IT all began with George Bryan Brummell, known to posterity as Beau Brummell. He was the arbiter of elegance and hygiene in the circle surrounding the prince of Wales during the Regency period. The prince and his friends were spendthrift and exclusive, even after Brummell rid them of body odour.
Without money, membership in such circles tends to lapse. Faced with mounting bills from his tailors, hatters and booters, Brummell devised a money- saving innovation: instead of imported silk, he would wear a suit of cheaper English cloth. Coat and trousers, shirt and necktie, boots polished with champagne for extra sparkle.
It was the trousers of the ensemble that consternated many.
Brummell had dispensed with silk stockings, taken breeches to the ankles and given the cloth a trim cut to fashion the garment.
They were immediately adopted by contemporaries who mattered: the dandies. They dressed with a sense of aesthetic balance worthy of Picasso or, as Byron said of Brummell, with exquisite propriety.
Their efforts were a superb realisation of style, resistible only by the regressive.
Tens of millions of men in the world have since lived out their lives in Brummell trousers.
Yet only the English honour Beau with a statue. It is just as well. The truth about trousers is not without embarrassment and must be whispered lest the children should hear it: trousers are the traditional attire of barbarians. Clothes easily donned for trouble or plunder answer to barbarian needs. As no historian has noted, barbarians are quick dressers.
It trousers the argument like a bag to say all trousered males are barbarians. Clothes do not make the man; they reflect only his desires. For example, when he desires respect, he wears the colours of a caste he culturally identifies as respectable, namely that of the clerics. It favours black, grey and deep shades. Gloomy, yes; respectable, none should doubt.
If the partner of the male buys his clothes, they will reflect no desire for the male; they will reflect unrequited social ambition. Males usually consign the result to their wardrobe rather than their bodies, preferring social discomfort to be quarantined rather than endured.
Brummell’s social ambition coupled with lack of money did not confine his wardrobe. It had the unintended effect of making him the precursor of a universal fashion. Trousers were a perfect fit for a burgeoning commercial age.
Trousers levelled males of all classes into a uniform of fashion: industrialists and politicians, landlords and tenants, generals and soldiers, managers and workers. Trousers made the world safe for democracy.
There was a dark side: trousers were an ideal fashion for stultifying factory work and the killing fields of war.
Bright in their promise, or dark in their mischief, Brummell’s trousers marched on.
Fifty years after Brummell appeared in public, trousered and proud, the last London club to uphold breeches and stockings as suitable for gentlemen gave way to the tide of fashion. The trousered bourgeoisie was at the doors of the noble establishment. It was brutal. Accept my trousers, accept me.
Trousers could have remained the fashion of the English democracy had the paramount civilisation of the day been other than England. Its ubiquitous standards ensured the male was universally trousered. Its bitterest enemies took to wearing trousers. They still do. Pause and admire this unique achievement in the history of the world — of trousers triumphant over guns, of fashion mightier than force — for the glory day of trousers was brief.
Amid other sartorial and social tremors, Mahatma Gandhi launched a political attack on trousers. He made the decision never to wear another pair of English trousers. He became the innovator of a natural, simple style of dress that he made himself, spinning the yarn of its material. The effect was tremendous, as he intended. The trousers fell off British India. Embarrassed and bewildered, the British departed India. It was an unfitting end to so much trousered pomp.
While Gandhi was fighting to de- trouser India, European women were fighting to be trousered.
French novelist George Sand, fellow traveller of Chopin, was the first prominent woman to wear trousers in public. People who live to be shocked were scandalised. As 19th- century women were obliged to live for both, Sand had no immediate following.
World War I gave Sand a posthumous mass following. Towards the end of the conflict, women working in industry and agriculture took to wearing overalls, a working variation on trousers. Some women went further, taking the short stride from overalls to trousers. World War II turned this progression into a gallop. When the heir to the British throne wore trousers as part of her war uniform, it was the last word.
Communist China dealt the final sociopolitical blow to the unique maleness of trousers. Males and females, they all pulled on blue trousers. They marched through the cities and countryside of China, waving little red books containing the thoughts of Mao Zedong.
Everyone was equal in trousers. Except for people in non- blue trousers, who were more equal than people trousered blue. Today the people of China are back to square one, the cut and quality of Brummell suits defining wealth and position.
This revisionism has come too late. Trousers have continued their decline as a male symbol. Females, able to shake their own trousers on and off, take their social parity with the male for granted. Males have not been unaffected. Climate and weather permitting, males have returned to their beloved breeches. They call the revived fashion shorts. These truncated trousers maintain the traditional length of breeches below the knee. Not too much, not too little.
Females often wear shorts cut above the knee. Never too much, never too little. The length of shorts can be more revealing of the wearer’s psychology than of their legs.
A short history on the imperial age of trousers would be incomplete without considering Roman Europe before the barbarian triumph. The tunic was the universal fashion, the toga its sophisticated development. Unlike trousers in their final form, the toga hung from the shoulders. It did not grip the waist with a belt. Nor did its collar grip the neck. Nor were a tightgripping necktie and leg- gripping socks needed. The toga was elegant and fashion- resistant. It made its wearers feel good and feel free.
The same cannot be said for trousers in a wardrobe aesthetically corroded by chemicals, elastic and mass production. It is time for a bold new style, fit for a brave new world where sex is no longer a barrier to reason. Its innovation requires that the economic luxury and the environmental burden of fashion be weighed against that simple truth known to our forebears: life without fashion is style.