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    

Vtg Pre 1955 Levis Redline Selvedge Big E Hidden Rivets Single Stitch 501 XxVintage Wwii Ww2 Navy Denim Uniform Chambray Shirt + Dungaree Jeans Pants LotVintage Ww2 Us Navy Usn Denim Dungarees Mens Work Pants Jeans ButtonflyVintage Headlight Jeans Rare Fold Down Pocket Flaps Headies Denim Workwear PantsVintage Levis Big E Redline Jeans 28/27 Actual Original JeansVtg 40s Lk Ww2 Lk Harris Tweed 50s Country Work Turn-ups V Back Trousers PantsVtg 1993 Levis 501 Made Usa Preshrunk Jeans Dead Stock W38 L34 Nos Nwt Red Tab Men's Vtg 1950's 60's Beck Black Leather Cafe Racer Motorcycle Riding Pants 32Vintage Key Imperial Denim Coveralls Sanforized Herringbone Twill Work 46 40x28Vintage Vtg Champion Reverse Weave Sweatpants Pants Warm-up Size LVintage 1940s 4pc Basketball Uniform Shirt Shorts Wool Pants Bulldog Athletic Vintage Yellow Reverse Weave Champion Sweat Pants Large Ithaca Wrestling LargeVintage 80's 90's Deadstock Champion Black Sweatpants Made Usa Sz. MRare Vtg 1940's Heavy Canvas Work Pants Buckle Back 36x28 Vintage Bugle Boy Parachute Pants Flight Suit Overalls Xs Dark Blue CountdownInternational Baggyz Mc Hammer Parachute 80s 90s Pants Halloween Vintage Neon Vtg 40s Ww2 Od Olive Wool Metal Button Army Hunting Work Chore Pants TrousersVintage Big Mac Denim Bib Overalls Dark Blue White Topstitching Mens 46x32French Bdu Pants - 1950's?Vtg Hbt Indigo Blue Cotton Work Trousers Worker Workwear Cinch Chore Pants Vintage 60's L.l. Bean Thick Wool Gray Knickers Pants Mens 32Vintage Oshkosh B'gosh Union Denim Usa Sanforized Vestbak Overalls 36 X 29 Or 30Vintage Us Military 100% Wool M-1951 Korean Era Mens Field Pants Usa New LargeVtg 1960's 70's..hippie..genuine Leather..patchwork..bellbottom..pants..36 X 32Vintage 80's Breakdance Parachute Pants Size 31- Panno D'or Red - Excellent CondVintage Wrangler Black 42 X 34 Polyester Slack Work PantsVintage Seafarer Jeans Dungaree Bell Bottom W/tags 31x36 (629)Vintage Jd Workwear Denim Leather Double Front Work Jeans Pants Usa Made 40 X 30Lot Of 2 Vintage Polyester Leisure Suit Pants By Anderson Little 32x29 Puma Vintage Tracksuit Jumper Pants Size 5 UsedVintage Motorcycle Belstaff Trailmaster Pro PantsVintage 1980s Rawlings Men's Baseball Pants Adult Size 36 Orange Usa 26 Inseem