Why do we wear pants?

Peter Turchin


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Some readers of this blog may be getting a bit tired of the group selection debate, which can get rather abstruse. So let’s shift gears on this holiday, when Americans celebrate their national independence, and consider a lighter topic.

Why do we wear pants? More specifically, why are trousers (breeches, jeans, slacks, pantaloons) a standard item of clothing worn by men in Western societies? Why shouldn’t it be a kilt, a robe, a chiton, or a toga? Clearly, I have my own answer, but I first want to hear what others think. Please write your suggestions as comments on the blog, or send them to me by e-mail. I will compile your answers and include them in the blog that I am writing on cultural evolution of pants, and post it in a day or two.

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Gene Anderson

Well, they were originally a Celtic and Germanic item of dress, adaptive in the cold weather and thorny brush of northern Europe. Nomads of central Asia wore similar garb for convenience on horseback. The fact that women have converted to pants-wearing in the last 60 years is of interest–showing they are more convenient for active life.

Peter Turchin

Thanks, Gene. So your explanation is that we wear pants because of utility – protection from cold and convenience for active life (e.g., walking through the brush).

Do others agree? Any other explanations?


I always thought men wear pants for the same reason we use forks and knives to eat while some other asian (don’t know whether there is a non-asian country involved) countries use chopsticks.. Maybe at first it had spread because of the convenience… though now i don’t think men wear it just because of the convenience (or it can be another type of convenience, a sort of social contract).
I am keen to hear your ideas about that!

Peter Turchin

marieamora: OK, so if I may rephrase, we wear pants because of cultural inertia? Somehow it got started, and then it became the thing to do?


Good choice for a national holiday! I think all formats of trousers are very comfortable and handy to use than the kilt. Moreover by wearing trouser one looks smarter than in skirt. Thanks!

Juan Alfonso del Busto

I agree with Gene. Germanic horseriding with stirrups — which were imported, as gene said, from mongolic horseriders, probably the Hunes– made trousers a common garment among western europe horseriders. Besides, it probably became a sign of prestige and/or high birth since not everyone could afford to own a horse or ride it. May be it came to represent the difference between aristocrats and peasants. Besides western women didn´t usually ride on horseback on their own so it also became a sign of masculinity as well as social status, leaving men with trousers and women with dresses and skirts.
It is funny because I have sometimes wondered about this same question and the answers above are not satisfactory enough. By the way, the tie seems to me a puzzle even more difficult to solve. I would also love to hear your ideas about the costume of wearing a tie.

Peter Turchin

Juan, thanks. So the two main factors you focus on are (1) horseriding and (2) prestige/status.

As to ties, I don’t have a good story about that ridiculous part of western man’s phenotype… as far as I can rememeber it started as a kind of scarf worn by English gentlemen early in the 19th century. If memory serves, it was Beau Brummel who got it started.

Juan Alfonso del Busto

Wow, you know a lot about ties! Sometimes I think the evolution of ties has undergone a dynamics similar to the fisher´s runaway process in sexual selection, which sometimes lead to analogously “ridiculous” results in biology.
As for the main factors I focus on regarding trousers I would also add (3) gender differentiation.

Vladimir Dinets

Juan: if memory serves me correctly, Greek and Roman sources mention northern peoples wearing pants long before the Huns.
Note that North American Indians also used long pants. Indeed, there seems to be a strong correlation between pants wearing and cold climate. Kilts are a rare and mysterious anomaly. Of course, women of most European peoples didn’t wear long pants, but that’s probably because they didn’t spend much time outdoors in winter, with trade and firewood collecting being done mostly by men.

Juan Alfonso del Busto

Really? I didn´t know about those greek and roman sources. I thought that pants came along with stirrups.
Does anyone know what “Ozzy the iceman” was wearing when he was found. I mean, everyone has seen his frozen naked body but there were traces of his clothes and I think he wore neat lined shoes and a jacket made with leather and all. Was he wearing a rough loincloth, a robe or pants?… if he was wearing pants your explanation about climate adaptation makes sense, and the paralel development in America could mean a case of evolutive convergence.

Peter Turchin

Juan, Oetzi wore leggings

Peter Turchin

Thanks to all for your comments! As you will see in a minute, I have posted the first half of my explanation of why we wear pants (it became too long to post in one installment, the second half will be posted in a day or two).

Vladimir Dinets

Juan: I can’t look up any sources at the moment (slow internet, sorry), but I think pants were considered by Romans and Greeks to be Barbarian clothing, specifically in case of Germanic tribes. It’s been something like 30 years since I read this somewhere (school textbook?)

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