Harem pants today are sported by trend setters and individualists, but what’s perceived as a fresh style has been around for over 2,000 years. Harem pants originated in the Eastern hemisphere, where they symbolized modesty and tradition. The many incarnations of harem pants in Western society have represented opposite qualities: defiance or unconformity.
A Modest Beginning
10 A.D to 1700
While early Western civilization was clad in rough tunics and furs, the people of Eastern Asia decked themselves in ornately embroidered silk pants. Despite their sometimes incredibly intricate design, the pants were meant to embody virtues of the time, like modesty and innocence. These virtues were particularly prized in women. The loose fit of the pants was accordingly designed to disguise the shape of a woman’s hips, which could be considered provocative. Men also wore these pants when working around the house; the fit was comfortable for doing chores.
The style was ubiquitous throughout Asia and endured for centuries. In Turkey, they were called şalvar or dimije. In northern India, they were called Patiala salwar.
Eastern-style pants in Western society owe their debut to the Women’s Right Movement.
Initially, women were encouraged by health reformers to cast off their corsets and long, heavy skirts. Doctors reported that corsets could damage internal organs, while exercise enthusiasts railed against the restriction of movement. The result was the introduction of Turkish dress for the betterment of women’s health.
A number of women began to wear pants in public, as a display of gender role defiance. Among these women was Amelia Bloomer, a prominent social activist and author of a temperance journal. Soon women’s pants became known as bloomers. They were worn by feminists and suffragists to draw attention to their political stances.
After the battle for women’s suffrage was won, interest in bloomers waned and most women returned to wearing skirts.
Harems and Sultans
The revival of women’s pants in Western society corresponded with the rise in gender-defiance. This time, the social movement was focused less on equal rights and more on equal identity. Tired of being portrayed as demure and subservient, women began to take ownership of their forms by exploring clothing that was considered provocative for the time.
Parisian designer, Paul Poiret, captured the mood of women in his Oriental inspired designs. Poiret based his designs on the harem pants for the Russian ballet’s production of Schéhérazade. Poiret dressed the dancers in revealing, heavily embellished tops, which were deemed unnecessarily sexual. Still, the sultan skirts and harem pants gained popularity among young women, and even those belonging to elite classes.
World War I interrupted the rise of harem pants. The victors of the war led the fashion world away from the harem flare into straight, uniform-esque lines.
1980s to Present
Western women gradually escaped the confines of dresses and skirts, and developed unique patterns for women’s trousers. Ironically, the normalization of new patterns for women’s trousers paved the way for the re-appearance of harem pants as a revolutionary style.
In the 1980s, rapper MC Hammer made the most of the freedom of movement allowed by harem pants in his music video “Can’t Touch This.” The video went viral and the new Hammer pants went with it. The style became, once more, an icon of youth and novelty. But this time for men and women.
After lapsing out of style in the 1990s, Bohemian style has ushered harem pants back into today’s fashion, completing the 2,000 year historical run of the pants.
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