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.

        • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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!


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