Q From Corey and his mother; related questions came from Linda Rodgers, Peter C Mann, and others: Speaking of pants, as you were the other week, my 14-year-old asked me why, if you put on a pair of pants, you don’t also put on a pair of shirts? Can you illuminate the matter for us?
A People do ask the most intriguing questions.
I’ve looked at the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which suggests that the form pair of pants was standard right from its earliest use. Indeed, words for nether garments all seem to have been commonly plural throughout their history, often prefixed by pair of ...: breeches, shorts, drawers, panties, tights, knickers (short for knickerbockers), and trousers.
Pants is short for pantaloons, also plural, which in their very earliest incarnations were nearer stage tights; their name comes from a Venetian character in Italian commedia dell’arte who was the butt of the clown’s jokes and who always appeared as a foolish old man wearing pantaloons. Commentators referred to them when they first appeared as being a combination of breeches and stockings. Later the word was applied to fashionable tight-fitting trousers.
Trousers came into the language in the seventeenth century from the Gaelic trowse, a singular word for a slightly different garment rather more like breeches; a later version of it was trews, taken to be a plural because of the final s. Breeches has been plural throughout its recorded history, a long one (it dates from at least the year 1200).
According to several costume historians who have helped me with this reply, the answer to all this conventional plurality is very simple. Before the days of modern tailoring, such garments, whether underwear or outerwear, were indeed made in two parts, one for each leg. The pieces were put on each leg separately and then wrapped and tied or belted at the waist (just like cowboys’ chaps). The plural usage persisted out of habit even after the garments had become physically one piece. However, a shirt was a single piece of cloth, so it was always singular.
It’s worth noting that the posher type of tailor, such as in London’s Savile Row, still often refers to a trouser and the singular pant and tight are not unknown in clothing store terminology in America — so the plural is not universal.