Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Breeches to Pants – Regency Period
I am not an historian. But when I begin a sewing pattern project, I like to read what the textile experts, historians, and period writings have to say about the garment. I also like to look at extant examples in Museum Collections. If I am lucky I can find and purchase an extant garment also, which will fill in the information about construction. My favorite book is “A History of Men’s Fashion” by Farid Chenoune, from which I quote profusely, below.
The Change to Trousers
In the late 18th and early 19th Century the fashion changed for men’s legwear. Having worn breeches for what might be nearly 100 years, the fashion changed to long pants. The transition was fairly quick for men’s fashion, which otherwise changed at a glacial pace. The change is described in “A History of Men’s Fashion” by Farid Chenoune. “(Beau) Brummell did not invent pants any more than his tailor, Meyer, invented the foot strap, as legend would sometimes have it. The affluent classes had been dressing their little boys as ‘sailors’ ever since 1770 or so, in long, comfortable pants that buttoned to a short jacket. Liberation from this costume signified the end of childhood. Sailor’s and worker’s pants had not yet breached the barriers of age and class, however, so French revolutionaries in 1792 were defined not by what they wore, but by what they did not wear – sans culottes meant without breeches. During the same decade, on both sides of the English Channel, casual yet elegant morning dress began to include clinging pants known as “pantaloons”. Between 1812 and Waterloo three years later, Napoleon’s infantry marched in flap-fronted pantaloons, often of white knitted fabric, shoved into leggings that rose about the knee. Brummell began wearing them in the evening as well around 1810 – black, tight, buttoned above the instep. In 1815, the Prince of Wales, after having forbidden pantaloons, allowed them at court. Pants – in the form of pantaloons or trousers (which were more casual and, though occasionally tight-fitting, never clung to the calves like pantaloons) – definitely ousted breeches during the Restoration and the 1820s.”
Where and How did it Start?
London was the center of men’s fashion at the time instead of Paris. But I can’t find much documentation to show how the fashions were changing there, outside of Cruikshank. The French and English were at war which interfered with their fashions keeping pace with one another. The English did not much indulge in fashion plates for men, so we are left with French plates to show us, if nothing else, when the fashions being created in England finally made it to Paris. The end of war between them, in 1815, shows how quickly the “English” silhouette gained ground in Paris. M. Chenoune writes this: “Starting in the 1740’s, the English model became more and more widespread in France. It was initially the privilege of a happy few, and underwent regular eclipse during periods of war with England. But it always resurfaced with even greater appeal, as in 1763 after the Seven Year’s War, in 1802 after the Treaty of Amiens and in 1815 after Waterloo.”
What Fueled the Change?
“London underwent a “rage for fashion” during George IV’s regency (1811-1820) and reign (1820-1830), according to William Hazlitt. The Prince of Wales, who for years had dressed under the real or imagined gaze of Beau Brummell, became regent in 1811 when his father succumbed to madness. The prince immediately set the tone; the extent of his wardrobe whims – as a collector, he knew and retained every single item – was matched by a fashion feverishness that amazed visitors. …As Arcieu explained, “one would be strangely mistaken if one thought that there was only one reigning fashion in London, as in Paris. There are twenty or thirty classes fops; each constitutes its own sect, and competes with its rival to invent or popularize outrageous fashions”. …”There were bucks, bloods, blues, coxcombs and even ruffians on their mounts (swearing like stable boys), not to
mention exquisites, fashionables, dashers, butterflies, exclusives and fops who delighted in expensive baubles. Two main classes emerged from the confusion, however, labeled Hercules and Adonis. The former type wanted to appear more manly when he was, the latter more effeminate.” It seems today we are all more aware of the French Incroyable as representing the newest trends, when it was actually in England that men’s fashions were more likely the most forward and inventive.
M. Chenoune explains: “A military taste for foot straps emerged in the 1820s when high-waisted, short floppy Wellington-style trousers went out of fashion; the new line stretched down toward the foot, and all undesirable fold or pleats were eliminated. Crafting the new appendage of foot straps was so critical that trousers even became the touchstone of a tailor’s art.” I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but I have found several fashion plates from 1814 on that show foot straps, though they were clearly optional. Foot straps were used on some pants into the 1840s.
Falls to Flies
The front opening of the trousers also changed. Chenoune writes, “In 1842, French military authorities decided to replace the front flap on regulation trousers with a modern fly. Although not quite sounding the death knell of trouser flaps, this decree signaled their inexorable decline. After mid-century, town pants almost always had flies rather than flaps, and as early as 1834 tailors and doctors agreed that pants with flies were healthier and easier to put on and take off. They assured men that “this type (of trousers), which decency bans from salons, is so convenient for all other occasions in life that it has been adopted by a great many people.” Up until 1850, trouser fronts had been the site of skirmishes between three rigid yet occasionally conflicting requirements – modesty, comfort and elegance.”
What kinds of Trousers were worn?
So having said all that, the transition from breeches to pants that occurred during the Regency period was still confusing to me, to say the least. The period offered so many versions of pants I couldn’t make out what combination of design elements went with which. It was my lucky day when my husband obtained a copy of the tailoring manual “Tailor’s Assistant” by J. Golding published in London in 1818. This book not only detailed the various type of trousers that were being worn, with drawings no less, but also directly related them to breeches. While breeches were the predecessor of pants, this book was published while they still coexisted with the newer types of legwear. It was my own personal Rosetta stone.
I will also say that examples can be found that don’t fit into any of these categories.
The types of legwear described and patterns provided in this book included breeches, pantaloons, Moschetto’s, and trowsers (as spelled in the book). There were further sub categories which were defined as the following with 2, 3, and 4 as tight fitting pants and 5 through 7 as loose fitting pants:
Pantaloon Trowsers or Wellington’s
From “The Cut of Men’s Clothes”, by Norah Waugh, in the section 1680-1800: “Breeches by 1690 had lost all their superfluous trimmings though they were still cut rather full. In the early eighteenth century they were still ample in the seat; usually they fitted over the knee but the man of mode might have them shorter when he wore his stockings rolled…From c. 1750 also the centre front fly was replaced by ‘falls’ – a flap opening. Backs were still cut full. The long-tailed coats of the 1790’s demanded even tighter-fitting breeches, and as well as being cut in buckskin they were sometimes cut on the cross from jersey-weave materials. For day wear with boots the legs were extended well below the knee and eventually to the calves. That type was called ‘pantaloons’ to distinguish them from knee breeches.” From the section 1800-1900; “Breeches were the correct wear with the evening dress coat until c. 1810, and were also often worn in the day with tail coat until c. 1830, and always with Court dress. They continued to be worn by the unfashionable until well into the century, and for certain sports and also for country wear. The front of the breeches was cut with flaps, or ‘falls’, 5 inches to 8 inches wide. Pantaloons were very generally worn until the middle of the nineteenth century and replaced breeches for formal wear. They fitted closely, like tights.”
The bulk of the legwear chapters in Golding is devoted to breeches. I used this information, along with a period pair of breeches, to draft pattern Laughing Moon Mercantile’s breeches pattern #127. Below I will include the information in the “Tailor’s Assistant” and historical information written in the excellent book “A History of Men’s Fashion” to describe the other types of legwear listed.
Golding begins the section on Pantaloons by writing “This is an article of dress very generally worn, and when made to fit well, are exceedingly neat and convenient, as they may be worn either with gaiters, boots, or over the stocking only. The top or upper part, is formed in the same manner as breeches, it therefore need not be repeated;” Chenoune writes, “Pants are always short and close-fitting for the evening; long and with foot straps during the day, “ explained the Journal des dame et des modes in 1834, thereby providing a thumbnail sketch of the situation from 1820 to 1840. The two basic types interbred – clinging pantaloons sometimes had foot straps, and long, daytime trousers were occasionally close-fitting- even though the English mainlined a linguistic distinction between “pantaloons” worn in evening and “trousers” worn during the day. Pantaloons were henceforth also always worn with evening dress, and even salon etiquette now found them acceptable; initially made of kerseymere, by the 1820s they were increasingly made of black knitted silk or wool, and buttoned at the ankle with three or four buttons. Like old-fashioned breeches, pantaloons were shapely, sculpted, and flirtatious. They might, however, vary in tightness in response to requirements of comfort, modesty or attractiveness-nothing was “more unbecoming than thigh-clinging pantaloons on a man with bulging belly”. Men over thirty-five therefore wore an intermediate type of semi-clinging pantaloons. Radical dandies, on the other hand, felt they were well-dressed only when wearing pantaloons so tight they had to perch on a chair in order to squeeze into them; they were known to threaten tailors with the comment, “I’m warning you that if I manage to get into them, I won’t take them!”
In short, Pantaloon Trousers were just like Pantaloons from the calf up. From the calf down they were straight and did not cling to the ankle. Golding writes “This is one of those articles of Dress, devised by fashion, and wherein the human shape is altogether unconcerned; I shall therefore briefly describe the method of forming them, and refer the reader to the engraving for the shape, &c. As they are the same upwards as Pantaloons, I shall commence my observations at the calf, by remarking that they are usually cut the same width at the bottom as at the calf, and may therefore be cut to the same measure from the straight line at the side; the bottom is sometimes cut square across, at other times the forepart is cut hollow and the hind part round;…when made with loops, or buttons, at the side, as shewn in the plate, they then receive another name, are called Welinglton’s (sic) from the circumstance (no doubt) of their being first worn by the Military.”” Chenoune does not address this type of trouser directly, but mentions in the section about the dandies of the Regency called Adonis and Hercules, “Both were slaves to military or semi-military fashion”. …“The vogue for military fashion, meanwhile, found its most exaggerated expression in the motley world around the Chaussee d’Antin, among draper’s assistants and errand boys. Such shop assistants were known in
French as Calicots (“calicos”), disparagingly named after the cheap cotton cloth that originally came from the Indian port of Calicut. Although they had previously worn spectacles in order to avoid being conscripted into Napoleon’s army, these “knights of the half-measure”, as they were called, now invaded boulevard des Italiens in dark blue frock coats, black cravats and Cossack trousers. They took the military image by storm, sprouting moustaches and sideburns (that some men even starched) clicking their metal heels, rattling their spurs.”
This type of trouser is very interesting. I had seen these in fashion plates but had no idea they had their own name. Golding writes, “Another article nearly allied to Pantaloons, are Moschetto’s (pronounced Moskeeto’s.) These are not so generally worn now, as formerly, but when worn upon a well turned figure, and made with skill, have a remarkably genteel appearance; … This garment is the same as Pantaloons, so low as the small of the leg, which may be continued in nearly a straight line to the bottom allowing however, a trifling spring from where it comes over the top of the shoe; the buttoning at the side is to be regulated by the same rules (as premised in Pantaloons) to allow the heel and instep to pass freely…. And be careful in cutting the hind part low enough at the heel, to prevent its riding up above the shoe, which is a great fault, though frequently to be met with.”
“Moskeeto’s” is a very good phonetic pronunciation of this Italian word. I tried to delve into the name Moschetto’s, always clearly written with the possessive apostrophe. Though the word is used in the Italian language to mean “musket” and also “male sparrow hawk”, I have a feeling this is a dead end. I checked with a Military expert in this period and there was no direct link to a musket Corps, or any link to ‘musket’. If I had to guess, and this is only a guess, it may be used as a proper name, as ‘being owned by a man named Moschetto’, which is also a family last name. This would explain the apostrophe which Golding always uses. There the trail goes cold.
Chenoune does not use the name Moschetto’s, but he writes, “Some pants had hose attached. A tailor named Barde claimed that they offered men the advantage of “being instantaneously shod and trousered”. But the sole of the foot “had to made of very strong knitted fabric’ to give it the required elasticity; in the absence of such fabric, the material had to be cut on the bias. A crucial point to remember was to cut the pants two centimeters longer than measured so that the customer could “sit comfortably.” There were several types of pants with feet-some had a sole and a gusset that covered the top of the foot, stitched at the instep, whereas on others the bottom of the pants was stitched to the sole all around the foot. Still others had a half-sole.” Whatever the case, the successful tailoring of a foot and especially a foot strap was one of the acid tests by which a tailor’s skill was judged.” I have seen a French fashion plate which call these pants “Pantalon a Guetres”, which roughly translates as “Gaiter Pants”.
These are so entertaining! Golding hilariously writes, “Cossack Trowsers have lately been very fashionable, and although they cannot lay much claim to elegance, may yet please from their novelty; Notwithstanding the rude shapelessness of this garment, it will be necessary in measuring, that you take the three principal lengths namely, the hip, knee, and bottom: also the waistband, and that is all you need take;…”
Chenoune writes, “The same (unfortunate) effect could be created by pleated pants that billowed at the hips. Such trousers had foot straps yet were supposed to be worn full, generating further polemics. “Tailors pleat trousers in three ways”, explained the Journal des dames et des modes on 28 February 1825. “1. Thousand-pleat, that is to say twenty or thirty pleats without flap; 2. English-style, with flap and four pleats on each side of the flap; 3. Russian-style, five long, deep pleats with flap. To keep these pants good and tight, Y-suspenders with pulleys are used, attached in front by four buttons.” Two years earlier, however, the same publication had turned up its nose at such pants (sometimes called Cossacks in memory of the soldiers who camped on the Champs-Elysees in 1814 and accompanied the czar on his visit to London that same year). It objected to the fact that as soon as hands sought the pockets cut into the sides, a man’s back would slouch, making him “look like a sailor” according to one observer.”…”To give tailors credit, it should be admitted that is was no simple matter to make pleated pants, especially Cossacks. For every successful pair, too many had “pleats that, instead of falling straight, come together between the legs,” producing a “quite unpleasant” effect. Furthermore, asserted one tailor, they “are not terribly decent.” If, to cap it all, a customer lacked the narrow waist that justified so much fuss around the hips, the outcome was a disaster.”
Golding gives trousers and sailor’s trousers the least mention. In fact they are mentioned in the chapter on Cossacks and do not have their own section. They are all grouped together apparently because they are all loose fitting. After describing how Cossacks should be drafted he writes, “The Sailor’s Trowsers (or as called by them the gun-mouth’d Trowsers), are cut in the usual manner, upwards; and from the crutch downwards, resemble the Cossacks being perhaps yet wider at the bottom, the length of the foot being a rule for the half width; but no drawing ribband for Jack!”
“The common plain Trowsers are somewhat like the last, but not so wide, and are sometimes hollowed principally about the bend of the knee, see the dotted line from the crutch to the bottom in the plate;”
Golding finishes with trousers there. I have quoted from the Chenoune book but there is even more fascinating information in his book that I have not included. I cannot recommend his book, “A History of Men’s Fashion”, highly enough.
The patterns I have drafted of these different types of trousers follow the drawings in the Golding book, along with influence from a several pairs of extant pants and breeches that I have. The only big difference is the drawing Golding has of the Cossacks. He added to both sides of the front of the trousers to give lots of material to the pleats; both at center front and the side seam. I omitted adding to the center front. The samples I made with this construction were not a success! This additional fabric at center front wadded up in the crotch and over the stomach and put center front on the bias; not a good thing for construction. Give it a try yourself though, if you need a good laugh!
For a high resolution of this satirical print about Cossack trousers go here:
Laughing Moon Mercantile www.laughingmoonmercantile.com
For a link to a download of the pattern for trousers:
For a link to a printed pattern for trousers: