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I just heard this saying recently in this conversation:

No.1 : Why aren't you telling him to shut up?
No. 2 : Mr. Palm is going to do that.
No. 1 : Oh! So Mr. Palm wears the pants!"

What does "wear the pants" mean? And what is its origin?

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A big, beefy male chauvinist marries a small, petite feminist. On their wedding night he takes off his trousers and tells her to put them on; they're so big that she could wear one leg as a skirt. He tells her "That's why I wear the pants in this family, and don't you forget it!" So she takes off her jeans and tells him to put them on; he can barely get them over one foot. He says "I can't even get into your pants!" She says "That's right - and that's how it's going to be until you change your attitude!" – MT_Head Jun 15 '11 at 18:44
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Back in the olden days, back where there were houses made of sod on the American prairie that people actually lived in, about the time that Laura Ingalls Wilder was still Laura Ingalls, ladies used to wear dresses, men wore trousers (or pants). Also, ladies were treated as second class people. Ladies could not own property of their own. Ladies could not vote. Ladies could not enter into contracts. If you wanted to get someone in a household that had the ability to enter into a binding agreement, you needed a man. The only way you could tell a man from a woman in those days was to check to see what they were wearing. If the person was wearing pants, it was a man, and you could do serious business with him. If the person was wearing a dress, you did not bother with them.

Thus, the person in a household who makes decisions and is otherwise in charge "wears the pants".

According to phrases.org, this idiom was well known in the late 19th century. The first known appearance in print was in an November 1880 article in The Manitoba Daily Free Press where the phrase "wear the trousers" was used.

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um... shouldn't it be Laura Ingalls? – Thursagen Jun 15 '11 at 6:10
@Ham and Bacon -- thanks for the correction :-) – Jay Elston Jun 15 '11 at 7:12
TL;DR: It comes from the times where men where the only ones taking decisions, and wearing pants. The expression "she wears the pants" is used to mean "she decides." – kiamlaluno Jun 15 '11 at 7:17
Such a funny description of the past ("The only way you could tell a man from a woman in those days was to check to see what they were wearing...") I agree with your actual answer though. :) – Eri Jun 15 '11 at 14:50
@kiamlaluno -- sorry for my (partial) shaggy dog story of an answer, but this is a phrase that deserves not to be answered too seriously. – Jay Elston Jun 16 '11 at 2:27

The saying, in one form or another, dates back to at least 1612. An epigram by John Harrington (who also invented the flush toilet), published posthumously in 1633 (he died in 1612) uses the expression in a story about a feuding couple trying to prove "who ware the breeches." Many early examples, and a survey of later history, are included here: http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2016/02/from-breeches-to-trousers-to-pantaloons.html

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This is sometimes used in the UK, as well. Here, it is with the word trousers and not pants, which means underpants.

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