Harem Pants: A Most Interesting and Scandalous History
Harem pants have got to be one of the most interesting and comfortable garments ever invented, and honestly I don’t know why they are not more popular in Western fashion. Most commonly known as “harem pants” in the West, they can also go by the names “genie pants”, “elephant pants”, “Aladdin pants”, “parachute pants”, “Sarouel pants”, “Thai pants”, “pantaloons”, and “bloomers” (And I am sure the list goes on. . . ) The true name for these pants, which are “extremely full, puffed Turkish-style pants, very full at the waist and gathered at the ankle”*, is “Salvar” or “Shalwar”. These are simply the Turkish and Persian words for “pants”. (Other languages also use the word “shalwar” for this style of garment, with variations on spelling.)
Harem pants are one of those distinctly “exotic” garments we encounter very little in the Western world. Even the name “Harem Pants” conjures up images of foreign, glamorous and outrageous fashions. Yet in much of the world- the Middle East, African, and Asian cultures- these pants are still worn daily by both men and women as a practical and comfortable everyday garment. When my brother was traveling in Nepal, he saw many people wearing this style of pant, and even purchased a pair like the ones I have, only in red. This style of pant is alive and well, yet despite the fact that this fashion has been around for ages, much like the Turban, which I shared about in my post here, it has only been sporadically and minimally popular in the West.
Three Persian Ladies, Source
Originating in ancient Persia about 2,000 years ago (as we don’t have any records to substantiate the fashion before then) these trousers were everyday clothes for both men and women. They are thought to have developed from the man’s dhoti, which was a skirt/tunic tied and wrapped into a trouser shape, eventually evolving into a true trouser like garment. There is very little evidence of what women wore in ancient Persian/Middle Eastern cultures, as there are no records depicting women in artwork of the time. While we do have some record of what men were wearing, one of the earliest records of women’s fashions is from 5th century BC, in which a Queen is depicted wearing trousers and a long tunic. Interestingly enough, women are also shown wearing more fitted and “modern” styled trousers underneath long tunics at home. However, whenever women left their homes, they did not wear the more revealing trousers, instead wearing baggy ankle length trousers, long tunics and shawls over their upper body and head. The combination of these trousers, and the large mantle effectively concealed the body, and maintained modesty. Up until the last century, this remained the standard outfit of Middle Eastern women.
From Mode In Costume, by R. Turner Wilcox
Algerian Lady in Traditional Dress, Source
Traditional Persian Clothing, Source
However, the Western fashion world went in a completely different direction from the East- both literally and figuratively 🙂 Although Europe had much the same ideology of feminine “modesty”, this manifested itself in a different way. Rather than baggy pants, women instead wore skirts and dresses. Although they varied in length, style and shape, the one thing they had in common was that they never showed or revealed the shape of the leg, rather concealing it, lest it be revealed (heaven forbid!) that women had these two appendages on the lower half of their bodies! Although some fashions could hardly be called modest (the low cut bodices of the 18th century, or the tightly laced Victorian silhouette, for example), by not revealing the leg, they were considered “proper” and modest by society. Trousers, Breeches, Pants, all generally the same garment, by different names, were firmly a man’s garment throughout the next centuries of Western fashion.
18th Century Costume from “The Orphan of China”, Source
Although there are several examples of blowsy pants depicted in fashion plates of the late 1700’s, pants for women do not seem to have burst onto the scene until the mid 19th century. However, I can’t seem to find much out about the pants of the 1700’s, and it appears that they were “fancy dress” costumes, or stage costumes, rather than actual garments women of the day were wearing. (If you know more about harem pants in this era, please do let me know, as I’d love to find out more about this era!) Of course, throughout the centuries, women have dressed as men, whenever circumstances behooved them too, but the key was that it was done incognito.. If women dressed as men, they were disguising themselves as men, and this remained the norm up until the 19th century, when things were suddenly going to change in women’s fashion.
Amelia Bloomer’s Turkish Dress, Source
In 1851, Amelia Bloomer, who was a women’s rights activist, burst onto the European world stage in a “Turkish Dress”. The was a Victorian styled Turkish outfit consisting of a short dress with baggy shalwar pants underneath. Amelia Bloomer was an advocate for this outfit, reasoning that it would provide women with ease of movement, ability to excercise, freedom from restrictive corseting, hoop skirts, petticoats etc, and would also prevent the germs, dirt and mire that collected on the trailing skirts of the time from being dragged into the home. This style, she argued, was successfully being worn by women of Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Unfortunately, the style did not pick up as she hoped, and was dismissed by many as to leading to the downfall and decay of society if it was to become mainstream. However, the style of pants were popular enough, even if dismissed at the time as extreme, to be immortalized as “bloomers” after her name. Some women did choose to wear this style of pants at the time, although it was more for practical and social reasons than for fashion. In the later Victorian years, these pants were adapted into “bicycling bloomers”, and were actually thought to be more modest an alternative than bicycling in a long skirt (which could also be dangerous!) However, despite the fact that 50 years or so had passed, they were still not thought to be fashionable, and were instead regarded as much too scandalous.
Mid 19th Century, Amelia Bloomer. Source
House of Worth, c. 1870. Source
Late Victorian Women’s Cycling Bloomers. Source
Enter Paul Poiret.
Poiret, whose designs were most popular from 1904-1924, would finally introduce the harem pant to the Western world, not for practical or social reasons, but for fashion alone. (although the timing was certainly influenced by the culture). Poiret was greatly inspired by Oriental, Persian, and Eastern styles, and these played heavily into his collections. His collections were made up of kimonos, turbans, tunics, flamboyant embroidery, eye makeup, ornate jewelry, and finally in 1911, the arrival of the long awaited “Harem Skirt”, as it was first called. Poiret’s harem pants arrived at a time of women’s rights advancements in history, (this was right around the peak of the woman’s suffrage movement) and they became popular with the more progressive ladies of the time willing to “shock” polite society. Even the name “Harem Pants” was designed to stand out as modern and exotic. Poiret’s One Thousand and Second Night Ball (inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights stories) was a place to show off his collections, and harem pants along with hobble skirts and lampshade tunics, were the most desired styles of the time.
One of Poiret’s 1002nd Night Inspired Garments, Source
Although harem pants didn’t end up “taking off” as they were, they instead became a bit of a stepping stone to women’s wearing pants of any kind. The blowsy and full modest shape of the trousers, allowed society to get used to the idea that women actually possess legs, and by the time World War One was over, women were wearing pants for fashion, not just for practicality. Although the popularity of harem pants died out in the 1920’s, we see other styles of trousers rising to take their place in women’s fashion. Interestingly enough, the garment that was designed to conceal the body in the East, was destined to reveal it in the West.
Harem pants would fade out of style after the 1920’s. They didn’t see much success in the 1940’s or 1950’s, as the fashion sensibilities of those eras was a tightly corseted “ladylike” silhouette. The blowsy, flowy exotic pants, didn’t quite fit that image. I have, however seen one example of a harem skirt dress, designed by Jaques Fath in 1952. The “Canasta” dress was made of turquoise chiffon although, unfortunately, the pictures are in black and white. The tightly fitted bodice of this garment is very “of the era”, while the loose billowy culottes have the appearance of a skirt, rather like a puffball skirt.
Jacques Fath’s Canasta Dress, Source
Harem pants were to be resurrected in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the “global” inspired craze that again swooped through fashion at the time, bringing kaftans, turbans, peasant styles, tunics and other ethnic garments back into style. Although they never reached fashion heights, the harem pants of the 1960’s, were reinvented in the form of “harem pyjamas” which were either sewn as a one piece, like below, or paired with a short tunic, or oriental style bolero. They were often worn as loungewear.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, harem pants again became popular, this time with street culture, since the loose fit of the pants were perfect for hip-hop dance. Several rappers such as MC Hammer famously wore them while performing, thus they became known as “hammer pants”.
Harem pants today are still a controversial fashion item in the West. We hardly see them in European and American wardrobes, and yet they are such a versatile and unique garment. They have faded in and out of fashion throughout the past century, but have never really caught on. In my personal opinion, the pants that have been released in recent years have not retained that exotic and elegant air, and have instead come across as shapeless, baggy, stretched out, dropped crotch garments which are as far as possible from fashionable as can be. Sorry to be so derisive, but harem pants of the past, and harem pants, or more correctly shalwar, of the East today, are so beautiful and unique, that it seems a shame that they should be reinvented in such a bad way. However, even the more traditional style of harem pant- blowsy and drapey- is rarely seen in Western fashion. It is kind of funny when you think about it: that one of the oldest garments- predating even the “dress” as we know it- is largely considered too avant garde for Western fashion. I do appreciate the fact that the 21st century allows me, as a woman to choose what I want to wear, whether it is a skirt, a dress, fitted pants – or more unconventional styles like harem pants!
Oftentimes true harem pants, whether in a Thai Pant style, or gathered harem style, are associated with a more hippy culture, but I think that they can easily be styled for a more vintage look as well. When I wore my pants a week ago, to church, I paired them with a pin tucked blouse so that I would get the 1910’s silhouette, and some sparkly jewelry and headband and black Mary Jane’s. I feel like this conveyed the style, without being too over the top. I did feel a bit out of my element, and yet, it is so fun wearing harem pants. I was serious when I said I don’t know why they haven’t caught on in Western fashion. They are the best combination of skirt and pants: the comfort, looseness and coolness on a hot day, that a skirt gives you, with the ease of pants for working, running, exercising and leaping (even on windy days when you don’t want to accidentally flash the whole world!) I can see why women around the globe wear these daily! So, do you want to give harem pants a try? Here are some tips to keeping you look fabulous as you do!
- To wear harem pants in a vintage style, look for inspiration from Poiret’s collections of the 1910’s.
- Tucking your shirt in, will create a more vintage silhouette, rather than wearing an untucked t-shirt, which will give you more of a modern, causal, “earth mother” silhouette. (you know what I mean!)
- A blousy shirt, either a peasant style top, or any kind of soft drapey shirt, will tuck in nicely, and pair well with the softness of the pants. Make sure that the top is not too bulky or stiff, as the pants will be “big”, and you will end up looking big all over. It’s like the opposite of wearing a pencil skirt, where a large top is OK because it is balanced out by the slim bottom, here you want a softer or slimmer top to balance out the larger bottom. Details like pin tucking, pleats, buttons, lace, chiffon etc. will evoke a 1910’s style.
- A button-up or structured blouse or shirt will play off the drapey pants well, and keep you looking vintage. For a casual look, wear a tie front shirt. This will keep the look structured enough, while also looking a bit “dressed down” without being a t-shirt, which will read as modern.
- A structured jacket or blazer will work nicely too. I have seen a more modern style of cropped blazer paired with harem pants and it looks fabulous!
- I also really love the look of the crossover top the model is wearing in the 1960’s image above. It is fitted and elegant, and suits the style of the pants nicely.
- Pairing these pants with high heels, will elevate the look (literally- haha) as well as making you look dressed up, rather than dressed down. If you aren’t careful, harem pants can easily look like “I didn’t even try” instead of “I am fabulous”.
- Pairing the pants with sparkly jewelry, bracelets, earrings, headbands, feathers, cloches, etc. will give you a Poiret 1002nd Night’s look. Be careful of going overboard, as it could look very “costumey” very quickly. But, then again, if you love that more embellished look- I say “go for it!”
- If you want to try a 1960’s look- pair your pants with a vest or tunic. This would be a really fun look.
- And most importantly: Be confident! If you are anything like me, you are most likely in the minority with this style of pants, you are out of your comfort zone, and people are probably staring at you, so just walk with confidence knowing you look great- and are in league with many other stylish women both past and present!
So, what do you think- will you try Harem Pants? What do you think of Poiret’s 1002nd Nights style? Do you think we will see a resurgence of this fashion in Western culture?
Also, PS: While doing research for this post, I came across this company, Hippie Pants, that sells Thai Pants, which are fair trade too! While I have not personally purchased anything from them, they have some beautiful styles, (this is the style of pants I have, in rayon) and I thought you might like to see where you can get some for yourself – or just simply be inspired 🙂
Want to read more about Harem Pants? Here are the sources I used:
“The Mode in Costume” (book) by R. Turner Wilcox is an invaluable resource for of fashion history.
* This definition is from “Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion” (book), which has definitions of all fashion related terms, and is also quite interesting to read.
A couple of web articles about harem pants:
Understanding the Difference Between Thai Pants, Harem Pants and Sarouel Pants
July 22, 2016 @ 9:06 am
So fascinating! Thank you for your thorough research, can’t wait to look around your blog some more!
July 22, 2016 @ 9:31 am
Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping in for a visit 🙂
July 22, 2016 @ 11:38 am
Truly excellent, awesomely detailed and informative post, sweet Nicole. You really put a lot of time and work into this entry and have created a true treasure trove of facts about these unique pants for us. Thank you! Hands down, this has been one of my favourite online reads in a long time.
xoxo ♥ Jessica
July 22, 2016 @ 1:34 pm
I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was a fair amount of work, but it was fun too, so that makes the time worth it 🙂
July 22, 2016 @ 3:30 pm
This was so interesting! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and learned so much. Good job!
July 22, 2016 @ 8:09 pm
Thanks- I’m glad you liked it 🙂
July 23, 2016 @ 12:50 am
You have a wonderful time, and love these photos
July 25, 2016 @ 10:57 pm
Thanks so much 🙂
July 25, 2016 @ 10:33 pm
I am always fascinated with harem pants, but never got the courage to purchase them for I might not be able to wear them for I’m not sure how to styled them. But reading this post, I guess I’ll be buying soon 🙂
July 25, 2016 @ 10:56 pm
I’m so glad you are inspired to try them yourself! They are really fun to wear, and I hope you enjoy trying them out 🙂
July 29, 2016 @ 7:06 am
I’m s huge fan of harem pants and I wear them a lot! Love this post!
July 29, 2016 @ 7:00 pm
Thanks Emileigh! This is my first pair, but I am already planning on making/buying some more. They are addicting 🙂
Sheila (of Ephemera)
July 29, 2016 @ 12:51 pm
I came over here from Jessica’s “Chronically Vintage” and I am in lurve with your writing and am going to follow this blog! Love this article – I did “gypsy” pants in the early 80s (pre-Hammer pants), but they were more of the full-hip/tapered ankle look. I’ve done the palazzo pant thing, and I have a new pair that is way too long – rather than hemming, I’m now considering inserting an elastic or drawstring at the ankle to make them into harem pants. Thanks for the inspiration and styling tips!
July 29, 2016 @ 7:06 pm
Welcome Sheila! I’m so glad you’ve stopped in, and thanks so much!
Gypsy pants are super fun, and that sounds like a great idea to convert your pants into harem pants- they are really so comfortable and yet so stylish as well. Good luck with the alteration! 🙂
July 30, 2016 @ 7:24 am
Wow, Nicole. I totally appreciate how much time and effort it takes to produce such an informative AND entertaining post.. Plus, the photos are spectacular. Love how you styled the harem pants. I’ve yet to try this look, but this post inspired me to give them a go. I’ll bet you were the most glamorous, best dressed gal at church 🙂
July 30, 2016 @ 10:55 pm
Thanks so much Theresa- I’m glad you enjoyed the post! So happy that you are now inspired to try them for yourself too- they really are super fun 🙂
July 31, 2016 @ 3:05 am
I’d absolutely love to find a pair of harem pants, or make some by hand! Since I follow a certain religious code of modesty, I prefer trousers that are looser and more voluminous, instead of outlining the crotch. I’m not sure if I could get away with wearing even harem pants to an Orthodox service or event, but I’d be free to wear them elsewhere. Maybe I could wear them as part of a Halloween or Purim costume, in addition to everyday wear.
August 1, 2016 @ 2:32 pm
Harem pants are definitely more modest than modern trousers, and they are great for everyday wear. They are one of the most comfortable garments I have. For modesty, have you thought about wide legged palazzo pants? I saw in Vogue’s latest catalogue, a bunch of wide legged trouser patterns that I want to try out. Vogue 8955 looks amazing, and you could easily gather the bottom hem to create a harem pant style with it, or just leave it loose the way it is, and people would never know it wasn’t a skirt! 🙂
August 5, 2016 @ 9:50 pm
Oh what a brilliant post! I adore harem pants and own several pairs. I was introduced to this style as a teenager when I took belly dance lessons, as harem pants were often part of our costumes. I adore the blowy, blousy feel of the pants and like you, I’m astonished that they haven’t caught on in Western fashion. I do usually wear mine in a more casual way, with teeshirts and sneakers, or tunics and sandals. You’ve inspired me to have a go at dressing them up in a more vintage style.
August 7, 2016 @ 10:33 pm
Thanks for stopping in- I’m so glad you liked the post and are inspired to try wearing them in a new way! Harem pants are so great-I was wearing mine again today- albeit in a more weekendy casual way- I really don’t know why more people don’t wear them. We’ll have to lead the revolution 😉
January 27, 2017 @ 11:37 pm
Can you suggest some fashion styles for men that I should try with Harem pants??? I’m thinking of buying one. I’m so in love with these.
January 27, 2017 @ 11:38 pm
And also some website where I can get them??
January 28, 2017 @ 1:51 pm
That’s great that you are thinking of trying Harem pants, as they are definitely a universal style that works equally well for men or women. I’m sorry I don’t have much advice for how to style them, as I’m not very knowledgable on men’s fashion. One site that I know sells both men’s and women’s harems is this the company “Hippie Boho Clothing Co. UK”. They may also have some styling advice for you too. Good luck! 🙂
January 31, 2017 @ 9:53 am
I hadn’t seen this post first time around!! It’s fabulous, no wonder it’s such a favourite. I definitely associate harem pants with MC Hammer or yoga teachers. It’s the more casual fabric choices I dislike, I think the shape looks a bit saggy in jersey.
Your outfit, however, is just how they should be worn – with elegance! Xx
January 31, 2017 @ 10:59 am
Haha- yes definitely yoga teachers or hippies 🙂 I had always associated them with that too- in Western culture, or with Asian cultures and had never seriously thought of wearing them, until I started reading fashion history and came across the lovely styles of the 1910’s. Then I just had to find a pair!
June 4, 2018 @ 6:30 pm
I found your website when I was searching for a harem pant pattern. McCall Kwiksew Pattern K3701 looks like a good one. I sewed some harem pants back in the 1980’s and loved wearing them in the hottest weather. I called them my “air conditioned pants” and got a lot of odd looks from people who never wore this pant style. But seriously, when you walk, the air will circulate within the pants and keep you cooler and more comfortable. They also make delightful pajama pants and coverups for swimwear. I am grateful to the people who brought the harem pants back.
I love your website and I look forward to reading more of your delightful posts!!!
June 9, 2018 @ 9:00 pm
Oooh- that does look like a good pattern! It looks a lot like the pair I have- and also happen to be wearing at this exact moment! 🙂 Harem pants really are the best, I agree! There’s nothing worse than a pair of tight fitting pants on a hot summer day. 🙁
Thanks for leaving such a lovely comment and I hope you enjoy reading some more of my posts!
June 10, 2018 @ 9:50 am
Nicole, If this pattern is like my old one, it is appropriate for beginners … the hardest part would be learning how to prep and sew a casing and feed elastic through it. I think that a 14 year old girl could make a pair if she has an experienced sewing pal to call if she needs guidance.
I will enjoy reading more of your posts. Bests wishes for your website’s success!
June 11, 2018 @ 7:14 pm