The History of Pants

The ancient Egyptians did not wear trousers; neither did the Greeks nor the Romans who came after them. However, Late Stone Age figurative art from Siberia dating from around 16,000 years ago depicts trousers being worn. And sixth-century B.C.E. Greek ethnography describes trousers being worn by both men and women in the horse-riding nation of Persia and its allied peoples of Central and Eastern Asia, such as the Bactrians, Armenians, Scythians, and Honnu, thereby being the oldest known written records pertaining to the wearing of pants. Pants, then, today one of the iconic symbols of the Western man, apparently originated in the Eastern regions of the world.

Variably called “pants” (the shortened form of pantaloons), “slacks,” and “breeches” (a variant of “britches”), two things seem to have converged for the invention and widespread use of trousers: cold weather and horses. It was not until the third century B.C.E. that the Roman Republic’s cavalry would start wearing pants—after suffering major defeats from Hannibal’s pants-wearing cavalry during the second Punic War. (After all, it is much easier to maneuver on horseback in slacks than in togas, tunics, or skirts!) And as the Roman Empire spread beyond the Mediterranean basin into colder regions, pants became more popular on account of the additional warmth they provided. [In the New World, before the horse was introduced to the native peoples of North America by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Plains Indians wore tunics rather than pants].

During the Middle Ages, from the 5th to 15th century, pants of various styles and lengths, from loose-fitting to skin-tight hose, would rise and fall in popularity. Pants were also worn under tunics, thereby sometimes being regarded as an undergarment. By the 8th century C.E., men of the noble and knightly classes throughout Europe were wearing pants. And while women had been known to wear pants for outdoor work through the centuries, with the Christianization of Europe, it had become taboo for women to wear trousers. It would not be until the middle of the 20th century, after the initial stir caused by French designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) in 1913 when he designed loose-fitting harem pants for women, that “the fairer sex” could freely wear pants.

The etymology of the word “pants” is quite circuitous. A 4th-century Christian doctor was sentenced to death by the Romans for his healing abilities, which he attributed to Christ, but the Romans, to magic. After numerous attempts to kill the good doctor, ranging from his being burned with torches to being put into a pot of boiling lead to being thrown to wild animals, etc., he did not succumb to death until he acquiesced, at which point not only blood, but also a substance as white as milk, is said to have gushed forth from his neck when his head was severed. The doctor was later canonized and given the name Saint Pantaleone because of his extraordinary bravery. (“Pan” in Greek means “all,” and “leo” means “lion” in Latin, thus all-lion/all-brave). Eventually, Saint Pantaleone became a popular saint in Venice, Italy, so much so that Venetians were called “Pantaleoni.”

In 16th-century Italy, a type of theater called Commedia dell’arte was born. And one of the stock characters was “Pantalone,” the miserly Venetian merchant whose standard costume consisted of pants of a particular cut. When Commedia dell’arte reached France, the French began calling garments that resembled the bottom portion of Pantalone’s costume, “pantaloons.” And by the late 1700s, the term would be used to describe pants of any cut or design. Eventually, the British adopted the word, the lower classes shortening it to “pants,” much to the objection of the more polite classes. And by1840, Edgar Allan Poe had used the word in his writings, thereby becoming the first person to commit the word to official print. One can only imagine what the good Saint Pantaleon must think at the thought of the many men who pull down his namesake in order to take up sin!

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