AskDefine | Define breeches

Dictionary Definition

breeches n : trousers ending above the knee [syn: knee breeches, knee pants, knickerbockers, knickers]

User Contributed Dictionary



brech, brek, brēc, plural of brc breech, breeches; akin to Icelandic brók breeches, Old Danish brog, Dutch broek, German bruch; compare Latin bracae, braccae, which is of Celtic origin. Compare brail.


  • a UK /bɹɪitʃəz/|/bɹɪtʃəz/, /bri:tS@z/|/brItS@z/


  1. Plural of breech
  2. A garment worn by men, covering the hips and thighs; smallclothes.
    • 1829, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, "The Devil's Thoughts,"
      And how then was the Devil drest?
      Oh! he was in his Sunday's best:
      His jacket was red and his breeches were blue,
      And there was a hole where the tail came through.
  3. Trousers; pantaloons; britches.

Related terms

  • breeches buoy: in the life-saving service, a pair of canvas breeches depending from an annular or beltlike life buoy which is usually of cork. This contrivance, inclosing the person to be rescued, is hung by short ropes from a block which runs upon the hawser stretched from the ship to the shore, and is drawn to land by hauling lines.
  • Breeches pipe:, a forked pipe forming two branches united at one end.
  • Knee breeches: breeches coming to the knee, and buckled or fastened there; smallclothes.
  • To wear the breeches (Colloquial): to usurp the authority of the husband; -- said of a wife.
  • To become too big for one's britches (Southern U.S.): to have an overblown feeling of self importance.

See also

Extensive Definition

Breeches (pronounced [ˈbritʃɪz]) are an item of male clothing covering the body from the waist down, with separate coverings for each leg, usually stopping just below the knee, though in some cases reaching to the ankles. The breeching of a young boy, at an age somewhere between six and eight, was a landmark in his childhood.
The spelling britches reflects a common pronunciation, and is often used in casual speech to mean trousers or "pants". Breeks is a Scots or northern English spelling and pronunciation.


Breeches is a double plural known since c.1205, from Old English (and before Old French) brēc, the plural of brōc "garment for the legs and trunk," from the Proto-Germanic word *brōkiz, whence also the Old Norse word brók, which shows up in the epithet of the Viking king Ragnar Loðbrók, Ragnar "Hairy-breeches". The Proto-Germanic word also gave rise, via a Celtic language, to the Latin word bracca; the Romans, who did not generally wear pants, referred to Germanic tribes as braccati, "wearers of breeches" (or rather, of fabric wrapped around the legs.)
Like other words for similar garments (e.g., pants, knickers, shorts) the word breeches has been applied to both outer garments and underwear. Breeches is a singular word which uses a plural form to reflect it has two legs. This construction is common in English, but is no longer common in other languages, e.g., the parallel modern Dutch broek.
At first breeches indicated a cloth worn as underwear by both men and women. By the Middle Ages breeches meant "drawers" or "underpants."
In the latter sixteenth century, breeches began to replace hose (while the German Hosen, also a plural, ousted Bruch) as the general English term for men's lower outer garments, a usage that remained standard until knee-length breeches were replaced for everyday wear by long pantaloons or trousers.
Until around the end of the nineteenth century (but later in some places), small boys wore special forms of dresses until they were "breeched", or given adult male styles of clothes, at about the age of six to eight (the age fell slowly to perhaps three). Their clothes were not usually confusable with those of little girls, as the head-covering and hair, chest and collar, and other features were differentiated from female styles.

Types of breeches

The terms breeches or knee-breeches specifically designate the knee-length garments worn by men from the later sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. After that, they survived in England only in very formal wear, such as the livery worn by some servants into the early twentieth century, and the court dress worn by others, such as Queen's Counsel, down to the present day on formal occasions.
  • Spanish breeches, stiff, ungathered breeches popular from the 1630s until the 1650s.
  • Petticoat breeches, very full, ungathered breeches popular from the 1650s until the early 1660s, giving the impression of a woman's petticoat.
  • Rhinegraves, full, gathered breeches popular from the early 1660s until the mid 1670s, often worn with an overskirt over them.
  • Fall front breeches, breeches with a panel or flap covering the front opening and fastened up with buttons at either corner.
  • In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term breech-cloth or breech-clout was also used to describe the apron-like loincloths worn by some Native American peoples.
  • In contemporary contexts, breeches are distinguished from other forms of pants or trousers as being shorter than ankle-length and form-fitting, as riding breeches. (Note, however, that riding breeches through much of the twentieth century tended to flare dramatically through the thighs.)
  • Breeches are also an item of protective clothing used in the martial art of Fencing.
  • In the Book of Exodus the kohenim (priests) were commanded to wear white linen breeches known as michnasayim.


The singular meanwhile survived in the metaphorical sense of the part of the body covered by breeches, i.e., posterior, buttocks; paradoxically, the alliterating expression 'bare breech' thus means without any inner or outer breeches.
This also led to the following:
  • a (gun) breech is the part of a firearm behind the bore (known since 1575 in gunnery).
  • breech birth in childbirthing (since 1673)

Riding Breeches

Riding breeches are specifically designed for equestrian activities. Traditionally, they were tight in the legs, stopping about halfway down the calf, with buckles or laces in the calf section, and had a pronounced flare through the thighs that allowed freedom of movement for the rider. However, with the advent of modern stretch materials such as spandex, modern breeches have no flare and fit skin-tight. Zippers and velcro fastenings have replaced laces and buckles at the calves as well. The flared style is seen at times, and is available to cavalry and other historic reenactors.
  • Clothing terminology
  • Plus-fours
  • Hebrew Priests were commanded in the Law of Moses (Exodus 28:42) to wear breeches (basically underwear) when they ministered in the tabernacle: And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach.
  • The Breeches Bible, a Geneva-edited Bible of 1560, was so called on account of rendition of Genesis iii.7 (already in Wyclif) "They sewed figge leaves together, and made themselves breeches."
  • Daniele da Volterra, nicknamed "the breeches maker" ("il braghettone")


Sources and references

breeches in German: Breeches
breeches in Spanish: calzones
breeches in Russian: Бриджи
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