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Article 40 - April 04, 2011
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Who Wears the Pants?:

A Brief History of Breeches 

By Jessica Lynn Harris

Chic weekly article: Who wears the pants?: a brief history of breeches

     “Who wears the pants?” is not a question of fashion, but a question of power. In the Western world, who literally wears pants is no longer a large concern, although historically it was. But what the question does reveals is that on some level, pants still symbolize power, whether in a romantic relationship or professional atmosphere. Understanding a bit about the history of pants, the changing lines and styles, and who wore what, when, where, and why can shed some light onto why this is.

     In America and elsewhere, pants and trousers can be used interchangeably as an umbrella term for a bifurcated garment worn on the lower half of the body. However, in Britain, pants are synonymous with underwear and the proper word is trousers. Sartorially, the difference between pant types lies in the fit: trousers fall just off the bottom, slacks taper in at the bottom leaving just a bit of a curve, and jeans--made specifically from denim--are the tightest fit of all, giving more leeway at the waist than the crotch.

     Trousers first became common in the western world in Medieval Europe, worn by men under tunics. These were also called hose (think pantyhose) or stockings. Breeches, which fall to the knees, then came into popularity around the 16th century. Originally these were worn in a tight fit by the French aristocracy, but by the 19th century, dandies (in short--Victorian metrosexuals) such as Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde sported loose, newly fashionable breeches.

     Because the industrial revolution brought on a dramatic increase in the rate of production, there was a variety of pants and pant trends in the 19th century. If loose-fitting breeches were the look of wealthy British dandies, blue jeans were the look of the working class, such as railway men and miners. Early jean brands are Levi’s (which was founded in 1872) and Lee, and the blue jean has become symbolic of the American cowboy.

     Also in the 19th century a minority of women began wearing bloomers. This was more than a fashion statement, but a form of protest related to the dress reform movement (which sought to make women’s clothing more comfortable, free of movement, and healthy) and the suffrage movement (the fight for women’s right to vote). Bloomers were billowing pants tapered at the ankle, originally to be worn beneath a skirt. However, the suffragettes wore bloomers without a skirt, and scandalized many in doing so. By the end of the century, bloomers were acceptable to wear for athletic activities such as bicycling. 

     In the 1920s, French fashion designer Coco Chanel, who is considered one of the founders of modernist fashion, changed women’s clothing forever with forward-thinking looks inspired by men’s wear, including trousers for women. Unlike the bloomers, which were worn as an expression of a political counterculture, Chanel’s clothing was high fashion and worn by the wealthiest. In the Western world today, women wear pants as often if not more than skirts. According to Wikipedia, this may be due to “the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which made public education treat males and females equally and in turn dresses could not be required of female students and dress codes changed in public schools across the United States.”[1]

     Since the suffragettes, different pants have been used as an expression of subculture and rebellion in a variety of ways. In the 1930s and 1940s Zoot suits--high-waisted slouchy pants cuffed at the ankle paired with long, loose coats--directly opposed the contemporary fitted style. Zoot suits were mostly worn by Mexican, Italian, and African American men and were associated with the Harlem Jazz scene. In the early 1950s working class British teenage rebels known as Teddy Boys re-imagined the looks of wealthy Edwardian dandies. Also in the 1950s jeans--which had previously been worn only by the working class--became a popular fashion trend of teenagers of all socio-economic classes and has remained an important piece in every wardrobe since. The 1970s changed the shape of the jean from one that falls straight or tapers at the ankle to bell bottoms. The bell bottom then became associated with the hippie counterculture. Hip-hop artist MC Hammer popularized harem pants in the 1980s, which are similar in shape to bloomers, but take their cue from arabic and persian styles. The reemergence of skinny jeans in the early 2000s (especially as worn by males) was ridiculed by conservative dressers, has now become the norm.

     Due to their history pants can be seen to symbolize masculinity and power. Women wearing pants had once meant that they were literally fighting for women’s rights or taking on jobs that had once been dominated by men (as during WWII). Putting on pants then became symbolic of asserting power. Now, however, just as much can be done in skirt.

[1] Women Wearing Pants from Wikipedia.


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copyright 2010-2011 Love To Sew
Article 40 April 04, 2011




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