Before the era of casual-Friday jeans, before even the time of traditional trousers and chino slacks, men wore tight-fitting breeches fastened just below the knees. Early trousers resembled tights more than what we think of today as pants, and many featured straps that ran under the bottoms of the feet. Trouser styles loosened up somewhat after 1850, but the straight-legged look persisted well into the 20th century.

One of the first clothiers to break from the traditions of the 19th century was Levi Strauss, who made his first pair of denim pants for California miners in 1873. Strauss had begun his enterprise a few years earlier with canvas pants, but soon replaced that material with denim from mills in New Hampshire and then North Carolina.

Levi Strauss & Company is still one of the best-known clothing names in the world. Up until the middle of the 20th century, however, jeans were considered workwear only. Even into the 1950s, schools would not let boys wear denim pants—their informality was deemed corrosive to learning environments. Other brands such as Wrangler would follow Levi’s into the lucrative youth market, but Strauss’s company is still considered the American original.

Wool was the pant fabric of choice in the first part of the 20th century, and pants of this era typically sport center creases and cuffs. These general stylistic elements continued through the 1950s, though a number of aesthetic and material changes occurred. Pinstripes became very popular during the 1920s, and that style still has fans today.

In the 1930s, plaid and checkered patterns came into fashion, and, along with pinstripes, made pants look a bit less severe. One playful pant style was a part of a larger look associated with the zoot suit. These pants were baggy, often pinstriped, and came in bright colors.

Trousers in the 1950s continued to get baggier. Lounging pants featured checker or atomic prints, an iconic design of that decade. In Britain, however, the teddy-boy subculture was heading in the opposite direction, with tight, plain slacks. This look would later evolve into the mod style. Meanwhile, fabrics ranged from moleskin to corduroy to twill.

The early 1960s saw the rise of jeans as common wear for kids and young men. In some circles, leather pants conferred status. For many members of the counterculture in the second half of the decade, bellbottoms ruled. These flaring pants were made out of denim, leather, and other materials, and remained fashion staples throughout the 1970s...

The 1980s brought the return of high-waisted men’s slacks, as well as the increasing use of polyester. Jeans were cut straight in the legs, and denim was often acid-washed until it was nearly white. Another symbol of the ’80s was parachute pants, baggy trousers made of nylon and often outfitted with numerous flaps and zippered pockets. Because they were lightweight and easy to move in, they soon became associated with dance culture.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Levis Vtg 70's Big E Red Tab 501 Denim Jeans Button Fly Selvedge 40 X 31Nwt True Vintage 1960s Levi's 505 Big E Redlines Selvedge #5 Button Talon 42 UsaVintage 1930s ? Denim Jeans Sanforized Orange Red ? Thread Selvedge ? Levis ?Vintage 1930s ? Denim Jeans Zipper Fly Orange Red ? Thread Selvedge ? Levis ?Superb Pair Vintage French Work Wear Bleu De Travail Striped Trousers 1940sDeadstock Levis 501 40x32 1987Gorgeous Pair Vintage French Work Wear Bleu De Travail Striped Trousers 1940sVintage 60s Jc Penny Foremost Selvedge Indigo Denim Jeans 32 X 32 J C PenneysPants Bell Bottoms Big Yank Striped Patriotic Vtg 70s Deadstock 33x29 SanforizedVintage Levis 501 Denim Jeans Cutoff Shorts Selvage Indigo Hidden Rivets Size 32Superb Pair 1940s Mens Canvas Breeches Work Wear Travail With Original BracesVtg 50s Deadstock French Cotton Work 40s Lk Trousers Worker Cinch Chore Pants Vintage Denim Bib Overalls 10 Oz Sanforized Indigo 40 X 27 Distressed AlteredLot Of 16 Pairs Of Mens Poly/cotton Vintage Pants 70s Groovy Hippie Cords PlaidsVtg 40s 50s French Linen Turn Ups Ww2 Gents Country Work Summer Trousers PantsBig E Levis Pants Jeans Denim Red Line 32x32True Vtg 1950's Dress Pants 34x28 Rockabilly Drop Loop Hollywood Elvis Style HiMens Vintage Berle Tailored Flat Front India Madras Cotton Golf Pants S 36 EucVintage Oshkosh Denim Bib Overalls Sanforized Vestbak Dark Blue Union Mens 40x28Antique Clothing-circa 1860,man’s Fine Fall Front Linen Trousers/pants,victorianCool Vtg C.c. Filson Co. Seattle Style Waxed Cotton Tin Pants Tag Size 34 Vtg 80s Levis 505 Black Orange Tab Straight Leg Jeans Men's Pants Sz 28 X 30.5Vintage Washington Dee Cee 50s To 70s OverallsVintage Bell Bottom Pants 70s Disco Male Brown White Speckles Scovill Mens 28x34Vintage Men's Levi 501 Button Fly Usa Redline Double-stitch Jeans 31x35 Red TabVintage 40s 50s Rail Chief Seersuckers Sanforized Union Made Trousers Cuff PantsVintage Ralph Lauren Polo Sport Track Suit Jacket Pants Mens Size XlP-24vtg Nos Nwt 60s 70s Mr Wrangler Bell Bottom Plaid Pants Measure 31×32 HippieVtg 70-80s Levi's Straight Leg Distress Orange Tab Denim Blue Jeans Pants 32x33Vintage Lee 70s Bell Bottom Pants Off-white Retro Topstitching Talon Mens 35x30Vintage Men's Button Fly Grey Dress Pants - Approx 31" X 30"Vintage Mens Osk Kosh B'gosh Denim Work Sanforized Jeans Union Made Usa 32 X 30P-38vtg Nos Nwt 60s 70s Mr Wrangler Bell Bottom Plaid Pants Measure 31×32 HippieP-32vtg Nos Nwt 60s 70s Mr Wrangler Bell Bottom Plaid Pants Measure 32×32 HippieRare Vtg Levi's 517 Denim Work Wear Dark Blue Jean Usa Made Talon Zipper Red TabLot Of 2 Pair - Vintage Men's Farah Slacks/golf Pants W/belts 34x30