Stupid Question ™
Feb. 20, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: When and why did Navy sailors start wearing bell-bottom pants?
A: Sailors apparently invented bell-bottoms themselves and certainly wore them long before they became official uniform gear. This leaves “when” and “why” unclear.
The pants date at lest to the late 1700s and probably to the practice of British sailors. (The British Navy had no uniform regulations until the mid-1800s, so it’s hard to check.)
There are descriptions of US sailors wearing bell-bottoms from the early 1800s, and a sea chantey referring to them from the Civil War era. But their first appearance in Navy uniform regulations (at least, that I could find) was in 1897, where they were defined as pants “cut bell-shaped and full enough to be pulled over the thighs” (i.e., rolled up).
Bell-bottoms appear originally to have been the work dress of regular sailors, not of officers. Uniform regulations didn’t even apply to regular sailors until 1817, and even then required only blue pants.
It is, at least, easy to say when sailors stopped wearing bell-bottoms: 1998, when the Navy made them part of the dress uniform only. (Really, the bell-bottoms last tolled in 2000, after the 1998 supply ran out.)
The best guess as to why the pants were made is because the wide cuffs are easy to roll up, and thus keep dry during wading or deck-swabbing. This fits with the 1897 regulation stipulating that the bells be big enough to roll up to the thigh, and with general Navy guidelines that long required that pants be rolled up during deck-swabbing.
It also makes sense as a reason why sailors would design such pants themselves. It’s a more versatile version of “slops,” the loose-fitting, mid-calf-length pants sailors wore in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Another guess is that bell-bottoms are easy to pull off over boots, making it easier for a sailor to swim if he fell overboard. Also, the voluminous bells could be filled with air and used as an ersatz life preserver.
Sailors in modern times have indeed been taught the life-preserver trick, but it’s arguably more important to strip off boots than pants if drowning. Also, bell-bottoms were long designed with laces in the back that you need a buddy to tie—not exactly a quick-shed garment.
And most early-1800s sailors didn’t know how to swim anyway. They weren’t expected to survive going overboard.
Other, weak guesses: the pants provided extra protection to the feet from ocean spray; and the pants made the most efficient use of a standard bolt of cloth of the era.
One thing bell-bottoms were good for was smuggling booze aboard by binding bottles around the calves. Nobody has suggested this as a reason for inventing them.
It’s also important to note that sailors’ attitudes toward them wasn’t always functional. The Navy long allowed sailors to get a “second” uniform made themselves at their own expense—typically of finer material and with a tailored fit. The memoirs of World War II-era sailors show that getting the pants tailored with noticeably larger bells was considered a fashion coup.