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When presidents started wearing pants

For years, it was hail to the calf. But why?

George Washington speaking to an assembly, with his calves showing.
George Washington speaking to an assembly, with his calves showing.
MPI/Getty Images

We're extremely familiar with George Washington's legs. And for decades, presidential legs were exposed at every inauguration.

It took until John Quincy Adams's inauguration in 1825 for a president to appear in long pants. What was the holdup? And what was the deal with all those breeches —the short, bunched pants that every Colonial man seemed to wear? Didn't they get sick of having to wear hose to stay warm?

To find out, I asked professor Kate Haulman, whose book, The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America, covers the hottest fashion trends of the 1700s. Her book uses fashion as a lens through which to view the political and social changes that marked pre- and post-revolution America. And it turns out breeches reveal a lot more than just calves.

The United States wanted to rebel. But its fashion sense was still yoked to Europe.

This colorized engraving shows breeches in the Colonial America.

This colorized engraving shows breeches in the Colonial America.

StockMontage/Getty Images

Because the ideas of early American leaders were so revolutionary, it's easy to think that their style would be, too. But the Colonial elites of the 1700s largely aped European fashion — and that included dressing to impress with breeches.

These were people who came from Europe and were deeply influenced by its intellectual climate. Rather than forming a uniquely American style, they held themselves to European standards.

In the four key port cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, fashion and fabric arrived with other, more essential goods, and the elites in those cities happily imported a European fashion sense. "In this period," Haulman says, "they are as East-looking as West-looking." Early Americans wanted to keep up with the European trends (for the record, Boston, not New York, was seen as the trendiest fashion city).

Despite a pre-revolution push for a uniquely "American" identity modeled on unpretentiousness and political independence, breeches stayed high in popularity even as political tensions with England rose. It was a long, losing battle against European fashion: Haulman cites a 1695 complaint that even Quakers, who held "plainness" as a core value, were tempted by fancy buttons, ribbons, and wigs. Later, even Ben Franklin, who famously advocated frugality and a "waste not, want not" mentality, visited an elite London tailor when he was abroad.

As the 18th century progressed and British taxes raised costs on many goods, leaders pushed for domestic purchasing and the renunciation of European staples. Leaders encouraged Americans to fight fashion in favor of the Colonies.

"Fashion won," Haulman says.

There were numerous attempts to break free of imports — so-called "homespun" campaigns for American-made clothes ran through the 18th century (and arguably continue today in a modern form). But they didn't really work.

"Until you get some of the mills of the 19th century," Haulman says, "domestic manufacture is kind of a pipe dream. ... You don't see a distinctive American fashion."

The allure of foreign clothing was too much for most people, especially the ones who couldn't afford scarce American-made clothes. So European clothing and fashion sense stuck around, including the breeches.

Like pants today, the type of breeches you wore said a lot about you

This illustration depicts a 1768 reception in New York, which probably had European pretensions.

This illustration depicts a 1768 reception in New York, which probably had European pretensions.

Three Lions/Getty Images

The same way that a pair of jeans can send vastly different messages about a person, breeches could send a complicated message about status. Breeches had a long history in Europe, and minor variations had complicated significance later on.

Sometimes that meant using breeches to seem relatable. Haulman notes one Colonial man who, in 1744, wore ugly attire that included scrappy leather breeches, despite being a man of great wealth (it's hard not to think of today's T-shirt-clad tech billionaires).

While patchy and worn breeches evoked the simple farm life, the garment could also elevate a person to elite status. In the 1730s, an escaped indentured servant used posh linen breeches, among other clothes, to signify his newly emancipated status. In the 1750s, breeches with bejeweled buckles weren't uncommon.

But the days of exposed male calves were numbered.

Why pants beat breeches

John Adams, showing some leg.

John Adams, showing some leg.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

John Adams wore breeches. So why did his son, John Quincy Adams, wear pants? That's impossible to answer definitively — after all, do we have any idea why flared jeans gave way to skinny ones? Still, we can make some good guesses.

First, leading up to and after the American Revolution, breeches started getting more conservative, showing that modesty was creeping into elite circles. By the 1780s, fashion in Europe and America was changing, favoring the cut of the waistcoat and appearance of the shirt over bright colors. That led to darker and less noticeable breeches.

Then the French Revolution in 1789 probably began a transition away from breeches altogether (though, again, it's hard to say for sure).

"The shift begins surrounding the French Revolution," Haulman says, "where you get all sorts of stylistic expressions that have politics attached." That included the French Revolution–era group known as sans-culottes (translation: without breeches), who shunned breeches in favor of commoners' pants:

The outfit of the sans-cullotes, as depicted in 1792

The outfit of the sans-culottes, as depicted in 1792.

Ullstein bild/Getty Images

That trend probably slowly changed elite attitudes, as well. Rich people started wearing pants too. "By the 1790s and 19th century, you see longer pants, like the leggings of the day," Haulman says. "Longer with more coverage, still kind of tight-fitting."

Soon men developed an even more serious (and covered) view of fashion, both in Europe and America. On both sides of the Atlantic, breeches faded away. James Monroe, the fifth president, did appear in dark breeches in some portraits, but he did so to indicate that he was part of the bygone Revolutionary era:

James Monroe's breeches were already outdated in this portrait, circa 1817.

James Monroe's breeches were already outdated in this portrait, circa 1817.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

He also wore pants:

James Monroe wearing pants in another portrait.

James Monroe wearing pants in another portrait.

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

That made it easy for John Quincy Adams to wear pants in portraits and to his inauguration in 1825. The president wasn't a fashion leader, but rather a trailing indicator of mainstream pants sentiment:

John Quincy Adams, wearing pants in circa 1825 portrait

John Quincy Adams, wearing pants in a circa-1825 portrait.

MPI/Getty Images

Even though breeches faded away, they were never just about whether calf contours were exposed. Fashion has always doubled as a means of social and political speech, and at some level the breech battles reflected ideas about class and the Enlightenment. They were one of many status symbols.

"It wasn't just your breeches," Haulman notes. "Do you have the carriage? Do you have the speech to go with it? How do you know an elite person?"

She cautions that the dynamics at play were just as complex as they are today, when we judge people by the minutiae of their lapel or the exact height of their heel.

"We should not think that people of the past were less complex and intentional than we are," she says. That even includes their breeches.