Q and Answer: How Slim Should Pants Be?

John writes us to ask: Where do you land on the tapering and fullness of trousers? Just yesterday, I came across a really nice flannel suit at a thrift shop. The jacket fits like a glove, and the trousers just need a tiny bit of hemming … but I feel like the legs are practically stovepipes. Maybe I’m too used to wearing skinny trousers, but those big suit legs make me feel like I’m in a 1930s costume. How much can one take out of the legs, and when should you leave well enough alone for fear of ruining the balance of a suit?

There’s not an easy answer to this, as a lot depends on your body type, sense of style, and whatever is in fashion at the moment. Men wore trousers that were quite full in the ’30s and ‘40s, and then slimmed them down in the ‘50s and ‘60s, only to have them full again in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Throughout these times, however, good tailoring stood as good tailoring – and unless you’re going for much more avant garde looks – that typically means having clean lines all around, with no puckering or pulling on the front or back of your trousers.

How pants should fit, however, is very different from their silhouette, which means as long as you follow those basic principles, how you want your trousers to look is largely about taste. My personal rules of thumb are:

  • Beware of going overly slim: Very slim trousers are in fashion at the moment, but they’re harder to pull off than most people think (perhaps figuratively and literally). I find they look best on men with very skinny frames or middle-of-the-road athletic builds, but not so great on everyone else. When wearing slim trousers, be honest about whether they look flattering on you.
  • Add a little tapering: It’s nice to have a little tapering below the knee, just to add some shape to the legs. If you have pleats, however, be careful about narrowing them too much, lest you want to exaggerate the silhouette. Similarly, pay attention to how your feet look in proportion. Large leg openings can make your feet look unusually small, while narrow ones can make them look unusually big.
  • Keep things proportional to the jacket: Perhaps most obvious, keep things in proportion to your sport coats or suit jackets. I do find, however, that unless you’re at the extremes of silhouettes, there’s a lot of wiggle room to be had here. Slim trousers can really sharpen up a traditionally cut sport coat, so don’t be afraid to slim things down if you think it might make the overall silhouette look better.

In his book Eminently Suitable, one of my favorite menswear writers, Bruce Boyer, wrote: “wearing clothes well is still something of an art – it has not descended to one of the sciences.”  Other than fitting well, there’s no hard rule for how trousers should look, so it’s largely dependent on your body type and sense of style. That doesn’t make things easy, but it does make things more exciting and interesting.

Above: some photos from The Sartorialist that, I think, illustrate how men can look good with slim, full, or middle-of-the-road cuts.