For those of us involved in 18th Century reenactments, men in knee breeches are de rigor.  Outside of formal equestrian events, however, you rarely see such garments today.  Similarly, pants were considered foreign attire, even uncouth attire before the 14th Century in Europe.

Many names have been used for men’s leg coverings through history: Latin braccae, loin-cloth, breech-cloth, breech-clout, braies, britches, Scots Breeks, trousers, pants, pantaloons, knickerbockers, plus fours, jodhpurs etc.   In Asia both women and men have long worn pants for warmth, comfort, and convenience for millennia but in Rome and Greece, trousers were associated with “barbaric” cultures; “civilized” women and men wore tunics.  Even soldiers in the field wore short tunics similar to Scottish kilts. 

When the Romans first encountered trousers in Gaul (France) they considered them unmanly. This is sometimes conflated with a style of Roman trouser called the Feminalia; because they covered the length of the femur, but the connotation is that pants were feminine. Pants, however, were much better suited to the cold climates of Northern Europe than tunics so as the Roman Empire expanded into Germany, France, and Britain, pants were adopted.  Celts under Roman rule wore pants and by the fourth Century Romans had a style of pants that derived from the Celtic style.

By the Middle Ages men throughout Europe wore some sort of trousers or breeches. Trousers were worn for warmth. Breeches were looser fitting around the hips and made of wool, cotton, linen, or in very formal occasions or at court, silk.  Breeches were also fall-fronted and waistbands were buttoned. There was also a French Fly version which was fastened down the center, but Englishmen resisted this style as it was considered a racy French style.

The type of breeches you wore said a lot about you.  If you were from the frontier or perhaps a farmer, you might wear leather breeches, even if you had wealth.  If on the other hand, you wished to convey elite status, your breeches might be fine brocade with bejeweled buckles.  If you were a Quaker or a Puritan, your breeches would likely be dark brown or black but if you were a city gentleman in Williamsburg, bright (even garish) colors would be the norm. 

In the years leading up to and after the American Revolution, wearing breeches was a sign that you favored conservative politics and social modesty.  By the 1780s, fashion in Europe and America was changing, favoring the cut of the waistcoat and appearance of the shirt over bright colors. That led to darker and less noticeable breeches.  Finally, with the French Revolution in 1789, there is a sharp disapproval of short pants and tall stockings.  In fact, the French Revolution is well known for its activist adopting the name “sans-culottes” (translation: without breeches), who shunned breeches in favor of commoners’ pants.  Soon men developed an even more serious views on fashion, both in Europe and America. On both sides of the Atlantic, breeches faded away.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

%d bloggers like this: