Pants versus Sarong

Peter Turchin


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One of my most popular posts ever was on Cultural Evolution of Pants. The comments on old posts are off, but recently I got a new one through the “contact me” feature of my site. It was from a French reader named David; here’s the English translation:

Hi Peter, I agree with your point of view. Personally I wear regularly my red tartan kilt bought in a thrift shop of Montpelier in 2005. An unknown practice here in the south of France, and  it does not please a part of my family — some have the narrow spirit, cloisonné [“divided up”], and can’t break out of the scheme man = pants.
The wearing of the kilt gives me greater confidence than trousers, it is a warrior’s skirt, it is virile just like the sarong of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.
Moreover, in summer I wear sarongs, nice when it’s hot, and more elegant than shorts, I’m lucky to live 20 km from the Mediterranean Sea. When I go to the beach to bathe, I’m in sarong and polo short sleeve.
In winter I wear my kilt with high leather boots, which I buy in rider stores. I will soon buy a leather kilt, it’s really beautiful. Thank you for your article, it is brilliant. Here in the West male clothing is governed by old codes which it is time to get rid of, we changed the century and millennium in 2000, [we should] change the male clothing, give it more diversity, more originality.

David’s comment reminds me of great discussions I read on several Indian sites, which took up the theme (for example, this one). The commenters fell into two opposing camps on this issue, perhaps reflecting the division between Indian nationalists and westernizers.

For reasons I explain in my original post, sarong is a much healthier type of clothing for men living in hot and humid climates.

A 60 year old Kitavan Chief. I use this photo in my class on Cultural Evolution to illustrate the health benefits of traditional Polynesian diet, but this guy looks really cool (in both senses of the word) in a sarong. 

But as the author of the Indian post pointed out, there is one problem: what if you need to ride on a motorbike? “It’s not easy, or especially attractive, unless you loop the back-bottom of the sarong up, making something akin to pants. Or diapers.”

The strongest position on the pants versus sarong issue was taken by one of the readers:

Pants are much better looking on males than the stupid sarong. I hate sarongs. I never wear them. They are a very primitive and gode form of dress. Maybe they are ok to wear @ home but NEVER outside. Also when men wear sarong and women wear the redde/hatte, there is no difference between the men and women. they look the same from waist down, which is pretty bad in my book.

So David could take some comfort that even in India, the birth place of sarong, it is now controversial. So what should we expect of Europe? Even David Beckham couldn’t pull off wearing a sarong. It was voted fourth worst of his 10 top fashion fails. (And he cheated, by wearing a sarong on top of his pants).


Here are the rest of my posts on how horses changed what we wear:

Blame the Horses

Why do we wear pants?

Cultural Evolution of Pants

Cultural Evolution of Pants II

When Real Men Wore High Heels

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Peter van den Engel

Yes, there’s an element of practical temperature controle and physical convenience to clothing/ next to the availability of textile itself (textile industry has long been a most important one in human economy, so your dress represented your wealth and status, also resulting in highly unpractical hoop dresses, French female aristrocracy wore)/ and an element expressing overall cultural group identity, if it wants to. Like the blue Mao dress all Chinese wore in the previous century.

The cultural acceptance of a dress confirms the collective efficiency (intelligence) of the group, which denies everything else, being inefficient: dumb.
Not only do groups confirm their identity with it, you can also read their psychology from it.
Scots fi are a more stubborn culture overall and therefore want to prove this by wearing their kilts (we are not English), French, as I once noticed in Paris, all were dressed in black: proving a nonconformist culture on the other hand. Americans in poshy hotels all wearing the kind of outfit Europeans would only wear on the campingsite outdoors, looking misplaced/ but nevertheless expressing their loose selfconfident culture I suppose.

These are all innocent examples/ but when it comes down to muslim women wearing veils or shawls, for westerners it represents female surpression. So some of their federal states forbid it by law/ while for the women it actually ment sexual anonymity and relative freedom, untill their state obliges this too by law. In both cases the state provides in misunderstanding human culture, because a dress is no state law.

al loomis

call it kilt or sarong, definitely better in hot climates. but i ride motorcycles, and not practical. loose shorts nearly as good [see bombay bloomers] and don’t inspire revulsion, except among those with strong opinions about knobby knees.


Dr. Turchin, when you were in grad school in Seattle, you may have occasionally noticed a worker, often in the building trades, dressed in a “utility kilt.” They´re not as common as hardhats (even in Seattle), but a local manufacturer has been turning them out for going on twenty years now. If you ask at the company´s store for a traditional kilt, or even a utility kilt in a tartan pattern, you´ll be politely directed to a traditional tailor.

Greetings I really enjoyed reading this article

Loren Petrich

In considering this issue, one must ask why large numbers of women have joined men in much of the world, going from skirts and dresses to pants over the last half-century.

This shift has happened with remarkably little comment that I have been able to discover, despite the common stereotype that women are very preoccupied with clothes.

Peter van den Engel

Yes interesting evolution. My take on it is it’s a combination of hierarchies.
In terms of labor, pants are more difficult to produce than a piece of cloth serving as a dress, so it demands money buying specialized labor. Since men were usually more part of this economy than women and did physical labor requiring better protection, they had themselves made pants/ while women were at home and a skirt has a certain elegance in moving around, it synchronizes with their sexual cultural meaning in the first place.
So the first evolution was inverted to skirts (women) chosing pants again, because they had originally rejected it.

I presume this is a result of the evolution of women also becoming part of the money economy, resulting in more independence (not sexually related anymore), where pants have always been the artifact of, in terms of energy information, so it synchronizes (swaps) into that.

This event is culturally recognized and translated into: “Its a mans world”, suggesting something is missing it had before/ instead of wanting to become part of it, as a conscious identity swap.

Loren Petrich

There may be simpler explanations. I remember asking about this issue long ago, and some women responded that pants are more convenient.

Peter van den Engel

History of fashion reveals people very often sacrificed convenience for identity. Like walking on high heels for instance.
Women sacrificed more than men overall.

With the rise of democracy, identity started to become less important, so convenience is also an aspect of equality in that sense.
You might ask yourself if convenience was the ultimate goal for democracy/ but in energy time terms it was.
Convenience means less time obstructions, less lost time or inconvenient times.

In the light of feminism; supposedly the last fight for equality; wearing mens clothes on another level already proves equality: has taken the wanted identity, so it’s convenient on two levels of hierarchy at the same time: you’re never sure what convenience means, in semantics 🙂

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