Breeches are a bifurcated garment covering the lower body from waist to knees or just below the knees. These garments were standard everyday attire for European and American men from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Breeches were worn for both evening wear and day wear. They might be made of leather or buckskin for laborers or made of silk and satin for a gentleman at court. The front of the breeches opened with a flap called a “fall” that buttoned at the hips. Breeches also fastened at the knee, or just below the knee, with either buttons, ties, or buckles. Breeches continued to be worn for very formal evening occasions until the 1820s when trousers replaced breeches for full dress but breeches continued to be a requirement of gentlemen’s court dress throughout the 19th century and as part of British full ceremonial court dress well into the 21st century.
But as any reenactor is likely to ask on these balmy winter afternoons when the temperatures hover well below freezing, whose bright idea was it to dress in short pants?
Roman soldiers and horsemen began wearing feminalia in the late fourth and early fifth century. These evolved over the centuries into the tight fitting broadfall breeches you see in 18th Century menswear. With less fabric to come between rider and horse, breeches allow for every movement of the rider’s leg to be felt by and communicated to the steed. Breeches are designed to fit snugly and not rub when horse riding. This allows riders to sit and ride more comfortably. Another unique characteristic of breeches is that they are designed to fit inside tall riding boots.
Breeches are not only fashionable; they are immensely practical. Since these pants do not extend to the ankles, they are less likely to become soiled in the frequently muddy streets of the 18th Century. As mentioned before, they are well suited to horseback riding and continue to be the standard attire in modern equestrian sport. Finally, these garments, while somewhat complex to make, are very frugal in their use of material (breeches require 66% of the material required for trousers).
The common uniform of British soldiers deployed in the late 1770’s was comfortable and functional for the soldiers for most duty. Unfortunately, as anyone who wears these will attest, these uniforms lack good protection from the cold, from brush and brambles that soldiers are likely to encounter in the field, and because they are tight require constant repairs and repairs by soldiers in the field.
For these reasons, gaitered trousers, or overalls, constructed like breeches at the top but extending all the way down the leg, eventually replaced breeches for many soldiers in the field. These trousers were usually constructed of linen, and generally manufactured in theater rather than issued by the army. In early 1777, for example, a Royal Artillery officer in Montreal ordered “all the old tents” to be “cut up into Trowsers for the Men.” As a single piece of clothing, gaitered trousers eliminated the need for separate breeches, gaiters and stockings to cover the leg and consolidated the soldier’s legwear into one garment.
In order to keep the breeches white, a whitish solution called pipeclay was sponged onto them (similar to modern-day shoe whitener). When the pipeclay dried, it left a white powder mixed amongst the fibers of the cloth in the breeches (or trousers). Often when a soldier slapped his leg, a cloud of powder would ensue. Unfortunately, soldiers sometimes would color their breeches while wearing them. This was frowned upon by military officials and orders were often issued that decreed that any soldier caught in wet clothes was to be confined and “punished with the utmost severity”. The exact reason behind this harsh order is not known but it may be linked to a possible health concern from wearing wet clothes or that the pipeclay dried out and damaged the soldier’s skin.
Hopefully this explanation will keep you warn during these brisk winter days because your bare legs with those thin cotton stockings are no match for the harsh winds of January.