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The Tale of Culottes's Improbable Rise from the Dead

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Photos by <a href="http://drielys.com">Driely S.</a> for Racked
Photos by Driely S. for Racked

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"I LOVE these… pants?"

Welcome to the world of culottes, where the confusion is strong but the love for pant-skirt hybrids is stronger. The Modcloth reviewer quoted above is just one of many women signing off on these wide-legged, calf-cutting pants (they are pants, right?) that have been popping up more and more this past year. "A perfect fall staple that makes me feel like a fashion god," an enthusiastic Anthropologie shopper wrote. One reviewer went so far as to give it the highest praise: "More comfortable than sweatpants!"

Culottes are one of the more divisive trends that have resurrected themselves from the '70s and started walking down runways again. They've been making appearances on street style blogs and fash-un sites since early spring, but now more mainstream, commercial retailers have bought into the trend and are finding that they can't replenish stocks fast enough.

"We launched a culotte about three or four weeks ago," Jodi Arnold, the creative director for plus-size retailer Eloquii, told Racked. "We had already put a lot of them in the line for spring but now that we've seen the selling on the first one—it will probably be even better in the spring than we anticipated."

Arnold traced the culotte's surge in popularity back to the midi skirt, which hit the mainstream trend waves hard a couple of seasons ago and is still selling well. "Our customer loved the fact that she could wear the midi skirt; it showed off her waist and then went into a fuller shape in the bottom," Arnold explained. "I think the culotte kind of does the same thing for her in a little bit cooler way."

Trendy retailer Pixie Market has been selling the style since the beginning of the summer and will be restocking their supply this week. "Fashion always needs something new and that's the new thing right now," Pixie Market co-founder Gaelle Drevet told Racked. "And [it fits with] the '70s trend as well. They go perfectly with high-knee boots and they're definitely on trend right now."

While this particular iteration of the culotte is unique to 2014, it's been resurging for years in different, less appealing forms. The early 2000s will forever be remembered for those miserable stretchy gaucho pants, among other things. And before that, culottes made headlines in the late '90s when Paula Jones testified she was wearing the style when then-Governor Bill Clinton allegedly sexually harassed her.

The Washington Post's fashion critic Robin Givhan was a staff reporter at the paper when Jones (and her white, polyester culottes) were making headlines. In a 1998 essay titled Culottes: In Short, Disaster, Givhan let Jones, culottes, and President Clinton, have it. "Culottes are the fashion equivalent of processed cheese or mini-marts," she wrote. "They are banal. If we believe Jones, what are we to make of a man who loses all sense of discretion at the sight of a woman in—culottes?"

Sixteen years later, brands ranging from Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler to Gucci and Celiné have put their stamp of approval on the new culottes. The mysterious flowy pants have launched endless trend slideshows and, on occasion, a rare disapproving frown. But, for the most part, culottes are selling well and will only pick up speed into next spring—perhaps even reaching the notoriously trend-adverse area known as middle America.

"I expect to see this style spread across America with ease," Modcloth stylist Alyssa Boyd told Racked in an email. "Because of the versatility, the effortless air of grace and polish these trousers have, I anticipate seeing them in Newport, Chicago and everywhere in between."

As for Givhan, she's not crusading against culottes anymore, but she isn't wearing them either. "Like a lot of styles that are resurrected, they are often improved when given new life," Givhan admitted. "So I would say that culottes look substantially better since the Paula Jones days. I am no longer virulently opposed to them. But I'm not a fan either. I'd take wide leg trousers, a loose skirt, or walking shorts over culottes any day."