If you thought pants were a garment that enclosed the legs from the hips to the ankles, as the dictionary says, wait until you see what Italian designers have kicked up for spring 1981.

At this year's Milan showings, the news was not where the skirt hemlines fell, but where the pants were cut off. Among the assortment of pants skirting the issue: linen knee-pants with a front flap by Giorgio Armani; white bloomers from Krizia; puffed haren shorts from Erreuno; Brazilian-print silk harem pants trimmed in gold fringe by Callaghan; and even a collection of woven leather Bermudas and slacks by Mario Valentino.

Although pants -- from britches to Bermudas -- have always been an essential part of the Italian collections, there has never been the variety of this year.

Last season -- which in fashion lingo was last spring when designers introduced collections for fall -- Giorgio Armani showed mostly pants, many of them knee-length. "I watch the women around me and see that they are so much more comfortable in pants. It is the only modern way to dress," Armani said at the time. Reluctant to gamble on such a total commitment from his customers, in his back room were lots of skirts that stores could offer in place of the pants.

While other designers are now offering pants as part of the mix, Armani displayed an almost all-pants collection for next spring. Britches, bubble shapes, cuffed knee-pants and pants under a skirt are part of his assortment.

Other designers are not so totally sold on pants. They thoughfully are also offering women the choice of a few dresses and skirts (mainly with shorter hemlines).