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Are Culottes Revolutionary?

Hello TIA,

Our thanks again for all that you do to teach and inform.

1970s cuottes

A conservative culotte pattern from the '70s

I have noticed that some modest clothing manufacturers marketing to Christian families have been offering mid-calf length culottes and I've noticed that they are popular with some very conservative, non-denominational Christian women.

I remember these from forty to fifty years back, and I initially thought they were actually skirts with inverted "V" pleats in the front and the back. But, having two older sisters who made their own from sewing patterns, I discovered that they were really pants - sometimes being billed as "split skirts" or "pantskirts."

This was a clever case of fashion fraud in a way as they give the appearance of being skirts but aren't. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are as far as being suitable attire.

Looking back, I always wondered if this style was a way of making women in pants acceptable years ago. Ironically the word "culottes" is French for women's underwear - so it doesn't seem right to me. I want to offer good guidance to others.



Dr. Horvat responds:

Hello C.D.R.,

Your question is quite interesting, and led me to research a bit about the history of culottes. I believe a brief overview will help you and others to understand the position a counter-revolutionary Catholic should take today about wearing them.

ancien regime sans culottes

A French noble in culottes, at right, a revolutionary sans-culotte; below, President Monroe still in culottes, standing

james monroe culottes
The French word culotte is a pair of trousers, generally knee-breeches that ended just below the knee, closed and fastened by buttons, strap or drawstring. It derived from the French word culot, meaning the lower-half of a thing, the lower garment of a man originally. The culottes entered the fashion scene in the Renaissance period among the upper classes, popularized in France during the reign of Henry II (1547-1559).

In the Ancien Regime in France the use of culottes for men became generalized, with a certain convention for their use. The nobles used their culottes with white socks that came to their knees; those with enough money to wear good clothes but who were not noble wore darker color culottes with black socks. Those who were poor did not use culottes and were called the sans-culottes (without culottes).

The French Revolution of 1789, which was against any kind of nobility, exalted the class of the sans-culottes as a social ideal and vilified all inequalities. That new model of revolutionaries rejected what they considered aristocratic apparel and wore simple trousers to express their egalitarian stance. The sans-culottes sent the nobles and many bourgeois to the guillotine not for their clothing, but out of hatred for their social status and the medieval Catholic structure of society.

Culottes for men, however, remained a distinguished item of dress until the end of the 18th century. In the United States, for example, the first five Presidents, from George Washington through James Monroe, wore culottes. Culottes were also a common part of the distinguished military uniforms during the time of the European wars.

Culottes for women

The revolutionary history of culottes for women began in the Victorian era when they were adopted by those who wanted to be freer to ride horses straddle back and the fashionable new bicycles. Although these first culottes were floor length skirts with the leg split fully disguised to look like a regular skirt, its purpose was clear: to make women feel more like men when wearing them.

elsa culottes

Elsa Schiaparelli shocked the fashion world with her daring split pants in 1931

It is difficult for me to believe that women could not have worn regular long skirts for riding and cycling, especially since there were special side saddles for women and bicycles designed for women wearing skirts. So, there was no practical reason for the change. The culotte was introduced to promote equality with men. From its first introduction into women's clothing, this garment was a compromise – pants that looked like a skirt, satisfying the status quo as it introduced the idea that women, to be free, had to have clothing more like those of a man.

It was not long before culottes took on the shape of split pants; they became shorter and without the concealing pleats. Italian born designer Elsa Schiaparelli, separated from her French Count husband and living in Paris, appeared in 1931 during a trip to London in a pair of culottes she had designed.

She made no attempt to hide what culottes really are: pants for women. The British press tore Schiaparell’s design apart, calling them “manly, with hints of lesbianism.” The French threatened to arrest any woman wearing such culottes in public.

In this initial phase, culottes were considered quite revolutionary. The early feminists – e.g., the English suffragists fighting for equal rights for women and the daring counterculture “jet set”– brazenly adopted them. But conservative Catholic women and their daughters would not think of such a thing.

By the 40’s and 50’s, however, a more conservative type of culottes - full skirts and below the knees - entered mainstream culture in the English-speaking world. However, their use was reserved for sports (tennis, badminton, volleyball, bicycling, etc.), summer picnics and the beach. Respectable ladies would not wear culottes to Mass, serious events or even shopping. But the dam had broken. The idea of women wearing men's pants for casual or family events was no longer strictly forbidden, even in good families.

Culottes become old fashioned

With the hippie revolution of the 1960’s came a whole new revolutionary style of being. Men grew out their hair, women boldly appeared in revealing clothing in public, and both sexes adopted blue jeans as a kind of communist uniform. The revolutionary culottes were abandoned by all except for the old-fashioned conservative sort, who still refused to wear slacks and shorts. In fact, the word culottes even took on a new meaning in French, used to describe women's undergarments (panties), as you noted.

1940s culottes

By the 40’s most U.S. women were wearing culottes like these for recreation

By the 80’s and 90’s, there were very few who followed the old norms on women's clothing. Culottes were, of course, "out" of style. The majority of women and girls wore pants everywhere - in formal as well as informal events, for church as well as for shopping or eating out. The casual had become dominant, and the styles increasingly became more vulgar and immoral, even in girls' clothing.

This is the state we find ourselves in today. Naturally, counter-revolutionary Catholic women resist the modern fashions and affirm their decision to please Our Lord and Our Lady first by wearing long skirts and dresses. For some sports, there is the custom to wear culottes as a supposedly conservative alternative.

But are they really a legitimate alternative? That is the crux of your question. You pointed out that the culottes were the excuse used to introduce the notion of women wearing pants, and history affirms your assumption correct. Then, with the passing of time, culottes came to be considered modest and conservative next to shorts and blue jeans.

The trouble with culottes, as I see it, is that, just as the first bathing suit opened the door to the bikini, Elsa Schiaparelli's public parading of her split leg pants in 1931 opened the door, in the long run, to all kinds of pants for women, including blue jeans and the revealing leotards and gym pants we see everywhere today.

By the end of the 20th century, almost everyone was accustomed to the resulting immoral revealing of the body. One concession leads to another and, often, much faster than we imagine.

Instead of just wearing the culottes to ride horses, a girl decides it is too much trouble to change back into a dress or skirt and, so, she wears them all day. She picks up the looser, less feminine way of walking and sitting that comes with wearing split pants. Before you know it, she is wearing other types of pants - "After all, they're not that much different from culottes." And then, before too much longer, she is in blue jeans like everybody else. This is the way of concessions, especially in fashions. Open the door a crack and it isn't long before it is wide open.

modern culottes

The fashion couturiers declare culottes are "in" this year for the modern woman

Today, after many years, the gods and goddesses of the fashion industry - who issue directives on what is "in" or "not in" for the season - have decreed that culottes are incredibly chic this year. But they are bold culottes that conform to modern bold woman, who unequivocally demands equality in all things: we find high or low waisted denim ones, stretch faille pleated ones, etc. worn with every kind of top - plunging necklines, shoestring strap sleeves, tight fitting jackets. Culottes worn not to be modest, but to follow the latest trend.

I hope that traditionalist and conservative Catholics will not jump on this bandwagon and allow their daughters to adopt culottes so that they fit in better with the modern world. This would be a mistake, in my opinion. Ideally, culottes should be avoided altogether.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted January 19, 2017


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