The Fascinating Story Behind Why We Wear Pants

There's a ritual in this Curiosity writer's house that goes down every weeknight at about 7:30 p.m.: The jeans come off, the PJs come on, and "No Pants Zone" is sung at full volume. The fact is, pants may have been the style du jour of the past couple of millennia, but they're hardly the most comfortable form of legwear. So who invented them in the first place — and why?

An Idea With Legs

In fourth-century C.E. Rome, the wealthy elite were scandalized by a new sartorial presence on their civilized streets: pants. They were considered to be the clothing choice of the barbarian. By that time, many Goths and Huns had become official members of the Roman army, but their bold habit of striding around the city wearing pants made native-born Romans nervous — hadn't they ever heard the saying about what to do when in Rome? By 399, the city had not one but two laws banning pants and boots from the city, under threat of "punishment according to legal status."

The toga-clad, xenophobic Romans may have been more comfortable than their new Hunnish neighbors, but they were behind the times fashion-wise. Way behind. It's not surprising that the first pants in that part of the world came out of the Eastern Hunnish territories. They likely originated even further east.

Vintage engraving representing German warriorfighting with schield and mace, scene carved on the victory Trajan's colunm in Rome (Second century)

Letting Loose the Pants of War

In 2014, archaeologists discovered two middle-aged men buried sometime between 3,000 and 3,300 years ago in western China wearing the oldest known pants in existence. Although the 5,300-year-old mummy Ötzi wore a set of individual goat-leather leggings with a loincloth, these pants were made of wool and were sewn into a single unit. They would have been drawn closed with string, and they even featured intricate woven designs on the legs. But they weren't just for fashion. They served a very specific purpose.

Pants are warmer than open-bottom lower coverings, so it's not surprising that someone like Ötzi would be spotted in the pants-esque two-leggings get-up. But paleontologists and sociologists have long suspected another reason for the swift spread of pants all over the world: the cavalry.

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Historians have long connected the spread of pants with the spread of horses, with the pieces going unknown around the world, from Korea to Rome to the North American plains, until the horse finally made its debut. And these two ancient Chinese men are the perfect example. Unlike other bodies found in the cemetery, these were accompanied by wooden horses, leather bits, and other accouterments of life in the saddle. Were they literally the first pants ever? Probably not. But they were certainly haute couture to those who weren't up on their high horse.

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For more on the evolution of attire, check out the Smithsonian book, "Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 19, 2018

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