Q: Why Do We Wear Pants? A: Horses

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The surprisingly deep history of trouser technology.

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Whence came pants? I'm wearing pants right now. There's a better than 50 percent chance that you, too, are wearing pants. And neither of us have probably asked ourselves a simple question: Why?

It turns out the answer is inexplicably bound up with the Roman Empire, the unification of China, gender studies, and the rather uncomfortable positioning of man atop horse, at least according to University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin.

"Historically there is a very strong correlation between horse-riding and pants," Turchin wrote in a blog post this week. "In Japan, for example, the traditional dress is kimono, but the warrior class (samurai) wore baggy pants (sometimes characterized as a divided skirt), hakama. Before the introduction of horses by Europeans (actually, re-introduction - horses were native to North America, but were hunted to extinction when humans first arrived there), civilized Amerindians wore kilts."

The reasons why pants are advantageous when mounted atop a horse should be obvious, nonetheless, many cultures struggled to adapt, even when their very existences were threatened by superior, trouser-clad horseback riders.

Turchin details how the Romans eventually adopted braccae (known to you now as breeches) and documents the troubles a 3rd-century BC Chinese statesman, King Wuling, had getting his warriors to switch to pants from the traditional robes. "It is not that I have any doubt concerning the dress of the Hu," Wuling told an advisor. "I am afraid that everybody will laugh at me." Eventually, a different state, the Qin, conquered and unified China. They just so happened to be closest to the mounted barbarians and thus were early to the whole cavalry-and-pants thing.

Turchin speculates that because mounted warriors were generally men of relatively high status, the culture of pants could spread easily throughout male society.

I'd add one more example from history: the rise of the rational dress movement in conjunction with the widespread availability of the bicycle. Here's a University of Virginia gloss:


The advent and the ensuing popularity of the safety bicycle, with its appeal to both sexes mandated that women cast off their corsets and figure out some way around their long, billowy skirts. The answer to the skirt question was to be found in the form of bloomers, which were little more than very baggy trousers, cinched at the knee. Bloomers provoked wrath in conservatives and delight in women cyclists, and the garment was to become the centerpiece of the "rational dress" movement that sprung up at the end of the 19th century.

What all these examples suggest is that technological systems -- cavalry, bicycling -- sometimes require massive alterations in a society's culture before they can truly become functional. And once it's locked in, the cultural solution (pants) to an era's big problem can be more durable than the activity (horse-mounted combat) that prompted it.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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