Art, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Manuscripts and Books

Tights, A Medieval Fashion Faux Pas, Return!

For over a year now, a fashion trend from medieval Europe—once reserved for men of elite social standing—has been resurrected and adopted by women, causing some fashionistas to cringe.

Tights are back.

The Competition in Sittacene and the Placating of Sisigambis / Attributed to the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation

The Competition in Sittacene and the Placating of Sisigambis (detail) in Book of the Deeds of Alexander the Great, illuminations attributed to the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation, about 1470–75

In mid-15th-century England, a law restricted the wearing of short tunics that revealed the male buttocks to members of the upper class. In works of art, men of this, um, standing are often depicted wearing what we would call tights or leggings (hose) beneath their skimpy tunics. In today’s world, such tight-fitting leg garments were, until recently, reserved for ballet, the theater, Halloween, certain sporting events, and historical reenactment festivals.

According to the “Tights Are Not Pants” manifesto, these aforementioned situations represent “historically acceptable acts of pantlessness.” The manifesto was written in response to the recent surge in women choosing tights as an alternative to pants, even if barely covered by a flimsy top. The “gratuitous divulgence of assets” amounts to the fashion equivalent of TMI.

Just as some today are alarmed at these acts of pantlessness, so too were some living in the Middle Ages. One author from the 14th century considered thinly disguised buttocks to be a deformation for otherwise honest men, and a Parisian bishop from the same time period preached that this type of dress was utterly shameful. Historical examples of tights-as-pants are on view in Fashion in the Middle Ages, our exhibition of medieval manuscripts that closes this Sunday.

In fact, two manuscripts in the gallery show men garbed in short tunics with their round backsides in plain sight. The image shown here comes from a book recounting the intrepid adventures of Alexander the Great, but the artist has clothed the figures in courtly dress of the late 1400s. We’ve explored the other image here.

Did you spot the tights being worn by the brilliantly clad noblemen, who are actually supposed to be Alexander’s soldiers? They look far too fancy to do any real fighting.

Detail from the Competition in Sittacene and the Placating of Sisigambis / Attributed to the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation
Where do you stand on this heated debate? At least, as Roger Wieck points out, we have been spared one other fashion oddity of medieval times: miniskirts for men. Will they be next?

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  1. steve
    Posted April 14, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    I dont see why men are not wearing tights anymore. Because of my job, sitting all day, and the fact I have mild water in one leg, I am now wearing tight footless leggings. They are so comfortable! The other day I ventured out in them without covering trousers and nobody seemed to notice. But then running tights are quite common now on men and women. One day male fashion will return tights to men, women having stolen then, but sadly probably not in my lifetime. I am almost 57 now. Cant wait to go out in my footless tights again!!!!

  2. Kim Sherman
    Posted December 27, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I predict men and boys will be wearing tunics and tights within 20 years.

    • Michael
      Posted March 24, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Hi Kim, I LOVE Renaissance clothing and wear tights to practice ballet in. What are your thoughts about men wearing tights?

  3. james
    Posted August 11, 2015 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I wear tights or pantyhose daily all day long. I wear all colors and styles nothing is off limits not that brave to wear openly because of public ridicule and name calling . When out I wear them under my pants at home with or without shorts and when I take photos usually with a mini skirt for photo purposes am a straight male and no I don’t crossdress.

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      Natural Grace

      In the late 18th century, “natural grace” meant to strictly follow etiquette and to make it seem easy and effortless.

      Thomas Gainsborough’s Lady Walking in a Garden is, among other things, about fashion’s pivotal role in this delicate social task. The more complicated the dress, the more impractical for walking, the more difficult it was to wear it with elegance and nonchalance—and the more admirable if one succeeded in displaying natural grace.

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      This sketch is featured in the exhibition The Art of the Fold: Drawings of Drapery and Costume at the Getty Center through January 10, 2016.


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