Sunday, 30 April 2017 19:48

Trousers March through Time

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So, I was watching an episode of the old TV series Mission Impossible when I noticed the suit trouser length; the fashionable or period length of trousers worn in the 60s. ... And you know, they are almost the same length as suit trousers worn today, in 2017.

It appears that men’s’ 2017 suit trouser lengths echo the style of the 1960s, thus reminding costumers that men’s hemlines go up and down, almost as often as those of women. Most clothing was developed to serve a specific purpose; let’s take a look.

From Fiber to Fabric

History shows us that the first clothing was made with whatever was in abundance and handy. That could mean woven grass, reeds, bark and straw clothing or leather and fur clothing. The body was draped or wrapped with the irregular shaped piece and then tied or belted together.

Seafarers shared their knowledge of working loops and knots with a continuous thread or spun cord and soon Nålbinding was developed. 


Although it looks a lot like knitting or crocheting, Nalbinding may actually predate both by 1000 years. Even the technique is similar;           

            A loop is formed in a length of thread or cord and a single needle is used to pass through the loop. The thread is pulled through the loop, but the knot is not tightened. Left loose, the yarn forms a new loop. The needle is passed through the new loop, forming a chain. At the end of a row, the work may be turned, and each stitch passed through both its partner loop and a loop in the previous row, or, the work may be turned at any time and worked in another direction. The work may be performed in a single direction forming circles and tubes for socks and mittens, or working in directed shapes for shoulder yokes and sleeves.

The development of textiles meant clothing could be made from the woven spun fibers of cotton, linen or wool.  Since the fabric was only as wide as the weaving loom, ancient peoples needed to create interesting and comfortable clothing from square and rectangle shaped fabric.


The Greeks reshaped the rectangle to form the Chiton while the Romans developed the Toga;


After the Cradle

As ancient populations moved from the warm climate of the Cradle of Civilization, leg coverings were necessary for protection against the environment as well as the weather. Ancient Chinese, Mongols, Scythians, Phrygians and Persians peoples have been depicted wearing trousers; ankle to calf-length, wide or narrow, with seamed or wrapped legs. Trousers provided warmth against the weather and protected the lower legs from brambles, bushes and rocks.

It appears that equestrians may also have helped develop trousers that were more fitted, thus allowing for a more comfortable ride. Soldiers, and male and female riders from Celtic and Germanic peoples have been depicted on Grecian ceramic works wearing knee and ankle-length trousers, bearing decorative stripes, dots, checks or zigzag lines or, woven and sewn with leather into artistic designs. 


I guess we could call the Greeks and Romans of the Classical period the original Fashionistas for their attitude towards trousers, or as they put it, the “garb of the Barbarians”. It appears that the decent folk in these societies did not wear trousers and furthermore, it became illegal, on pain of punishment in Rome, to wear them around town. But the Roman soldiers and common people adopted trousers for practical purposes – it’s easier to work in trousers than a robe.

Once Rome fell, bifurcated (divided into two branches or forks), beinlinge (separate, unattached coverings for each leg) with trusses (a short undergarment) became common. Both men and women wore leg coverings fastened to the belt of the truss, worn by under long robes or tunics to provide protection from cold weather.

Military Influence

Leg coverings underwent a transformation after 1350 when the knights’ armor changed from chain mail to plate armor; suddenly leg coverings needed to fit the body more closely; like a second skin. And, as doublets had become shorter, fashion required leggings to be made into a single garment by adding a wedge-shaped insert at the crotch. Thus, this stocking-like hose with attached feet and colourful embroidered patterns could be considered as the very first men’s fashion pants. More importantly, this is the first fashion where men and women parted ways and developed His and Hers; His included short tunics and hose and Hers included long skirts and dresses.

Gender Boundary

From the 15th Century until the 19th Century, women rarely wore men’s trousers; it just wasn’t done. In fact, jokes were created over the issue; ever heard the one about so and so “wearing the pants” in the family? It’s a guy thing …


Trousers now begin going through successive changes;  


            1500 – trousers are separated into knee breeches with stockings attached to the breeches.


            1600 – extremely wide, and heavily slashed breeches, revealing colourful linings and decorated with over-padded codpieces.


            1700 - knee breeches fastened with ribbons and later, buckles or buttons, worn with separate stockings.


            1800 - long pantaloons or the trousers of the working class.

breechestights.jpg  slashedbreeches.jpg  buttonedbreeches.jpeg  1800pants.jpg 



Style abounds; some were extremely tight while others were broadly pleated, like Russian or Cossack pants, flared below the knee. The 1830s saw long trousers, close fitting and equipped with straps that fit under the feet; today, we would call them stirrup pants but in the sixties, we also called them ski pants.

sturruppants.jpg  flyopening.jpeg 


 By the 1850s, fashion gave men a break and made them looser, more comfortable and the front flap was replaced by a hidden buttoned center front opening. Sadly, though, the colourful palette faded into dark, sober colours and plain materials became the usual choices for every day and evening trousers. Plain trousers evolved into pleated fronts and cuffed hems for both the daytime and evening trouser. Styles further widened into jeans, Bermuda shorts and chinos.

Not Just for Men Anymore


In the1840s, women such as Amelia Bloomer demanded a “right to trousers”, which up until then, had been briskly denied. Forty years later, by the 1880s, women bicycle riders were wearing pantaloons, bloomers or trouser-skirts in many European and North American cities. But by the early 20th century, women’s trousers were more or less confined to various sports or leisure activities. However, after WWI, society accepted women in trousers; fashionable pants for the beach or exclusive evening suits.

It really wasn’t until the 1970s that trousers finally became an accepted part of women’s clothing and has become a kind of worldwide norm.


 So, what about trousers; the one-piece garment that protects our legs and butts so we can ride horses and swagger through the wild bushes and brambles of the country? The hemline may go up and down, but this garment remains versatitle, interesting and practical. Personally, I love them! By layering tights or long underwear under trousers, a costumer can work on films and outdoor performances and be able to move in and out of spaces with dignity and protection from weather, scrapes and cuts. Totally works for me.


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The book The Costumer's Notebook is a 295 page comprehensive handbook for Costumers for stage and film including a full Glossary of stage and film industry terms. Sections include methods and tricks for laundry, dyeing, breakdown, Dresser guidelines and protocols for Stage or Film and various size charts for men and women from shoes to gloves. Other Sections include diagrams showing How to Iron A Shirt, How to Tie a Tie and How to Tie a Bow Tie. Costume fittings, costume lay out and costume storage are also discussed.