Lois Banner looks at coded messages of gender, sexuality and domination that preceded baggy trousers.
The history of clothing tells us that the young male body was eroticised in late medieval and early modern Europe. The emphasis on parts of the body associated with sexuality began in the late eleventh century, with the adoption of elongated, pointed shoe styles. It spread to the fourteenth century, when short jackets, long legs, and the exposure of the shape of the genitals became the vogue. By the late fifteenth century the preferred body type for men became more massive, while broad and blunted shoes replaced the long pointed ones. The codpiece, a sheath which enclosed the penis, was also developed in this period.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dress for men once again became more feminised, with the periodic addition of decorative and softening features. At the same time the jacket became longer. In the hands of the English sports-minded squirearchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this longer jacket, its decorative elements increasingly removed for country wear, began to take on the look of the modern tailored and plain sports coat. Yet throughout the history of these changes long, lean legs, covered with fitted tights or tight trousers, by and large continued until the mid-nineteenth century, when long, unfitted trousers finally became predominant and remained so until the present.
During nearly seven centuries from the eleventh to the nineteenth portions of men's bodies were on erotic display in attire often analogous to what women were wearing to delineate bosoms or show glimpses of legs. And the male display, with its open showing of the shape of the legs and the penis, was in many ways more bold than that of women.
It would be foolish to argue that eroticism alone lay behind the genesis of these fashions. Social class was also involved. For example, the elongated shoes (called poulaines) were related to perceptions of aristocratic feet as long and slender and peasant feet as broad and clumsy.