Culottes: From French Revolution to Feminism

The culotte is this season’s most polarizing trend. A culotte is a bifurcated skirt that usually ends above the ankles but you may know it as another item from your history classes - a tight trouser ending just below the knee that wealthy men wore prior to the French Revolution. As I saw the recent rise in the culotte’s popularity, I began to wonder when and how the term changed between the French Revolution and today and how this garment is significant to our shared history.

Louis XVI, dressed in culottes, drinks a toast to the sans-culottes

Louis XVI, dressed in culottes, drinks a toast to the sans-culottes

Prior to the French Revolution (1789-1799), wealthy men wore these tight trousers that ended just below the knee, usually accompanied by tall socks. As a term of disrespect, these aristocrats would refer to lower classed men as “sans-culottes”, meaning “without culottes” since they couldn’t afford this trendy pant. As many of you may know, the revolutionaries later referred to themselves proudly as the “sans-culottes” since they were taking the country back from the landed gentry. Weirdly enough the word “culotte” today in French culture has turned into meaning women’s underwear so the term “sans-culottes” has become the French slang parallel to “going commando” or not wearing any underwear.

As the culottes were driven out of style by the revolution, European women started adapting the word to mean an entirely different garment which is the one we know today. This new pant (the split skirt) came into popularity in the Victorian era (mid to late nineteenth century) for particularly active women. At this point, the split in the culotte was usually disguised by a ruffle or a wraparound skirt. The advantage of the culotte was to still appear as though you were wearing a skirt but have the mobility and flexibility to do more activity like riding a horse or a bike. These trousers still gave hints of lesbianism due to their subversive approach to traditional femininity and weren’t caught on by mainstream society.

Lili de Alvarez wears Schiaparelli culottes at Wimbledon (1930s)

Lili de Alvarez wears Schiaparelli culottes at Wimbledon (1930s)

The culotte really rose to prominence in the early 1900’s when the eccentric Elsa Schiaparelli popularized it again -- this time without the disguised split. Unfortunately this was also a period of deep conservativity and Schiaparelli was loudly condemned by the British press. In Paris, women were arrested for wearing them in public as a French law forbade female trouser-wearing unless “the woman is holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse.” In the 1930s, when tennis player Lili de Alvarez dared to wear a Schiaparelli version at Wimbledon, The Daily Mail suggested that she “should be soundly beaten.”

The garment is still pretty polarizing today. Grace Coddington of American Vogue famously despises them but many designers have brought them into their collections such as Céline and Hermès. Zara even carries them. The Cut notes that it’s similar to other awkward comfort items that have been accepted into high fashion such as jumpsuits, Birkenstocks, and clogs. They are true feminist items beloved by women who dress for their own pleasure, and no one else’s.