to test your spacial-temporal abilities and see if you can visualize the gentleman’s coat from the pattern pieces below and match it to one of the coats below:

Your choices:

A. A two-piece fitted doublet with lower tabs worn with “bag breeches” from 1630, Flanders.

B. Men’s frock coat with deep back pleats from the 1830s.

C.  The Justaucorps, a French coat from the early 18th century.

If you chose C, you’re correct! The Justaucorps, an excessively pleated, stiffened, and decorated coat of French origin,  worn during the late 17th and early 18th century period when aristocratic men were at their fanciest and most extravagant. This period for well-to-do men was completely over-the-top, putting women’s costume to shame in Europe.

This coat was collarless and heavily trimmed in  ribbon, braid, and embroidery, and covered with dozens buttons connecting the back skirts, a line in front to fasten the coat, and useless buttons adorned the pocket flaps. The enormous cuffs, running the length the wrist to the elbow, into place on the “pagoda” sleeve.

This heavily-adorned, deeply-pleated coat topped a long, stiffened, skirted sleeveless waistcoat – the first three-piece suit! Shirts made of linen or silk had showy lace cuffs, worn with a loosely knotted 7 -8′ long neck cloth (forerunner of the tie).  Sometimes a sash tied around the waist. Breeches and hose  covered the trunk and on the gent’s feet were heeled shoes or boots with red soles and heels. Men wore long, curly wigs and carried tricorne hats (with three points) under their arms because the tall, curly wigs prevented the hat from sitting firmly on the head.

Men carried ribboned walking sticks and took to wearing fur muffs to keep their hands warm in cold weather, often with little pockets inside to carry their snuff boxes. Colours of the period were bright – yellow, green, and red, getting away from the dark, dull colours of the Commonwealth era.

Both men and women painted their faces with powdered lead and/or arsenic to make their skin white, and applied rouge and lipstick – sometimes a false beauty spot was applied to the face for ornamentation and in some cases, to cover facial scars from ailments like small pox. Whitening the skin signified the class of the wearer – the aristocracy didn’t work / didn’t outside where his skin would have become darkened by the sun’s rays. However, a pristine, lily-white face didn’t come without a price.

Although this era was known as the Age of Enlightenment, most fashionable men and women poisoned themselves with red and white lead make-up and powder.  The make-up they used caused the eyes to swell and become inflamed, attacked the enamel on the teeth and changed the texture of the skin causing it to blacken, it was also not uncommon to suffer baldness… It was known that heavy use of lead could cause death. (Source.)

The simple two-button suit that modern men wear is an extremely boiled-down version of the grossly elaborate 300-year old suit that required assistance to put on. Attendants dressed the gentry in coats and waistcoats made of heavy satin, silk, and velvets which I imagine must have weighed a ton and no doubt affected the joints of the wearer.

In the modern era, we might have our wardrobe problems, though they’re miniscule compared to the lengths that men of the early 18th century went to in showing themselves and their wealth off. The excessiveness of this period is a shining example of the human ego knowing no bounds.

Note – Immediately following this post, In the Key of He is scaling back posts to release every two weeks.