*** trousers and pants

Trousers and Pants

American knee pants
Figure 1.--There were major changes in boys' suits in the mid-19th century. Suit took on a modern look with front "V" cuts and lapels. Also variius styles of shortened-length pants appeared. The two most common were kneepants and bloomer-styled knickers. Later knickerbockers also appeared. This CDV shows a boy in Great Bend, Kansas during the 1870s.

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.


Both men and boys in the 18th century wore knee breeches. The first destinctive boy's fashions was long trousers worn as part of skelaton suits which are popular by the 1780s, even before the French Revolution (1789). At the time lanorers, the sans culottes wore triusers, but gentlemen continued wearing kneebreeches until well after the turn of the 19th century. By the 1920s both men and boys were wearing long tousers. Thus began to change in the mid-19th century when boys began wearing various types of shortened trousers. Boys by the 1850s and even more so the 1860s were increasingly wearing bloomer-styled knickers, although long trousers were still common--especially for working-class boys. These bloomer knickers, called knickers, were a practical alternative to long trousers for active boys. The bloomer knickers were loose pants gathered at the knee. Styles varied from country to country. In America, a more slim fitting straight leg version became the standard. These knepants were open rather than gathered at or below the the knee and usually had three ornamental butons, harkening back to the button closures on knee breeches. They were commonly worn at calf length. These kneepants were very widely worn by the 1870s and by the 1890s even quite old teenage boys were wearing them. In Europe the bloomer knickers as well as knickers with button closures were more popular. By the turn of the 20th century kneepants After the turn of the centuropen-ended version, reaching below the knee and worn with stockings. By the end of the century, knickers and knepants were worn at knee length or even above the knee. Short pants for boys had appeared in the 1890s, but were forst worn by younger boys. There use by the British Army in tropical postings and then by the Boy Scouts and Wandervogel had by the 1910s made them increasingl popular for older boys in Eurpope. American boys except in the South mostly insisted on wearing knickers. A variety of play outfits for younger boys such a romper and overalls in the 1900s. Olderboys in the 1930s begin to wear long trousers more commonly, more in America than Europe. This trend becomes increasingly common after World War II (1939-45), even in Europe. Short pants begin to become more popular in the 1960s, but increasingly as casul clothes. Jeans ar commonly worn by Americn boys in the 1950s and begin to become stylish worldwide phenomenon in the 1960s. Longer shorts appear in the 1990s and by the late 1990s baggy syles of both shorts an longs vecome popular.

Historical Development

The French Revolution had an enormous impact on fashions. Men's fashions during the 19th Century followed the example of civilian male attire of the French Revolution (1779). Before the French Revolution pantaloons or trousers had been worn by sailors and laborers, but never by gentlemen. 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. Pantalettes by the turn of the 19th Century were an accepted garment of children's clothing. Trousers were worn by peasants, laborers, and sailors in the 18th Century, but never by gentlemen. Many believe that the origin of the modern trousers were the working clothes of peasants and agriculural laborers. Adaptations of peasant clothes were the first trousers worn by aristocratic boys in both an attempt to appeal to the masses and in a romantic yearning for a simplier life.

long trousers
Figure 2.--This boy in the 1850s wears a tunic-like shirt with long trousers. Trousers at the time were not worn with creases. Knee pants had not yet become an establish convention for boys after breeching. Note the military-style cap on the table and how he wears his belt over his shirt.

Stylistic Features

There are many different stylistic features of modern trousers, many of whuch developed independently over time. The major stylistic feature is the cut, either straight or tapered, but there are also a lot of fad cuts. There are, however, many other features. Trousers have two basic types of fronts, plain or pleated. The leated style is generally considered the most elegant. The style used for the waistband is determined by whether the trousers are to be worn with belts or suspenders (braces). Trousers which are not part of a suit, and are therefore casual, are usually fitted withbelt loops. Proper trousers should be worn with front creases. The only trousers which can be worn today without a crease are jeans, which shouldnever have one. Yet trousers did not originally have a crease until Edward VII. Creases required a great deal of effort to maintain in the 19th and early 20th Centuries before the development of synthetic fibers. Thus it was expensive to purchase and maintain trousers with creases. For some time after the introduction of trousers men would commonly rollup the bottoms to keep them out of mud and water. The advantage of knee breeches worn in the 18th Century was that the hem was high enough off the ground that they were not likely to be soilded. Cuffs were a solution to the problem, but were initially not considered proper. By the early years of the 20th Century cuffs had become an acceptedvariation on regular trouser bottoms. Seams work should not be visible on formal suit trousers. Seams on the outer leg, however, are acceptable on casual trousers. Pockets of different types have appeared at different places on trousers. Fashion designer Hardy Amies wrote, "God gave us no towns; nor did He give us pockets. We can therefore place them where they are most convinient to us. The first pockets appearing in the early 19th Century were cross pockets, cut parallet with the waist, but crosspockets are now the accepted norm. Early trousers had button flies and this continued well into the 20th Century. The zipper was invented in 18?? and used on shoes and jackets. There was considerable reluctance, however, to this "newfangled" device and replacing button flies. There was not only the risk of zippers coming open, but also of closing painfully. They did not become commonly worn until after World War II (1939-45).


We note a range of patterns being used in pants. The most common mofern approach is a flat weave without any noticeeable pattern. This is especially true of casual pants. But patterns have been widely used. Here the popularity of specific patterns has varied over time. The long pants worn with skeleton suits were almost alwats worn with a flat weave without any pattern. We notice checked pants being worn in the mid-19th century. A good example is unidentified American boy wearing checked pants, we think in the 1840s. Another good example is a young American teenager. unidentifid American boys, we think in the early 1850s wearing striped pants. Boys suits in the late 19th and early 20th century were often made in patterns. We see some loud patterns in the mid-19th century. A good example is an unidentified American boy in 1855. We see generally muted patterns in the late 19th century. Gradually we see more and more boys wearing suit pants with a flat weave as the century progressed. We note a fad for stripped pants in the 1970s, but these were more casual pants. Another pattern for casual pants in the late 20th century has been camouflague patterns.


Pants are usually not decorated. This is more important with shirts and jackets. Pants tend to be primarily plsin garments. They may have features like pockets that can be styled, but these are really are not decorations in the sence of a purely decorative item. We have, however, noted a variety of decorations. They tend not to be very common, but they do exist. Perhaps the most common decoration is stripes. We see boys with striped pants, most commonly for some rwason in the 1870s--at lest in America. This wa a military style, perhaps the Civil war was an influence. They were widely used in military school uniforms. We also see them in sumper camp short pants during the mid-20th century. One popular fad futing the 1950s-60s was a little simulated belt on the back of slacks. I think this was an exclusively American style. It disappeared as jeans became more standard in American schools. We notice some pants done with ruffles. This ws most associated with the Fauntleroy craze, but was not very common. It is a little complicated to see because some times boys wore pantalettes with Fauntleroy suits. We probably see more examples in costumed commercial postcards than actual photographs. The large French post card industry created quite a number of examples. We see jeans being decorated with sequins and other aplique beginning in the 1970s, but this was more for girls than boys.

knicker suits
Figure 3.--These brothers in the 1890s wear identical knicker suits. The material looks to be flannel. Note that knickers were not worn with creases.


Trousers have been made in a variety of materials. The most traditional ids flannel. Flannel was initially conceived as a summer, sporty facric, but by the 1920s was the most popular material for men and boy's dress trousers. Trousers were also made in many other materials, including Bedford cord, calvary twill, other cotton fabrics like chinos, searsucker, serge, corduroy, velvet, and many others. After World War II a variety of durable, easy to care for sybthetic fibers like Terlyne worsted began to compete with natural fibers. By the 1960s, Terelyn worsted had generally replaed flannel short trousers in England, although a few conservative private schools still insisted on traditional flannel shorts. Any discussion of modern trouser also has to consider denim, a particular favorite of young people.

Plural Usage

It is worth noting that the term "trouser" is usually used used in the plural. This is also true of related garments such as breeches, chaps, knickers (knickerbockers), pants (in both the American and British sence), tights, and shorts. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that these words were from the start used in the plural in the sence of a pair of breeches, pants, ect. was standard right from its earliest use. Breeches may be the oldest word, dating to at least the 11th century, and like the others has always been used in the plural. The most importnat word here, covering the most garments, and the most widely used word for men and boys' is probably "pants". (Eventhough the "trowers" is prevalent in Britain.) Pants has developed from pantaloons, also used in the plural. The earliest form of pantaloons would today be called tights. The name was derived from a Venetian character in Italian commedia dell'arte in the 15th century who was the object of a clown's often rude jokes and who always represented as a skinny, old dotard wearing baggy pantaloons. Beginning during the Renaissance and lasting into the 18th century, traveling troupes performed the commedia dell' arte, spreading ideas and fashions throughout Europe. Commentators at the time referred to these pantaloons when they first appeared as being a combination of breeches and stockings. Later pantaloons were applied to a range of trouser like garments, including sailor's long trousers, frilly women's pants worn as under garments, and fashionable tight-fitting trousers for men. The term "trousers" entered the English language in the 17th century from the Gaelic "trowse", a singular word for a somewhat different garment similar to breeches. Today tight long pants, often in tartan, or shorts to be worn under the kilt are called "trews" in Scotland. Notice the final "s" which has a ring of a plural when used in English. The reason that these garments are used in the plural is that were for several centuries made in two parts, one for each leg. The two pieces were then put on each leg separately and wrapped and tied or belted at the waist. This applied to both outerwear knee breeches and pantaloons as well as under garments like pantalettes. Making two separate pieces is how chaps are still done. Ladies and children's panralettes as late as the early 19th century were still two pieces garments. The plural usage was so established in the langiage and popular usage that it has persisted even after the garments had become physically one piece. Notice the difference with garments for the upper body such as blouse, shirt, and waist which have always been used in the singularbecause they were primarily cut from a single piece of cloth and purchased and worn as a single garment.


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 have collected some basic information.

Trouser Types

Men and boys in the 18th Century both wore knee breeches with no differentiation in style or length. It was boys which first began wearing long trousers in the 1780s. For several decade while men continued to wear knee breeches, boys wore long pants skeleton suits. After men began to commonly dress in trousers by the 1820s, boys continued to wear long trousers also. It was not until the after the turn of mid-century that shorter cut trousers became an increasingly popular convention for boys. I am not sure who conceived of this idea or why it proved so popular, persisting as a convention for about 100 years. There was a degree of practicality about short trosers for boys who in their active games were prone to tear their trousers at the knee. I am not sure, however, how important this was in the growing popularity of the shorter cut trousers for boys. The shorter trousers for boys have taken many forms after knee breeches passed out of style, including knee pants, knickers, and short pants.

Country Trends

We note a wide range of pants and trousers worn by boys around the world. Styles have varied over time. There were also differences among contries. Certain syles were more popular in some countries than others. Conventions also varied by country, although this varied over time and between countries. Styling might also vary. Many of the styles were popular in many different countrirs, but there were also differences among countries. We noticed some differenves in the 19th century, but the differences were most pronounced in the early- and mid-20th century. We are not entirely sure why these differences existed. Notably by the 1970s there appeared to be a return to the 19th century situation when boys in Europe an North America tended to wear similar styles. We are developing country pages for trousers and pants in different countries. The pages developed so far are for America, Canada, England, France, and Germany.

Suit Pants

Boys have also worn pants and trousers of different length. [Note: the authors have generally chosen the American word pants. In British English the proper word would be trousers, pants in Britain refer to underwear.] Long trousers were common in the first decade of the 19th Century. Boys wore long pants with their skeleton suits. At mid-century knee-length pants had appeared for boys, but it was not uncommon to see even younger boys wearing long pants, but had generally been replaced by knee-length pants and long stockings by the 1860s boys under 12 years of age, but some older boys were also wearing them. The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine reported in 1863 that the knickerbocker suit "reigns supreme". It contibued to do well into the first half of the 20th Cenuary. The development appears to be a little later in America, but eventually American boys were also in knee-lenght pants. The knee pants were full, closed at the knee with buckles or buttons, or simply cut off at the knee. The age of boys wearing knee pants gradually increased in the late 19th Century. By the turn of the Century even older teenagers, boys of 18 and 19 years of age were commonly wearing knee pants. The pants worn by boys in the 20th Century have varied widely by decade and country. American boys commonly wore knickers in the 1920s and 30s, but in the 1940s increasingly wore long pants. English and European boys commonly wore short pants, but long pants became more common beginning in the 1960s. Since the 1970s American and European boys have begun wearing very similar styles of clothes, both for dress suits as well as play and casual wear.

Figure 4.--This boy in a Daguerotype probably taken in the 1850s did not have his hair cut even after he was breeched and is dressed in checked trousers.


A variety of devices and systems have been devised for holding up trousers. Some like belts and suspenders have been worn by both mem and boys. Other devices, such as button arrangements and elastic wastes have porimarily been worn by boys. The popularity of these devices and age conventions have varied over time and among countries.


Color is an interesting question and a difficult one to deal with until the late-20th century when color photography became commercially viable and inexpensive. We do have some information on the 19th century. The most reliable information is vintage clothing. Paintings are also useful. Both of the sources are, however, are relatively limited in comparison tothe vast number of photographic images thsat begin to becoe availavle at mid-century. Other sources such as colorized images has to carefully accessed. We also have catalog informsation. In the late-19th century, high-quality color lithographs begin to become availble, but here color accuracy is sometimes compromised by the tebdency to use bright colors to enhance visual appeal. We have a great deal of nformsation from catalogs in the 20th century which began to use color in their catalogs. Here the accuracy because money was involved can assumed to be fairly accurate. As far as we can see, boys generally wore pants with fairly sober colors, commonly blue, brown, and grey and to a lesser extent black, green, and white. Of course many shades were involved. White was a seaonal color and worn for dressing up or for smsart casual occassions. We see brighter colors in the 20th century, especially for younger boys. We are unsure at this time as to color trends.

Gender Trends

Girls until reletively recently always wore dresses. Little boys might wear dresses, but girls almost never wore trousers. It was not considered proper. Actually pants for women appeared in the mid-19th century, championed by Amelia bloomer and the dress reform movement. It was not very successful, only a handful of strong-minded women wore them and as far as we can tell, even fewer girls. We see a few images, however, of what look like girls wearing pants in the 19th century. As most of these photographs are of unidentified children, we can not yet be sure. One example is an unidentified Austrian child. We note American girls after the turn of the 20th cetury wearing bloomers for highschool gym classes. I'm not sure if this was the case in Europe. After World War I we see rural girls wearing overalls and fashionable women wearing pants in the 1930s. We also notice girls at summer camps wearing bloomer rompers or short pants. After World War II we begin to see girls wearing a variety of pants: short pants, capri pants, and jeans. These were considered casual clothes. Girls still wore dresses to school and when deressing up. It was not common to seeing girls commonly wearing pants to school in America until the 1960s. Most other countries still required girls wear dresses to school until the 1970s.

Hair Styles

Since boys have worn trousers beginning at the turn-of-the-19th Century it was usually a signal that a boy should also have his curls cut. Some mothers cut their son's hair while he was still wearing dresses. There appears to have been to trains of thought on the subject. Some mothers believes in cutting a boys hair before breeching and some after breeching. Some boys continued to wear their curls after breeching, but still wearung kneepants with Fauntleroy and sailor suit. Usually after going into long trousers, however, a boy would have his curls cut. There were some exceptions to this, especially before the late 19th Century when conventions for childrens wear and hair styles were still not as set as they were to become.


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Created: January 25, 1999
Last updated: 2:03 AM 10/30/2011