Boys' Foreign-Language Clothing Glossary: French Pantalon

Figure 1.--.

The French word "pantalon is used to cover quite a range of different garments. We will assess here the various garments that are described as pantalons. Unlike English there appears not to be a separate French word for pants and trousers.

English Words

A question has arisen concerning the French word "pantalon". The modern use of the word is rather like "pants" (American usage) or "trousers" (English usage). There is no French word similar to the English word "trousers". The word pmts refers exclisively to underwear. In America the world "trousers" is understood, but not as commonly used as "pants". In America the sence of underwear is achieved by adding the pre-fix "under". In both America and England, the varying length of these garments are described by adding a prefix, either long, knee, or short. In fact in both America and England short pants are today commonly called just "shorts". In England this term means short trousers. In America, "shorts" can mean either short pants or underpants. Short pants have been referred to by different names in England. The English generally refer to short pants as "short trousers". They also used to refer to them as "knickers" although that term has for many years not been commonly used and more frequently is used to mean ladies underwear.

French Words

HBC raises this issue as we note in French language fashion magazines during the mid-19th century that the word "pantalon" was being used to describe "pantalets". A French reader reports that there are two words in modern french describing trousers/pants. The difference is the length of the garment, not is usage. There are also some more specific terms now used of more recent derivation.


"Pantalon" used for the pant covering whole leg down to foot. This word is originating from the Italian theater where main heroe of some comic piece was named Pantalon, presumably wearing today's kind of pant, unusual at that time. This word was in use in the 18th century if noy earlier. The English version was "pantaloons".


"Culotte" used for the pant covering half leg down the knee. This word is derived from "cul" .... meaning the part of the body you put on a chair when sitting. Nowaday it's used for kids' short pants (culottes courtes) or for women underwear. In previous centuries it was used to describe mid-leg pants ("breeches"). So current translation of pant/trousers is pantalon. In modern familiar language the word culotte is replaced by the english "short" for short pant above knee (kids and adults) and "bermuda" for short pant at kneelevel. The very narrow pant used by sportive bike riders is called "cycliste" (meaning also the bike rider itself).

HBC Pages

A variety of HBC pages are avialble on the various meanings of these French words. In several cases there are more than one page for each word because there are destinctive English words for garments covered by one French word.



Some fashion magazines started promoting boys bike shorts as summer wear in 1988, but they did not become really popular in America until summer 1989. They probably appeared earlier in France and Italy. Boys bike shorts went out of mainstream fahsion about 1993 when big baggy shorts became the rage. Skatboarders liked baggies, probably because they were older boys and didn't like the form fitting style of the bike shorts. They also followed African-American culture closer, where bike shorts have never been popular.


Breeches, the just over knee-length trousers that had been worn since the early 17th century. In the 18th century, they had buttoned slits on the side and were buckled at the hem. During the first half of the century, the stockings were pulled over them; later the hem of the culotte covered the top of the stockings. Culottes were worn by the nobility and gentry; common folk wore ankle-length trousers. Therefore, the term is best known by the derivative sansculottes, "those without culottes", i.e. the common folk who led the French Revolution.


Short pants. The modern French meaning of culotte is short pants. Short pants are cut at or above the knee. Short pants first appeared in England after the turn of the century. Soon they appeared in Europe and to a lesser extent America. At first shorts were mostly worn by little boys and were only slightly shorter than knee pants


Trousers cut below the knee we have generally referred to as knee pants if closed with buttons or left open. These were very common in the late 19th and early 20th century. I believe that they were also referred to as culottes. Knee pants for boys appeared at mid-century. Initially they were worn by younger boys after breeching, but ecentually they became an almost universal style for British, European, and American boys. At first kneepants were cut at many different lenhths, from just below the knee to just above the ankles. The length of just below the knees did not become standardized until the 1870s.


Pantalettes or pantalets/pantaloons are esentially long drawers worn to modesestly cover the legs. They were made in both plain and fancy styles with a lace frill, ruffles, or other finish at the bottom of each leg. They were widely worn by women and children (boys and girls) during the first half of the 19th century. The pantaletts extended below the hem of the dresses worn by boys and girls and the ankle and calf-length trousers worn by boys. In the early 19th century it was not considered proper for even small children to have bare legs. In fact the word leg was not used in polite company, rather the early victorians referred to limbs. The lacey pantaletts covered the legs to the ankles. One author suggest that some Victorians even put pantaletes on table and piano legs, I'm not sure if this is true. As the century progressed, it became more acceptable for younger toddler-age children to appear with bare legs, but older girls and boys still wearing dresses as late as the 1840s and even 1850s were expected to cover their legs with pantalettes reaching below the knee. Thus there are paintings from the first half of the 19th century of a younger sister wearing a dress with bare legs while her older brother wears a dress with lacey pantalettes covering his legs below the knee.


Trousers were virtually unknown in polite society as the 19th Century dawned. The cloest fashion to trousers was loose fitting breeches worn by workers and the pantaloons worn by sailors. The modern reader may find it difficult to believe that unitl the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, gentlemen would always wear knee breeches and considered long trousers only suitable for laborers and sailors--and small boys in skeleton suits. The story is told that the Duke of Wellington--the renowned Iron Duke at Waterloo--was refused entrance to London's famed Almanak's gambling club during 1815 for arriving in trousers. Long trousers were eventually adopted as appropriate wear for gentlemen. When this happened boys--who were the first to adopt long trousers--were less commonly attired in them, but rather after mid-century in various shortened versions such as knickers, knee pants, and short trousers.

Pantalon de golf

Trousers cut below the knee and gathered or closed with buckles we have referred to as knickers (in the American sence). I have seen them referred to as "pantalon de golf", but believe that there are other terms as well.


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Created: September 17, 2001
Last updated: February 8, 2004