Of all the words that divide English from the version spoken in North America, none causes more confusion than ‘Pants’. In English they are underwear whilst in America they refer to trousers, so how did this very curious dichotomy come about.
To begin we must go back to the eighteenth century, men wore breeches, short trousers that were buckled or buttoned below the knee underneath drawers were worn, garments similar to the modern boxer shorts. Women wore skirts over chemises or petticoats, and that was all.
Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century ‘long breeches’ were introduced.
The word trousers did exist in the eighteenth century, in both Britain and North America. They were a protective garment, usually of leather, worn over breeches when travelling in rough country. In the late eighteenth century these were adopted as part of military dress, the British Army, serving in India and the Peninsula, soon started wearing them as the only garment over draws.
Via the army the word entered Britain, and soon became the general term for the garment. The Duke of Wellington was once refused entry to a top London club for wearing trousers rather than breeches.
Trousers, breeches and ??
The other word used for trousers was pantaloons, originally this was the name of a character in the commedia dell’arte, who wore loose trousers. The word became attached to the garment, and in North America was the word generally used. It was rapidly abbreviated to pants.
Until well into the nineteenth century all children wore dresses until they were about five years old, the loose garment covering the nappies (diapers – another dichotomy to be discussed later). Boys were then ‘breeched’ and girls continued with their dresses, this time with nothing under them. Then at the beginning of the nineteenth century an intermediate step was introduced for girls, long trousers under the dresses, termed pantalettes.
A girl & her doll wearing pantalettes
About the same time women started to wear drawers under their skirts, the word pantalettes was abbreviated to pants which now meant underwear.