We first came upon them in Turkey.  The droopy drawers, or Ali Baba pants, or Hammer (as in MC) pants appeared in every tourist market we came across. (And there are a lot of markets in Turkey. Home of the Grand Bazaar, after all.)

We didn’t think much of it then. There are actual Turkish people who wear something akin to these pants, so it seemed like a logical souvenir one might pick up.

But then we saw them again in Malaysia. And Thailand. And Cambodia. And Vietnam. And Peru. And Colombia. On pretty much every backpacking twenty-something in the hostels and buses we shared. And on no native person anywhere.

So where do these pants come from? And why do backpackers always seem to have a pair?

These pants do have a history – maybe even more than one. They are similar to the serouel worn by the French Zouave troops who fought in North Africa in the 19th century, which came from the sirwal worn in the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years, the Patiala salwar worn in the Northern Punjab region of India, and the shalvar worn in Turkey, Greece and parts of the Balkans. These are all baggy pants gathered at the ankle, sometimes the entire calf, draping and billowy above.

The Zouave uniform, the Turkish shalvar, and the Serbian national costume

The Zouave serouel uniform, the Turkish shalvar, and the Serbian national costume

There are similar pants worn by Mao and Hmong hill tribes in Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma. These are made of patterned fabric and often have a pocket and ankle cuffs made of a stiffer embroidered fabric.

The pants that are now in seemingly every market in every tourist area on earth are a simpler version of these indigenous trousers. They are made from a lightweight, drapey fabric in solids or bright patterns. They are gathered with elastic at the bottom so they can be worn long at the ankle or pushed up above the knee so it looks like a skirt. There is often a panel of elastic and a string at the top that would allow them to be worn as a jumpsuit, either strapless or tied around the neck. They are comfy, to be sure. So comfy that they are considered sleepwear by natives in much of India and Southeast Asia.

what is up with those pants1

The fact that thousands of Western backpackers roam the streets in these pajama pants must be pretty amusing to the locals. They are probably just relieved that people are covering themselves. The look is completed with flip flops, a tank top (preferably one with a Chang beer logo) and lots of bracelets and maybe anklets.

The pants are truly ridiculous. And utterly impractical in the land of squat toilets. But they are awfully comfy, and until they appeared in H&M this year in the US, they made unique souvenirs. Backpackers, for the most part, know they look ridiculous, but also can’t resist their siren call

I’m not here to judge. In fact I’m wearing a pair as I write this post. And I bought a pair for each of my siblings. With a matching pair for my sister’s baby girl. It’s adorable.