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The humble trouser – that is, an item of clothing from waist to ankle which covers both legs separately, as distinct from dresses, skirts or kilts – would have been as familiar to our medieval ancestors as they are to us today. However, if we are to portray people from the past accurately, or if we want to inhabit deep and meaningful fantasy, we have to go beyond merely choosing historically appropriate fabric in the right colour: we have to inhabit the minds of people in the past, whose choice of legwear was often an important marker of status, wealth and what they thought about the world. For re-enactors or role-players, finding the perfect combination of comfort, robustness and look is rarely an easy task – but a firm historical grounding in understanding why medieval pants looked they way they did, as well as some historical examples for inspiration, is a first step towards perfection.
Far from being the height of chic, pants first appear on the historical scene as the clothing of nomads, steppe-folk and, that incredibly loaded term, ‘barbarians’. Early Greek writers note the wide-crotched, straight legged woolen pants of horseback riders from the Eurasian steppe with much amusement. Apparently, the oh-so-civilised Greeks felt that wearing a fancy toga was much less silly than the θύλακοι (thulakoi) or “sacks” that these tribesmen wore on their legs. It seems that pants were initially unisex and utilitarian, rather than a mark of gender – strict division of legwear between genders seems to have only emerged as agricultural societies gave way to more rigid feudalism and the setting-down of gender roles more generally. The Romans inherited the Greek disdain for the simple trouser, although even they were forced to admit that the lands outside of the Mediterranean basin were much more tolerable if you had cosy legs. We can see how the increasing ‘barbarianisation’ of Rome – the gradual acceptance of non-Romans as vital participants in Roman society – led to a change in attitude to pants, and by late Antiquity, the settled peoples of Romanised Europe had adopted wool, cotton and early medieval leather pants as a common staple of military- and work-dress.
Inspiration From History
The Thorsberg Moor Romper Suit (c. 300CE)
Amongst medieval pants, the archaeological finds at a Danish peat bog called Thorsberg Moor in the middle of the 19th-century shed an incredible light into medieval legwear. This trove of late-Roman and Germanic objects was deposited by the Angles, the people who would soon colonise the British Isles. Fragments of clothing from this period are rare enough, but the trove included a nearly-complete pair of masterfully constructed slender pants, complete with built-in socks. They were constructed from more than a dozen panels, included belt-loops designed to be folded inwards over a belt, and were made from a fine diamond twill wool. When selecting pants for your own representation, all of these indicate status in this period: complex construction, fine materials, and shapely fashion.
Showing Your Underpants (1440CE)
The high-medieval fashion amongst nobles for commissioning elaborate illuminated manuscripts to show off their religious devotion has had an unintended consequence of preserving contemporary fashion in their illustrations. One such book is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, commissioned around 1440 in the modern-day Netherlands. Amongst contemporary and classical depictions of soldiers and saints is one individual in a state of semi-undress wearing only their hosen and braies (definitely worth a look - p. 253 of the manuscript). Whilst separate two-layer under-pants appear in the historical record in the 8th-century, by the later medieval period they had morphed into recognisable ‘underwear’. Thus, as in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, you can see depicted the fashion for tight-fitting hosen, consisting of two separate legs, attached by leather strings to the drawstring of your braies, your linen tighty-whiteys. It is interesting to note elsewhere in the manuscript that many individuals, particularly the soldiers, are depicted wearing merely their braies above high boots – which I think we can all agree is a strong look.
Hell For Leather (16th-19th century CE)
Medieval leather pants seem to be a go-to for re-enactors and LARP enthusiasts alike, because they are unarguably super-cool. But is there much historical evidence for the use of leather as a frequent material for making pants? Fortunately, there is – for example, this spanky pair of leather breeches at the Museum of San Francisco. Being from the late-medieval or early-modern period, we can see a whole host of improvements in trouser design: from the lace-up cuffs at the knee, to a properly usable fly. Included in this example as well is a ‘codpiece’ – a padded or shaped pouch which in the earlier period concealed and protected the genitalia, and which in later designs came to emphasise and show it off. It seems likely that these leather pants were of late-medieval design since codpieces fell out of fashion in the 17th century. Can’t think why.
What Do Your pants Say About You?
Having looked at the history of medieval pants, trousers and hose, we can begin to get an inkling of what was being said by the choice of legwear in the medieval period: were you a barbarian, or were you civilised? Were you a soldier, or did others do your fighting for you? Were you a manual worker, whose trousers needed to last, or were your hands idle? It is highly instructive that one of the most grave charges levelled against Jean d’Arc during her trial for heresy was her wearing of ‘men’s’ clothing – particularly her wearing of hosen. In the medieval period, one which was obsessed with chastity and purity, men’s easily-doffed legwear was explicitly contrasted with women’s complex and buttoned-up dress. Indeed, the final straw for the presiding bishops was her recantation of her confession, signified – shock, horror – by her donning of men’s clothes in her dungeon cell. So – make a statement of your wealth, your trade, or even your transgression of social norms by choosing the right medieval pants.