A History of Trousers

By Tim Lambert

Early Trousers

The Cro-Magnon people who lived in Europe during the last Ice Age wore trousers made from animal skins. In a cold climate trousers were practical clothing. 

Much later, about 3,00 BC people in Central Asia wore trousers because they spent much time riding horses. Again, trousers were a practical form of clothing.

A people called the Celts migrated to Britain from about 650 BC onwards. Celtic men wore trousers although women wore dresses. Germanic men also wore trousers.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans despised trousers. They regarded them as barbaric. Nevertheless, in the Roman Empire, soldiers began wearing trousers as they were more practical garments, especially in Northern Europe. In the 4th century, common people started wearing them as well. 

After the Roman army left Britain in 407 AD the Anglo-Saxons invaded. Saxon men wore trousers, although women only wore dresses.

Men in Europe continued to wear trousers during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 16th century, they were called breeches. The word trousers was first used in the late 16th century.

In the 19th century, trousers took on their modern form. Jeans were patented in 1873. 

Where does the word does the word pants come from? It is derived from a character in an Italian comedy called Pantalone. He wore trousers that came down to his ankles (when most men wore ones that came to the knee). In England in the 18th century, long trousers were known as pantaloons. In the USA in the mid-19th century, they became known as pants. However, in Britain, pants came to mean men’s underwear. The garments worn over them were called trousers.

Normally only men wore trousers in Europe until the 19th century. However, in the Ottoman Empire, it was common for women to wear them. Not surprisingly, given the cold climate, Inuit women also wore trousers.

Women Wearing Trousers

During the 19th century in the Western World, it was socially unacceptable for women to wear pants. Indeed they sometimes faced arrest for doing so. In 1852 a woman named Emma Snodgrass was arrested several times in Boston for wearing pants under anti-vagrancy laws. Each time she was sent home to her father. Another woman, Harriet French was also arrested in Boston in 1852 for wearing pants. She was sentenced to jail but was released on condition she left the city.

The last time a woman in the USA was jailed for wearing pants was in 1938. A woman named Helen Hulick was a witness in a court case. She turned up wearing pants. The judge ordered her to go home and put on a dress. She twice refused and returned wearing pants. The judge gave her 5 days in jail for contempt of court but the court of appeal overruled him. After that women could wear pants to court if they wished.

In the 1930s the film star Marlene Dietrich sometimes wore pants. That was considered daring. During the Second World War, many women wore pants while they worked in industry or agriculture. After the war ended some women continued to wear pants.

But it took a long time for it to become acceptable for women to wear pants in all situations. In 1969 Representative Charlotte T. Reid became the first woman to wear pants in the House of Representatives. Women senators were not allowed to wear pants in the US Senate until 1993. Many airlines did not allow women flight crew to wear trousers until the 21st Century.

People wearing trousers