Culottes are a form of split skirt. They are usually made full or calf length, and consist of a pair of loose, flowing trousers which strongly resemble a skirt until the wearer engages in vigorous physical activity. The shorter version is a skort, a pair of shorts with a flap of fabric in the front that turns them into a more modest skirt. Many active women who believe in wearing modest clothing for religious reasons wear culottes, as they allow a full range of movement without the potential for exposure.
Originally, the word was used to refer to trousers worn by men. Women's fashion appears to have appropriated the word in the 1800s, when women started wearing culottes so that they could ride horses astride instead of sidesaddle. The split skirt configuration was ideal for riding safely while preserving modesty norms. Culottes were worn by many women of modest families well into the 1900s, and were often sewn in fashionable patterns for a variety of tastes and classes.
In the 1960s, culottes became fashionable, and they were known as hostess pajamas. These trousers were a little more slimly cut, so they more strongly resembled pants, and they were often sewn in brightly patterned fabric with matching tops. Usually, culottes were sold in a set with the top, and were made from fabrics like silk or rayon, which were soft, shiny, and flowing.
Some consumers confuse culottes with skorts, which combine a short skirt with shorts. A true pair of culottes could genuinely be mistaken for a skirt, and they are not designed to fall above the knee, as skorts are. They can be made from any material, although because many women wear them for modesty, they are often thick, rather than sheer. Culottes can also come in a wide variety of patterns, and many are pleated or gathered for visual interest. Some beginning sewers undertake them as a sewing project because they are relatively easy to make.
Many conservative Christian women who belong to sects that preach modesty wear culottes, as do some Muslim women. These trousers give women who would otherwise feel restricted to skirts an opportunity to be physically active. The full coverage the offer is almost more modest than a skirt, because culottes are less likely to flip up with intense physical activity or a brisk wind. Their popularity with women as a modesty garment makes them readily available at stores which specialize in modest clothing, and some department stores may also carry a small section of culottes.