Breeches (/ -/, BRITCH-iz, BREE-chiz) are an article of 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. Formerly a standard item of Western men's clothing, they had fallen out of use by the mid-19th century in favour of trousers.
Modern athletic garments used for English riding and fencing, although called breeches or britches, differ from breeches.
Breeches is a double plural known since c. 1205, from Old English brēc, the plural of brōc "garment for the legs and trunk", from the Indo-European root *bhrg- "break", here apparently used in the sense "divide", "separate", as in Scottish Gaelic briogais ("trousers"), in Breton bragoù ("pants"), in Irish bríste ("trousers") and brycan/brogau in Welsh. Cognate with the Proto-Germanic word *brōk-, plural *brōkiz, itself most likely from the Proto-Indo-European root; whence also the Old Norse word brók, which shows up in the epithet of the Viking king Ragnar Loðbrók, Ragnar "Hairy-breeches".
Like other words for similar garments (e.g., pants, knickers, and shorts) the word breeches has been applied to both outer garments and undergarments. Breeches uses a plural form to reflect it has two legs; the word has no singular form (it is a plurale tantum). This construction is common in English and Italian (brache, plural of the never-used braca), 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. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, uses the word breech as a synonym or perhaps a euphemism for anus in his letters.
In the latter 16th 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. The difference was that hose were in principle separate garments for each leg, requiring the tunic or a cod-piece to cover the private parts; whereas breeches were sewn together as a single all-enveloping garment.
Until around the end of the 19th century (but later in some places), small boys wore special forms of dresses until they were "breeched", or given the adult male styles of clothes, at about the age of 6 to 8 (the age fell slowly to perhaps 3). Male and female children's styles were distinguished by chest and collar, as well as other aspects of attire, such as hairstyle.
During the French Revolution, breeches (culottes in French) were seen as a symbol of the nobility. Lower-class revolutionaries became known as sans-culottes ("without breeches").
The spelling britches is a spelling variant, not a corruption, dating from the 17th century. Currently, britches reflects a common pronunciation often used in casual speech to mean trousers or pants in many English-speaking parts of the world. Breeks is a Scots or northern English spelling and pronunciation.
The singular form of the word has survived in the sense of the part of the body covered by breeches, (i.e., posterior, buttocks); paradoxically, the alliterative expression "bare breech" thus means without any inner or outer breeches.
This also led to the following words:
The terms breeches or knee-breeches specifically designate the knee-length garments worn by men from the later 16th century to the early 19th century. After that, they survived in England only in very formal wear, such as the livery worn by some servants into the early 20th century, and the court dress worn by others, such as King's Counsel, down to the present day on formal occasions.
Riding breeches are specifically designed for equestrian activities. Traditionally, they were tight in the legs, stopping about halfway down the calf, with buttons or laces in the calf section, and had a pronounced flare through the thighs that allowed freedom of movement for the rider. Before the invention of the fly front, they were made with flaps, 5-8 inches wide, called falls.
However, with the advent of modern stretch materials such as spandex, many modern breeches have no flare and fit skin-tight. In some cases, zippers and velcro fastenings have replaced laces and buttons 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:
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 and brightly colored and patterned breeches & jodhpurs that are aimed primarily at children.
Riding breeches were formerly made of thick cavalry-twill and had flared thighs (balloon legs), until the invention and use of multi-stretch fabrics like Nylon and Spandex became widespread for riding in the 1960s. The balloon legs were there to accommodate the riders knees as they sat in the saddle, but fabrics that stretched in all four directions made such excess material unnecessary and the form-fitting and much thinner modern breeches and jodhpurs became normal.
Fencing breeches are worn in the sport of fencing to permit fencers to extend their legs more than they could wearing normal jogging trousers or tracksuit bottoms. Fencing breeches are also used as protective clothing for the legs.