Finding a Pair of Rare WWI Army Trousers
For context, I live in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, which is home to fortunately, a load of thrift stores, charity shops, and vintage boutiques to suit the budget of a variety of second-hand shoppers. I've been thrifting for a few years now as a means to experiment with my personal style at a lower cost, as well as feeding my interest for pre-loved fashion. But, until this fall, I had mainly found vintage jeans, leather jackets, and the occasional shoe that spoke to me. In short, I had yet to come across a notable archival piece of clothing. What I share with you today is both the story of how I came to recognize the potential significance of my greatest thrifted find, as well as the unique historical narrative which it tells. I hope that it will encourage those of you that thrift do research into the pieces you find, because you never quite know what you might have in your basket!
The day I found these trousers, I was doing my usual sweep of the men's pants section, particularly looking for some nice suit pants or jeans which matched my style. As I browsed, I came across two pairs of heavy, thick wool pants that seemed to be old military garments, each priced at 7.75$ CAD. First, I gasped. Then, I threw them in my basket and ran to the cash without even trying them on. When I got home, I was so excited to wear them, because I'd been recently inspired by some old vintage military looks. I tried on the first pair, which were a beautiful rich green colour, and they instantly spoke to me because of their high waisted, wide leg cut. The other pair, in a charcoal colour, honestly threw me off because of their odd balloon shape emphasized by a tailored wide thigh and exaggerated taper below the knee. Unfortunately, I didn't end up wearing these charcoal ones, because I simply couldn't find a way to style their unusual shape with my everyday outfits.
Fast forward a few months, and I was actually looking to sell them. So I thought I'd list them on Grailed.com for about 50$, and see if someone would be interested in these unlabelled, assumed to be vintage military trousers. Just I was about to post them, I decided to honour the garment and try to do a bit more research on where they may have originated. I definitely didn't want to mislead anybody in purchasing a garment which I couldn't even verify the source for, and more importantly, wanted to take the chance to potentially learn a thing or two about these pants which seemed so unusual to me. Because I hadn't really worn these yet, I hadn't even taken the time to check the pockets. To my surprise, I reached into the only back pocket on the trousers and pulled out two small slips of paper. I couldn't recognize the language that was printed onto them, but using Google translate I discovered that they were a pair of Hungarian railway tickets. The message on them roughly translated to something along the lines of, "Electric line ticket. Trolley, underground. The ticket must be validated by the passenger at the start of the trip with the ticket office". With this, I came to an initial conclusion that these were some form of Hungarian military pants, and decided to look up some of the country's historical uniforms. Based on my personal research, here's what I found:
These are most likely a pair of Austro-Hungarian army trousers which date back all the way to World War 1. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a country dating between 1867-1918, referred officially as Austria-Hungary. Put simply, it was formed through an agreement amongst political leaders at the time, who wanted to partially restore Hungary's independence as a country in light of the Austrian Empire's absolute rule over the Hungarian people. The Austro-Hungarian Empire's end came after the First World War, when the Hungarian Parliament declared its independence from Austria after war related struggles, and economic crisis, and other political conflict.
Aside from Austro-Hungarian politics and history, my underlying fascination with these trousers come form the possibility that they are over 100 years old. I know this because, through my own research I was able to identify the colour of the wool on these trousers as pike-grey or Hechtgrau, which was used prior to 1915. It's described as a bluish-grey, as opposed to the grey-green that was instead used afterwards. What this means is that these trousers would have likely been worn by infantry, artillery, engineers, or transport units. Unfortunately, because there is little information on the trousers themselves, it's difficult for me to be more specific than that in terms of their particular usage.
Of course, I should once again mention that this is all somewhat theorized information, because truthfully, I haven't had any confirmation from a professional or specialist on the topic. I've reached out to a couple historians on Twitter, as well as the academics of the only website I could find that documents the Austro-Hungarian Army. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive an answer. Still, because of the tickets I found in the pockets, a
nd the uncanny resemblance from the historical photos, I definitely am lead to believe that I have a case here. If these are in fact, a pair of WWI Austro-Hungarian trousers, this leads me to think about what it means to wear something like this nowadays.
First of all, how could a pair of trousers like these find themselves in a thrift store in Montreal, Quebec. More importantly, should I even be wearing an archival piece like this around so casually? Do I need to bring this straight to a specialist so they can keep this for their collection? What does it mean to style (conscious or without knowing) a garment which was likely used made to be used in acts of violence, war crimes, and oppression? If anything, I ask myself if owning, let alone wearing a piece like this is even my place. My initial answer to this question is that actually, it probably isn't. I hope to soon find out more information on these, and to hopefully pass them on to somebody who will be able to appreciate them and use them in a much more appropriate way than I ever could imagine.
If it isn't already clear at this point, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do research on some of the pieces you find when you are second-hand shopping. Of course, most pieces you find won't have much of a traceable history, because the nature of historical documentation is that most stories remain untold. Thankfully for this piece, I seem to have found a potential source, so let me tell you that on the off chance that their is a traceable story behind your thrifted find, it's worth it.
A special thanks to Glenn Jewinson and Jörg C. Steiner who cowrote the amazing Austro-Hungarian Land Forces online archive, and to The Great War Youtube channel, who produced this incredibly helpful video about Austro-Hungarian uniforms.