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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.