A Brief History of Pants

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Do you know who really, really cared about pants? Peter the Great, that’s who. “Peter The Who?” you ask? This specific Peter was the tsar of Russia who became the “Emperor of All Russia” in the early 1700s. His tenure was committed to the modernization of Russia, which at the time was not so modern. Of the reforms enacted was the Decree on Modern Dress, issued in 1701, providing for Russians that “the upper dress shall be of French or Saxon cut, and the lower dress and underwear—waistcoat, trousers, boots, shoes, and hats—shall be of the German type.” That meant pants, and not those Russian non-pants the peasants were fond of wearing at the time. So maybe the key to pants is Germany?

Yes, I’m still thinking about pants, because men literally recoil from trying to think about pants. Why, some of you wondered, did I journey to the Lehigh Valley Mall, as it is a not very fashion-conscious retail center in an area that is even less so? I mean, between you and me, that was kind of the point, as I was trying to find a baseline of the relationship between normal dudes and their pants. I live in Brooklyn, for the luvva Pete, the epicenter of everything deemed cool in the past ten years. Pants are a way of life there. If I wanted the insight from a clothes-horse, I could go the Great GoogaMooga, which would give me hours and hours to confab with sick-cool pants-loving line-standers.

But where to start? What I need, in this small trite little quest to make peace with pants, is not the views and approval of others. What I need are the facts about pants.

So all right then: whither pants? Obviously, they exist to cover our nethers, which we as a species have historically favored covering. I don’t know why this is. I understand clothes, of course—it gets cold out there!—but one wonders if the disposition to nethers-covering is genetic or cultural or at this point, a permanently enmeshed combination. Obviously, I’d as rather walk around without pants as I would gargle battery acid, but is that because of a shame beaten into me by a vast culture of shame, or is it because it’s a fool thing to do?

There is an excellent bit of trivia as to the history of the word/concept “pants,” and who better to rely on for the genesis of “pants” than the ghost of William Safire, in a 1997 column on the “lexicon” of leg coverings? From this we learn that the term is derived from one Saint Panteleon, in a roundabout way. The Saint—originally a third-century Christian doctor condemned by the Romans, who then needed seven attempts to accomplish the execution—was given the name (“all lion”) upon canonization in light of his bravery and general reluctance to actually die. Later, a commedia dell’arte character, buffoonish and wearing breeches all flouncy from waist to knees, was named “Pantaloon” as an ironic (snarky?) nod to the Saint.

The name came to refer specifically to the flouncy breeches, which new Americans, ever eager to save a syllable, shortened to “pants.”

So there you have it: pants are American, according to William Safire. That’s all for the best, because it’s my understanding that, in England, pants refer specifically to the garment worn under the pants, and that it is sometimes implied to be pejorative. This could explain my insistence on referring to pants as “pants” and not as “trousers,” which, if clearly the more grown-up term, is also a bit weighted towards the Anglophile. Although there is a bit of tension between the two terms of art, culturally.

(Knickers, however? A bit archaic on this side of the pond, in reference to baggy trousers, and a bit Benny Hill on the other, as another reference to underpants, but from the same etymological source as the New York Knicks: the fictional narrator of Washington Irving’s History of New York, Diedrich Knickerbocker. True fact! The more you know!)

The recent history of pants is told in brief memetic spurts, cultural references that became hackneyed nearly as quickly as they ascended into ubiquity. Do we remember that odd dance show featuring normal folk in their skivvies (popular in certain parts)? Do we remember that viral video that culminated in an “American Idol” appearance before fizzling? And of course the core curriculum of chick lit, something about sisterhood, something pants, something traveling. We do, if we think back hard enough.

Trousers, however, get more respect. In one of T.S. Eliot’s more popular works, J. Alfred Prufrock’s trousers are not only white flannel but also rolled. Trousers is the preferred term used for the torso-down covering by James Joyce in Ulysses. And even in the slightly-less reputable field of science fiction, the Trousers of Time was coined by Terry Pratchett to help the reader get her head around some of the potential causality violations that come with time travel (spoiler: there’s one way in, at the top, yet two ways out, depending on which trouser leg is chosen).

So maybe my inability up to now to take the lower half of my wardrobe is not only the product of a slobbish laziness but also a disregard inculcated by popular culture? How am I to take seriously a punchline? Maybe the answer is to start thinking of them as trousers?

I did actually have a favorite pair of pants once, a long time ago. On a high school trip to New York City, a friend of mine and I hit the used/vintage stores on the stretch of Broadway which is now the bright shiny eastern edge of Soho and walked out with two things: a pink sharkskin jacket with black satin lapels (which we timeshared) and, for me, a pair of West German army-issue fatigue pants. Olive green and the softest cotton I’ve ever felt, I wore those pants until they literally fell apart, and then cut ‘em into shorts and then wore those until they fell apart. I miss those pants, and I’ve never found anything to measure up to them. They were maybe the only good thing to come from the Cold War. This can’t be that hard.

But I did recall a reference to leg coverings that was undeniably useful, if not timely. As a new installment of Robert Caro’s life’s work has been recently released, President Lyndon Johnson is back in the public spotlight. And while I’ve (to my discredit) never cracked the cover of a single Caro, I do have in the back of mind that recording of President Johnson speaking to a tailor about ordering some clothes. It’s from 1964 and it’s available online. A tailor in Texas has sent the president some suits, and Johnson had some very, very specific ideas on alterations for future pairs of pants.

LBJ: Now the pockets, when you sit down, everything falls out, your money, your knife, everything, so I need at least another inch in the pockets. And another thing – the crotch…. is always a little too tight, so when you make them up, give me an inch that I can let out there, uh because they cut me, it’s just like riding a wire fence. These are almost, these are the best I’ve had anywhere in the United States,

JH: Fine

LBJ: But, uh when I gain a little weight they cut me under there. So, leave me, you never do have much of margin there. See if you can’t leave me an inch from where the zipper (burps) ends….

The full thing is some of the most candid audio of a president this side of the Nixon tapes, but more importantly it is the snapshot of a man who cares very much about his pants. He cares about the material, he cares about the cut and he cares about the fit. So maybe the question for me is not, “Why don’t I care about pants?” and instead, “Why don’t I start caring about pants?” (And perhaps: “Why don’t pants start caring about ME?”)

Were I to start taking into account those three aspects—material, cut, fit—I’d stop having these feelings of sartorial inadequacy.

And even more interestingly, the JH speaking to the president? His name was Joe Haggar, Jr., and not to break kayfabe, as it were, he was the son of the founder of the sponsor of this piece. Yes, this is a sponsored piece, so to stumble across this bit of synchronicity presents a bit of a quandary. But it’s a matter of history, ultimately, and so let’s just leave it at: isn’t that an interesting factoid to uncover? History is so enriching!

Whether you call them pants or trousers (or, fine, slacks, even), I’m going with President Johnson, and I’m going to stop thinking of them as an off-the-rack, predetermined-sized item. Sure, I stumbled across a perfect pair once, but maybe with a minimal amount of effort and attention-paid, the answer appears to be: take an interest and make demands. Then I’ll find out if I actually do clean up nice.


This content was created for our partner Life Khaki from Haggar.