The truth is, no one really knows how long pants have been worn. They’re so ancient, their origins have long been lost to history. But pants probably were not among the very types of clothing ever created. Evidence shows that leggings probably came first and skirts came before them. So where exactly do pants fit into the grand scheme of clothing history…and how big of a role do pants actually play? You might be surprised to learn that pants have stronger roots in modern style than they do in ancient clothing.
What’s the Difference Between Pants and Leggings?
Pants are a single garment made in an articulated design that are meant to be worn on the body from the waist to the lower leg. The first leggings were made with separate pieces that were wrapped around the legs and held in place with straps or cords.
Still, it wasn’t pants or leggings that were born first. Skirt, dress and apron styles were worn by the earliest men and women to ever walk the Earth. People wore these at least as early as 20,000 years ago. So when were pants created and why?
Here Comes the Calvary
The domestication of the horse and the invention of long trousers go hand-in-hand…or leg-in-leg. A single piece of clothing wrapped around the lower half of the body simply wasn’t a practical choice for riding. The first pants were probably a variation of these wrapped skirts that were tied in the middle to create a pants-like garment. Why were pants invented? Because of horses, actually.
The first horses were domesticated in central Asia around 5,000 years ago. Pants, or trousers, followed quickly thereafter. Wearing pants took on a certain significance, as the garment was so closely associated with those who rode horses. Warriors and elite people rode horses, which were a valuable commodity and quite a useful animal in warfare thanks to the invention of the chariot.
Ancient Asian cultures wore pants but classical Greeks and Romans largely did not. The toga and tunics with leggings were far more common. Greeks did document pants-wearing around 600 B.C.E., nothing that Persian and Central Asian horse riders, both male and female, wore them. In ancient Greek stories, the legendary Amazons wore trousers when they rode into battle on horseback.
War and Pants
Even the might of Rome was defeated, however, by Europeans wearing trousers. Pants were worn by both men and women in northern Europe, where temperatures were cold. The Romans saw the benefits of a pants-clad calvary and began to adopt the tradition. As Rome continued on its quest to conquer the entire known world, the style of wearing pants and riding horses spread throughout the humungous Roman empire.
Pants continued to be worn after the fall of Rome, through the Middle Ages, though knee-length and calf-length styles were seen more frequently at this time. After thousands of years of history and traveling all around the world, pants were truly brought into modern fashion by just one guy. Talk about being a trendsetter.
The Man, the Suit, the Legend
Knee breeches, tight leggings and stockings had ruled the men’s fashion scene for over one thousand years by the time the early 1800s rolled around. You’ve seen all the portraits of the Kings and heroes of the era, like Robin Hood, wearing long tunic designs that look great and pairing them with what basically looks like pantyhose. This is the kind of outfit that passed as pants in the Middle Ages, a weird period of time in fashion history.
One guy in England was pretty sick of it. His name was Beau Brummell and he was super popular. Brummell was known among the royals and nobles at court. And he pretty much invented the modern suit. Beau Brummel stopped wearing the ornate, elaborate looks that were popular at the time and adopted a simple, well-tailored outfit of long pants and a matching jacket.
Edward VII, the oldest son of England’s Queen Victoria and the heir to the throne, began wearing long pants as an everyday garment. Others quickly adopted the style and trousers were soon being worn by all the fashionable men of England.
Who Wears the Pants?
Though all the ancient styles of pants were worn by both men and women, these garments became associated almost exclusively with men’s fashion. Women’s styles focused more on dresses and skirts and for several centuries, it was not at all common for women to wear pants. Even while riding, women wore skirts over long breeches that protected their legs while on horseback or they chose to sit sidesaddle on the horse, rather than astride.
Women wearing skirts and men wearing pants, or something like pants, was the standard fashion in the Western world from the late Iron Age, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, all the way until after the end of the Victorian Era. That’s around 1500 years.
But in the late 1800s, bicycles became popular. And just like those ancient horse riders in the Bronze Age, women discovered that skirts weren’t practical for riding. The fabric got caught in the wheels, which made for hazardous biking conditions. Women started wearing pants for leisure and sporting activities.
The pants they wore in these early days were quite voluminous, made in a design that gathered at the ankles. This style was favored by one Amelia Bloomer, whose name would become synonymous with this garment that would be known as bloomers.
Coco Chanel is often incorrectly labeled as the inventor of women’s pants. That’s certainly not the case but Chanel did make them more fashionable and actually wearable as women’s casual wear. Pants-wearing had become a bit more common among women during WWI, when many had to join the workforce while husbands, fathers and brothers were away at war. Coco Chanel began designing pants for women as early as 1918. Her designs were made with clean lines in loose, comfortable shapes.
Early screen stars of the 1930s like Marlene Dietrich gained attention for wearing pants and helped make the look more acceptable. Dietrich wore a pantsuit while sailing to Paris, where it was illegal for women to wear pants. To deboard the ship, she put on a suit and a man’s coat. Katharine Hepburn, an even bigger star than Dietrich, was also a habitual pants-wearer.
It took almost another half-century, however, before wearing pants became a truly accepted and highly common aspect of women’s fashion. Though women wore pants through all the decades of the 1900s for casual and leisure activities, it was far more common for them to wear skirts and dresses all the way up until the 1970s.
It was actually illegal for women to wear pants in some places all the way up to the modern era. And in some places, it still is. But now, pants are largely considered to be for all genders and non-gender people, too. Fashion is beginning to lose all of its gender-defined identities, with more men now also wearing skirts and dresses in their fashion.
From doctored wrap skirts to tight breeches to simple suit pants, this important garment has gone through a lot of innovations over the years. Here are some highlights of suit innovations over the years:
The first zipper was invented in the 1800s. Elias Howe, Jr., who invented the sewing machine, took out a patent in 1851 for an “automatic, continuous clothing closure.” However, he never actually made or marketed this closure. In 1893, a man named Whitcomb Judson did sell and market a “clasp locker” clothing device. He’s been known as the inventor of the zipper ever since, though he didn’t call it that. This voluminous style would be updated and became popular again decades later as Hammer pants.
Blue jeans were first patented in 1873 by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, a retail store owner and a tailor. They had an idea for tough work trousers made with metal rivets to reinforce the weak points and they were the pioneers of all denim blue jeans made ever since.
Capri pants appeared on the scene in 1948. They were designed by Sonja de Lennart, who named the trousers after a beloved vacation spot. Mary Tyler Moore became famous for wearing capri pants on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Most TV wives up until that point were seen wearing only skirts or dresses. Movie star Audrey Hepburn also liked the pants and wore them in several of her films.
Belt loops were first added in 1922 by none other than Levi Strauss & Co of jean fame. The first belt loops didn’t appear on jeans or trousers but on a pair of overalls. Suspender buttons and the suspender cinch were still included on the design. At that time, suspenders were still the most popular way to keep one’s pants in place. Belts didn’t start to become widely used until WWI.
Pants have a long history in fashion. That means there’s still a lot to learn about this ever-evolving garment. Get the answers to the most frequently asked questions about pants and start to get to know pants like an expert.
How are pants measured?
Finding a perfect-fitting pair of pants isn’t always easy. It helps if you know how pants are measured and how sizes are determined. On men’s trousers, a measurement is taken around the natural waist, the hips and the inseam. The natural waist sits above the hips and below the ribs, typically right around the belly button. The hips should be measured at their widest point. The inseam measurement is taken from the top of the inner thigh to the ankle. Other measurements may be included in size charts but these are the main measurements that determine your trousers size.
Measuring for women’s pants is just a little different. Take a waist measurement around the narrowest part of the trunk of your body. Measure your inseam from the top of the thigh to the ankle. Women’s sizes are typically based on a waist and length measurement that is determined by the inseam.
Can pants shrink in the dryer?
Many types of fabric can shrink in the washing machine and dryer. That’s why it pays to reach care instructions on clothing and it’s wise to avoid a lot of heat. Cotton is famous for shrinking but many other fabrics will also shrink in water and hot air, including rayon and linen. Those fancy linen pants will shrink if you aren’t careful, so always use caution.
Can pants be altered?
Can you make pants bigger? How about smaller? What if you need your pants shortened? There are many ways that pants can be altered. Adjusting the hem is one of the most common ways that trousers are altered. However, there are lots of little things that can be done to a pair of trousers. The waist can be let out or adjusted slightly, as much as two inches in some designs. The belt loops can be removed and the buttons and zippers can be replaced. The rise of the pants, where they sit on your waist, can be adjusted. The legs can be tapered to be slimmer. These alterations can be made fairly easily on most pairs of pants. Other alterations, however, may be difficult or impossible to make.
How are pants made?
Pants are typically made from a single piece of cloth that is cut into several pieces. In jeans, for example, the waistband, belt loops, pockets, rear end area and legs are all stitched together as separate pieces. Some pants are made with pieces in different colors and even different fabrics but in all designs, pants are made to fit somewhere around the waist or the hips and provide coverage through the legs to at least the knees.
Where are pants supposed to sit?
Pants can be designed to sit up high on the waist or low down near the hips. Which is correct? Since pants can be styled to sit at multiple points on the body, you have to judge how you want your trousers to fit and feel for you personally. Do you feel more comfortable in trousers that sit at the natural waist or pants that are a little lower? Try on different types of fits to see what feels best. When you put on a pair of pants that fit well and feel great, you’re going to know it.
When were pockets on pants introduced?
For centuries, pockets were small purses that were added to clothing or carried as a separate garment. It became common to attach them to belts. In the 1700s, pockets were sewn into vests. In the 1900s, they started being added to pants, too. It wasn’t until the 1920s that women’s clothing included attached pockets.
- Art of Manliness – A Man’s Pockets
- Bellatory – The Prince of Wales Set the Tone for Men’s Pants in the 20th Century
- CNN – How Coco Chanel changed the course of women’s fashion
- CNN – Marlene Dietrich: The femme fatale who fought social and sexual oppression
- Daily History – When did Men Start Wearing Pants
- Gentleman’s Gazette – How Pants Should Fit
- King & Allen – A Brief History of Trousers
- Land’s End – How are Men’s Pants Measured? How to Measure Your Inseam
- MadeHow – Blue Jeans
- The Modest Man – How to Tailor Your Jeans, Chinos and Trousers
- ThoughtCo. – The History of the Zipper
- Today – How to shrink clothes: Shrink cotton, jeans, polyester and more
- Today – Why do we have pockets? The surprisingly deep history
- Vanity Fair – The Most Daring Thing About Katharine Hepburn? Her Pants
- WikiHow – How to Measure Pants Size