Cultural Evolution of Pants

Posted on July 7, 2012 by


If you are in North America or Western Europe and look around, on any particular day, you will find most people wearing pants. But why is it the standard item of clothing for people, especially men belonging to the Western civilization. Why not a kilt, a robe, a tunic, a sarong, or a toga?

I asked this question here two days ago and got a variety of replies. As you will see, my preferred explanation will use several of the reasons people brought up. However, the most common theme in the discussion was utility or convenience. Here’s where I disagree: comfort provides (at most) 10 percent of the explanation. Just think of that ridiculous contraption, the tie, that you have to wear if you want to be elected to public office, or to become CEO. No, the much more important factors are the social ones: conforming to social norms and signaling social identity or status.

To convince you of the primacy of social factors I urge you to check out this extremely funny site, Bravehearts in Kilts Against Trouser Tyranny:

http://www.kiltmen.com/

This site is hilarious not because the Bravehearts in Kilts are stupid, but precisely for the opposite reason. Once you have read their passionate defense of the kilt, you (at least if you are a male) will realize that it is us, pant-wearers, who are stupid. In warm climates or during summers in the temperate zone the kilt is much more comfortable to wear than the jeans.

Male’s testes hang outside the body for a reason: the optimum temperature for spermatogenesis is a couple of degrees less than the body temperature. So wearing tight pants kinda defeats that purpose.

A skirt is more comfortable in summer than pants (image from kiltmen.com)

But I am not switching to the kilt any time soon. Let’s face it, men in skirts look funny. The social factors trump convenience. Take a look at this web page (Confronting the Objections of Trouser Tyrants – Wives and Parents), just to see the kind of uphill battle the Bravehearts face:

http://www.kiltmen.com/wives.htm

Good luck to them.

In the Arctic and during the temperate winter pants are very convenient, there is not question about it (although let’s not forget that in places like Russia or Sweden winters are pretty cold, yet until recently half of the population wore skirts even in winter). But plenty of people living in warm climates wear pants. How did this social convention get started?

If we go back to the ‘Cradle of the Western Civilization,’ the Mediterranean region two thousand years ago, we will find that none of the civilized people there (notably the Greeks and the Romans, but also Phoenicians and Egyptians) wore pants.

Clothing worn by the Classical Romans belonging to different classes. A toga, by the way, was not particularly convenient type of clothing to wear. You couldn’t even wrap yourself in it without help. So it probably started as a status statement (“I am rich, I have slaves”). During the Classical period, only Roman citizens were allowed to wear a toga. You had to wear it if you wanted to be elected to office (so it was the Roman equivalent of suit and tie). (image from http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/clothing_sources.html)

The only people you would see wearing pants were the visiting ‘barbarians,’ like the Scythians (see image), or Medes and Persians (the latter were, of course, a highly civilized people, but the Greeks still considered them ‘barbarians’).

In Iron Age Europe only ‘barbarians,’ like these two Scythian warriors, wore pants (image from http://www.german-hosiery-museum.de)

Just as a sight of a man in a skirt causes uncontrollable laughter in a typical Westerner today (unless you are a Scot), we know from the their literature that wearing pants seemed weird and even ridiculous to the Greeks. The Classical Greek did not even have a word for ‘trousers.’ There are two famous passages referring to trousers. One is from The Wasps by Aristophanes about a battle in which the Persians were defeated: “Then we pursued them, harpooning them through their baggy trousers.” Another is from Euripides’ Cyclops about the seduction of Helen by Paris: “The sight of a man with embroidered breeches on his legs and a golden chain about his neck so fluttered her, that she left Menelaus, her excellent little husband.”

Apparently the actual word used in both passages is ‘sack,’ translated in these two passages as ‘baggy trousers’ or ‘breeches.’ So, according to the Greeks, the Persians were running away with bags flapping around their legs…

The basic garment worn by the Greeks was the chiton (basically, same as the Roman tunic). And wearing ‘sacks’ around their legs was something that only barbarians did. The Romans of the Classical Age felt the same way. Citizens were required to wear togas for any official functions, and at other times (e.g., for war) they wore tunics.

A Greek charioteer in a chiton (from Wikipedia)

So if you go back to Italy of the Classical Age, nobody (apart from barbarians) is wearing trousers. Fast forward a thousand years to medieval Italy and all men are wearing a kind of trousers (hose).

During the Middle Ages Italian men wore tight pants, a hose (image from Google)

Why did the Italians switch from tunics to pants? The answer is the horse. Not only are the horses responsible for why we live in complex, large-scale societies (or, at least, how such large-scale societies first evolved), they are also the reason why males have to swelter in pants in summer, instead of wearing the cool kilt. As I will discuss in my next blog, there is an exceedingly close historical correlation between the adoption of cavalry and switching to wearing pants.

Part II here

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