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...

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.

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