According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last 12 months have been the warmest in the U.S. since 1895—the year we started keeping temperature records. I believe it. My legs, which are wrapped in two pieces of denim from Monday to Saturday, have never been so sweaty. And they are only going to get hotter. How did this happen? Why do men wrap their thighs in pants instead of tunics or togas, kilts or kimonos?
In a series of intriguing posts at the Social Evolution Forum, Peter Turchin, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut, suggests that we can blame being hot on the horse. Take, for example, the Romans, who traditionally wore tunics. As Roman soldiers began to use cavalry in battle they started covering their legs to make riding more comfortable. Knights of the middle ages, who were often on horseback, continued this practice for the same reason. Because of this, “wearing pants,” Turchin writes, “became associated with high-status men, and gradually spread to other males.”
Of course, this argument leaves a lingering question. The horse is no longer a common mode of transportation, so why do pants persist? In answer, Turchin tells of the ancient Chinese King Wuling, who feared that, despite the benefit to mounted battle, everyone would laugh at him for wearing trousers. Cultural norms, in other words, are hard to buck. These days men find themselves in an opposite situation to Wuling: Hot legs or not, even David Beckham wears pants under his skirts.
To make matters worse, our leg wrappings are only getting hotter. The airflow-promoting pants of the ’90s have been replaced with skinny jeans and slim-fit trousers. Meanwhile, shorts, an ideal hot-weather garment, are frowned upon at offices across the nation—and office workers have it easy. With the exception of the five-minute walk from the subway to Slate’s headquarters, air conditioning keeps my limbs at a comfortable 70 degrees. But on that walk I pass a sea of men that are stuck in the heat—police officers and plumbers, construction works and cab drivers—all of them, thanks to the horse, wearing pants.