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    

Vintage 1950s Levi's 501xx Big E Redline Hidden Rivet Jerky Label Denim JeansVtg Denim Original Levi's Big E 505 Red Line Selvedge Made In Usa Jeans 31x27Levis 501 Vintage New Selvedge Redline Black Bar Jeans 1966 #6 Usa 1970s 33 X 31Vintage Big E Levi'sVtg 70s Levis 501 Redlines Single Stitch Dark One Wash Denim Jeans Vintage Big E Levi'sVintage Original 1950's Levis 501 Zxx Big E Redline Zipper Fly 31 X 30Vintage 50s Big E Levis Hidden Rivet 501 Xx Redline Selvege Denim Jeans 30x31Levis 501 Vintage New Selvedge Redline Jeans 1966 #6 Made In Usa 1970s 33 X 30Vintage Levis 501 Redline Selvage Denim Jeans 28x28 Big E? Button Fly1950's Big Mac Sanforized Denim Jeans 34x 32 Excellent Vintage Back BuckleVintage Hd Lee Denim Hickory Bib Overalls Union Label Stiff Workwear RailroadVintage Levi Big E, Hidden Rivet,selvage Seam 501 Xx Jeans 40's? LookAnvil Brand Overalls Vintage Levis 501 Big EVintage Levi Big E, Hidden Rivet,selvage Seam 501 Xx Jeans 40's? LookEdwardian 1920s Vintage Two Tone Button Fly Stripe Pants Slacks XlVintage '67 Vietnam War Us Army Cargo Combat Pants, Long Medium, 31~35 By 32 1/2Vintage Big E Levi'sRare Orig Civil War / Indian War Era Us Naval Sailor's Pants / Maker Mark Exc+Vtg Round House Hickory Stripe Work Bibs Overalls Chore Dungarees Trousers PantsVintage 684 Levi's Bell Bottom Jeans 30 Or 31x 31Vietnam War U.s. Military Nomex Flyer's Shirt W/insigniaNos Vintage 1980's Bugle Boy Co Usa Shiny Gray Satin Parachute Pants Size 31x34Vintage 40's 50's Gabardine Rockabilly H Bar C Ranchwear Wool Western Pants 34Vintage 1930's - 40's Destroyed Farm Work Denim Jean PantsVintage Lilly Pulitzer Mens Stuff Pink Yellow Orange PantsVintage Oshkosh B'gosh Vestbak Pinstripe Bib Carpenter Overalls Made In UsaLevi's Deadstock Big Bells Bottoms Jeans 1970 True Vtg Mint Indigo Tags 33 34Us Army Officer Cavalry Pinks Wool Breeches Riding Pants Jodphurs Waist 42 Vintage Men's Levis 646 Bellbottoms Dark Navy Blue Corduroy Jeans Cords 42 TalonLevi's 36x34 Talon Zipper Bell BottomVintage Work Wear Carhartt 38x28 Carpenter Bib Overall Nail Pouch Usa Union Vintage Levi's 501 Selvedge Redline Jeans Double Stitch Small "e" 42 X 28Vtg 60s 70s Wrangler Distressed High Waist Hippie Faded Blue Bell Bottom JeansVintage Indigo Denim Carpenter Work Wear Jeans 39x28 Scovill ZipperLevis Levi's 1970's Polyester Jeans, 31x33, Vintage Early 1970's, Orange TagVintage 1970s Mens Summer Plaid Polyester Knit Golf Disco Pants 34 X 29 Nwt NosVintage Men's Clancy's Ltd Plaid/check Polyester Pants Size 34 X 32Vintage Gant Us Naval Academy Men's Swim Trunks Short Pants Shorts Nos Nwot 80sLevis True Vintage T Shirt Xlarge NwtVintage Men's Levis Orange Tab Movin On 70's Disco Jeans Nwot 34x33Vintage 70’s Levi’s 517 Boot Cut Mens Brown Corduroy Pants, 31 X 31German Military Sportra Arnstorf Heavy Wool PantsVtg 70s 80s Levi 517 Usa Made Boot Cut Corduroy Pants Tag 33x34 Measure 33x32.5New Angel Flight Pants Size 36 X 32 Disco Rockabilly Vintage 70s Khaki FlatCalifornia Classic - Original - Skateboard - Pants - 1980's - Elastic WaistMen's Blue Levi's Vintage Bell-bottoms Hippie Disco 30x30 Cotton BlendsVintage 1960's "pennys Pay-day" Denim Overalls Sz 33" W And 32"l ( Gently Used) 1960's Vintage Store Stock Men's Work Wear Madewell Blue Denim Carpenter PantsLevis 10517 34x36 Mens Pants Dark Brown Vintage 70s Black Gold Label1970s Vintage Deadstock Cotler Gray Top Stitched Denim Bell Bottom JeansVtg Woolrich Wool Field Hunting Pants Charcoal Gray Usa Made 34x30 HerringbonePolo Ralph Lauren Big And Tall Navy Blue Chino Andrew Pants Men Size 48x32Mens Polo Ralph Lauren Chino Pants 48x34 Prospect Khaki Flatbig And Tall