The fight for women’s rights can be tracked in many ways through fashion. From Rosie the Riveter whose trademark red polka dot bandana and striking pose mobilized working women during World War II to the would-be bra-burning at the 1968 Miss. America pageant that, despite the fact that no bras were actually burned, became a symbol of the second-wave feminist movement, fashion has served as a second skin reflecting social norms through time. Perhaps surprisingly, culottes — the wide-legged, flowing pant that has re-taken the fashion industry by storm — is no exception.
Originally, culottes were popularized by French aristocratic men in the mid-1500s. As a result, they came to embody class distinctions across the French socioeconomic spectrum, with those who were too poor to afford them being termed sans-culottes (literally meaning “without culottes”). As the French Revolution came to a head in the late 1700s, it came to be recognized as a movement of the sans-culottes rising against the inequalities imposed by the culotte-wearing aristocratic elite. Regardless of the culottes’ heated origins, the wearing of these knee-length pants (sometimes referred to as “breeches”) continued to spread beyond France among European men. In fact, culottes were even donned by early U.S. presidents, reflecting their continued permeation among upper-class men.
Today, women largely have horses to thank for the transition from culottes being recognized as a socially acceptable garment for women. Startup Fashion’s brief history of culottes discusses the development of the “split skirt” as a necessity for physically active Victorian women who wanted to more easily ride horses without having to depart too far from traditional female clothing styles; however, adoption of our modern conception of culottes was not always so readily accepted by society at large. Indeed, the appearance of a comparatively shortened culotte at Wimbledon in the early 1930s was met with public shock and outrage from major publications at the time.
Of course, like any fashion, seasons change and culottes eventually became less a topic about gender and more about style itself. Even though the look of culottes has continued to evolve and their popularity has waxed and waned over the past decades, they nevertheless remain an embodiment of critical social revolutions that have shaped the very fabric of global societies. Indeed, a walk in today’s culottes is an indirect stroll through the history of France, feminism, and the fight for equality for all.