Why Do We Even Wear Pants?

By Sarah Scoles | January 9, 2018 12:40 pm

(Credit: Seinfeld/YouTube screengrab)

From far above, the area around Yanghai cemetery looks like a collection of ground-dwelling wasp dens, drilled into a gravelly desert. It gets hot in this region of remote western China — up to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and dry. That’s a hard-knock climate, but it’s perfect for preserving ancient artifacts. And if you zoom in on the region, and dig in, as archaeologists have, you’ll find tombs with well-kept secrets. Inside two of them, scientists found not just human remains but the remains of what covered those humans.

I’m talking about clothes, and not just any clothes: pants. These are the oldest pants (discovered) on Earth — more distressed than any jeans Gap can offer — dating back some 3,000 years. They’re tailored wool, and constructed from sewn-together pieces of uncut fabric. If Project Runway had magically predated television by about 2,930 years, the designer of these leg covers would have had a shot at the win.

But resting in peace with these pants were other artifacts, ones that provide clues about how pants got here in the first place, and why we wear them instead of tunics or togas or kilts. There were “grave goods,” as researcher Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute and her colleagues called them in the official publication about the find, nestled underground with their gone-but-not-forgotten owners. The two pants-wearers were buried with weapons and gear for riding horses.


The oldest known trousers belonged to nomadic horsemen in Asia. (Credit: Mayke Wagner/German Archaeological Institute)

Putting these facts — past-prime pants plus equestrian effects and war paraphernalia — together added heft to an idea that archaeologists have had for a while: The split-leg garments we know and love became standard fashion not because humans have two legs and want to show off their shapes, but because humans began hopping on the backs of horses.

“The design of the trousers from Yanghai seems to be a predecessor of modern riding trousers, which, together with other grave goods in the tombs, allows the assumption that the invention of bifurcated lower body garments is related to the new epoch of horseback riding and greater mobility,” says Ulrike Beck, researcher studying the design and construction of early clothing.

And their construction suggested to the archaeologists that these pants weren’t designed just to protect from the (significant) elements in the Turpan region but were optimized for horse travel.

The world’s oldest jeans, made by Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, circa 1879.

The world’s oldest jeans, made by Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, circa 1879. (Credit: Levi Strauss & Co.)

While these pants, and their equine-riding wearers, date back to between the 13th and 10th century BCE, leg-separating fabric didn’t catch on in Euro-“civilized” (Greek or Roman) culture for a while after that. Only barbarians, those cultured people believed, wore trousers. Take the Scythians, a group of Iranian nomads, or the Hunnu of Central Asia. The Greeks called Middle Easterners’ and Persians’ lower-wear “sacks,” and not in a nice way.

The Greco-Roman fun-making stopped, though, around the time those civilized statue-builders realized that mounted soldiers—cavalry—had a huge advantage over average-heighted people running around on their own two feet. To maintain military dominance, they needed to get atop the equines, to avoid tangling their tunics, and to protect their nether regions. And so, enter pants, which were also warmer as these people expanded northward.

When the Romans wore loose pants, they gave them a nice name: braccae, a word that later became the English “breeches.” And after the Romanics lost their military dominance despite their attire, the people in charge of Europe were full-on horse-riding pants-lovers.

A person strolling through a plaza would no longer be called out as a barbarian for two-cylinder attire. Instead, he signified to the world that he was ready for battle, or at least ready to hop on a horse and head somewhere important, legs spread.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    We then conclude that the Scots are time travelers. I’m good with that.

    head somewhere important, legs spread” That strikes me as being a very distaff take, re “Lucy.” (2014).

    • OWilson

      That’s why horses were never really big in Scotland.

      Sitting sidesaddle in your skirted kilt was not considered manly! :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        A new Roman private stood by his sergeant at Hadrian’s wall when the bar let out. A gutteral crashing cacophany preceded the doors swept wide. A terrible sight unfolded – giant red-furred monsters two meters high stomped out, their noses smashed, their faces torn, their teeth ragged in their mouths. Legs like tree stumps hanging dank red moss, giant bear arms, huge inhuman hairy scarred hands. They staggered out drunk to the wind, smashing into each other, pouring piddle under their kilts. An ominous red cloud rumbled toward the wall, vomiting and howling.

        The private blanched. His Sergeant said, “Stand fast, son.” The Scots passed.

        Said the private, “Whew, that was not so bad.”
        Said the sergeant, “Those were the women.”

        • OWilson

          I forgive all the raping, looting and pillaging just for the Oban, Tobermoery, Arran, Jura and Scapa floe!

          What did Atilla or Obama leave us?

          • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

            Attila spread an aggressive genome through Eastern Europe and rendered rather a large fraction of hereditary beautiful women. It remains a common first name

            Obama left a stern lesson of incompetence, criminality, sedition, Mr. Michelle…and Senator McCarthy deserving some historical rehabilitation.

            Achieving intellectual puberty suggests wearing long pants, or suffering repeated nuisance industrial and intellectual revolutions removing traditional comforts of poverty and ignorance.

          • Hibernia86

            I can’t believe any rational person would prefer the child we have in office now to the far more educated and ethical Obama.

          • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

            I cannot reason with the empirically insane or Saul Alinsky turd.

          • okiejoe

            It seems you can’t reason at all.

          • Dave Wolfe

            Libs always resort to name calling when their emotionaly preferential reasoning can’t stand up to facts and reason.

          • Kristin Williams

            Please be careful with your inaccurate “always” statement. Any fair minded person would have to admit that name calling is a behavior that can be seen in people of any political persuasion. It probably has more to do with with anger and frustration rather than correctness of those views. How about Trump? I can’t recall any person in any public leadership role, of any political leaning, who has been as prone to name calling as Donald J. Trump. Can you? He relishes name calling, front and center, and his supporters gleefully repeat those insulting names at his rallies. Your attack directed solely at liberals is ludicrous, given that reality.

          • John Thompson

            Trump is an idiot who stumbled on the right ideas.
            Obama is a smart guy who acted on his hate of this country.
            I’m not a fan of either.
            I absolutely prefer the policies Trump has vs. Obama. I also highly doubt Trump understands half of those polices.
            But of course I’m the opposite of a Marxist and I do not respect those who don’t seek the truth through reason so there’s my biases against those two.
            The last few decades have had really lousy Presidents.
            Boggles my mind that in the last Presidential election, the two most hated politicians in the country went head to head….

          • dickG

            I repute you description of the Liberal thought process.
            They invent their own facts with gusto and thus prove that they are a very inventive race by having invented most everything.
            They use a well-tuned logic system (Liber-Logic) to refine their self-invented facts to define anything (animal, vegetable, or mineral), anybody, or situation to be representative of their pre-conceived notions and thus, in their own minds are able to win ANY conflict through an intellectual battle of the minds using a single phrase or two hence requiring very little mental prowess and thus proving the value of conservation of energy.
            Phrases such as:
            ….”You simpletons simply don’t understand the situation”
            ….”You obviously are watching the wrong news network”
            ….”Fake news is Fake news”
            ….”Guns are bad”
            ….”You can’t PROVE that God exists therefore he does not”
            ….”You are so stupid and ignorant that it is impossible to discuss this any further. I shall not waste more of my time and therefore I win, you lose. Goodnight!”
            The other amazing thing about nearly ALL discussions with liberals is that you CANNOT WIN. It’s like wiping your a$$ with a barrel hoop, there just ain’t no end to it.

          • Dave Wolfe

            You can’t be serious. What are you smoking? Look at what Trump has done for the blacks and their unemployment. Trump gives them jobs, Obama gave dependence on government handouts. The blacks situation only got worse with liberal’s handouts. And they destroyed their families.

          • https://www.facebook.com/pages/My-Original-Music-written-arranged-produced-by-ME/195887277117017 JohnnyMorales

            Everything you wrote is false. It’s basically one long lie. You can believe what you like, but it doesn’t make it true.

            Funny how with all the lies you choose to believe, you don’t mention how the US debt grew by 1.4 trillion in the short time since your glorious leader has been in office.

          • Hibernia86

            Obama left us far better than the child in office now will leave us.

          • Dave Wolfe

            I what way?
            How is Trump childlike? Obama was trying to destroy the USA, it was plain to see.

        • KateGladstone

          And, back then, height was measured in meters?

  • OWilson

    I’d say Otzi the “Iceman” has them beat by about 2,500 years.

    Does animalskin leggings qualify as pants?

    The original “lederhosen”?

    • Tomasz Drabczyk

      I agree. Otzi is the holder of the record

  • comicalUser

    Chafing. 😉

  • John Thompson

    They mentioned that pants are warmer, but only in passing.
    I think the biggest reason for pants is warmth.
    Riding horses is another reason, that seems true, but probably not the primary reason.
    Egypt, ME, Persia, Italy – old civilizations with tunics – but also generally warm places.
    Colder places had leggings – and personally I would put those in the category of pants instead of tunics..
    Did some wear leggings and a tunic type clothing at the same time? Yes.
    On more thing they seem to skip – because they are so centered on the old civilizations that are generally in warm places without real winters – is that people wear different things at different times of the year.
    Nothing mentioned on seasonality of clothing.
    So in the US today we wear pants, shorts, coats, bikinis, robes – depending on activity and weather.
    Native Americans did not have pants when they were on horses. Eskimos did have pants but had no horses.

    • OWilson

      Today’s culture has a false ideal stereotype for evrything ancient.

      From Jesus’ flowing curls and soft English voice to the tall strong and handsome”noble savage” with a Rodeo Drive hairstyle.

      When the enviro nuts put out that famous TV ad ostensibly showing “Iron Eyes” Cody shedding a tear for the planet, they used a Hollywood actor, Espera Oscar de Corti, who was actually from Italian stock!

      You must be particularly wary of “artists impressions” accompanying scientific articles!

      • Hibernia86

        The fact that an actor may not be Native American doesn’t somehow prove that the environment is fine. There are still many crucial environmental issues that will need to be solved for our own health and well being.

    • kmtominey44

      Well – some tribes had a garment like a cross between pants and chaps worn with the standard breech clout. These were mounted plains indians. Also keeps you from getting sweaty – dirt layer from the horse. Try riding bareback in shorts say or a bathing suit.

    • ThatGuy

      Yes, the distinction between “leggings” and “pants” is meaningless.

      Horses weren’t introduced to North America until the Spanish arrived in the 15th century. But what are you talking about “Native Americans did not have pants”? Yes, actually, many of them did. And hey, look, you can even search Google Images for photos of them!

      Why do ignorant people always try to argue with historians and scientists like they have something to prove?

    • RobertSF

      They mentioned that pants are warmer, but only in passing.

      They are warmer than wearing nothing, but they are not warmer than wearing a robe. This is because pants are more constricting than robes, so they leave less of an air gap between the cloth and the skin. That makes it easier for the cold from the outside to seep in.

  • effacina

    This discussion should include what women wore when men were donning “pants”. If the idea was just warmth, women would be wearing pants as well. – I had to get permission to wear slacks to a picnic in a 1965 Catholic women’s college. Why has the prohibition of women in pants persisted?

    • Cameron Ownbey

      Because women want to appeal to men. It’s the eternal mating game.

      • Lisa Lynne Ramos

        More likely, it’s because men want women to appeal to men. It’s the eternal attempt to control the mating game.

        • Cameron Ownbey

          You say that like it’s a bad thing.

        • Hibernia86

          Women have more freedom today to choose their own husband and they still try and look beautiful to attract a boyfriend. So women weren’t just looking good because their fathers made them. It was in their own best interest for thousands of years.

          • Jo

            Still is arrogant to think that every attempt to be beautiful/presentable in a woman is because they want to attract a love interest.

          • Hibernia86

            No, every attempt of a woman to look beautiful isn’t to attract a love interest, but the standards of what a woman should look like were created by what attracted men since that was an important part of life (without sex, the species would end). So even when she isn’t trying to attract a man, she is still showing the other women that she could attract a man if she wanted to, which is an important part of female social hierarchy.

            Women that men find attractive tend to be more popular with other women even if those other women aren’t sexually attracted to them. But it is her ability to attract men that makes her popular with other women, not the other way around.

        • The Spazzy Nazi

          Get back in the kitchen, woman! Your husband is calling for his sandwich!

    • Hibernia86

      It’s mainly a cultural thing. Today almost no man under the age of 70 is going to say that women in pants are ugly. Wearing a dress doesn’t make women more beautiful. It was just the style of the past.

    • nik

      The reason women were preferred without pants, was to maybe keep them more available for men, but also maybe for hygiene, women have periods, men dont!

      • Isa Car

        And a bloody skirt is more hygienic than bloody pants because … ?

        • nik

          You cant read?
          ” women have periods, men dont!”

          In addition, pants hold the heat and sweat, against the crotch area, which is a breeding ground for a whole variety of fungal infections, and other undesirable organisms.

      • Shiny_Penguin

        If there is nothing but the ground, it’s easier to pee in a skirt. After traveling in the jungle and getting urine on my pants so many times, I hated them.

        • nik

          Nasty unhygienic things, even for men.
          When I was in the tropics, in the military, we had an epidemic of crotch fungus, due to bad laundry.
          Dispensing with underwear, and loose shorts, was the absolute prevention!


          its also easier for an animal to crawl up your leg and bite your pecker off without pants

    • Rob Neff

      Interesting point. According to the idea in this article, it shows that men were more often on horseback than women were. And when women were on horseback, they would ride side-saddle, because they generally were kept from doing active things on a horse like cowboy work, fighting in the cavalry etc. Women would be more likely seen driving a horse-and-buggy, where dresses were not a problem.

      I don’t think that prohibition against women in pants exists today though, at least not in western countries. The Catholic church was probably one of the last strongholds of 19th century traditions.

    • John Do’h

      Cultural standards and fashions can vary but it seems that pants for women is somewhat unique to modern cultures so there must be some reason. Maybe as simple as pants are more complex to manufacture, women had to make their own clothes or buy cheap garments while men got some trousers (and probably wore the same pair of pants everyday til they reeked).

      Or is a dominance thing, women couldn’t “wear the pants” because women had to know their place as submissive, certainly true in Christian cultures. Or maybe even some sort of long standing sexually crude idea of keeping women submissive, as in a woman can cover up all over but the dress still provides potential “easy access” for dominant men.

  • DC Olson

    I would agree that staying warm probably preceded the need to ride horses in human history. And while it get’s hot in the summer in western China, it no doubt gets cold there in winter. Maybe being a pants-wearing people made straddling a horse a more practicable option to these people than their toga-attired kin in Europe. Tradition is often a powerful deterrent to innovation, however. I am reminded of a controversy at the middle school I attended in Minnesota during the mid-60’s, when girls were prohibited from wearing pants to school, even in our below zero winter months. People complained (wouldn’t you?). A compromise of sorts was offered – the girls could wear pants while traveling to school, but needed to change to dresses or skirts before classes began. O tempora! O mores!

    • Hibernia86

      Couldn’t the girls have just worn dresses and pants? If her legs were under her dress, who would know that they were also wearing pants?

      • John Thompson

        Or of course thermal underwear bottoms.
        They can go under dresses or pants.

  • OWilson

    Wonder if skirts on women and pant on men had anything to do with the sometimes quick and furtive sex act that had to be performed under threat of war, or irate husband?

    Seems easier and quicker than a guy wearing a skirt and a women wearing trousers, and fits the basic profile of human intercourse, weather standing up, lying down or entering from behind!

    • John Thompson

      My thought on that is if it were just about speed and easy access, it would benefit both sexes equally to wear something like a kilt – no mention if ancient pants had a fly.
      Though to be fair any young boy will just pull their pants down and not open the button and zipper to use the bathroom – it doesn’t take long.
      Here’s something along those lines that is odd – often women’s pants have zippers in the front, but they have to pull their pants down to use the bathroom. Women’s pants had zippers on the side first, and that’s actually much more efficient/better than in the front for opening the pants to pull them down.

      • Alison Reid

        Having the zip in the front is easier to manage than having one on the side. Have you ever worn side-zip pants? I thought not. Sit down.

  • Lawrence Starr

    (The Dems killing clueless peasant strangers with the very costly drones in order to enrich traitorous military folk and War Profit business people is not what anyone sane would call “ethical”.)
    Pants are sensible.

  • nik

    Q. Why do we, [horse riders] wear pants? (not me in particular)
    A. Because if we didnt, we would take the wear-and-tear on our skin, instead of the pants.
    For non horse riders, its the same, for protection of the sensitive bits, against the various elements that one may come into contact with.

    • John Thompson

      I once road for half a day.
      My prior riding experience was minimal, probably 10 hours total, and none of my prior rides were more than an hour.
      The next day I could barely sit because of the pain of the chaffing…
      (And that was with the benefit of saddle, and proper clothing.)
      So I can vouch for your point.
      I’d wear ANYTHING that worked to protect the “sensitive bits”.
      I had to prevent the open sores on my rear from fusing my cheeks together as it healed!

      • Fred Scuttle

        Thanx for that visual 😦

  • Jon Brooks

    Why do old nen love to talk about the day they switch from pants to shorts during the spring and how they won’t switch back until late fall?

  • ayia kiriaki

    Nobody seems to have noticed that in the traditional Arab world (from whence came especially famous seeds), women wear trousers (at their men’s behest to make access harder for other men?) and men wear loose flowing robes (so that they can access their ‘tools’ more easily?). So where is the logis in saying trousers are primarily for equestrians?


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