Rewind: The Most Powerful Pants In Hollywood

These TV and movie fashions made an impact one leg at a time.

Pity the wardrobe designer who’s working on a film that doesn’t take place in outer space, the past or an exotic foreign land. No Oscar was ever given for Best Casual Outfit Picked Off the Rack at Filene’s Basement. Most people don’t pay too much attention to clothing worn in a movie. But sometimes (either through design or by accident), a garment can become bigger than the actor filling it. Every once in a while, a pair of trousers can inspire awe.

Greater than the Ya-Ya, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” (based on a series of books about girls who, uh, share pants) forces us to contemplate the oft-overlooked impact of said garment on the big and small screen.

  • Dean Jeans
    Prior to the 1950s, blue jeans were primarily worn by West Coast blue-collar workers, reckless urchins and cowboys. But when James Dean posthumously hit the screens in 1955′s “Rebel Without a Cause” clad in a pair of cuffed Levi’s, denim suddenly became cool. (Thankfully, it wasn’t Dean’s red windbreaker that became a ubiquitous fashion staple.)

    Editor’s Picks: Popular Pants

    Aided and abetted by celluloid modeling by Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe, jeans would within a few years begin a seemingly unending reign as the hipster pant of choice. But few people ever wore them better than Dean.

  • Duck Pants (Or Lack Thereof)
    Donald Duck, Walt Disney’s cranky quacker, has inspired numerous trouser-related tales. For years an urban legend floated around that Finland had banned all Donald Duck cartoons because of the character’s unclothed nether regions (after all, his pal Mickey Mouse wears shorts and Goofy rocks loose-fit jeans). Like most urban legends, it wasn’t true, but Donald was responsible for the tailoring of another movie mallard: Howard the Duck. When Disney sued (Disney litigious? Who knew?) Marvel Comics because the cigar-chomping fowl allegedly resembled Donald too much, part of the settlement forced Howard into a pair of ill-fitting pants, a sartorial choice he carried into his lamentable 1986 film debut. Who knows, maybe if Howard had gone bare-bottomed, that movie might not have become one of the worst films ever made.

  • Al Czervik’s Golf Pants
    Make no mistake, the 1980 slobs-vs.-snobs comedy “Caddyshack” is a touchstone of American cinema. Millions of American males can quote verbatim entire scenes (usually to the tired chagrin of their female companions). “So I got that goin’ for me … which is nice” has become a catchphrase applicable to everyone from Nobel laureates to the bum who found a quarter on the street. But the film may also have been responsible for making golf acceptable to the general public. Prior to “Caddyshack,” this arguable “sport” was primarily the domain of rich white men. But in his portrayal of billionaire developer Al Czervik (granted, a rich white man), Rodney Dangerfield was loud, crude, vivacious, funny and, most of all, likable. As such, his wardrobe of gaudy, brightly colored, hideously patterned golf pants snuck into subconscious acceptability. Czervik’s golf pants single-handedly paved the way for golf to become one of the major leisure activities of the new millennium. Tiger owes big.

  • Peekaboo Jeans
    OK, so you’ve probably never even heard of “So Fine,” the 1981 Ryan O’Neal vehicle about a college professor who accidentally creates a fashion fad (saving his father’s struggling clothing company) while getting entangled with the wife of a mobster. Can’t believe this “Citizen Kane” is out of print, eh? Well it is, so you’ll have to do a little digging to get a peek at the fad in question: Jeans with clear vinyl windows where the back pockets should be. What’s truly incredible about this movie (aside from the fact that legendary composer Ennio Morricone wrote the score) is that, as far as we can tell, the only person to ever adopt this look was Howard Stern as Fartman.

  • Laura Petrie’s Capri Pants
    True, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” wasn’t a movie, but this classic 1960s TV sitcom did inspire one of the biggest trouser-themed fads of the 20th century: capri pants. Prior to the ’60s, women mostly wore dresses and skirts, even when they were filling the role of housewife. Every TV and movie mom cleaned, cooked and cared clad in a lovely ensemble more suited for a night of dining and dancing … until Mary Tyler Moore played Laura Petrie, the snappy, adorable wife of TV writer Rob. Breaking the mold, Laura wore cropped slacks and casual sweaters with flats or sandals. It was a sociological liberation that inspired women all over America, and capri pants sold like hotcakes.

  • The Wrong Trousers
    Nick Park’s 1993 Oscar-winning animated short, “Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers,” displays the dangers of having your pants do the work for you. When Wallace invents a pair of mechanical pants to walk his dog, Gromit, the clay canine is less than impressed. However, an evil penguin boarder sees promise in the pants … larcenous promise! What transpires is a trouser-fueled chase scene that would make Steve McQueen carsick.

  • Disco Inferno
    Singling out the pants from the rest of the ’70s wardrobe in the disco classic “Saturday Night Fever” seems like a fool’s errand. After all, the 1977 film highlighted (and propagated) all trappings of that era, from the feathered hair to the platform shoes, from the gold-chain necklaces to the open floral silk shirts. The pants were just a part of the leisure-suited lifestyle. But holy cow, what pants! Bell-bottoms, gabardines, hot pants, in all colors of the rainbow, and always two sizes too small. And since so much of the movie is about Tony Manero (John Travolta) struggling to get into his own pants and to get various girls out of theirs, we do hereby declare the slacks of “Saturday Night Fever” to be its most important sartorial element.

Honorable Mentions must go to Fatty Arbuckle’s disappearing trousers in the 1914 comedy “Fatty’s Magic Pants” (which sounds like a Dave Matthews song), Bob Hope’s fancy pants in “Fancy Pants” (1950), Olivia Newton-John’s sewn-on satin pants in “Grease” (1978), the many fine film performances of Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano and, of course, SpongeBob SquarePants’ square pants.

We hear some of you laughing (hopefully), and OK, a column all about pants in the movies is kind of a silly topic. But mark our words: we’re willing to wager that 95 percent of the coverage concerning the upcoming “Dukes of Hazzard” movie focuses more on Jessica Simpson’s Daisy Dukes than they do contrasting the acting styles of Tom Wopat and Johnny Knoxville.

Pants, dear friends. It’s all about pants.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

Visit Movies on MTV.com for more from Hollywood, including news, interviews, trailers and more.