Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  January 1, 2016

Culottes: A Brief History

As someone who works in the fashion industry, I can confirm to you all that culottes - especially wide legged cropped culottes - are going to be everywhere for SS16. While I was requesting, yet another, pair of culottes for a photoshoot, it occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about the culotte, or where it originated from.

A long time before the Prada, Mulberry and Armani SS16 catwalk, the culotte first appeared in the 1500's, and they were worn exclusively by French, aristocratic males. The garment became so synonymous with the French elite that during the French Revolution, 1789-1799, the trouser-wearing revolutionary soldiers were coined the 'Sans Culottes'. 

The culotte becomes a garment for females from the Victorian times, and became a necessity for the physically active women who wanted to ride horses and ride bikes. Victorian culottes were disguised as floor length skirts, with the leg split thoroughly covered, therefore, it was almost impossible to tell the difference. It wasn't until May 1931 that the first divided culotte was worn by a woman:

"[Elsa] Schiaparelli wore her true undivided skirt, undisguised by panels or a wraparound skirt, in London during a trip to buy tweeds. The garment caused much controversy and was loudly condemned by the British press." (Dilys E Blum)

Ever since Schiaparelli dared to wear her 'undivided skirt' in public, the culotte has remained an item of clothing that hasn't gained a place as 'everyday clothing'. The garment made a comeback in the 1970’s, and they’ve made a comeback every decade since:

“Culottes are the zombies of fashion. We say we hate them and won’t wear them, but every decade culottes rise from the dead and it’s yet another culotte moment in fashion history. Despite declaring them “torso-truncating, leg-bisecting, billowing” (McCall Pattern Company 2015)

This idea that the culotte is fundamentally an unattractive item of clothing is apparent when you read many fashion journalists debating whether they’re an acceptable trend. Drifting in and out of fashion, the culotte remains a somewhat feminist item, due to their a-stylish appearance:

“Torso-truncating, leg-bisecting, billowing: Culottes are aggressively unsexy. Which is perhaps why men tend to hate them. But that’s kind of the point. Culottes are about women more than men, about what it feels like to wear them rather than how people respond to them.” (Véronique Hyland, 2015, New York Times)

It is precisely the culottes rich, and surprisingly socio-political history that makes them one of the most interesting garments in fashion at the moment, while they may take a bit of courage and careful styling to pull off, culottes have won me over.

“From their earliest associations with suffragists and female athletes to their newfound popularity, these breezy pants are about liberation, and, really, what could be more sexy than that?” (Véronique Hyland, 2015, New York Times)

REFERENCES: (1) Dilys E Blum, 2003, Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. (2) The Inescapable Unavoidable Culotte - Past and Present Patterns, The McCall Pattern Company, 2015. (3) The Feminist Past - and Present - of Culottes, Véronique Hyland, 2015, New York Times.

Olexandra Solomka, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • Vogue Patterns November/December 1975
  • Celine SS16 Culottes