SNARK WEEK: Pants!

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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:

historical mens pants

Left to right: 1070s, detail from the The Bayeux Tapestry; 1550, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II by Anthonis Mor; 1770s, portrait, probably from the Crossfield family, by William Williams; 1800, fashion plate in Le Mois.

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.”

1780s fall-front breeches, from Augusta Auctions

1780s fall-front breeches, from Augusta Auctions. Here’s the front opened.

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.

Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier was a bad-ass in black hose in Richard III (1955).

Unlike these more recent weaksauce attempts. No, medieval men did not wear anything like jeans or yoga pants.

Virgin Territory (2008) — what is this even?!? Are those bedazzled jeans?!?

Galavant costumes

Sure, Galavant (2015) was a fantasy medieval riff, but why half-ass it with the stretchy pants instead of just giving him decent breeches and hose?

Henry V in The King (2019) is all hip and relatable in his skinny jeans.

 

 

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!

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Errol Flynn shows off his assets in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

Diane (1956)

The pants don’t have to be super puffy, as seen on Francis I in Diane (1956).

2015 Bill

Look, even a more recent comedy like Bill (2015) gets it right, including the trunkhose.

Of course, not every older movie was perfect in the pants department…

The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Sea Hawk (1940) couldn’t make up its mind. Errol Flynn wears both these pumpkin pants…

Errol Flynn, 194, The Sea Hawk

…and then these nondescript stretchy pants. WTFrock, man?

The Adventures of Don Juan (1948)

Again, in the same movie — The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) has both weird stretchy pants but also more historically accurate breeches. Pick one!

Really, though, it’s the more recent flicks that have a distaste for the poufy 16th-c. pants.

2005 The Virgin Queen

Is Tom Hardy wearing Dockers in The Virgin Queen (2005)?

Tom Hardy and Ann-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen (2006)

Well he’s wearing leather pants here, that’s for sure.

2007-10-The-Tudors

OBVIOUSLY — The Tudors (2007-10).

Showtime's The Borgias

The Borgias (2011-13) usher in the era of Contractually Obligated Leather Pants.

Da Vinci's Demons (2013-15)

Da Vinci’s Demons (2013-15) goes for leather pants, four ways. 1) Weird seaming. 2) Laced-up with extra belts. 3) Fall-front. 4) Laced-up. Not a stitch of historical accuracy to be found.

Reign (2013-17)

The leather pants in Reign (2013-17) seem tame in comparison.

Reign (2013-17)

Leather or denim? Who knows, it’s Reign (2013-17).

Still Star Crossed (2017)

Still Star Crossed (2017) barely lasted one season but had leather pants a-plenty.

Snark Week - Will (2017)

Ditto Will (2017).

2019 The Spanish Princess episode 4

In The Spanish Princess (2019), young Henry rocks his leather pants look with floppy hair like he’s in some New Wave band.

A Discovery of Witches (2021)

I haven’t watched A Discovery of Witches (2021), but I heard they’re time travelers and I guess he brought his skinny jeans with him to the 16th century.

 

 

17th-c. Breeches

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).

1974 Three Musketeers

These snoozy fancy-pants in The Three Musketeers (1974) have the right idea.

Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-17)

For all it being a fantasy based on a theme park ride, the Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-17) puts the lead male characters in breeches. Even Jack Sparrow, if you look closely, you can see the breeches’ closure at the top of his boots.

It’s not that difficult, and yet … here we go into a world of questionable stretchy pants on pirates and more!

Queen Christina (1933)

I love Queen Christina (1933), but Garbo’s cross-dressing in bad pants here.

The Black Swan (1942)

This costume test for The Black Swan (1942) is a fail.

The Crimson Pirate (1952)

OK, The Crimson Pirate (1952) got the “breeches” memo, but I suspect spandex here.

Against All Flags (1952)

He wore blue velvet, whoa, in Against All Flags (1952).

Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl (1954)

Only something stretchy fits that snug in Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl (1954).

Black Sails (2014)

Leather pants for pirate boys and pirate girls in Black Sails (2014)!

Las Aventuras del Capitán Alatriste (2015)

Even more leather in Las Aventuras del Capitán Alatriste (2015).

 

 

18th-c. Breeches

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?

Marie Antoinette (1938) has shiny breeches for court.

John Adams (2008)

John Adams (2008) has woolen breeches for democracy.

Instead, we see…

Naughty Marietta (1935)

In Naughty Marietta (1935), one guy has breeches, and I guess the other guys are wearing just modern long trousers?

Snark Week, Marie Antoinette (1938)

While Marie Antoinette (1938) put breeches on the fellas at court, Count Axel von Fersen wears stretchy pants because … that’s more manly, I guess?

I’ll Never Forget You (1951)

The only explanation in I’ll Never Forget You (1951).

Scaramouche (1952)

The many stretchy pants of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche (1952)!

Scaramouche (1952)

Is he a circus performer?

Interview With the Vampire (1994)

Sandy Powell did a lot of great costumes for Interview With the Vampire (1994) — but she was admonished not to put the guys in tights. Even though the story is about philosophical bisexual vampires *eyeroll*

Interview With the Vampire (1994)

So they’re more butch with the long pants tucked into boots, in spite of the long hair, makeup, puffy shirts, & blingy clothes? Sure.

Interview With the Vampire (1994)

Somehow Powell got the OK for this formal suit with breeches — but the lower half was hardly seen on film!

2018 Lady J

Lady J (2018) just went with weird green slacks and called it good.

The Great (2020)

The Great (2020) makes the point that only the not-manly men wear tights and breeches. Sad stereotype much?

The Great (2020)

Macho bully Peter in The Great (2020) gets historically inaccurate leather pants with a historically inaccurate button fly.

 

 

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.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) isn’t set in a particular year, but it’s kinda late 18th / early 19th century, and Richard Briers’ breeches look just right.

It’s clear to see Hugh Grant’s fall-front trousers here in Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Compare with these…

Snark Week, Beau Brummel (1924)

More stretchy pants in Beau Brummel (1924)!

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Yeah, I said Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is not set in a specific historical period, but at no time other than 1993 would these leather pants be accurate.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Also, this scene where Keanu gets an oily massage WHILE WEARING LEATHER PANTS grosses me out.

Snark Week, The Glass Virgin (1995)

Check that zip fly in The Glass Virgin (1995).

Snark Week, War & Peace (2016)

I can’t explain it, but we find it funny — War & Peace (2016).

Emma (2020)

Emma (2020) gives Mr. Knightly breeches for the formal dance, which is appropriate, but then he’s wearing what looks like zip-front long khaki pants the rest of the time.

 

What do you notice about men’s pants in frock flicks?

 

 

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44 Responses

  1. Roxana

    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.

    Reply
    • Kat

      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).

      Reply
    • Susan Pola Staples

      And then there’s the hot mess of Sandition. Which got a season 2 yuck. Did anyone review, I believe the title was Deadwood?

      Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      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.

      Reply
  2. mmcquown

    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.

    Reply
  3. mmcquown

    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.

    Reply
  4. Jenn

    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?

    Reply
    • Kathleen Norvell

      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.

      Reply
  5. Tiger

    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.

    Reply
  6. Aleko

    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.

    Reply
  7. Gray

    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.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      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.

      Reply
  8. Liam Fox

    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.

    Reply
  9. Kathleen Norvell

    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.

    Reply
  10. Bugsby

    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.)

    Reply
  11. Lily Lotus Rose

    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!!

    Reply
  12. Giselle

    humming to herself

    We’re men!
    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!
    WE’RE BUTCH!

    Reply
  13. Julia R

    This is hilarious. The leather pants thing drives me crazy! What’s so wrong with a flap front damn it!

    Reply
  14. Boxermom

    I was almost expecting a reference to Prinny’s “enormous trousers” in Blackadder the Third, but that’s just me. :)

    Reply
  15. Peacoclaur

    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.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      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.

      Reply
      • peacoclaur

        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.

        Reply
  16. Nzie

    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.

    Reply
  17. Rebecca Maiten

    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).

    Reply

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