Great style is all about your waist. Not in a don’t-those-models-eat-anything sense. But rather, as a dapper man once told me, because where a man’s trousers sit reveal whether he knows how to dress himself. For what seems like forever, trousers have perched precariously on the hips, threatening at any moment to fall to the floor. It’s an unflattering place to wear your kecks, one that stretches your torso and shortens your legs. In hip-huggers, even tall and slender men seem dumpy.
But the winds are changing and over recent seasons, trousers have crept upwards, towards a man’s natural waist. The trend has been spearheaded by Italy’s tailoring colossi – Armani, Cucinelli, Caruso – and comes twinned with the long overdue drift from skinny to more billowing legs. That’s because to pull off more relaxed trousers (you can stop the spit-takes now, they’re happening) those acres of extra fabric need a decent distance to fall.
These shifting winds have blown a long-lost – but much-missed – detail back into fashion: the pleat. Until recently, ‘pleated’ was kicking back on the same scrapheap as ‘bootcut’, ‘square-toed’ and ‘wraparound’, an adjective that no one in the know wanted anywhere near their wardrobe. Your grandfather wore pleated trousers because pleated trousers were comfortable. You poured yourself into skinny jeans that buffed off leg hair, because when did comfort and style ever play nice?
Well, right now. We’re in a wonderful new world of work-joggers and cardigan-blazers, to which the pleated trousers return the seventies, the fifties and the twenties like a shunned prophet, ready to forgive us our flat-fronted sins. “They’re fantastic for the wearer as they offer complete comfort in the way they allow volume in the seat of the trouser, whilst looking formal and neat,” says designer Oliver Spencer, whose recent collections have been particularly pleat-heavy. They create the one thing there’s never enough of these days – space.
What Is A Pleat, Exactly?
To avoid getting too bogged down in tailoring terminology, a pleat is basically a fold. On trousers, it’s that tiny tuck of fabric between pocket and fly, which adds an extra inch of material to each leg. This is helpful, because the male body does not fall flat from navel to knee; the waist is (generally) narrower than the buttocks, which are wider than the thighs.
Flat-fronted trousers, first created by necessity during wartime fabric rationing, struggle to comfortably contain a man’s seat. Pleats offer breathing room, but mean your trousers still sit snug on your waist.
They come in two kinds: forward (pointing towards the fly, typical of English tailoring) and reverse (folded towards the pockets, favoured by the Italians). Forward pleats are neater, reverse pleats create a looser shape. Both can appear in multiples, although more than two each side just seems greedy.
The Modern Pleat
The best fashion trends come on slow. Because they radically reshape the male wardrobe, it takes a few risk-takers to lead the way, before others follow. Flat-fronted-and-cut-slim has been the doctrine since the mid-2000s, but don’t forget that even then it took a few years for people to get what Hedi Slimane was doing at Dior, with his rail-thin models in even skinnier jeans.
Silhouette changes are a drastic thing for most men; they catch on when they resonate with broader social trends. Then, it was the confluence of arty guitar bands, the revivification of 1980s style, and the Great Recession, which turned us all onto a less-is-more style of dressing.
Now, we’re over austerity, even if buoyant employment numbers haven’t quite translated to money in our pockets.
How To Wear Pleated Trousers
Lean into comfort and you’ll find pleats please in more ways than one. Follow these stylist tips for just the right amount of billow below the waist.
Dress Them Down
Pleats are traditional, but not formal. “Think summertime bowling,” says Giles Farnham, head of River Island’s Style Studio. “Tuck a Cuban collar shirt into a pair of straight-leg pleated trousers, layered over a white T-shirt.”
One pleat is good, two pleats are better. “The double-pleat shows you are really embracing the trend,” says menswear editor Shane Kurup. “They look equally good with tailoring or a classic Breton-stripe tee.”
When you’ve got extra fabric to play with, experiment. “The younger generation are wearing heavyweight cottons, or seersucker fabrics, to give modernity and interesting shapes,” says Spencer.
Mix Up Your Footwear
The best pleated trousers don’t drown your footwear. “For a smarter look, wear them with a double-buckled shoe,” says Carl Tallents, head of brand at luxury retailer Flannels. To balance the extra fabric, try a chunky, commando-style sole.
Hit The Street
This anything-goes menswear moment means pleated trousers work just as well with streetwear. “A pair of box-fresh Common Projects sneakers can look great with pleated trousers and a bold-hued sweatshirt,” says Kurup.
“Pleats work best in fabrics that have give in them, but still exude a little old-school luxury,” says Farnham. “In the summer, try a lighter fabric like a linen or linen-cotton mix. For the winter, flannel.”
Pleats are punchy, so give them the limelight. “They can be a statement piece,” says Kurup, “so pair them with a clean-cut tee, and slip-ons or brogues. It looks fuss-free and contemporary.”
The Dos And Don’ts Of Pleated Trousers
Update them. For the uninformed, pleated trousers can still have a slightly grandfatherly feel. But it’s not hard to shake off any fustiness. “That sepia-tinted snap of your grandfather beaming in his pleated slacks in Bognor might look cool and nostalgic,” says Kurup, “but the key to revived trends is not to repeat exactly what has been done before.”
Tradition’s best when it’s modern, so throw in things that grandad would never wear. “Avoid slouchy cardigans and don’t be afraid to mix up your look with a few contemporary pieces.” Chunky trainers, hoodies and cropped bomber jackets are all fair game.
Embrace the tuck. If you’re wearing pleats, show them off. “The added bulk of the pleated front loses its effect when covered by your shirt or jumper,” says Farnham. “You end up looking like you just have a paunch. Keep it neat, tuck that shirt in.” Ditto for tees and even knitwear.
Discover your actual waistline. We’ll go out on a limb and guess you’ve been wearing your trousers too low. Pleats will prove why your natural waist is best. “The slight curvature of the pleats is most flattering when worn a little higher, above the hips,” says Farnham. “It will also cinch in any additional holiday weight you might be carrying. Which is a nice bonus.”
Steer too casual. Pleats are functional, rather than decorative, which means they look best when they’re actually doing something – they need fabric that falls and drapes properly. “Sportswear-inspired materials such as scuba are too thick and structured for the nuanced elegance of a pleat,” says Farnham. Denim is doable – see E. Tautz for proof – but it’s not an easy look to pull off. If in doubt, stick to fabrics you could cut a whole suit from.
Think bigger is always better. We’re in a more-is-more moment right now, but there’s no shame in temperance. Pleated trousers are roomy enough without an oversized sweat or longline shirt. “If your trousers are a little wider, don’t go oversized with everything else, or you run the risk of looking like a circus tent,” says Kurup. “Go for a slimmer-fitting top if your trousers are more relaxed, and vice-versa if your trousers are on the slimmer side.”
The Best Pleated Trouser Brands
This Italian tailoring dynasty offers some of the world’s finest bespoke suits and its style practically defined the Neapolitan dandy. So it’s no surprise that it offers choice (and premium) pleated trousers. The brand’s Manny trousers are inspired by the uniforms of Nepal’s elite soldiers, the Gurkhas. Double-pleated and cut loose, but not wide, they’re a masterclass in how form should follow function.
The former Nutter’s tailor debuted his Hollywood top trousers a couple of years ago. Inspired by the zoot suit, they’re crafted without a waistband – the fabric is just turned over at the top. It’s smart, but casual, and exceedingly comfortable.
Label boss Patrick Grant is rarely seen in anything but a pair of wide-leg, pleated trousers. Where he’s led, the industry’s followed, but his brand’s British military-inspired strides are still the ones to beat.
The H&M group’s masters of minimalism have tweaked the pleat this season; as well as in its traditional tailoring, they appear on elastic-waisted chinos. Which is about as relaxed as trousers get, while still looking extremely elegant.
In the hands of Christophe Lemaire, Uniqlo U is charting a Dickie Greenleaf course this season with wide-but-tapered trousers and, for the daring, a pair of butterscotch pleated shorts that beg to be paired with a loose linen shirt and negroni.