Ancient Roman costume.

How Pants Went From Being Banned To Required In The Roman Empire

Today, men in the Western world don't think twice about wearing pants. However, pants weren't always a wardrobe staple. While most people know it took years for women to gain acceptance for wearing pants, few people know wearing pants was once objectionable for men, too. In Imperial Rome, pants weren't always considered an honorable garment. Today, banning pants might seem strange, but for the Romans, the controversy around trousers was political.

So What Were They Wearing?

 A headless Roman statue wearing a toga.
 A headless Roman statue wearing a toga.

You might be wondering if men weren't wearing pants, what could they possibly be wearing? Well, if you've seen drawings depicting ancient Greek and Roman times, you have probably seen someone drawn wearing a toga or tunic. These togas and tunics were the fashion in ancient Rome for both genders. However, the Roman Empire covered a large chunk of land and consisted of many different cultures. At its peak, the Empire spanned around 2 million square miles. Each different culture had unique garb that people wore. The Roman Empire frequently conquered land where people wore pants. This led the Romans to associate pants with non-Romans. They associated people who wore pants with weakness and primitive culture. 

An Uncivilized Fashion

When Julius Caesar was emperor of the Roman Empire, he invaded Gaul and fought a range of tribes. They included the Aedui, Atrebates, and Viromandui. When the Romans encountered the tribes, they considered the people uncivilized and referred to them as barbarians. The fashion of many of the tribes in Gaul included pants. The trousers were often made from animal skins. Similarily, other Germanic peoples wore pants. This was quite different than the toga fashion of the Romans.

Barbaric By Association

Vikings wearing pants journeying to conquer new lands.
Vikings wearing pants journeying to conquer new lands.

Since the Romans conquered so many pants-wearing tribes, pants became a garment associated with the conquered. The Romans would tell stories about how the foreign tribes were fierce aggressors and primitive people. The Germanic and Gaulish tribes were then seen as barbaric. This led the Romans to associate pants with these same attributes. People who wore pants in Rome were, by extension, barbaric. 

The Attempted Banning of Pants

Chained Germanic tribesman wearing a pair of trousers t
Chained Germanic tribesman wearing a pair of trousers that were typical for the Germanic tribes. Image credit: Gryffindor via Wikimedia Commons.

In 100 CE, pants-wearing was still considered odd for Romans. However, Roman soldiers did introduce wearing a certain type of pants called braccae. These pants had a drawstring and were wool, making them incredibly warm. The wool pants were useful when the Romans fought people in colder climates, such as northern Europe. In cold climates, wearing pants was more practical than wearing a tunic.

As the Roman soldiers started wearing pants more, they also became a popular garment for the regular public. However, the Roman Emperors disapproved of this trend. At the time, Rome had two Emperors, Honorius and Arcadius. They issued a decree that people were not allowed to wear boots or trousers. If someone wore pants, they faced a punishment, such as exile.

Historians debate the incentive for the decree. Some believe the decree was an attempt to keep pants in the sole domain of the military. Others see the ban as an attempt to hold on to Roman culture and tradition at a time when Rome was becoming a melting pot of cultures. Pants weren't the only fashion banned at this time. Long hair and flashy jewels were also banned. Anything associated with cultures the Romans deemed barbaric was essentially outlawed. 

Pants Gaining Acceptance

Despite the best efforts of the emperors, Roman fashion was changing. When Rome fell to the pants-wearing Germanic tribes, wearing pants lost its controversy. The remaining Roman court in Constantinople even started wearing pants. At this time, the Roman fashion completely changed. Pants became the fashion, along with long sleeves and fitted tunics. 

Fashion Trends

The banning of pants shows that even the ancient Empire had fashion trends. From tunics and togas to pants and long sleeves, the Empire experienced its own fashion evolution. Over time, fashion trends change in every society. One year, skinny jeans might be the fashion, and the next, baggy pants might be all the rage.

What makes something a fashion trend often has a political undertone. In ancient Rome, the banning of pants was due to the Roman distaste for other cultures. More than a changing fashion trend, the shift in Roman society from tunics to pants was also a shift in societal values. Pants and tribes the Romans called barbaric went from being disdained to getting accepted.


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