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Breeches are a style of short pants, reaching only to the knees. Often worn with stockings, the cuffs can be held closed at the knee with buckles, buttons, strings, or bows. These pants have a long history in Western culture. They have been worn at various times in Spanish, Greece, German, and English history. This type of pants date back even to Viking times, with Ragnar Hairy Breeks — Ragnar Hairy-Breeches — being the nickname given to a famous Viking warrior.
From the 16th through the 18th centuries, breeches were seen as a man's garment, as women were often forbidden to wear pants. Pants were so emphatically a male item of clothing that the phrase "to wear the breeches" was coined to describe a woman who bossed the household in place of her husband, similar to today's phrase "wearing the pants." They were also used as a symbolic right of passage, "breeching" being when a male child would graduate from wearing the baby's outfit of a long gown to wearing toddler-size breeches.
With the advent of bloomers, a short pant-like form of underwear worn under skirts, women began to push the gender boundaries of fashion. Tight fitting breeches were also an indicator of class in 18th century France, where they were worn by the aristocracy. Sailers, farmers, and other workingmen whose jobs required a great deal of physical movement wore looser clothing. After the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was no longer in fashion, the long trousers we now think of as "pants" developed. Knickers are a form of looser breeches that have been worn by both men and women throughout history.
Today, when it is socially acceptable for women to wear pants, breeches can be fashionable as well as a practical form of clothing for men, women, and children. For example, cotton breeches are made of a lightweight, breathable material that make them excellent for summer wear. Children's breeches are excellent for active toddlers of both sexes, since the clothing allows for great freedom of movement and has fewer fastenings than many types of pants.
Modern equestrians also often wear breeches for ease while horseback riding. These pants cover the areas where the body meets the saddle, minimizing saddle sores. The lack of heavy stitching, thick seams, or back pockets also minimizes pressure points that can become irritating during the constant rhythmic motion riders are exposed to while on horseback. Whether worn for fashion or utility, breeches have proved to be a versatile garment whose meaning and uses have evolved with history.
Oh yeah, Grivusangel -- the closest you would have seen a woman wearing breeches until the 1900s, was a riding habit, some of which featured a split skirt or what were referred to as Turkish trousers. But then again, women rode sidesaddle, not astride.
Men wore breeches in the 16th and 17th centuries, but usually only peasants wore them and they were leather. The 16th century was one of short doublets and massive codpieces, a'la Henry VIII.
Breeches started coming back into fashion in the early 1700s and were well established by the time the Revolution rolled around.
Here's a fun fact: men's trousers were called "inexpressibles" in the early 1800s because "trousers" or similar referred to the fact that men had legs. "Inexpressibles" was akin to saying his "you-know-whats."
It was considered downright scandalous for a woman to wear breeches of any kind going into the early 20th century! You finally started seeing them after overalls became common. Women would wear overalls while working outside in the garden or on the farm. It wasn't easy to milk a cow in a long skirt. Women had done it, of course, but it wasn't easy.
Although women did wear trousers in the 1920s, the 1930s, with the advent of the pantsuit, really brought breeches into vogue for women. The actress Katharine Hepburn popularized them, along with a more general "menswear" look for women.
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