Before they became the rage that they are today among fashion-conscious women, culottes were nothing but knee-breeches that were originally worn by men of the European aristocracy from the late Middle Ages to early nineteenth century. Knee breeches, for the uninitiated, were narrow, tight trousers that ended right below the knee, fastened with a buckle, drawstring, strap or button. You’d think they were just regular pants at first glance.
Because the garment was only seen in the circles of the elite, they soon went on to become a symbol of oppression. So much so that during the French Revolution, working-class revolutionaries touted themselves to be ‘sans-culottes’, indicative of their opposition to the aristocratic. The hitherto harmless piece of garment had become a cause of class divide.
Culottes for women liberation
The culottes for women that we know today came about only in the late 19th century, when women began to actively take part in activities that were back then considered unladylike (read horse-riding, tennis, bicycling). The skirts that were the norm back in the day were non-conducive to sports. Fashion companies jumped at the opportunity and began to develop long split skirts (a skirt split into pants) for women that would give the illusion of wearing a skirt while they rode horses with a man’s saddle rather than riding side-saddle.
The horse-riding split skirts became a controversial garment for they were breaking sexist taboos against women riding horses when they were expected to hide their lower limbs at all times. Not just horse-riding, the garment gave increasing freedom to women partaking in other activities such as bicycling, gardening, etc. They still looked like they were wearing skirts! The French word ‘culottes’ (meaning knee breeches) was used to describe these new ‘pants for women’ and is the version that we see today. Panels, frills and ruffles are used nowadays to conceal the divide in between.
Next time you contemplate buying this garment, know that they echo women liberation. Give these wonderfully breathable pieces a try!
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