Men's Dress Trousers - A Guide to Understanding your Slacks
Trousers are a tricky beast in fashion -- often misunderstood, plagued by an overabundance of terms and names, and surprisingly difficult to find in a comfortable fit. But (much like the bassist in a good band) they bring everything together even when they aren't the star of the show. Understanding the role of your trousers and the options you have in choosing them are the keys to comfortable, sharp-looking clothes for your lower half.
The Role of Trousers in Men’s Fashion
Good trousers are never the defining characteristic of a man's outfit, unless you're a circus clown. A well-chosen outfit should direct attention toward the face and help it stand out in the viewer's mind, and drawing the eye below the waist does nothing to further that goal. Instead, trousers should present as smooth and unbroken a path as possible up the wearer's body; the best trousers will be able to retain their sleek profile whether the wearer is moving or stationary; seated or standing.
On a more practical note, of course, trousers are also where men tend to carry the little necessities of life -- their keys, wallet, cell phone, and so on. Good trousers will have pockets of the proper size and shape to carry a few small items without bulging; loading the pockets and checking a mirror can be an excellent test for off-the-rack trousers. Custom-made trousers can simply be fitted with all the usual daily items in the pockets to see if any adjustments are needed.
Trouser Fit for Men
The perfect pair of trousers should follow the natural shape of a man's body: widest at the waist, tapering all the way to the ankles, with no excess fabric hanging loose or billowing. At the same time, trousers need to be loose enough to allow for movement, and should never wrinkle or bunch around the thighs -- this is a sign that the trousers are too tight. Dress trousers should never narrow and then widen lower down on the body.
Modern dressers should remember that the "fall" of dress trousers -- the distance from the waist to the crotch -- is longer than that of casual jeans, meaning that the pants should be worn higher on the body. Contemporary jeans are often fitted to be worn at the hips, while dress pants should rest comfortably above the hips. A well-fitted pair of dress pants should never be able to slide off the body on its own, even without a belt or suspenders. Trousers are often tailored for wear with suspenders rather than belts, in which case the fall will be even longer and the fit slightly looser. This allows the pants to "hang" on the man's body, which presents a very smooth and flat drape. Many fine dressers prefer suspenders to belts, and often wear trousers with no belt loops at all.
When in doubt, wear a pair of pants with no belt or suspenders and examine the fit. If the trousers pinch or are slipping off, the fit is incorrect. If excess fabric is billowing or "ballooning" anywhere, or if the crotch sags loosely, the trousers are too loose; if wrinkles and bunching appear in the fabric when you move they are too tight. And, of course, if moving or sitting in a pair of trousers is uncomfortable for any reason, you should be asking yourself if you really want to spend an entire day wearing them.
Men’s Trouser Style
Pleated vs. Plain-front
Trend-setters and fashion designers can't seem to make their minds up on the subject of pleats. One year they'll be in, and the next year they'll be declared dead forever, only to return a few seasons later. Understanding what pleats are and what they do for a garment is more useful than knowing whether the top brands are favoring them this year -- the fashion may come and go, but the actual function of pleats doesn't change.
Pleats are small folds in the fabric of a garment that have been permanently fixed in place. In trousers, they appear as small vertical lines running from the waistband to around the same height as the crotch of the garment. These little folds of fabric add flexibility to the front of the trousers. They can expand slightly when the wearer sits or stretches, keeping the same smooth-draped appearance without any visible tightening and wrinkling. A single fold on each side of the trousers is the most common style, but double pleats on each side will add more flexibility, making it ideal for men with wider legs. Pleats are also another helpful judge of fit -- pleated trousers are too tight in the thigh if the folds "open" when standing straight. They should only flex and widen when the wearer sits or stretches his leg out.
Since they add extra flexibility and comfort, it may seem like pleated trousers are the only logical choice, but there are a few advantages to plain-front trousers. They do offer a narrower, sleeker front than pleated trousers -- so long as the wearer is standing and mostly stationary. Tall, slim men particularly benefit from plain-front trousers, as any extra cloth around the hips can make their trousers appear too loose. For most men, however, pleats will usually be both the best-looking option and the most comfortable.
Most dress pants have a small band around each ankle called "cuffs." Trouser cuffs are not a necessary embellishment, but, like trouser pleats, they are often the best-looking option for most men. Trouser cuffs help add a bit of extra weight to the garment, which helps pull them straight at the bottom and keeps them from billowing about too much. A well-fitted cuff should rest against the back of a man's shoe and drape just on top of the front of the shoe; a slightly-pointed "beak" where the pressed fold of the trouser rests on the shoe is a sign of a good fit. Cuffs also help to shorten the visual impression of a man's leg, helping the chest and face to stand out more.
Of course, shorter men may want to avoid cuffs for just that reason, and some men find the unbroken line of uncuffed trousers more appealing. There is nothing less formal or dressy about uncuffed trousers; simply be aware that they should be cut slightly lower in the back of the opening than the front to keep a clean drape and that they should be fitted particularly closely to prevent any billowing of the fabric. Uncuffed trousers also tend to have a slightly shorter life span, as the doubled-over fabric of a cuff wears a bit better (and can always be turned over a touch further by a tailor to hide and wear-and-tear without changing the look of the garment).
In the interests of balance, pleated pants almost always feature cuffs and plain-front trousers are frequently cuffless. Breaking these rules does not exactly constitute a glaring faux pas, but it would be an odd stylistic choice, and risks drawing attention to the trousers -- the opposite of their function. It's best to opt for the balanced appearance and wear unpleated trousers without cuffs; pleated trousers with them.
Traditionally, the front pocket opening on a pair of dress trousers is a straight up-and-down slit, usually with no or very minimal hemming. This is to reduce its visual impact, hiding the fact that there is a pocket there at all as much as possible. Slanted pockets, particularly with a distinctive hem, are more casual but still appropriate on most trousers. You will almost never see the scooped style of jeans pockets on dress pants, outside of the occasional pair of corduroys or similar dress-casual wear.
Back pockets, like the front pockets, are most traditionally a single, unadorned slit, this time horizontal. Buttons are equally appropriate today, but adornments like flaps and tabs are a somewhat busier and more casual look. Some men may choose to have one or both of these pockets eliminated altogether, especially on trousers that are part of a suit -- unless a man carries a great many small items his suit jacket offers ample cargo space on its own. This keeps the drape of the trousers completely even in the back, and can be more comfortable to sit on as well.
All men are, of course, aided by keeping as few items as possible in their pockets. An overloaded pocket will bulge no matter how well the pants are tailored (though bringing your usual daily load of small items to a fitting can help a tailor make sure your trousers offer enough room).
Trouser Fabrics in Menswear
Most formal men's dress pants are made of woven wool or woolen blends. Gray flannel trousers are a long-standing classic, and with good reason -- the color goes well with almost everything and the fabric is comfortable and durable, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Navy blue is nearly as common as gray, and just as formal, while brown and khaki are staples of casual office wear. Black trousers are less common outside of matched suits, as they tend to draw the eye away from whatever color is worn above. Heavier fabrics will create a smoother drape and help the trousers hang neatly, but are also less comfortable in the summer.
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