Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Werther Young.
I’m Too Sexy for My…Bavarian Fly
By Werther Young
Of all of the unique things that have managed to make it to the internet, a concise history of colonial men’s pants flies is surprisingly not one of them.
Our story begins in the Renaissance in, where else, France. King Henry III of France eschewed the old-fashioned dress and hose and embraced a new fashion, culottes, now known as “knee breeches.”
The fly of Henry’s pants was a simple affair, a rectangular panel sewn to the left side with buttonholes that buttoned over the right. This simple and practical design became known as the “French fly” and became almost universal in Western Europe over the next 60 years.
Over time, Ann Bonny’s “long” French fly was perfected into the “short” French fly. Anne’s fly extends from the inseam to the waistband. By merely sewing a few inches of the front seam together, the fly can be made shorter, removing a buttonhole and button or two.
These fly designs apparently did not reach into Eastern Europe, where presumably leather pants were as expensive as wool ones but lasted much longer, because they were never washed. Translating the French Fly into leather posed some problems, and so these leather pants had a different fly, essentially a hole in the center front with a panel buttoned over it that flipped or dropped up and down as necessary. This design caught on in the Alpine areas of central Europe, and especially in Bavaria under the label of “Lederhosen,” which is German for “leather pants.”
The Bavarian fly migrated further north, as in the Deutsches Museum in Berlin can be found a pair of enlisted trousers from the mid-1700s, with a half drop front fly; that is, it opens only the right side. This is essentially a cheaper fly, because it needs only one button to close, and does the same thing.
By the middle 1700s, the French fly had been around for over 150 years, and someone in France started a different fashion (and outdoing the Huns) by putting the two -opening Bavarian fly on culottes, thus making the culottes “a la Bavarois,” French for “like the Bavarians.” This was runway level high fashion for the time, and quickly spread among the well to do as the latest thing, with a new name, the “drop front” or “fall front” fly. Unfortunately, translating the design from leather, which does not unravel, to fabric, which does, made the Bavarian fly extremely complicated and therefore expensive. This of course added to its cachet, so much so that by 1775, it had reached the aristocracy even in the backwater of Colonial America.
Colonial Williamsburg has a fabulous collection of high-status men’s pants from the 18th century. A survey thereof shows the number of French flies waning into the 1770s, and the number of Bavarian drop front flies waxing beginning in 1775, reaching a height about 1800. Unfortunately, these are all very high-status garments, such as a pair of “button front breeches of cream-colored silk velvet, with repeat of small pink and green flowers self-covered buttons, those at knee embroidered with metallic silver thread. Silver galloon strap at knee.” But did the states and Continent really issue enlisted soldiers what amounts to hand made Givenchy trousers? Of course not.
The false idea that they did partially comes from a series of paintings done by Charles M. Lefferts in the early 1900s, later published as Uniforms of the Armies in the War of the American Revolution, 1775–1783. in 1926.
Measuring this man’s height against the known length of his musket makes him about 6’4 inches tall, the height of actors Clint Walker, Chuck Connors, Clint Eastwood, and the average NBA basketball player. If you look below the point of his vest, he is wearing drop front pants over his massive thighs. Curiously, he is also wearing a 1760s style skirted vest and long regimental coat. Are we to believe that Maryland issued its men old fashioned vests and coats, but high fashion breeches? Since Lefferts was born in 1873, he had no first-hand knowledge of his subject, we must look to period images.
Alas, these are of little help. It is difficult to discern whether any of the men in period paintings are wearing French Fly pants, Bavarian drop front pants, or anything else. The most informative images, the von German drawings, are unfortunately from the side, and of no help.
Since information is so scarce, we must turn to the other reason we believe that rev war soldiers wore drop front pants. Klinger’s Sketchbook ’76. Page 9 shows a pair of Bavarian drop front breeches, based on George Washington’s uniform in the Smithsonian, and Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman’s uniform from the Maryland Historical Society. This is odd, because Washington’s uniform is from the 1794, 15 years after the war and at the height of the drop front craze. Tilghman was the scion of a blue blood family, owned half of Baltimore, was an aide to Washington, and hobnobbed with Lafayette. Even if his uniform can be dated to the war years, it is not only a high-status uniform, but one of the highest status possible in America at the time; his not wearing Bavarian trousers would be of greater note. Neither are evidence that any of the 13 colonies nor the Continent paid to make their enlisted men such high fashion trousers.
On Sketchbook page11, Klinger bases his Bavarian drop front overalls on unspecified plates in “Bernard’s History of England” and the images above. While these may establish Bavarian drop front flies supplied by the King George, it certainly does not necessarily mean that the colonies were doing so.
Surprisingly, two pairs of enlisted overalls are known to exist, mistakenly labelled as “Pantaloons,” and residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Department. These are exquisitely made, and probably military examples, but unfortunately European, and from 1793 and later.
No credible evidence exists that any of the 13 colonies nor the Continent issued its troops Bavarian drop front pants. This makes sense, as that design is difficult to make, does the exact same thing as the simple French fly, and fashionable pants do not really contribute much extra to Liberty. Additionally, with all but the highest status clothiers making French fly pants, retraining them to cut out and make the new design would seriously impede production, even assuming that patterns and training could be somehow provided from Georgia to Vermont at a time when the men could barely be supplied a musket or shirt. In the War of the Revolution, the colonists were by all indications wearing French fly breeches and overalls, not drop front ones a la Bavarois.