The evolution of breeches

Ever wondered how breeches got their name? Step back in time as we take you through the evolution of breeches and their journey into the equestrian fashion statement that they are today.

Every equestrian knows the benefits of a well-fitting pair of breeches. A full seat can help perfect that sitting trot, or stick a mis-timed jump in the show jumping ring or on a cross country course. Fleece lining can reinvigorate motivation in winter, and tights can make hot summer days bearable.

In an increasingly fashion-forward market, riders can find their ideal pair; from bright colours and patterns for schooling at home or informal outings, to the pristine white required in competitions.

High waisted or low, diamante encrusted or not, there are breeches for every taste and budget. Yet like much of the staple equestrian wardrobe, breeches did not originate in the riding arena, evolving over the centuries into their modern form.

Breeches were first worn by both men and women as undergarments, but by the late half of the 16th century they had become strictly masculine. They replaced ‘hose’ as the popular male outerwear in England for both the upper and lower classes; the difference being that ‘hose’ involved a separate garment for each leg, requiring a cod-piece or tunic to cover the groin.

The early form of breeches were specifically knee-breeches; as the name suggests, the legs only reached the knee of the wearer.

In the 18th century, the lower leg was an important part of the aristocratic male silhouette, and was showcased by wearing stockings with the knee-breeches, accompanied by a low stacked-heel shoe. During this period, they were appropriate wear for both day and night.

Photo - Noel Asmar

Like much of the staple equestrian wardrobe, breeches did not originate in the riding arena

‘Buckskin’ breeches became popular as riding attire, and were made from the skins of deer which made the garments incredibly durable and long-wearing. Usually they were light tan or white, and stains were hidden by a ‘buffball’, a cleaning tool made from compressed ochre and kaolin clay combined with soap and glue.

Formal white breeches were worn with white stockings – a far cry from the flamboyant array of tall socks worn by equestrians today – and black breeches with white or black stockings. Towards the end of the century, flaps were sewn into the front of the breeches – known as ‘fall front breeches’ – held up by two or three buttons. A tight waist meant there was no need for a belt – instead the fit was adjusted by gusset ties at the back of the garment.

Tradesmen and other members of the lower classes would wear similar garments in coarser fabric and less easily stained colours.

Throughout history clothes have always been an important signifier of class, with differences portrayed through fabric and style, and breeches are no different; practicality determined the garments of the lower classes, while leisurely aristocrats had the privilege of considering fashion.

Towards the start of the 19th century, breeches for everyday wear fell out of style, replaced by longer pantaloons and trousers. Pantaloons ended at the ankle, instead of the knee, and were worn with tall hessian boots (a popular 19th century style of light boot).

They were closer fitting than breeches, and celebrated lithe and muscular thighs – some men were forced to insert padding into their pantaloons to achieve the desired look.

Trousers, on the other hand, were worn by sailors and working men prior to the 1800s, but were adopted as ‘fashion’ by 1810. By 1820, they had become acceptable to wear both during the day and to formal occasions such as balls. Breeches, however, continued to be worn for court appearances until 1850, and buckskins remained popular for riding.

Like class distinctions, clothing has also been used to indicate gender and associated social roles. An important rite of ‘manhood’ during this time period was called breeching; boys, who previously had been dressed almost identically to female siblings, in gowns and petticoats, were, for the first time, put into breeches.

Breeching occurred between the ages of four and seven, and signalled that the boy was moving beyond the domestic, maternal sphere and into the ‘masculine’ world ruled by his father.

Boys of lower classes would be apprenticed to tradesmen or set to work at this age, and aristocratic boys sent to boarding schools far from home. Fundamentally, breeching served to establish a separation between the sexes, ensuring boys learnt appropriate gender roles early in life.

While breeching fell out of practice by the 20th century, this distinction between male and female clothing remains in force to this day.

Similarly, before the early 20th century, women were required to ride side-saddle in dresses, while only men were afforded the freedom of breeches and riding astride. The invention of another type of riding pants – the jodhpur – assisted with the transition from riding habit to the modern day breeches we see both sexes wear.

Jodhpurs came from India, and were worn by polo players – a sport also invented in that country. Both sport and garment were introduced to England in the late 19th century. Unlike breeches, jodhpurs continued to the ankle instead of stopping just below the knee, and had knee patches to prevent saddle rubs.

Later, a leather seat would be added to increase comfort. A flared hip design was necessary for flexibility, as stretch fabrics had yet to be invented.
As women began to break convention and ride astride in the 1920s, jodhpurs became the apparel of choice.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine riding in anything other than the modern breeches. Worn by both men and women, they are close fitting and offer choices of both full, half or no seat.

Fitted elastic or velcro hold the calf material smooth, covered by knee high socks and tall boots for a sleek and professional finish. While they have been wholly replaced in the non-equestrian sphere with more practical items of clothing, breeches continue be the backbone of equestrian fashion.

References:
“Regency Fashion: Men’s breeches, pantaloons and trousers”. Jane Austen’s World. Accessed 24 March 2017.
“Boy to Man: The Breeching Ceremony”. Regency Redingnote. Accessed 24 March.
“History of Equestrian Fashion: 1920 to 1940”. Style my ride. Accessed 25 March 2017.

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