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We often focus on historical womenswear here at Frock Flicks because, well, we’re three chicks who enjoy studying, making, and wearing historical womenswear! Also, there tends to be a whole lot more going on in women’s fashions over time. But men did wear clothes, and they can be historically accurate or inaccurate, and we notice that shit too. One egregious problem with historical menswear in movies and TV is the pants aka trousers aka the bifurcated garments worn on a male-presenting person’s lower half. Movies and TV shows are all over the map when it comes to historical pants! Sometimes they get it right, but so much more often they show totally wrong pants (and yes, we know that’s British slang for underwear, lol). If a flick is set before the mid-19th century, the men’s trousers have a 50/50 chance of being just plain inaccurate.
Before approximately the 1830s, men’s trousers were rather different than what’s worn today. They were often shorter, and they fastened with lacing or buttons in different places than modern trousers. For example:
Note that even by the time men are wearing long pants in the 19th century, the garment has a “fall-front” fastening — in the fashion plate on the right, that’s where the guy has his hand in the front “flap.”
Pants that closed with one single line of buttons vertically from crotch to belly button were sometimes made, but the fall-front style that buttoned across the waist horizontally was most common and fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Before that, trousers get into codpiece territory, and Sarah’s covering that topic for Snark Week, but suffice it to say the movies and TV shows also fuck it up.
Here’s a quick list of some things pre-Victorian historical men’s pants should NOT be:
- Something with a fly-front closure
- Long leather pants
- Any denim or jeans
- Just dance tights
- Just plain long pants
Some movies and TV shows seem to get this OK, but so many fail. I’ve read a couple interviews with costume designers who say that either male directors or male actors didn’t want the characters to wear tights and breeches because it doesn’t look “manly” enough, that is, they’d look gay, which is such amazing bullshit. Shame on whoever thinks wearing historically accurate clothing impinges on their masculinity! I guess their gender expression or sexual preference is so fragile it can be horribly damaged by wearing different pants. Boo fucking hoo.
And I’ll note that those comments were from designers working in the past 30 years. Back during in the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were were more men in tights and breeches (historically accurate or not), even though the mainstream culture was more rigid about about gender roles and sexual expression pre-1960s. Or maybe because of the more rigid culture, male actors could wear tights and it was not assumed to be in contrast with their “obvious” manhood. IDK, I’m just here for the snark, and I want to see folks of any gender presentation in historically accurate costumes for the period!
Let’s go chronologically though fashion and film, with some decent examples and all the fuck-ups!
Medieval Hosen, Breeches
Most of the high fashions before the 16th century didn’t include trousers like we know them now. There were breeches, there were hosen made of two separate tubes that fastened together, there were leg wrappings, there were all kinds of wacky things that’s just too difficult for modern filmmakers to comprehend. But back in the ’50s, at least one guy was cool enough to let it all hang out.
Unlike these more recent weaksauce attempts. No, medieval men did not wear anything like jeans or yoga pants.
16th-c. Breeches, Trunkhose, Pumpkin Pants
Ahhh, the famed puffy pants of the renaissance! They can be huge or relatively small, sometimes they have short tight trunkhose underneath, and they’re always worn with hose so we can admire a finely turned calf. At least some fellas got the memo!
Of course, not every older movie was perfect in the pants department…
Really, though, it’s the more recent flicks that have a distaste for the poufy 16th-c. pants.
For the next two centuries, the basics of men’s pants are the same: breeches worn with hose. The length, cut, and width of the breeches would vary depending on the fashion and social status of the wearer, but if you got the basic part down, you’d be farther along than most pirate movies (the “Golden Age of Piracy” often cited as being from 1650 to 1730s).
It’s not that difficult, and yet … here we go into a world of questionable stretchy pants on pirates and more!
Like the century before, what we’re looking for is breeches (to the knee) and hose. Not super puffy. Definitely not stretchy. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, does it?
Instead, we see…
Early 19th-c Breeches, Fall-Front Trousers
The same breeches and hose were still worn in the early years of the 19th century, and when long trousers were worn, they typically had that fall-front I already showed. Frock flicks can pick from either of these, but no, they just have to go rogue.
Compare with these…
What do you notice about men’s pants in frock flicks?
After the invention of the button made tight fitting clothes possible men’s styles were every bit as sexualized as women’s. They flaunted their broad shoulders and narrow waists in fitted tunics and displayed misled legs in bias cut hose stretched as tight as possible. Tunics got shorter to display more leg to be ogled by appreciative ladies, and the codpiece was invented to set off the package. Knit hose came along in the sixteenth century to delight the ladies with a really good view of those calves and thighs. Puffy trunk hose came along to leave something to the imagination but men continued to proudly display their fine legs to the admiration of the ladies until long trousers came along to ruin everybody’s fun.
To the best of my knowledge tight leather trousers were not worn in any historical period for obvious reasons, ie: the difficulty walking and sitting. Not to mention the creaking.
One of the only times I would expect to see leather pants/trousers of any sort popping up in a historical film would be if it involves Indigenous characters but even then the style worn by a lot of Indigenous men historically would have been very different than what most modern audiences would think of as ‘pants’ (traditionally a split-crotch tube style leggings, which was then paired with a breechcloth).
There’s also a long Turkish tradition of wrestling in leather pants and oiled skin. I don’t think Hollywood is sexually secure enough to show us something like that.
Maybe that’s what Keanu’s leather-panted massage in Much Ado was inspired by? (Unlikely but a girl can dream).
WHY DID YOU REMIND ME OF THAT
I would draw attention to Topkapi, the 1964 caper movie in which an outdoor Turkish wrestling competition plays a critical distraction. Dozens of oiled-up, leather-breeched men grappling on the playing field for the delectation of Melina Mercouri.
And then there’s the hot mess of Sandition. Which got a season 2 yuck. Did anyone review, I believe the title was Deadwood?
And the sweating!!
Forgive me, Roxana, but I had to giggle at the misled legs. So many frock-flicks heroes and heroines have misled legs, which are doubtless responsible for their naughty behavior. By the way, is what poor Richard Harris had to wear in “Cromwell” called trunk breeches? My god, Puritan style was nonsexy.
Parts of the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have been better served, partially, I think, because there are large numbers of reenactors from those periods, and if they are going to be used as extras, it probably makes sense to dress the principals to match. You might consider a Best and Worst Offenders list…although it would be pretty heavy towards the Worst.
Oh yes — the dance belt. A garment invented by Torquemada Fashions. The actual intent is to keep the organs in a position not to interfere with the movement of the legs. Incorrently worn, however it can lead to disaster. I remember a first-timer throwing his leg over the barre and then screaming and fainting. He had ruptured a testicle.
Ouch! External genitalia is a real liability.
Generally I would agree with your The Crimson Pirate (1952) in spandex, except spandex wasn’t invented until 1958, so I would guess they have a really good knit going on in one or both of the fabrics. Which makes all the tight clothing more interesting in how they got to be so tight without spandex. Boy the pants are terrible out there. And the high increase in leather clothes for men in costuming is just uck. What the heck is that about?
Cutting fabric on the bias can provide sufficient stretchiness for tight-fitting hose. Loosely woven fabric, even cotton and wool, make fine hose for historical purposes.
Excellent snark as always. A great run down of pants crimes. However, I gotta point out that spandex wasn’t available until 1959. I’m going to have to hunt down the fabric used on all those pre-spandex stretchy pants, because I’m surprised they weren’t bagging out all over.
It would be interesting to know, but either way, it’s gotta be something knit and synthetic!
18th-century legwear is a bit more nuanced than that: in fact the fly front was normal till past the mid-century, but you never got to see it because of the long-skirted waistcoats that were worn with them. Then the waistcoats started getting shorter, and as soon as there was any chance of the breeches fastening being seen, the fall-front comes in. Was it seen as more decent? Or just more aesthetic? Your guess is as good as mine.
(Fun fact: the French for fall-front is ‘pont-levis’, which literally means ‘drawbridge’.
And in fairness to Marie-Antoinette and Beau Brummel shown here, it has to be said that stretchy legwear was definitely a thing in the late 18th century through the Regency: Norah Waugh gives a pattern diagram for a pair of breeches in bias-cut black silk jersey with only outside leg seams, which must have been nearly as stretchy as spandex, at least when new: it would have been quite obvious which side the wearer ‘dressed’! And when the sporting look with riding boots came into fashion in the 1790s they were worn with tight pantaloons rather than breeches: the pantaloons were tight to the leg and ended at mid-calf or ankle, where they were fastened with buttons or laces so the boots fitted smoothly over them.
Well, it’s all a bit more nuanced, but this is Snark Week, not “Thoughtful & Nuanced Week.” Try again later :D
I worked in the costume shop for “Interview with the Vampire” and they ARE wearing breeches throughout the NOLA scenes. The pic where you think they have their pants tucked into their boots those are half fall breeches (tucked into the boots)
Brad kept losing weight (he thought a vampire should be thin and wan) so I had to keep taking up his breeches in the waist… until we had to just cut another smaller pair.
In Norah Waugh’s “The Cut of Men’s Clothes” there are 2 (very bizarre) patterns for stretchy breeches/pants (they appear to come to mid calf) from the early 19th century. They have half fall fronts.
I’ve noticed you will see tight half fall breeches in a period too early for them, when breeches we’re not so tight to baggy and full fall fronts. Also, you do get button flies sometimes, rarely, and never on dressy breeches, on 18th century breeches, but the buttonholes are always hidden behind a placket and you sometimes see a bit of the buttons peaking out from under the placket.
Interesting behind-the-scenes info! Thanks!
Wild! Because Powell was one of the interviews I read where designers said The Powers That Be said ‘don’t put the boys in breeches & tights or they’ll look gay’ (my paraphrase but she definitely strongly hinted that the idea was ‘too girly’). And in my most recent watch of Interview, you really can’t see much of that beautiful velvet suit on screen, much the less the breeches, which is such a pity! So glad I found the pix of it on display.
OMG! You got to work on Brad Pitts breeches!
Arrrg! Men’s period pants in movies. Hope you are going to do hats or the lack of them in modern movies tv shows. Another HUGE pet peeve.
As a 17th century reenactor, who often portrays a male soldier, my breeches are not tight except at the knee, and have buttons down the front for fastening. They have lacing at the center back for fit at the waist.
Re: the many stretchy pants of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche, who decided that just the item to break up all that solid color was glittery drum major boots – in white?
Looking forward to the rest of Snark Week – it’s always a hoot, and sometimes (often) I even learn something! (Had great fun reading up on dance belts; the Wikapedia entry was remarkably forthcoming about the issues with male genitalia in motion.)
I did consider including a reference photo of a dance belt in this post, but then I thought, nah, let folks google it on their own, more entertaining.
Ok, I’ve been visiting this site for a while now, and I am well aware that the raison d’etre for it is to critique the historical accuracy of costumes on film. Even so, I just couldn’t get my rational mind and/or snarky mind to go along with this post because my sexual mind just took over. I take all your points about historical accuracy but I will NEVER complain about many of these photos–especially Much Ado About Nothing (during which I had about 9 sexual awakenings), Hugh Grant (in anything–yes I realize he was a “good” example here, but still), Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire, Callum Turner in War and Peace, and especially Francois Arnoud in The Borgias. (I could go on and on, but those guys merited special mentions.) This post just made me think naughty thoughts and want to tell dirty jokes. Plus, you killed me with dance belt!!! Such a fun and yummy first post!!
You get me!!
humming to herself
We’re men in tights! (TIGHT tights!)
Always on guard defending the people’s rights!
When you’re in a fix, just call for the men in tights!
That’s Dave Chappelle on the left!
This is hilarious. The leather pants thing drives me crazy! What’s so wrong with a flap front damn it!
I was almost expecting a reference to Prinny’s “enormous trousers” in Blackadder the Third, but that’s just me. :)
Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t it that breeches and trunk hose were a sign of status as full trousers were only a working-class and peasent mens garments as breeches/trunk hose were less pratical and harder to make? hence the sans culottes (without breeches)? So, unless you’re playing a field hand, a day labourer, or a sans culotte, the pants are the equivient of wearing a dirty vest with a tailored suit.
or sweatpants with a blazer, shirt and tie
Oh there’s a lot of details, some formality, some class-based, some in different eras. The ‘sans culottes’ (don’t google that, btw, unless you have safe-search on your browser, lol) were a French Revolution thing, but trunk hose were worn in the 16th c. & only the early part of the 17th.
Ah thanks, I was aware of the sans culottes not wearing breeches as a political statement in the 1790s but wasn’t sure about other periods.
Since I started reading this site I see the leather pants EVERYWHERE. Such a crime. Also must not be that pleasant for the poor actors. I can understand a bit more not doing the pumpkin pants, which look quite odd to us, but I think everyone kind of knows about 18th century breaches, don’t we?
Dance belts aside, I’d forgotten just how many excellent actors were in Much Ado, including several who are indeed easy on the eyes.
Leather pants on pirates whose cruising ground is the Caribbean? Even if they’d HAD leather pants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they would hardly have been a pirate’s first choice for wear IN THE TROPICS.
I was so hoping to see The Three Musketeers (2011 version) in there for the pumpkin pants. The ones that the king and a Orlando Bloom wear are just fabulous (the musketeers themselves, not so much).