Who wears the pants?

Photo by JeepersMedia used under CC by 2.0

by Ruth Griffiths

The tradition of men wearing pants and women wearing skirts is so common that it is reflected in the symbols on public washrooms. One of the stick figures wears a skirt while the other does not, so we can assume it wears pants. When did we start to believe that women should wear skirts and that pants were more appropriate for men?

Skirts have been worn since prehistoric times by both men and women.

The ancient pharaohs, both male and female, are depicted in a form-fitting skirt.

Pants seem to have originated with the horse-riding nomads of Mongolia. The oldest fragments of pants found date back to these steppe tribes, who were wearing them as early as 3,000 years ago. Both women and men may have donned them.

My horse-loving friend assures me that riding a horse with bare legs quickly leads to abrasion of the rider’s skin where it has rubbed against the horse or saddle. An internet source advises riders: “wear long pants because they can help prevent saddle sores, trail injuries, and other uncomfortable issues.” Clearly, both males and females need protection when riding horses.

In addition, pants provide modesty while sitting astride a horse. Even when wearing a riding skirt, the fashionable lady also wore pants.

The idea that pants are masculine is relatively recent. For most of human history everyone wore tunics or skirts of some sort. Skirted garments for men are still acceptable in many contexts. Academics, monks and clergy wear gowns. Robes and skirts remain completely acceptable for adult men in many warmer countries.

One internet source says: “Even in the 19th century, as the pant-like breeches beloved of such dandies as Beau Brummell set the hearts of ladies aflutter (because they revealed everything of a gentleman’s legs and buttocks), skirted garments were still acceptable in many contexts in European society. “

Pants are also worn for warmth. Consider the traditional Inuit clothing … no skirts and bare legs. The furry tunic and pants worn traditionally by the people of the Far North are needed for a life in the ice and snow.

Women in Pakistan wear the Salwar Kameez (Punjabi suit) that became popular during the Mogul Empire 500 years ago. The traditional dress consists of a loose tunic worn to mid-calf and loose pants that narrow at the ankle. A scarf is often worn around the shoulders and neck to complete the outfit.

Today some North American men wear skirts for comfort or as a political statement, such as school boys who wear kilts to point out the inequality of school uniforms.

Women have been wearing pants as a political statement for years; for example suffragettes wore Bloomers in public. But it wasn’t until the turbulent Sixties that pants became more popular in women’s fashion.

I recall the fuss when my 1971 laboratory technology graduating class wore a pantsuit uniform rather than a dress. Even a decade ago Hilary Clinton was ridiculed for her “power suit.” Our out-going Governor General, Julie Payette, rocked a white form-fitting pant suit for the 2020 Throne Speech.

Today, “who wears the pants” seems to be less controversial than “who wears the skirt.” Pants are the default apparel for children and adults in an age where gender is fluid.

The History of Men & Skirts by JR Thorpe 2017 bustle.com
Punjabi suit, encyclopedia.com