World’s oldest pants look like something Justin Bieber would wear

Horses may be responsible for one of the world’s most enduring fashion trends: pants.

Experts have long speculated about the horse-pants connection. Now there is evidence in the form of a 3,000 year-old pair of trousers – possibly the oldest ever found.

Mayke Wagner and her colleagues from the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin have been studying pants found at the Yanghai cemetery, an ancient burial ground in Western China.

Archaeologists actually found two pairs of pants, both on adult men believed to be herders and warriors. The men, who were both about 40 when they died, were found in two of the 500 gravesites excavated thus far.

Other riding gear found in the tomb, including a wooden horse bit and whip, supports the link between pants and horses.

Carbon dating shows the woolen trousers were made around the same time horses caught on as a popular way to get around and wage war, according to a paper the researchers published in Quarternary International journal.

Back then, dresses weren’t just for the ladies. Both sexes typically wore robes, togas, tunics and loincloths. But riding horses in loose, flowing attire led to chafing.

“During normal movements the inner parts of the legs, the crotch and the lower abdomen are not exposed to friction over an extended period of time,” Wagner told New Scientist. “This only becomes an issue when straddling a horse daily.”

The solution ancient tailors came up with in response to this fashion emergency was simple, but totally genius. They stitched together three pieces of cloth – two rectangular pieces, one for each leg, that stretch from waist to hem and one crotch piece that connects the two sides.

“The surprise in these trousers is the woven cross-stepped [crotch piece] that provides the expected functional aspects of crotch protection and full movement, but also coverage of the inner thigh that is needed on horseback,” Abby Lillethun, an associate professor of art and design at Montclair State University, told New Scientist.

The look is still popular – just ask the world’s most famous drop-crotch enthusiast, Justin Bieber. While functional, the pants were a fashion statement back then too. The crotch piece is striped and the legs are embellished with an intricate design — sartorial embellishments that perhaps upped the wearer’s street cred as he roamed the steppe astride his stallion.

 

“We tend to underestimate the efforts people spend on making garments several thousand years ago, because they are seldom preserved,” Wagner said. “Clothes were all about style and appearance, not only function.”

Like a bespoke suit, the ancient trousers were custom-made for the wearer. They were shaped on the loom used to weave the fabric, not cut from a larger piece of cloth. The yarn used on all three pieces of cloth and the threads used to stitch them together match, which suggests the garments were made by one person or perhaps two people working closely together.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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