Trousers: Historical Development

Figure 1.--

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.

Historical Evolution

The evolution of triusers can be chroicled, but can not be fully explained with ant precession because so many factors were at play. Here are some of the factors tghat influenced both the popularity of trousers and their acceptance in polite society.


Trousers were adopted by sailors centuries before they were widely worn on land. Enlisted British sailors wore the looser fit work trousers since the 1580s since they allowed them to roll up the legs for wading ashore or climbing rigging. I'm less sure about the pattern in other countries, but believe it was similar.


Many believe that the origin of the modern trousers were the working clothes of peasants and agriculural laborers. Trousers appear to have been widely worn in the country side in both England and France and other European countries as well. Thus garments took on class cinnotations. Rough workmen wore trousers. Refined gentleman wore knee breeches..

American frontier

It was the practicality of trousers that made them popular on the American frontier. An a the West was opened up by Daniel Boone and others, the new settlers soon adopted the practical trousers, well before they became popular amony society in the eastern cities.

Urban laborers

Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars were the most extensive every fought in Europe until World War I. Vast numbers of men volunteered or were conspripted into the armies raised by Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, Russia, and other countries. Most of these men and even some officers wore trousers. It was thus to be expected that many when returning home after the Wars would want to wear trousers in civilian life as well. Even the Duke of Wellington was known to wear trousers.

The French Revolution

Men's fashions duing the 19th Century followed the example of civilian male attire of the French Revolution (1779). Civilian attire consisted of a waistcoat over which a long-skirted coat was worn, and the pantaloon, breeches that closely fitted the thigh and reached to the ankles. The French Revolution helped to popularize many styles of clothing much better adapted to an active like than the often elaborate costumes of the 18th Century. The most important development was the transformation of knee breeches into trousers and the creation of the lounge suit, which today is worn for almost all occasions. The French revolution of 1789 was became a revoly against the airistocracy and that class was symbolized by the knee breeches they wore. Breeches became seen as an aristocratic look. The country peasant trouser look became increasingly popular, although it would not be until the 1820s that trousers replaced breeches in polite society. It tool two decaded for this process to unfold. Even as aminent a person as the Duke of Wellington was turned away from a London club for wearing trousers. Before the French Revolution pantaloons or trousers had been worn by sailors and laborers, but never by gentlemen. The style was initially popular for boys who began wearing long pants skeleton suits even before the turn of the century. After the turn of the century trousers gradually became the primary male atire. As it became acceptable for men, slowly shorter length trousers of various forms gradually began to be seen as suitable for boys.

Beau Brummel

Perhaps no one person wasmore important in establishing trousers as fashiinable dress was Beau Brummel, the associate of the Prince Regent and fashion arbiter of the Regency. Brummel much preferred trousers to knee breeches.

Accendecy of British fashion

After the French Revolutioin and the onset of the Napoleonic Wars, French fashion dictates declines in popularity it England and other countries. This was especially true in England among men. French fasions especially since the reihn of Louis XIV had dominated Europran fashion. Thus now began to change and many incrreasing looked at London and not Paris for inspiration in men's fashions. This was important because of changes of regimes in France during 1814-15. The French Revolution had provided much of the ideological impetus for fashion change in the 1790s. The French regime, however, was changed in 1804 when Napoleon became emperor and even more in 1814-15 when the Bonapartes were restored and Louis XVIII attemopted to restore the Ancien Regime. By that time, however, London was clearly established as the Mecca for men's clothes. Brummel had been orced to fleet England in 1816, but his imprint on British fashion by that time was permanently set.


The modern American word for pants has developed from the term pantalettes and pantaloons used to described these trouser-like garments. (Pantaloons was also used for sailor trousers.) The term pants is not used in England to describe trousers. Rather pants means underpants, showing the words origins with 19th Century pantalettes.


The first trouser-like garment were actually worn by girls who donned drawers, or what latter became pantalettes, under the flimsy muslim dresses which appeared in the late 18th Century. The garments varied considerably as is often the case of new fashions before standards styles become accepted. Some were not like trousers, but rather just a waistband holding two legs together. Other early pantalettes were closed in front and, less commonly, at the back. Some for modesty sake had side buttons which were most common for children and their active play. Some early pantalettes were simple unattached tubes that hung from the knee and was tied at the knee or waist. This style did not last long as the leg tubes were prone to slip down or fall complelketly off. Some authors claim that these leg tube drawers was used primarily by poor children. Some existing examples in adult styles are made of luxurious fabrics with expensive lace trim. It may be that this style appeared primarily because the tube legs were clearly diffrent than male trousers. Pantalettes by the turn of the 19th Century were an accepted garment of children's clothing. One fashionable journal of the time advised mothers, "It is now so much the fashion to dress children, both boys and girls, in pantaloons instead of petticoats." [The Lady's Economical Assistant., 1808] Skirts were too slim to allow movement in more than a single petticoat--but the fashionable muslim dress required a little more modesty than a single petticoat could provide. Thus pantalettes were the obvious solution for children. Interestingly pantalettes or drawers did not become widely accepted for adult women until the after mid-century.


The modern American word "pants" clearly evolved and is in fact an abbreviation of pantaloons. Note that it is not universallu used. The British use trousers and over there "pants" means underwear. The word "pantaloon" first appeared as an English word in the 1600's and came from the Italian comedy character Pantaleone who wore the first loose "clown pants". Eventually the characters name came to mean the pants he wore. Pantaloons were popularized in 1812 by George Bryan "Beau" Brummell who wore his with a foot strap (like modern ski pants) to keep the pants tight and avoid creases. Brummell, was a friend of the Prince of Wales--the future King George IV, developed fashions that anyone could adopt, not just royalty and aristocrats. He dispensed fashion tips and stressed the novel idea of cleanliness.


Trousers were to become the principal male garment. The word "trousers" probably derived from the words trouses--drawers, trousses--trunk hose, and/or trousse--to cover, truss. They were looser than the tight pantaloon and were favored for daytime wear while pantaloons were more evening attire. Trousers were worn over breeches when horseback riding to keep the more formal clothes clean.


A hot summer in 1925 was the excuse for Oxford Bags. The measurement of these loose pants at the leg bottom reached 40 inches!! Invented and embraced by English Oxford University students, Bags were inspired by the loose trousers that oarsmen slipped on over their shorts. The extreme fashion didn't last long, but reappeared in America as the pants to wear with the Zoot Suit in 1938.

Bell bottoms

Another attempt at wide bottoms came when Pierre Cardin popularized bell bottoms during the 60's as a reaction to the new narrow shoulder suits. Jeans were also effected and affected during that time.


A word which is used interchangeable with pants and trousers in America is "slacks," which was coined by the Haggar Corporation in the 1940s as a promotion for their casual pants, to be worn during your "slack" time between work and sports.

Long Trousers Adopted for Boys

Boys wore trousers years before gentlemen ever did. Well to do boys first appear in ankle-length trousers as part of skeleton suits in the 1780s, although this was not the majority of boys. Many believe that the origins of the trouser style was peasant clothes. Some maintain that the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, in an effort to improve the popularity of the royal family, took to dressing in peasant garb. In 1785, four years before the Revolution, she had her children painted in peasants garb. The Dauphin, her eldest son, was outfitted in trousers. To my knowledge this is the first aristocratic boy ever known to wear trousers. The Queen herself was painted in a chemise, a predecesor of the ankle-length muslim dress which became popular at the turn of the century, long after the Queen was guillotened. Other illustrious personages promoted the peasant theme which gave increasing acceptance to trousers. Rosseau in France during the late 18th Century was a major proponent of the value of peasant life. Scotand's Sir Walter Scott had his family painted in peasant clothes, the boys in trousers.

Long Trousers Accepted by Men

Knee breeches were still worn bt gentlemen in the first decade of the 19th Century. Trousers became more widely worn in the 1810s, but it was not until the 1820s that they became widely accepted in polite society. As boys grew up wearing long trousers it wa natural to assume that they would eventually decide to wear them as adults. In fact that was precisely what happened. Long trousers became accepted by men about one generation after boys had started to wear them.

Figure 2.--Most young boys by the 1880s commonly wore kneepants with Fauntleroy and other suits.

Shorter Styles for Boys

Boys after breeching wore long trousers for most of the first half of the 19th Century. Some boys wore calf-length trousers with various outfits, but long trousers were much more common, even for younger boys. After mid-century the conventions for boys clothes began to change. By the 1960s it was becoming increasingly common for boys to wear kneepants 'outfits after breechings. Af first there was considerable variation, but by the 1870s it was becoming more standard for younger boys to wear kneepants after breeching. This became almost universal by the 1880s and boys were continuing to wear kneepants to older ages. By the 1890s older as well as younger boys were wearing kneepants. Curiously, this occurred at the same time that young boys were being breeched at earlier ages. Boys of all ages continued to wear kneepants until after World War I when knickers became common in America and short pants in Britain and Europe. Gradually the age for knickers declined, especially in the 1930s. European boys comonly wore short pants through the 1950s, but in the 1960s they were increasingly being worn by younger boys as jeans began to sweep through Europe as it has done America a decade earlier.


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Created: January 25, 1999
Last updated: August 26, 2003