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Cultural Evolution of Pants

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

18 Comments

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18 Comments

  1. KMK says:

    Thanks, Peter — Great Post! I’ll never be able to look at horses in the same way after reading your post.

    • Doruk says:

      I wore a kilt outfit to our work Christmas party for the first time this year – it was great in the end, even if it was a wee bit nerve-wracking at first going kiteld to a work event!Don’t think I would have done it if it was just me, but it ended up with all of the group of us lads deciding to go for it. So there was a bit of safety in numbers and that gave everyone the confidence to go for it.Having decided to do it, we thought we might as well go the whole hog, and so all got ourselves dressed up to the nines with full prince charlie outfits with five button waistcoats, and smart back shirts. Different kilts and cravats for each of us though, so we just matching enough to look classy, but different enough to look individual. And I have to say, we looked absolutely amazing!Anyway, once we’d relaxed into our outfits we had an awesome night. Though I think the ladies enjoyed themselves even more As your list suggests, they spent most of the evening guessing what we had on under our kilts. We were all very much true scotsmen given we were going as a group peer pressure had made sure of that! Despite our best efforts to stay modest, as the drink flowed the girls managed to achieve their goal and find out the truth, which made for a slightly embarrassing Monday morning for us, and continued amusement for them! But at least we maintained Scottish honour, I suppose!So wearing a kilt to the Office Christmas Party certainly takes balls, but it helped make a great and entertaining night for everyone! I think we’ll definitely be kiteld again in 2011 – I don’t think the ladies in the office would let us do anything else!

    • Leslie Fish says:

      *Snicker* Horses have indeed shaped civilization, but there’s a little more to it than that. Pants, as any working woman can tell you, are much safer and more efficient for doing physical work than loose-hanging skirts are. They also have the added attraction of protecting the crotch, which is not to be sneered at.

  2. Peter Turchin says:

    One of these days I will have to write a book about how the horse changed the course of human history…

  3. Peter,

    After reading this article, I have to admit to being a little puzzled. You refer to the kiltmen website as being “hilarious” and “stupid” in one sentence, then advocate the wearing of kilts in another sentence. Rather than ridiculing that with which you are clearly unfamiliar, with statements like “Just as a sight of a man in a skirt causes uncontrollable laughter in a typical Westerner today”, why don’t you use your article to bring about societal change and more open-mindedness towards people, i.e. men, having the same sartorial choices as do women. Afterall, skirts are more comfortable than pants in most any situation. And I dare say, that while horses did have a pivotal role in the expansion of communities, few men today ride horses on a daliy basis. Therefore, the need for pants could also have a similar wane.

    Skirt and kilt wearing will only become less ridiculed and more accepted by society when people such as yourself stop impugning men who recognize that they have a choice in what they wear and decide to act upon it.

    If you’re going to write an article advocating the wearing of skirts and kilts, then please don’t do so in such the Jekyll and Hyde manner in which this one is written.

    TKH

    • Peter Turchin says:

      TKH: Not quite Jekyll and Hyde, but the irony certainly works at multiple levels. Most people think that wearing kilts is funny, but actually it is funny that they think it is funny. If you know what I mean.

      You may take comfort in that, apparently, among the Greeks and Romans during the Classical Age men wearing pants caused uncontrollable laughter.

      It would be very interesting to see if you can bring about cultural change, so that wearing kilts will become acceptable (outside of Scotland) and not worthy of ridicule, or even comment. I hope you will, but the purpose of my blog was not to bring about social change. Rather, I am interested in how cultural evolution works.

  4. SEF Editor says:

    Scots wear kilts because they only have to deal with Shetland Ponies? Any evidence that the Romans during the time of Caesar had mounted battles, and if so, what did they wear?
    Michael Hochberg

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Mike, this is the question I am currently researching, so the answers may change. But it looks like the Romans into the late Republic (e.g., Caesar’s time) did not serve as cavalry. They were first and foremost, heavy infantry. Legions had cavalry units attached to them, but these were auxiliary troops (recruited among the non-Romans).

      There are many depictions of Romans riding horses (typically, not in battle, but in processions etc). They wore the standard military garb – a tunic and armor over that.

  5. Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    This is so funny! TKH don´t take it the wrong way. I am sure that both Peter and all non-scottish find scottish men in kilts rather impressive-looking and manly, but probably Peter and non-scottish would look ridiculous with kilts because we would feel ridiculous wearing them at first.

    As for horseriding in classical times, I think that the technique of horseriding without stirrups (the classical way) differs in such a way from the technique of horseriding with stirrups (introduced by the Hunes), that trousers are only needed in the latter. May be it has something to do with the saddle. We should ask a professional horserider with knowledge of History.

    And I think that the young republican roman aristocrats did serve as cavalry: I remember a chapter of “The civil war” by Julius Caesar where he won a battle (Magnesia?) by ordering his infantry to point their spears towards the faces of the horseriders. Allegedly they were so vain and fearful of ruining their handsome faces that the power of the Pompeius cavalry charge faded.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Juan, I don’t think that stirrups are necessasry for switching to pants. Steppe riders, from Scythians to Hunnu, wore pants before stirrups were invented. In fact, stirrups may work the other way. If you don’t have them, it is much more important that you grip the horse with your knees. So protecting your legs against abrasion is more important if you don’t have stirrups.

  6. PT wrote: “It would be very interesting to see if you can bring about cultural change, so that wearing kilts will become acceptable (outside of Scotland) and not worthy of ridicule, or even comment.”

    TKH responds: Well, cultural change can happen in fits and starts by individuals, such as myself, deciding for themselves to go against the grain. Or, it can happen when a larger influence occurs such as a war.

    When Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn decided for themselves, at various points in time, to wear trousers, there was most assuredly a small following with other women doing likewise.

    However, it was likely WWII that put women in factories and consequently into pants on a more widespread basis. Pants were worn by these women for protection from their surroundings. The practicality was not lost on them for times outside of work. As a result, pants wearing women started to be seen in social situations.

    For men, the wearing of pants was originally quite likely attributed to riding a horse, also for protection, chafing, etc.

    Jeans were initially worn by the gold rush set and then by others, in place of trousers, for praticality but also for asthetics. I for one would rather wear jeans while working in the yard rather than looser fitting (and more weakly constructed) trousers for just the same reason.

    When not working in hazardous environs, the comfort of a kilt or skirt is unparalleled.

    In addition to researching this issue of pants and kilts, one should try it for oneself.

    I am often reminded of a paraphrase (of Robert Bernard Shaw) often attributed to Robert and Edward Kennedy:

    “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

    It is this same line of thought that has propelled me into the un-bifurcated arena of kilts and skirts. Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn quite likely had similar lines of thought.

    PT wrote: “I hope you will, but the purpose of my blog was not to bring about social change. Rather, I am interested in how cultural evolution works.”

    TKH responds: In my opinion, the best way to learn how something works, e.g. cultutal evolution, is for one to experience it first hand, thus also becoming part of the evolution.

    If you have yet to experience an unbifurcated garment first hand, I highly suggest a trip to the local thrift store and make a selection from the skirt section. Denim and knee length should do the trick. Your preferences may vary of course. Trust me, the experience of an un-bifurcated garment is unlike any other.

    After experencing the comfort of a skirt first hand, one can’t help but ask why other men don’t do this. The answer is more of a cultural/societal momentum issue and circular, i.e. fallicious, reasoning than anything else. But by wearing a kilt or skirt yourself, for however long, is in itself the beginning of, or continuation of cultural evolution.

    Cultural evolution succeeds only through direct participation rather than sideline observation.

    FWIW,

    TKH

  7. Scott P. says:

    “Why did the Italians switch from tunics to pants? The answer is the horse.”

    I disagree. The adoption of trousers was just one element of a massive cultural borrowing of Germanic fashion during the later Empire. Germanic-style belt buckles, pins, cloaks, banners, and clothing became very popular, particularly in the Western provinces. Horses were widely used in war and transport both before and after this stylistic revolution, so there is no reason to credit them for the change.

  8. Peter Turchin says:

    The adoption of pants began earlier, during the early Empire.The first Romans to wear pants regularly were the military. In the Eastern Empire, pants were part of military attire even after the collapse of the West, while the civilians wore robes. (However, they may have worn some kind of hose under the robes). So everything points to the military as the first adopters of pants, and the most logical conclusion is because of horseriding.

    In any case, why should the Romans be influenced by barbarian fashions? That is, before the Germans conquered the Western Empire and became the new ruling class (so that cultural elements of their clothing became associated with high status).

  9. Pants worn by sailors. Western civilization is maritime.

  10. Ted says:

    Just a quick note on togas. Besides Roman citizen males, one other group would wear togas: enslaved women forced to be street walking prostitutes.

  11. Yahya A says:

    Serge Sergeev: “Pants worn by sailors. Western civilization is maritime.”

    But not all sailors are Westerners, and most Eastern sailors – before globalization – didn’t wear pants either. Even Western sailors often went half-naked or naked in hot climates while on board ship. Just as for Greek athletes in classical times, it was accepted at some epochs that sailors had a practical need to be unencumbered by clothes, particularly in hazardous situations.

  12. Anna says:

    Here in Stockholm, Sweden, 14 male train drivers on a commuter train line started wearing skirts a couple of weeks ago. It was really warm and they were not allowed to wear shorts. I must say I think they looked good!
    link to bbc.co.uk

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Anna, this is a great story – thanks for the link! Funny in too many ways. Calling skirts “women’s clothing”!