Breeches (pronounced /ˈbriːtʃɨz/) are an item of male clothing covering the body from the waist down, with separate coverings for each leg, usually stopping just below the knee, though in some cases reaching to the ankles.The breeches were normally closed and fastened about the leg, along its open seams at varied lengths, and to the knee, by either buttons or by a draw-string, or by one or more straps and buckle or brooches. Formerly the breeching of a young boy, at an age somewhere between six and eight, was a landmark in his childhood.
The spelling britches reflects a common pronunciation, and is often used in casual speech to mean trousers or "pants". Breeks is a Scots or northern English spelling and pronunciation.
From the 1890s to the 1930s a form of Breeches called Knickers were in fashion with both men and boys. Like their 18th century predecessor, they reached and were fastened just below the knees but the thighs were more loosely worn. There were various versions including Plus-fours for golf wear which reached down a further four inches below the knees.
Breeches is a double plural known since c. 1205, from Old English (and before Old French) brēc, the plural of brōc "garment for the legs and trunk," from the Proto-Germanic word *brōkiz, whence also the Old Norse word brók, which shows up in the epithet of the Viking king Ragnar Loðbrók, Ragnar "Hairy-breeches". The Proto-Germanic word also gave rise, via a Celtic language, to the Latin word bracca; the Romans, who did not generally wear pants, referred to Germanic tribes as braccati, "wearers of breeches" (or rather, of fabric wrapped around the legs.)
Like other words for similar garments (e.g., pants, knickers, short pants) the word breeches has been applied to both outer garments and underwear. Breeches is a singular word which uses a plural form to reflect it has two legs. This construction is common in English and Italian, but is no longer common in some other languages in which it was once common; e.g., the parallel modern Dutch broek.
At first breeches indicated a cloth worn as underwear by both men and women.
In the latter sixteenth century, breeches began to replace hose (while the German Hosen, also a plural, ousted Bruch) as the general English term for men's lower outer garments, a usage that remained standard until knee-length breeches were replaced for everyday wear by long pantaloons or trousers.
Until around the end of the nineteenth century (but later in some places), small boys wore special forms of dresses until they were "breeched", or given adult male styles of clothes, at about the age of six to eight (the age fell slowly to perhaps three). Their clothes were not usually confusable with those of little girls, as the head-covering and hair, chest and collar, and other features were differentiated from female styles.
During the French Revolution breeches (culottes in French) were seen as a symbol of the nobility. Lower class revolutionaries became known as sansculottes ("without breeches").
Types of breeches
The terms breeches or knee-breeches specifically designate the knee-length garments worn by men from the later sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. After that, they survived in England only in very formal wear, such as the livery worn by some servants into the early twentieth century, and the court dress worn by others, such as Queen's Counsel, down to the present day on formal occasions.
- Spanish breeches, stiff, ungathered breeches popular from the 1630s until the 1650s.
- Petticoat breeches, very full, ungathered breeches popular from the 1650s until the early 1660s, giving the impression of a woman's petticoat.
- Rhinegraves, full, gathered breeches popular from the early 1660s until the mid 1670s, often worn with an overskirt over them.
- Fall front breeches, breeches with a panel or flap covering the front opening and fastened up with buttons at either corner.
- Vráka (Greek: βράκα) are the traditional breeches of all Greek islands, from the westernmost Ionian islands to the easternmost, Cyprus. Greek breeches are extremely roomy, and are meant to be tucked inside long boots just below the knee. They were originally meant to facilitate movement on fishing boats and sailing ships. They are usually accompanied by a long, wide piece of cloth turned many times around the natural waist as a belt. As the vráka lacks pockets, items (such as money) were stored inside the folds of this belt. Vrákas are usually made of sturdy double-woven cotton cloth, usually dark blue or black, with brighter color cloth used as the belt. They were usually worn with white, long-sleeved shirts and a roomy waistcoat.
- Breeches are still worn by many chasidic men, particularly those of Galician or Hungarian origin, such as Satmar and Sanz
- In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term breech-cloth or breech-clout was also used to describe the apron-like loincloths worn by some Native American peoples.
- In contemporary contexts, breeches are distinguished from other forms of pants or trousers as being shorter than ankle-length and form-fitting, as riding breeches. (Note, however, that riding breeches through much of the twentieth century tended to flare dramatically through the thighs.)
- Breeches are also an item of protective clothing used in the martial art of Fencing.
- In the Book of Exodus the kohenim (priests) were commanded to wear white linen breeches known as michnasayim.
The singular meanwhile survived in the metaphorical sense of the part of the body covered by breeches, (i.e., posterior, buttocks); paradoxically, the alliterating expression 'bare breech' thus means without any inner or outer breeches.
This also led to the following:
- a (gun) breech is the part of a firearm behind the bore (known since 1575 in gunnery).
- breech birth in childbirthing (since 1673)
Riding breeches are specifically designed for equestrian activities. Traditionally, they were tight in the legs, stopping about halfway down the calf, with buckles or laces in the calf section, and had a pronounced flare through the thighs that allowed freedom of movement for the rider. However, with the advent of modern stretch materials such as spandex, modern breeches have no flare and fit skin-tight. Zippers and velcro fastenings have replaced laces and buckles at the calves as well. The flared style is seen at times, and is available to cavalry and other historic reenactors.
There are four main types of riding breeches:
- Knee patch breeches: Breeches that stop mid-calf, designed to be worn with tall boots, which come up to the knee, or with half chaps and short paddock boots. They have grippy material, usually leather or a "grippy" synthetic, only on the inside of the knee area. These are the only type of breeches worn by hunt seat riders. Show jumpers, eventers, show hunters, as well as some endurance riders, and pleasure riders also often use the breeches.
- Full seat breeches: Breeches with grippy material from the knee, up the inner thigh, and across the buttocks. These breeches are primarily seen in dressage competition, where the "sticky" seat helps riders stay quiet and deep in the saddle as they sit the gaits of their horses. However, they are also worn by eventers and other riders. They are designed to be worn with tall boots or half chaps.
- Jockeys' breeches also known as silks are made from a white lightweight fabric, usually nylon and typically have elasticised lower legs. Some racing authorities have regulations that require a jockey's name to be inscribed along the thigh of the breeches.
- Jodhpurs are a type of riding pants with legs extending to the ankles, where they end in a small cuff that fits over the top of a low riding boot. They are commonly placed in a separate category from other types of breeches due to their additional length. They are most often worn by children. However, they are worn by adults in the show ring in the UK and Australia, and in the USA are seen on adults during riding lessons and for casual riding. These riding pants have elastic straps or "stirrups" that run under the rider's boots, and are usually worn with garters, to prevent them from riding up. They are meant to be worn with "jodhpur boots," also known as "paddock boots," which come up just above the ankles.
- Kentucky Jodhpurs are full-length riding pants used exclusively in Saddle seat style riding. Like Hunt Seat jodhpurs, they are close-fitting from waist to ankle, but differ in that they are much longer, ending with a flared bell bottom that fits over the jodhpur boot, usually extending longer than the heel of the boot in back, and covering the arch of the foot (but not the toe) in front. The overall look gives the impression of a rider with a long leg, a desired equitation standard. Like the hunt seat jodhpur, they have elastic straps that run under the boot to help hold the pant leg in place.
Color is important in selecting breeches for competition. Sanctioning organizations and tradition both dictate that show clothing is to be quiet, classic and conservative in design. White is common in dressage, and is also seen in show jumping. Beige is seen in most hunt seat-style equestrian disciplines, though light grays, "canary" (a dull yellow), rust, tan, and an olive-greenish colour are periodically popular with hunt seat competitors. Eventers wear classic colours for the dressage and stadium phase, but less classic colours may be seen on the cross-country course (especially at the lower levels) to match the "stable colours" of the rider. Saddle seat riders, whose riding clothing styles derived from men's business suits, wear Kentucky Jodhpurs in dark colors, usually black, navy blue, or a shade that matches the riding coat.
Breeches may be front or side zip. Some competitors believe the side-zip to give a cleaner appearance and to be more flattering. Styles are also developing to parallel trends in street clothing, including low-rise breeches.
- Clothing terminology
- Hebrew Priests were commanded in the Law of Moses (Exodus 28:42) to wear breeches (basically underwear) when they ministered in the Tabernacle: And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach.
- The Breeches Bible, a Geneva-edited Bible of 1560, was so called on account of rendition of Genesis iii.7 (already in Wyclif) "They sewed figge leaves together, and made themselves breeches."
- Daniele da Volterra, nicknamed "the breeches maker" ("il braghettone")
Sources and references
- Oxford English Dictionary
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