Monday, 26 March 2012

How to buy good trousers (with a little help from menswear)

I decided to spread some information about how to recognise a pair of good trousers. I'm not an expert by any means, but I learned a couple of useful tips from The Handbook of Style - A Man's Guide to Looking Good published by Esquire magazine.

First, look at the waistband. The waistband should be lined - the lining helps the waistband to maintain its shape. Then look for a French fly, which has three closures. There's the "main button" above the zipper, but you should also be able to find a metal tab and a hook inside, plus a second button with a corresponding button-hole. The zipper should be attached to an extended waistband. The idea is to take stress off the zipper so that the front lies flat. The picture above, and the one below, shows you what it should look like. 

The pictures below show you what it should NOT look like. The trousers below have no lining in the waistband, and even though the zipper is attached to an extended waistband, the simple button closure just won't provide the type of fit the proper French fly does. With no extra fastening tools (tab-and-button), the closure "shifts" and the zipper bunches when I sit down. (Also, look at the stitching on the zipper - not impressive.) Acne Jeans had the guts to charge 200 euros for these trousers originally. I bought them on sale some years back, thinking that the high original price would signal quality - more on that later.

The picture above (the same trousers) reveals another thing you should be looking out for: taped seams. The waistband seam has been taped, and the back seam has been pressed (which is a good thing), but the edges are not taped or piped for reinforcement. Here's a pair of Chris' trousers where due to the material (heavy cotton), the seam has not been pressed, but nevertheless the back seam has been taped :

The seams up and down inside the trouser-leg have been pressed and taped:

Next to look for: lining, if the season or the material calls for it. Below are my vintage Christian Dior trousers. They are lined all the way to the ankles, meaning that 1) they are warm, and 2) the thick wool fabric will not scratch my legs or cling to stockings. (The "holes" you see in the lining make room for the pleats.) 

The waistband, however, is not lined, and these trousers come with your usual faced fly-front zipper. And here's what I don't get: women's trousers can be horribly expensive and still have no signs of good tailoring. To be perfectly honest, I don't know why women's trousers don't come with the French fly, lined waistband, or even taped seams on a regular basis, because most men's trousers, no matter how cheap, do. I've looked at all of my trousers (some of which have been pretty expensive), and in most of them, these important tailoring details are either just partially there (some seams might be taped or piped), or completely missing. Here's why you should care: when it comes to fit, these things matter. The French fly really makes a difference - the front of the trousers looks incredibly sophisticated. The lined waistband looks and feels more substantial. Taped or piped seams mean no loose threads, and they ensure that the seams hold. Why women's trousers don't typically have this stuff: I wish I knew. It's not because women's bodies somehow require a less-substantial solution. I might be thin but I have hips (my waist-hip ratio is off the charts), and the tailoring tricks that work for men's trousers do wonders for the way my trousers fit, too.  

Here's the good news: you don't have to spend a ton of money to find good-quality trousers. My suit trousers (the ones in the first two pictures) came with the jacket, but the trousers are sold individually for about $65. They have all the bells and whistles despite the fact that that they are not designer trousers. But you don't have to spend that much either. Chris spent $25 on a pair of magenta Paul Smith narrow-cut chinos (above) on Ebay, and everything's there: the French fly, lined waistband, well-finished seams. And of course, my vintage Dior trousers cost $3. I'm going to have them tailored to improve the fit later this year. On that note, if you take one thing from this post, let it be this: it's worth it to pay extra for having your trousers tailored. You can have the best quality trousers look horrendous if the fit is not right. The work on my trousers came to about $50 - they flattened the hip, took in seams in the trouser-legs as well as the crotch, and the trousers were hemmed. Overall, I had such luck having men's trousers tailored for me (pictures to come!) that I doubt if I'll ever go back, unless something changes in the way women's trousers are made.


Kitty said...

Thank you! I have sewn since 4th grade (40 + years). I have bought, sewn and donated lots of pants over those same years. I'd say about 10% of what I try I end up actually wearing. But they are never comfortable.

After reading this - I went to my husband's closet and pulled out a pair of new dress pants that he didn't like because they have a tiny bit of light blue in the weave. Wow! I only need to hem them a little. I look like the model photos with my heels on. Never have I looked in the mirror and seen that before with dress pants on.

I am strawberry/inverted triangle/apple shape (no rear, my waist is the same size as my hips). Mens dress pants - why did I not think of that myself? And I can see that the lined waistband and better fly construction would mean that I won't get all scrunched and bunched after a long day. That will allow enough ease for movement so everything doesn't crawl up. Again, thank you! I have really enjoyed your adventure into menswear! I'll try to get some photos and put them on my blog soon.

Hippocampe said...

Waves, I don't think men's fashion is so different from women's. I'll try to explain why in my broken English (feel free to delete my comment if it doesn't make sense, I will take no offense):
first, I look around in the streets and I don't see that men are better dressed than women. If men have access to better-made clothes, if they have superior knowledge to pick well-fitted and good-quality clothes, they hide it well. It doesn't show.
Second : men are not so rational when choosing their clothes, they're following their aspirational desires. I daily read a few men's blogs. "Traditional" men want to look well-bred, well-educated, very rich, it seems they aspire to be 19th century English lords ; while "street" guys look like they buy into the bad-boy-virile-super-power fantasy...their clothes are dream boats, like ours.
Third : what I found really astonishing when I discovered menswear is the set of strict rules men impose on themselves (ex : elegant men should only wear BLACK umbrellas). I thought : this is so different from womenswear. We're always told to mix&match and generally do how we please, be creative, etc...well, on second thought : these rules were made to blend in the workplace, where you should look part of the group, team-working and not look like some lunatic who wistfully feel free to pursue his own agenda. And now that women have entered the workplace, don't they roughly follow the same rules about looking decent, discreet, and not too different from their co-workers ?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. The first thing I want to do is go through my existing collection of trouser and see if any of them meet all three of these criteria. And in the future, I shall look for these features when I thrift.

I can't wait to see you (and Kitty) in your menswear!

Jess said...

This post is brilliant - exactly the sort of info I've been wanting for ages, in terms of explanations illustrated with images (while I wait for my apparel analysis textbook to arrive in the post, which will hopefully provide even more information in the same format). I have to say, though: I don't think I've ever seen, in my entire life, a pair of fully lined trousers, either for men or women. I guess that could be partly because I live in a sub-tropical city in Australia and even in the middle of winter one layer of material is enough to keep your legs warm. Still, because Australia is a relatively small market on the global scale, international brands tend not to cater to us specifically, so I wouldn't expect them to be supplying the Australian market with unlined trousers while they supply Europe and North America and Asia with lined trousers. So it must be just a marker of the diminished quality of garments in general that I've never seen a pair of trousers that is fully lined, and partially lined ones are definitely a rarity as well. My boyfriend bought a rather expensive suit at Selfridges when we were in London and that suit's trousers are the only pair of trousers that either of us own that are lined (they're lined to the knees).

Based on your descriptions and photos, I just had a look at some of my trousers and - yeah, there are a lot of boxes they aren't ticking, even the ones I thought were of very good quality. I had a look at two pairs by Paul Smith and one pair by ChloƩ and they've all got pressed seams and French flies, but none of them has any lining or any taping whatsoever. I mean, I got the ChloƩ ones on sale for about US$180, but they originally retailed for about $600! The material feels amazing and the waistband is properly reinforced, but it's odd that something so expensive doesn't tick all the boxes in terms of quality construction. It's all a bit depressing, really.

Carolyn said...

The French fly is a desirable feature in a pair of dress or suit trousers, but is not necessarily something you must look for in every pair of trousers. And the "taping" pictured is known in the trade as Hong Kong seaming.
I'm sorry you found that care label un-funny, but I understand since at your age I might have felt the same. Now I recognise that doing laundry is not trivial or demeaning, and definitely not unimportant. Actually, all my friends and family who saw that label all thought it was hilarious too. Maybe that says something about us Australians, that we laugh at just about anything.

mette said...

Impressive information.
But, stubborn as I am, I´d like to wear women´s pants. The zipper preferably on my left side, or the zipper to be opened with my left hand.
Yes, I know. Most jeans have a right hand zipper, even the ones for women, which is actually sad.

And I agree with Hippocame, I see very few " perfect " pants over either.
People buy so much stuff these days, styles change rapidly. Sad about that too.

The Waves said...

I feel bad that I haven't been responding to comments much recently. Anyway, as always, I really appreciate your comments!

Kitty - I'm glad I could help! I am sure there are plenty of women for whom men's trousers just don't work for whatever reason, but sometimes we just need to use our imagination and try something we haven't thought about before.

Hippocampe: you brought up some really important points. I agree with most of what you said. To address your first and second points - I guess what I've been trying to say in these menswear posts is that there is a lot that women can take from style guides that are written for men, not from the way men actually dres. Most men obviously don't read those guides, because just like you said, there are a lot of men out there who dress badly. There are plenty of men who dress up to be someone else, and again, it's the theory behind the style guides that's helpful, despite the fact that many men ignore it. As for your third point, I agree with that, too. Menswear guides are full of silly strict rules (no navy with black, etc), but luckily we don't have to do what they say if we don't like it. :)

Terri - photos to come soon! :)

Jess - you are right: trousers don't need to have lining unless the weather or the material (like really heavy wool) needs it. According to my style guide though, all proper men's trousers should be partially lined, but I for one would probably find too much lining annoying. Also, don't get discouraged. It seems like the signs of proper tailoring are very rare in womenswear, and I'm not an expert, so maybe there are reasons for why a lot of this stuff isn't included in womenswear. At the end of the day, the material and the quality of the stitching are really important things, too.

Carolyn - I actually thought about using the American term "slacks" in the post title, but I just hate the word so I stuck with the more generic trousers. But you are right, I was definitely talking about dressier trousers, not jeans or anything. Also, thanks for pointing out the name Hong Kong seam - do you know if there is a difference between HK seams and taped seams? [I'm going to leave a second comment to your post about the care tag. :)]

Mette - I don't blame you for wanting to wear women's trousers! For one thing, buying clothes at a men's clothing store can be a little awkward. And yes, it is a shame how few men take advantage of the (good) products and tailoring that are readily available for them. It makes me sad, too!

Hippocampe said...

You're right, style guides aimed at women focus on proportions, coloring and, well, style. Most don't offer advice about care, quality and fit. That's why I've been searching men's blogs and guides for information, too. That didn't lead me very far, though, it's a good beginner's course but I got tired of reading the same silly rules over and over again and, what's more frustrating and confusing, I've read a lot of contratictory information. So I've been going the "empty emptor" route lately and took to reading manuals written for fashion students.
Besides, proportions, coloring and style are not to be overlooked in our quest for quality. Here's a link to a post I find enlightening on the subject : It's called "avoiding buyer's regret"...

jesse.anne.o said...

I loved this post.

I would like a pair or five of trousers that fit. I always seem to have too much booty to pull off a tailored look and so I sack the idea. I'm also not used to wearing anything that's not essentially jeans made out of non-denim fabric so when fabric falls away from my leg, I feel bulky.

I wonder if I would have similar luck with mens' trousers or if there is just too much junk in the trunk?

I loathe the word "slacks" and associate it with 70 year old men.

erica said...

I wonder how much greater leg hair plays a roll in greater finishing of men's trousers...

Carolyn said...

Waves; you inspired me!! I incorporated a French fly into my latest pair of shorts....!

busana muslim said...

WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share..

Eyeliah said...

So smart, it's funny because when I've got trousers with the french fly it has seemed cumbersome to do up and undo but now I understand the purpose. And those are also the trousers that have stood the test of time. In my teens it was always mens pants, next time I am shopping for pants I will go back, thanks!