putting pants on one leg at a time

Oswego (KS) Independent, March 27, 1914

The segment above is from a 1914 ad for a Kansas clothing store — Condon’s, “The Store That Pleases” — that was more interested in selling pants than in how people put them on. But they were right that most people are not conscious of just how they perform this commonplace, everyday act.

In fact, the act of putting on pants is so commonplace that it’s come to stand for commonness or ordinariness itself, and for everyone being on the same footing, so to speak.

You’ll find it most frequently in sports talk — in a couple of different ways — but also in politics and other domains.

From a 1929 speech by former University of Nebraska football coach Ernest E. Bearg, as reported in the Topeka High School World

One of the earliest such uses occurred in Illinois in 1908. An Evanston clergyman, Dr. Albert C. Derr, was an entertaining lecturer, employing stereopticon slides and multiple changes of costume. On this particular occasion, his regular pants — with his money and keys in the pockets — were stolen from his dressing room.

Shaken, but undaunted, Derr put on a pair of less formal costume pants from his act, and went home. After all, reported the Chicago newspaper the Inter Ocean, aren’t all pants just “two and a half yards of cloth made up into a garment composed of one waist and two legs?”

The poor man gets into his trousers exactly as does the rich man [continued the paper], by leaning against the foot of the bed and pulling on one leg at a time. The poet, the banker, the philosopher, the merchant prince, the farmer, the physician, the policeman, the porch climber, each must steady himself on one foot each morning while he is lifting the other foot to get into the right leg, or the left leg, as the case may be.

Cutting a Powerful Opponent Down to Size

The earliest known sports use of the term came in 1923. A column in the Kentucky Post shared a story told by Bo McMillan, former star quarterback for tiny Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, about how he inspired his team ahead of their upset of the much larger University of West Virginia in 1919.

‘They aren’t any bigger than we are, are they?’ Bo demanded. ‘They’re nothing but men–they all put their football pants on one leg at a time, same as you do.’

Other coaches, managers, and players have also used the expression as a form of bravado when facing a favored opponent, though not always with the same success as McMillan’s team. Take these examples, more than 90 years apart:

“They’re just human beings, just like the rest of us. They get into their trousers just the way we do, one leg at a time.”
— Chicago Cubs pitcher Lon Warneke on the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig-led New York Yankees before the start of the 1932 World Series.

“You can say all the cliches you want, they put their pants on one leg at a time just like us.”
— University of New Mexico football coach Danny Gonzales on facing heavily-favored Texas A&M in September 2023.

The Yankees swept the 1932 World Series, four games to none, outscoring the Cubs by a composite score of 37-19. UNM, a 38-point underdog, lost 52-10 to #23 Texas A&M.

I’m Just Like Everyone Else

The phrase has also been used as an expression of humbleness. In 1958, high school running back Ernie Davis, heading off to Syracuse University, told his hometown newspaper, the Elmira (NY) Gazette, “I’ve been lucky. Lucky to have had good coaches and good teammates.”

And I learned a long time ago that no matter how good I might play during a game, afterward, in the dressing room, I have to put my trousers on one leg at a time just like the other fellows.

Davis would lead Syracuse to the national championship in 1959 and win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. He was the first pick in that year’s NFL draft, but tragically died of leukemia at age 23.

From the Campaign Trail to the Antarctic

The expression has been used to paper over other kinds of differences, as well.

In 1950, Robert Babcock, running for a state senate seat in Vermont, assured voters that being a college professor did not mean he spent all his time reading radical literature in an ivory tower. “I, too, put on my pants one leg at a time,” he wrote in a letter to the Burlington Times. (He won the seat.)

In 1966, American scientist Edwin E. McNamara, on his way to do research at a Russian base in Antarctica, told a New Jersey paper there were benefits beyond shared scientific knowledge:

Even if I just see the Russians put their pants on one leg a a time and they see me put my pants on one leg at a time, I think some understanding will have been gained.

Which Leg First?

Putting on pants is such an unconscious act that most people can’t tell you which leg they put on (or take off) first. As I discovered — by paying attention while working on this article — I always put my pants on left leg first, and take them off right leg first. (I do the same unconscious left/right, right/left reversal when putting my arms in a shirt or jacket and even when putting in and taking out my hearing aids!)

Pay attention to how you put on your pants. Chances are you’re a creature of habit, too.