Trousers in History

The long history of long pants

Trousers, pants, baji; whatever you happen to call long leg-wraps, you've probably worn a pair or two. Nowadays trousers are common across the world for casual or formal wear. But how much do you really know about trousers?

  • In Asia both women and men have long worn pants for warmth, comfort, and convenience. These kinds of pants were especially useful for horseback riding. In Rome and Greece, trousers were associated with "barbaric" cultures; "civilized" women and men wore tunics.
  • Trousers for men and women have been popular in Asia for a long time. Traditional Korean outfits have included trousers for men and women since at least the 1500s. 
  • In the fourth century, Mediterranean cultures began wearing pants. Celts under Roman rule wore pants at the time, and Roman styles of pants likely came from them. Pants were much more suited to the cold climates of Northern Europe, and so expansion into Germany, France, and Britain made them locally popular. As it became more widely known that the Persians also wore trousers, they became more broadly accepted. 
  • When the Romans first encountered trousers in Gaul (France) they considered them unmanly. This is sometimes conflated with a style of Roman trouser called the Feminalia; the feminalia, also called a femoralia, is called that because it covered the length of the femur, not because it was feminine.
  • By the Middle Ages in Europe trousers were here to stay. Pants often were worn under other kinds of clothing for warmth; this is the origin of "pants" referring to long outerwear in the United States, but referring to different lengths of underwear in the United Kingdom.
  • By the 1600s, it became popular for men to wear short breeches that covered the upper half of the leg (like the Roman feminalia) and stockings that covered the lower half of the leg. Around this same time King Louis XIV of France began popularizing heeled shoes with flashy buckles. After the French Revolution, men took off their high heels, silk stockings, and short breeches; as a way of being different from the old monarchy, people in the Republic began wearing long trousers. These were called "pantaloons," named after a popular theater character. 
  • In the nineteenth century women put on trousers to ride horses, but they hid them by wearing full skirts on top. While women wearing just trousers would remain somewhat controversial for the next century, they were still very practical for riding. The practice of wearing pants under long skirts still continues in some religious communities.
  • Until 1970 it was not fashionable and sometimes against the law for women to wear pants in offices, classrooms, and restaurants in the U.S. Charlotte Reid was the first woman to ever wear pants in Congress in 1969. 
To learn more about the history of trousers, check out Blanche Payne's History of Costume (published by Harper & Row in 1965) or the more modern Costume and Fashion: A Concise History by James Lever (published by Thames and Hudson in 2010).