Most men — certainly me, and almost certainly you, if you happen to be a man — spend most of our days in trousers that do not fit very well and are not particularly flattering. This is partly unavoidable. The area of the body running from the belly button and lower back to the knees is oddly shaped on the most well-formed among us and (as careful observers of the male body will have noticed) varies a lot from man to man. It’s hard to wrap cloth around this stuff and have the result feature elegant lines and smooth planes.
But avoidable mistakes are made, as well. Most of them involve one or more of the three deadly sins: Too tight a leg, too low a waist, or slouchy leg-bottoms.
At some point we, as a culture, decided that tight trousers were a youthful, contemporary look. Perhaps they are. Certainly encouraging men to show off their leg shape strikes a blow for sexual equality. But there is a wide, perhaps unbridgeable gap between idea and execution here. Cutting trousers that are skinny but don’t bunch up awkwardly and ripple at the seams must require devilish cunning if even the people who dress James Bond failed spectacularly to pull it off. Clothes can’t look good if they look uncomfortable. When you are standing up straight, trouser legs, however slender, should hang down, not cling. Accordingly, stretch fabrics are out.
The same aspirational modernity may have driven the falling waistbands of recent years. We should have listened to our female friends who, forced into low-rise jeans 20 years ago, told horror stories of underwear riding up and discomfort while sitting down. A longer rise, placing the top of the waistband an inch above the hip bones, has a lot of good effects. It can accentuate that one does, in fact, have a waist, thereby making the shoulders appear wider. It holds a tucked-in shirt tidily in place. It makes the leg look longer. If one is wearing a tie (remember those?), a higher waist means the tie can be a bit shorter and not flop all over the damn place.
Find a photo of Miles Davis or Clark Gable from the middle of the last century to see what a longer waist can do for a man. Fred Astaire knew that a high waist provided freedom to move, as well. And yet it is very difficult to find trousers off the rack that sit high on the waist. Somebody please do something about this (Gucci, for one, seems to have gotten the message).
And so to leg bottoms. Thom Browne tried valiantly to make us all show our socks, even when we were standing up straight. It almost worked, for a while. His legacy may be that more men — well-dressed men, anyway — wear their trousers without a break, and with a slightly narrower leg opening. This does, in fact, look pleasingly modern, with turn-ups or without.
Trousers should not bunch up around the ankles. Why does this so often happen? The style writer Derek Guy has proposed the following explanation: When trying on pants, men are worried about feeling comfortable in the rear — they don’t want a wedgie, in short. So they prefer a long back rise (the distance from the top of the inseam to the rear waist). This extra fabric is not pulled up, though. Instead, it hangs down, creating a feeling of ample space. But this sends ripples down the leg and bunches up at the back of the cuff. The lesson: Don’t be afraid of a fitted seat. It makes the legs fit better.
Shorter men have to be extra-cautious about their trousers pooling at the bottom. This not only looks sloppy but makes the short appear shorter still. Buy off the rack (bespoke trousers have become idiotically expensive) but get thee to a tailor. While you are there, taper the leg and adjust the rise to suit your preferences. As Guy pointed out to me, the only part that can’t be adjusted easily is the thigh. They should fit so that the pleats, if any, lie flat (and, with a higher rise, a single pleat improves the fit).
Trousers that look good are more important than ever now because men rarely wear jackets any more (a regrettable fact, but here we are). We see more trousers now. Good idea, then, to not only find a few pairs that fit, but to spend a little money on them. Most men want cotton clothes that they can throw in the wash without worrying and put on right out of the dryer. Fair enough. We all have to get up and go to work every day, and we all have other things to spend our money on.
But good wool cloth that takes a crease — dark flannel, whipcord twill, Donegal tweed — is interesting and still looks up to date. It wears well and can go a while between washings, especially if strategically darker shades are selected. In a jacketless world it introduces the right note of formality. We should all spend a little more money on our trousers.
By Robert Armstrong © 2022 The Financial Times.