An Early History of Pants and Trousers

An early history of “trousers”.

So, a few days ago I was poking around on YouTube watching some old TV commercials, when I happened to come across this gem that I had remembered seeing years ago:

Not only was this commercial hysterically funny (with a serious philosophical point), but it got me to wondering: where DID pants come from? (And now you know where I get ideas for some of my diaries.)

First, some nomenclature: we will be referring in this diary to the article of clothing which consist of two separate legs which meet at the crotch, cover the butt and genitals, and extend up to the waist, all forming a single piece (though it may be constructed from several sewn pieces of fabric to form a single garment). In the United States, these are usually referred to as “pants”. In England, they are usually called “trousers” (and “pants” refers instead to what Americans call “underwear”).

Most folks probably assume (as the makers of this commercial did) that pants date all the way back to the the Stone Age. And that may indeed be true—but we can’t tell for certain.

Animals, of course, don’t need clothing—they have fur. Humans are somewhat unique with our hairless skins. Our earliest ancestors also had fur, but this was apparently lost by the time of Homo erectus, which appeared around two million years ago. This was also about when the Ice Age began and the earth cooled drastically. When hominids like Homo erectus left tropical Africa and expanded into Asia and Europe, they were entering cold areas that would not have been survivable without clothing. Later, when species like Homo sapiens, Homo neandertalensis and the Denisovans also entered these icy areas, they too had to face these harsh environmental conditions, and would have had clothing. 

Unfortunately, we can say nothing about what this clothing looked like. We do know that these hominids made perfectly-functional bone and ivory needles and awls which they presumably used to make tailored clothing from fur, leather, or textile, but no remaining trace of any of this has ever been found, so we can only guess. We do know that indigenous people in the Arctic areas of Alaska, Greenland and Siberia have traditionally made tight-fitting trousers and other clothing from sealskin and caribou furs, sewn together using sinew thread and carefully-made needles (and skillfully stitched so that the seams were not exposed to the cold air). We can presume that Ice Age hominids did the same.

These sort of trousers, however, seem to have been a specialized article of clothing found only in areas where climate made them a necessity. In warmer areas, “pants” are generally not found. Instead, most people wore breechcloths made from a single piece of soft leather that passed between the legs and looped over a belt worn at the waist. In colder winter conditions, these could be supplemented by leather or fur leggings, taking the form of a tube for each leg that tied onto the belt at the sides. One of the earliest examples we have of this is Otzi the Ice Man, who lived in the Alps around 5000 years ago. His leggings were made from goat fur.

By Otzi’s time textile clothing was already common in temperate areas like Europe or China. We have only fragments of woven cloth from these times, but we can reconstruct what their clothing looked like from the artwork and writings of the period. Both men and women wore knee-length skirts or tunics, with the legs bare.

When the Romans invaded Gaul, they found the natives from cooler areas wearing woolen pants which they called braccae, and although these were considered to be effeminate and barbarian by the Romans, many Legionaries assigned to northern Europe or Britannia adopted them as a practical way to stay warm. The Greeks and Romans also encountered the Scythians, who were a fierce horse-archer tribe in the Middle East, and who also wore pants. 

The earliest trousers that we have found in the archaeological record are found in a burial ground called Yanghai, in an area of western China known as Turpan. These were remarkably well-preserved due to the extraordinarily dry desert air of the region. Made from twilled wool yarn, they were woven into three pieces which were then sewn together. The most striking characteristic is the extra-large crotch piece, which forms a sort of pocket or gusset that allows the knees to be spread far apart without binding. This extra material would bunch up uncomfortably between the legs while walking, but it was perfect for horseback-riding, and was well-suited for tribes of nomadic horsemen. The Yanghai cemeteries date to around 1000 BCE, though the idea may be even earlier, since the horse may have been domesticated as early as 4000 BCE.

From central Asia, these horse-riders carried their “trousers” east to China and west to the Middle East, where the mode of dress was adopted by the Scythians, Persians and then the Gauls. When the Germanic tribes from northern Europe destroyed the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, they were wearing pants.

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