Trousers and Pants: Terminology

Figure 1.--

There are a wide variety of terms used for "trousers". The most common term is "pants". The multiplicity of terms comes from different languages and linguistic changes over time, stylistic dvelopments, cration of new but related garments and a variety of other factors. While there are different names for these terms in many languages, some times a foreign word is adopted in another language, but the usage gradually changes over time. This has created considerable confusion and often misunderstandings when trying to use foreign or dated sources. While fully assessing the terminology for trousers and trouser-like garments would require a major study in etomology, we are collecting some basic information.


HBC has noted these terms for pants orpants-like garments.
Braccae: Latin term for leg wrappings of the German tribes. This is the origin of the modern term "breeches".

Breeches: Trousers or pants ending just below the knee--thus commonly referred to as knee breeches. From the late 16th century until the early 19th century, most men and boys wore breeches as their lower body garment. Through the centuries breeches were seen in many forms and lengths. In the early 18th century breeches were barely seen beneath long waistcoats and coats. By the mid-18th century they were more noticeable beneath shorter waistcoats and open coats, and so the cut of breeches became tighter and revealed the shape of the leg. Worn by all levels of society, breeches were made in a great variety of silks, cottons, linens, wools, knits, and leathers. It was the lower classes, peasants, workmen, and sailors that first wore long trousers, and were first derisevely call sans cullotes", without short trousers. Boys from affluent families began the transition to long trousers when in the late 18th century they began wearing long trouser skeleton suits. The term breeches coined the term breeching.

Breeks: Scots word for trousers.

Briogais: In everyday spoken Gaelic, the usual word for trousers is not "triubhas" but "briogais", the origin of the Scots term "breeks".

Broek: The Dutch word for pants and trousers is "broek". We are not yet sure of the etomology. We do note that three are important relationships between Dutch and English as the Anglo Saxons who conquered the Britain wer related to the Frissans that setld the northern Dutch coast.

Chaps: Protective leg garments worn by cowboys and vaqueros, I believe Spanish in origin.

Clam diggers: Calf-length pants worn by boys and girls in the 1960s, but were not very popular with boys. The name was derived because you could wear them for clam digging or more likely wading without getting the pants wet or dirty. Similar to peddal pushers and Capri pants.

Hosen: The German word for pants nd trousers is "hosen". We are not sure about the origins of this term, but note the obvious relationship to the English word "hosiery". We assume the German word developed out of the long hose worn in the late Middle ages and Renaissance which evolved into breeches.

Knickers: The term knickers is a shortened form of knickerbockers, which is less commonly used. The term "Knickerbocker was used to describe the descendents of the original Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (New York). The Dutch at the time wore baggy knee-length trousers. The merican usage of the term "knickers" describea a pants-like garment hich evolved from the knee breeches commonly worn in the 18th century. They were not at first specialized children's wear. They seemed at first to have been more worn as a kind of sporting or outdoor wear. They were often associated with Norfolk jackets. Apparently when men's fashions evolved from knee breeches to trousers in the early 19th Century, the British country gentleman disciovered that it was a bit tedious sloshing around the muck after a grouse or two. They found that it was a lot easier and less expensive to clean a pair of socks than muddy trouser legs. Thus knickers became the establish costume of the country gentleman. This style continues to this day as a kind of anachronistic country gentleman's outfit. The British usage of the term is different. It was once used to describe both knickers asvin the American usage and short pants as well. The most common modern British usage is women's underpants. Whn describing knickers pants the British now may say "knickerbockers".

Pantalettes: Pantalettes or pantalets/pantaloons are esentially long drawers worn to modesestly cover the legs. They were made in both plain and fancy styles with a lace frill, ruffles, or other finish at the bottom of each leg. They were widely worn by women and children (boys and girls) during the first half of the 19th century. The pantaletts extended below the hem of the dresses worn by boys and girls and the ankle and calf-length trousers worn by boys. In the early 19th century it was not considered proper for even small children to have bare legs. In fact the word leg was not used in polite company, rather the early victorians referred to limbs. The lacey pantaletts covered the legs to the ankles. One author suggest that some Victorians even put pantaletes on table and piano legs.

Pantaloons: This was an Itlalian term for the baggy trousers wore by a comic figure, a foolish old man, in Itlalian pantomine. Also referred to as "patalone". The word does not appear to have evolved from a garment, but rather from the drama form "patomine"--which had a Latin origin. The word became used for baggy mens' trousers such as worn by sailors and in sharp contrast women's underwear. It ws never used to describe a pecifically boys' garment. The term was used for the basis of a varariey of trouser like garments in English (panties, pants, and pantalettes) and other languages. Note that the modern word for pants and trousers in romance Languages (French, Itlalian, Portuguese, and Spanish) has evolved from "pantloons". The French and Spanish word for pants, for example, is "pantalones".

Panties: Girls' underwear.

Pants: The modern term "pants" evolved from the Italian word "pantaloons". Pants is the modern American term for trousers. British term for men and boys' underpants. Trousers were virtually unknown in polite society as the 19th Century dawned. The cloest fashion to trousers was loose fitting breeches worn by workers and the pantaloons worn by sailors. The modern reader may find it difficult to believe that unitl the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, gentlemen would always wear knee breeches and considered long trousers only suitable for laborers and sailors--and small boys in skeleton suits. The story is told that the Duke of Wellington--the renowned Iron Duke at Waterloo--was refused entrance to London's famed Almanak's gambling club during 1815 for arriving in trousers. Long trousers were eventually adopted as appropriate wear for gentlemen. When this happened boys--who were the first to adopt long trousers--were less commonly attired in them, but rather after mid-century in various shortened versions such as knickers, knee pants, and short trousers.

Peddal pushers: Calf-length pants worn by boys and girls, but primarily girls. The term comes from the fact that the shortness of the legs mean that pants cuffs would not interfere with peddling a bicycle. Similar pants called clam diggers were also worn by boys in the 1960s, but were not very popular. Similar to Capri pants.

Trews: Scots word for trousers. "Trews" or "trouse" was the Scottish variant of the English word "trousers". Trews were close fitting tartan trousers. They were worn by certain Scottish regiments. These were also sometimes worn for dress occasions by Scotts instead of the kilt. Shortened versins of these trousers are worn under the kilt.

Triubhas: The Gaelic word for trouser-like garments was "triubhas". This is the origin for the Scots' word "trews".

Trousers: Note that there is not a word evolving from Latin (unlike pants), this there is no comparable word or trousers in Romance languages French Itlalian, Portuguese, and Spanish). During the 18th century breeches were worn by all levels of society; however, trousers were also worn by middling tradesmen, laborers, sailors, and slaves. Trousers were generally cut with a straight leg and were worn to the ankle or slightly shorter. As trousers were utilitarian garments, they were made mostly of durable linens. Boys from fashionable families first began wearing long trousers with skeleton suits in the late 18th century. Gentlemen followed suit in the 1820s. Boys began wearing short trousers at the turn of the 20th century.

Chronological Developments and Usage

HBC has received numerous inqueries asking what pants were called during various historical periods. One reader writes, "I'd like to know what trousers/slacks were called in the 1880s. I know, during the American Civil War they were called pantaloons and that the term "pants" was originally a slang word for trousers (c. 1880) coined, I believe, by the Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City. I've read "How the Other Half Lived", by Jacob Riis, (1890), where the word "pants" is used." This is a good question. The problen is that the terms have changed over time. There are also regional and social class differences. Chaning types of pants and English and American differences also complicate the problem. While there is some information on our site, it is not neatly detailed in a chronologicalpattern with links to the appropriate pages. I think I will try to pull omethig together on this question.


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Created: January 25, 1999
Last updated: July 8, 2003