What are Chaps?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Chaps are a kind of legwear that are intended to be worn over jeans or trousers as an extra protective layer. Unlike pants, chaps do not have a seat and do not close at the crotch. They consist of two full legs of material and a belt. The entire garment, and specifically the belt, are designed to fit well over trousers.

Many people pair a Western belt buckle with chaps.
Many people pair a Western belt buckle with chaps.

Because they are meant to be worn as a protective layer, chaps are often made out of very durable materials such as leather and oilcloth. They are specifically intended to be worn while riding horses. While wearing chaps, a person can navigate through thick brush and brambles on horseback. Even in such terrain, these garments will protect the legs from cuts and scrapes from thorns and jagged branches. As they are intended for rugged use, they are often made out of dark materials that won't readily show damage and stains.

Chaps are often associated with cowboy culture.
Chaps are often associated with cowboy culture.

In general, chaps are associated with the American West and cowboy culture. Although they were originally designed for functionality, they are now often worn as parts of costumes. In communities that idolize the figure of the American cowboy, spectacles are often put on to show off specific cowboy talents such as herding and wrangling. These shows are commonly referred to as rodeos and the stars often wear chaps that are highly embellished with fringe, studs, and sometimes even rhinestones. While these garments were traditionally worn only by men, it is common for women to wear them now.

Chaps are also regularly worn as a protective garment by people who ride motorcycles. They are worn to protect the legs from the elements but can also provide protection from the motorcycle itself which has parts that can become very hot. Motorcycle chaps are almost always made out of leather and are worn with a matching leather jacket. While Western chaps are often dark brown, the motorcycle versions are usually black and sometimes have fringe embellishments along the seams.

Because of their association with cowboys and motorcycling, chaps have become part of costumes worn in various subcultures. When they are appropriated in this manner, they are hardly ever worn for functionality, but rather for aesthetic. In fact, they may be made of non-traditional materials and designed in flashy colors. As such, they sometimes make appearances in designer collections and on high-fashion runways.

Chaps are often worn by motorcycle riders.
Chaps are often worn by motorcycle riders.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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