“What you wear is how you present yourself to the world,
especially today, when human contacts are so quick.
Fashion is instant language.”
– Miuccia Prada
Throwing the idiom about not judging a book by its cover out of the window, the truth is that we are often judged – and judge others – by how we look, what we’re wearing, and how we’re wearing it. While differing fashions may come and go and our fashion statements may differ with our changing needs, we unfortunately tend to focus solely on what a particular item of clothing says about us, instead of what the actual garment is, such as its origin and history. A primary example of this is today’s word culotte.
To many, the culotte (or the divided skirt) seems like a simple and sensible blend of form and function, mixing the casual, relaxed functionality of pants and shorts with the airy flow and femininity of a skirt, but this item is more than just a random functional innovation: it has a distinct history of its own.
Arriving in English from the French culotte, meaning ‘breeches’ (an article of clothing covering the body from the waist down), our word originated from the Latin term for ‘bottom or fundament’, culus. Though, in the modern day, we may think of culottes being an exclusive item in female fashion, their origin is exclusively masculine.
Adorning the lower-half of European upper classes from the late Middle Ages through the early 19th century, the original culotte, popularised by the French king Henry III, was a tight, form-fitting trouser that ended just below the knee and was fastened around the leg with buttons, a buckle, or a draw-string. In fact, the first mention of the word in English, via cleric Richard Harris Barham (using the pen-name “Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor”) comes from the poem Black Mousquetaire in The Ingoldsby Legends, stating in 1842: “Ripping the lace from his coat, And from what, I suppose, I must call his culotte.”
As for what caused the gender change, well, let’s call it modern sensibilities.
In the Victorian Era of the latter half of the 19th century, as opportunities for women to become more publicly active and athletic increased, it soon became obvious that a floor-length flowing skirt wasn’t exactly the ideal garment for every activity. Thankfully, innovation prevailed. Rather than being forced to ride side-saddle in order to hide their lower extremities, longer split skirts were developed so that women could still go horseback riding, sit astride a man’s saddle, and yet retain their modesty and decorum. As times continued to change, culottes were modified/adjusted to meet the needs of other activities, such as ordinary domestic gardening or an exhilarating bicycle ride.
Considering that men’s fashion (and language, for that matter) had abandoned the use of the now largely historical term “culottes” in the early 19th century, the feminine need for a term to define this garment that was neither a skirt nor trousers led to our word for “bottom covering” being recycled, with the first entirely feminine use occurring in 1911 as “Satin culottes, 10/6.” from Cecil Willett Cunnington’s English Women’s Clothing in the Present Century.
From then until now, other than the occasional and obscure use of the term as an a visual reference for the soft hair on the back of the forelegs of a dog (no, seriously, Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary included it in 1928), the term has remained pretty stable; however, its use has been greatly expanded. For example, “culotte” is now being used to define virtually anything that combines aspects of a skirt and bifurcated pants, like skorts, demi jeans, even simply short palazzo pants. Ironically, the only people not expanding the usage of the term are the progenitors, the French, for whom the term now simply means the first and basest level of clothing from the waist down- women’s panties. C’est la vie!