I went on a search to find out when fall fastenings on men’s trousers gave way to fly fastenings and fell down a lovely research rabbit hole. How did it come about that men wore trousers and women didn’t?
That turned out to be a Euro-centric question, but since my interest is the Regency period, where breeches were giving way to trousers, let it stand.
Riding horses on a cold winter’s day
Some researchers attach the whole dichotomy to horse riding, claiming that trousers provide better protection for vulnerable portions of the anatomy during the riding process. They suggest trouser wearing began with the hordes of the Eurasian steppes, who successfully invaded more southern, robe-wearing, civilisations, until their victims adopted trousers in order to ride more effectively and win.
Seems to me that the freedom of movement trousers give, as any Western woman can attest, may have factored into that. A fighter in a voluminous robe might be at a disadvantage when matched by one with both legs separately covered.
Other think that cold was a huge factor, and point to the fact that men and women in the far north both wore trousers and tunics of fur, and Pacific Islanders to this day wrap themselves in a length of cloth, with the way the garment is tied often the only difference between the clothing of men and women.
Probably both cold and ease of movement factor in to why, in colder climates, trousers have always been common working wear for both men and women, often under a robe or long tunic.
Once a knight is enough
The Celts and other tribes of Northern Europe wore leggings and tunics. Once the Romans, with their prejudice against such barbarous clothing, retreated to Rome and then to Constantinople, leggings and tunics became the favoured wear for everyone.
At that time, trousers were literally a pair — two tubes, usually made from woollen material. They were worn over an undergarment with a belt, and the tubes were attached to the belt. Men wore them, and women too when it was cold or when they were travelling.
Then came armour, first chain mail and then plate. If you’re strapping hunks of metal on and riding around in them for hours, you don’t want hunks of cloth creasing underneath it, so clothing for wealthy and powerful men adapted. Close-fitting one-piece lower garments answered the need for a measure of comfort when fully armoured. And, since one hardly wishes to hide the evidence of one’s social status under a long robe, tunics for the knightly class crept up to waist height and became doublets.
The parting of the ways
From that point on, the clothes of upper class men and women parted ways for centuries. The men’s hose and the breeches they developed to wear over them evolved into some fairly wonderful forms, and women went on wearing gowns.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that women could wear trousers to a business meeting or a classy social event without attracting comment and censure.
Culottes, sans-culottes, and men’s fashion
Breeches, by then reasonably form fitting and fastened just below the knee, continued as the wear for gentlemen until the French Revolution. The French called them culottes, and the sans-culottes, the men in working men’s trousers (called pantaloons in England) rather than breeches, became the heroes of the revolution.
In England, the fashionable adopted French pantaloons, if not French politics, as the 18th Century became the 19th. By the Regency, breeches were consigned to soft leather breeches for riding and silk for evening wear. And, of course, the unfashionable, the conservative, and the elderly.
Pantaloons slowly took over, or trousers as they came to be called. That term was first used in the military, and probably became common usage as the soldiers and sailors of England came home from the Napoleonic wars.
By the 1820s, the term was common, but ‘pants’ is an Americanism from the 1830s.
So there you have it. A brief history of men’s lower wear. Skipping shorts and knickerbockers, not to mention overalls and jeans. But then, why wouldn’t you?
Oh, and fly buttoning versus fall buttoning? The single row of buttons up the front first appeared some time in the 1830s and became common around the middle of the century, though it co-existed with fall buttoning for quite some time. (The fall became wider, requiring a row of at least four buttons along the waist line.) In case you wondered, Zippers didn’t get into our pants until the 1930s.