Summary: Coulottes are loose fitting shorts that look more like a skirt when worn. They are similar to a skort (garment that is mix between short and skirt) but not exactly. A skort has a skirt panel and shorts underneath. They were originally a pant worn by men (knee-breeches). They are also used by some people to describe women’s panties.
What are culottes? Are they pants, underwear, skorts or something different?
According to Wikipedia April 2015, “Culottes are an item of clothing, originally the knee-breeches commonly worn by gentlemen of the European upper-classes from the late Middle Ages or Renaissance through the early nineteenth century. This style of tight trousers ending just below the knee was first popularized in France during the reign of Henry III (1574–1589). Culottes were normally closed and fastened about the leg, to the knee, by either buttons, a strap and buckle, or by a draw-string. During the French Revolution of 1789–1799, working-class revolutionaries were known as the "sans-culottes" – literally, "without culottes" – a name derived from their rejection of aristocratic apparel. In the United States, only the first five Presidents, from George Washington through James Monroe, wore culottes according to the style of the late 18th century.”
Although they started out for men, in the modern world they are more important in womenswear than menswear.
The women's fashion industry on occasion will take words that have historically been used to describe men's garments and uses them to describe an entirely different garment, often creating confusion among historians students and consumers in general . For example, the term "culottes" in French is often used to describe women's panties, an article of clothing that has little or no relation to the historic culottes as described above. This is certainly a bit confusing considering the original term was more so intended as trousers (pants). The term "sans-culottes" has been used to refer colloquially to mean "going commando" or not wearing panties.
Another latter-day use of the word culottes describes a split or bifurcated skirt or any garment which "hangs like a skirt, but is actually pants. During the Victorian Era (mid- to late-nineteenth century) long split skirts were developed for horseback riding so that women could sit astride a man's saddle rather than riding side-saddle. The term "culottes" was co-opted from the original French definition of the word to describe these split riding skirts. Later, split skirts were developed to provide women more freedom to do activities such as gardening, cleaning, bike riding, etc. and still look like one is wearing a skirt.
What makes them cullottes and not shorts? Are cullottes just wide shorts?
Coulottes are loose fitting shorts that look more like a skirt when you wear them. They should not to be confused with a skort which has a skirt panel and shorts underneath.
In place of the term culotte, the term skort (a portmanteau for skirt and shorts) is more widely used in some areas. However, as mentioned, a skort is different than a culotte. While some garments sold as culottes resemble short trousers, to truly be a skort it needs to look like a skirt. Thus, they differ from trousers or shorts by being much fuller at the bottom (hem) than at the waist. A skort is shorts that have a front covering to resemble a skirt or short pant legs with a same length or longer skirt sewn over the top.
Some culottes have a part sewn over only the front, some are shorts with a skirt sewn over them. While these may not be completely the same, they are often called by either name, so either term can apply.
Culottes are often used in school uniforms for girls. They can be used along with skirts, or they may be used as a replacement for skirts. Culottes are worn as part of a school uniform.
For Spring 2014, one of the Elle magazine articles mentioned, “Culottes are officially the new must-have pants for spring.” (http://www.elle.com/fashion/trend-reports/news/g8969/best-culottes-for-spring/)
You may find the following links of interest so you can see what culottes look like:
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