Pants Power! Part I

The trousers we take for granted today – from the waist to the ankle and not leggings or tights – have never been a neutral affair, and as with all human artifacts, continue to be fraught with power dynamics. One interesting tidbit to keep in mind is that pants and warfare, especially mounted warfare, go together like peanut butter and jelly. And remember that the European history of pants is but one part of the story, albeit the more globally decisive and better documented one.


Although ancient Siberian peoples are thought to have worn pants, the earliest recorded instances of trousers date back to Greek ethnography from the 6th century B.C. Persians, as well as the Central Asian Bactians, Armenians, Scythians, and East Asian Xiongnu, were horse-riding peoples. Mounting and riding a horse at length is much more comfortable when both legs are individually covered than when neither is covered and the fabric loosely draped around the legs is flapping in the breeze – as with a toga, for example. If you were on a horse, you were wearing pants. That went for men and women alike: just take a look at the Amazon warriors in trousers on Greek urns from ca. 470 B.C. They’re ladies. And they’re in pants. That the first feminist movement to take up the issue since pants got a gender in Rome was in the 1840s goes to show that progress is not always everyone’s progress.

Greek ethnocentrism put these peoples and their pants on the written record, forever, as barbaric, but when the Roman Empire later expanded northward, the warming capacity of trousers became apparent – and necessary. Due to the pesky realities of climate, Roman troops ended up wearing braccae, a kind of loose-fitting capri, or femoralia, a tighter fitting knee-length trouser, while the ruling classes held fast to their robes and draped garb for the more lofty reasons of civilization and status. Neither of these early forms of trousers became all the rage, but were seen as acceptable in all ranks of society for work and travel to colder regions.

HOLY HOSE, BOMBASTIC BREECHES: Middle Ages through the Renaissance

With the demise of the Roman Empire and the transition into the proverbial Dark Ages, widespread developments in dress echoed the general intellectual and cultural demise of the times – they were all but nonexistent. Because only nobility was buried with clothes, gauging dress in all strata of society remains speculative at best. Historians generally agree that from 400 to 1100, garb didn’t change much. Yet a kind of legging prototype developed at the end of this quiet period, consisting of strips of wool cloth wound around the leg and held in place by long laces of leather. This technique may have been used with loose trousers as well. Throughout this period, how you dressed depended on whether you identified with the old, Romanized populations or the invading peoples. While the former stuck to their long formal tunics, the others embraced shorter tunics, hose, leggings, and visible trousers, both loose and tight. Women and the clergy continued to don the traditional T-shaped tunic. Some things never change: the clergy still does today.

In the Middle Ages the story of trousers narrows drastically—both literally and figuratively. That is, the story of trousers becomes the story of hose, breeches, and men showing off their legs. From around 1200, breeches for the waist and upper legs and hose for the lower legs was a standard combination for men. By the early 16th century, hose went crotchless and Henry VIII, the master of shock, covered the royal member with an elaborate, often bejeweled, codpiece. This custom escalated into absurd displays of cod-pieced masculinity among the nobles, and didn’t last long. While the lower classes continued to wear ankle-length pants, upper-class men were wearing different combinations of breeches and hose at the end of the Middle Ages. Henry VIII’s conspicuous codpiece then became integrated into the hose as an early version of a fly.

Often padded with bombast or worn baggy, breeches became increasingly elaborate in style. By the 1620s, breeches lost their volume and lengthened to the knee. As coats became longer, breeches disappeared beneath them. They would later extend down to the ankle, forming a key component of the man’s tailored suit.

The second installment of Pants Power! is on its way. In part two, the first fashion police, the sans-culottes, James Dean, and forward-thinking women all make history together.