Parachute pants are characterized by their material. Just like actual parachutes, they are made of nylon, allowing them to be lightweight and durable. The crotch is low and pockets and zippers adorn the pant legs. At their advent, parachute pants were tight all over. Later on, they acquired a looser fit retaining tightness only at the ankles. They became popular in the 1980s as a part of break dancing culture, which required clothing to withstand extreme movements.
In the beginning, parachute pants were identified by the nylon material they were made of. Eventually, their loose fit became its signature. The way the fabric ballooned around the crotch and thigh areas mimicked parachutes. The unrestricted fit of the pants allowed break dancers to move with ease. Nylon material gave the dancers the ability to spin or slide smoothly on a dance surface while minimizing friction. Nylon tracksuits were a common attire among the dancers. As described by author Vicky Carnegy, "serious dancing meant a serious dance style--clothes that were eye catching but also comfortable to move in."
By the 1980s, break dancing, along with its music and fashion, had spread to a wider audience. Many rap and hip hop artists incorporated dance into their performances and music videos. The extreme and sometimes dangerous-looking dance moves caught the attention of the mainstream. A number of films featured break dancing and, consequently, its fashion.
In the 1990s, rap artist and dancer MC Hammer reached the height of his popularity. He sold millions of records, had a cartoon character created in his image and had music videos with dance moves watched by many. He made parachute pants his trademark, calling them "hammer pants." They came in bold prints and bright colors. To this day, hammer pants remain a striking image of the early 90s.
Taking inspiration from the Middle East, harem pants, shared the low crotch and tight ankles of parachute pants. They first appeared in Western culture in 1911 through French fashion designer Paul Poiret. They were also popular in the 1980s. Lightweight fabric emphasized its billowing effect. American designer Norma Kamali designed harem pants in sweatshirt fabric and made garments with parachute silk.
Harem pants have made a comeback. For the spring/summer of 2009, designer collections featured them. They came without the zippers and pockets of the original parachute pants, but in a variety of fabrics and lengths. Some retained the fullness down to the ankles. Others tightened at the calves and onward. Recent versions of harem pants have taken a more fashion-conscious approach, in fabrics such as silk and jersey, while retaining the ease and comfort of their 1980s predecessors.