Stories of the Trousers Known as Inexpressibles

“That part of the dress which it is now unlawful to name, seems of old to have had the singular virtue of discomfiting witches and demons. Every one may have heard how the bare vision of St. Francis’ inexpressibles put the devil to flight,”[1] was one nineteenth century description of men’s trousers, known as inexpressibles. They likely acquired their name because they were extremely erotic and fit so tightly they showed every nook and cranny of a man’s sexual organs, posterior, and muscular legs. In fact, they would have accentuated a man’s sexual organs even more if extra room had not been allowed in one thigh, which created a pocket where a man could position them.

Even with the pocket, inexpressibles left nothing to the imagination. Wearers, such as the famous George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, created the image of a naked Greek God, as inexpressibles were usually pale in color. At least one person noted such trousers were a natural evolution:

“[They emanated from] small clothes to tights, from tights to inexpressibles, from inexpressibles to unspeakables, and from unspeakables to unmentionables, from unmentionables to shorts, from shorts to etceteras, from etceteras to continuations, and so on through antifeminines, remainders, masculines, and nether integuments down to the Quaker periphrase lower garments!”[2]


A young George Bryan “Beau” Brummell in inexpressibles. Author’s collection.

But whether or not that was true, one fact was true, eighteenth and nineteenth century inexpressible wearers had a variety of opinions about them. Some wearers found them difficult to get into and uncomfortable to wear because they were so tight and form-fitting. A reformed eighteenth-century dandy discussed the “goods and evils, the sense and nonsense of Fashion,”[3] by describing his daily chore of dandifying himself. He noted of his buff-colored inexpressibles:

“[They] were made to fit me much tighter than my skin; and being of no very yielding texture, they fairly compressed it into plaits and wrinkles. To get into them, for the first time, without the assistance of the tailor who had made them, and who, from much practice and patience, and no little ingenuity, was up to every difficulty and device in the art and mystery of ‘trying on,’ was impossible. And even with all his aid and encouragement it was an awful task.”[4]

The reformed dandy did eventually pour himself into his new inexpressibles “by dint of strength, and dextrous management, it was accomplished in about half an hour … though, by my mental measurement of time, it seemed but little short of half a life-time — so wearisome was it both to flesh and spirit!”[5] Another wearer claimed buckskin inexpressibles were “far tighter than the skins of those whom they tormented, [and] were nearly as bad in the effects they produced.”[6] As with the reformed dandy, a first-time inexpressible wearer noted the first time he put on a pair “the strength and skill of the maker of them, backed by one or two able-bodied assistants, were indispensable.”[7] However, the real tug for movement usually began after the wearer poured himself into his inexpressibles.

Inexpressible wearers. Public domain.

One person described what it was like to see a man wearing the tight trousers, stating:

“[S]ome of his joints were anchylosed, and others tightly bandaged on account of recent dislocation. From the waist downward, there was less pliability in him than in the limbs of a centenarian, or a gourmand stiffed by chronic gout. Nor was this all. His blood, being denied a free passage in a downward direction … made his neck and face swell and his eye protrude, and turned his cheeks as red as the gills of a fish … [but] getting out of his trammels was sometimes a more awful trial than getting into them.”[8]

Some inexpressible wearers did not care about the difficulties of getting into or out of them. This was the case for two French actors: Fleury, one of the greatest comedians of his time, and comedian Paulin. They combined their wardrobes, and among their favored shared possessions was a pair of black silk inexpressibles, which they agreed they would alternate wearing. Fleury wrote:

“[Paulin] adhered to the compact with the strictest fidelity; but my honour yielded to the promptings of vanity: I violated the treaty, and sported the silk inexpressibles three times in succession.”[9]

Fleury’s violation of their agreement, soon lead to a sword duel in a meadow. At the exact moment the men drew their swords, an indescribable beauty advanced upon the two men and exclaimed, “Stay!” She then reminded them if one killed the other it would be murder and so the men sheathed their swords with the following result:

“[Paulin then] assuming his usual lively and jocose tone … said, ‘Truly, my dear Fleury, there never was a more ridiculous affair than this quarrel of ours. To fight for a petticoat might be perfectly natural; but who ever heard of a duel for a pair of black silk shorts?'”[10]



“The Great Inexpressibles Capitulating with a Sans Culotte.” Political satire on the defeat of the German forces at Valmy: the Duke of Brunswick kissing the arse of a French soldier while another general begs for mercy. Courtesy of British Museum.

Even the word inexpressibles caused disagreements among people. Some people thought it too graphic and too revealing a word. One early nineteenth century author asserted the word caused his sweet, innocent young niece to blush at the mention. Another man claimed the word “inexpressibles” was on its way to replacing the word “breeches” and argued it should not happen. He thought “inexpressibles” was a ridiculous word and that it was used in an attempt to “persuade the public … [that the word was] elegant, modest, and delicate modes of expressing what their forefathers and mother understood by the word breeches.”[11] However, not everyone felt the same way.

There were plenty of people who thought inexpressibles was an acceptable term. They argued that the word’s bad reputation resulted because of the less than stellar people who used the word, even if they did claim to be genteel. One man described what he meant:

“Inexpressibles … is the name which this article of dress has received in good society: where a woman sometimes leaves her husband and children, and runs off with her lover, but is always too decorous to endure the sound of the word breeches [and that is why it better to substitute inexpressibles for it instead].”[12]


  • [1] Robertson, Joseph, Deliciae Literariae, 1840, p. 27.
  • [2] Butler, Alfred, Elphinstone, Vol. 1, 1841, p. 72-73.
  • [3] The New England Magazine, Vol. 4, 1833, p. 354. 
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Caldwell, Charles, Thoughts on Physical Education, and the True Mode of Improving the Condition of Man, 1836, p. 104. 
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Bénard, Joseph Abraham, The French Stage and the French People, as Illustrated in the Memoirs of M. Fleury, 1841, p. 25.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 27.
  • [11] Sporting Magazine, Vol. 28, 1806, p. 169.
  • [12] The Westminster Review, Volume 16, 1832, p. 231.

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