Pants Power! Part II

This is the second and final installment of Pants Power! It takes us through pants’ dynamic ups and downs from the early 1700s to today.


Throughout history, matters of fashion were decided upon and policed by the elite, to greater and lesser effect. In the 1700s, decrees were made and pants were enforced as official dress in the name of modernization. Feeling the pressure of Western Europe’s advancements, Tsar Peter the Great decided to whip his primarily farming population into shape by issuing the Decree on Western Dress in 1701. Hear ye, hear ye: All Russians shall now wear Western-style leg wear!

The easy breezy kilt of the Scottish Highlanders seemingly has no place in all this talk of trousers. But actually: when King George II decreed in the Dress Act of 1746 that Scottish rebels were not allowed to wear their man skirts – failure to abide by the law resulted in 6 months of prison – after a rather long hiatus, the history of pants returned to its military roots. Army officials were allowed to wear kilts, however, as a sign of superior rank. Most likely for practical reasons such as comfort and support, when the Dress Act was repealed in 1782, the Highlanders kept their pants on.


After an almost 600 year run, the old breeches-hose combo eventually exhausted itself in the 1790s during the French Revolution. The ankle-length trousers the so-called barbarians had been wearing way before Christ came on the scene made an overdue comeback and went global shortly thereafter. The sans-culottes, “without breeches,” were the urban laborers that comprised the majority of the French Revolutionary Army. To distinguish themselves from their moderate bourgeois colleagues, they fought in ankle-length trousers of blue linen. The extent to which this was truly historic cannot be overstated: not simply fighting in some kind of pants, of course, as this had already been done for centuries upon centuries, but staging an upheaval in the name of an entirely new political system and deciding that its ideal costume were the ankle-length trousers that had for centuries been relegated to the working poor. Along the lines of: let’s put on our pants, get out there, and change the world!


At the dawn of the 19th century, young men set the trend, increasingly finding trousers more fashionable than the knee breeches of their elders. The tailored man’s suit was a very new equalizing force, allowing the common man and the gentleman to dress alike. In use since the late 1700s as a catch-all for all kinds of close-fitting breeches, the French pantaloons was first shortened into pants by the British lower classes and published in 1840 by Edgar Allen Poe. No sooner did pants became a colloquial term did Amelia Bloomer in the U.S. think it was high time for ladies to get out of their pantalettes (leg coverings worn beneath skirts) and into a pair of pants. Active Victorian ladies of the Dress Reform Movement donned their flowing bloomer pants for a hot minute before being ridiculed back into their dresses. Then Levi Strauss came along in 1873 and invented blue jeans. Going to work in pants for their men in World War II helped soften gender boundaries forever. And the rest, dear readers, was Hollywood.