On the Rise and Fall of Men’s Trousers

by robertmcnicol

The trouser, like almost the entirety of Western Civilisation as we know it, can be blamed squarely on the shoulders – or, more accurately in this case, hips – of Mr Beau Brummel. His dandyish wearing of the trouser, as opposed to the foppish breeches, was a complex challenge to the sartorial niceties of the time – a theme we shall see reappearing in this discussion. Beau (we’re on first name terms these days) was at once the best- and worst-dressed man of his age. If you were a very rich young man whose steadily increasing waistline necessitated regular visits by the tailor, whose dad was presumed to be going mad and who would one day be King, then you would have considered Beau to be the most astonishingly attired and beautiful of men. If you were that young man’s father, you would have pinned on Beau the imminent ruin of society.

Despite the connotations that the word has aquired today, the late Eighteenth Century dandy was not over-dressed or feminine. Inherent in Dandyism was a tendency toward a fine, simple, almost utilitarian way of dressing. It is true that the dandy would take great pains over his wardrobe, that hours spent dressing was a symbol of great pride for the dandy, but – compared to the wigs and powder and rouge and stockings and buckles and brockade and jewellery of the fop – the dandy was a refined and sleek gentleman. And, in challenging the Baroque opulence of his forbears, Beau was setting himself very deliberately apart from this very normal cornucopia of blazing riches whilst enjoying the hallowed attentions of the Prince of Wales and our Lord Byron. His trousers were a scandal. And an astonishing success.

The trouser, like almost the entirety of Western Civilisation as we know it, was democratised through the ingenuity of the French and the mass-production of the Americans. Everyone owns and wears jeans; their palette is astonishingly limited; their cut is fairly standard, dictated by their utilitarian form-fitting roots. Unlike the dress or the skirt, trousers – and particularly jeans – come in one basic shape and one basic colour. The fetishisation of jeans is unique in clothing history. The holy grail is to find that minute distinction of style or fit permissible within the production of jeans which encapsulates one’s personality; and as usual the businesses that produce jeans are always two steps behind. It is the man or boy in the street who personalises their jeans through rips or paint, stitches or tears, who undermines the work of the producer through paying scant regard for the established fit of his trouser. Rampant individualism powered by mass-production.

The trouser, like almost the entirety of Western Civilisation as we know it, was brutalised and degraded by an inhumane and unjust penal system. In the United States, something like one out of every forty five white adults are behind bars. Something like one out of every eleven black adults are behind bars – 9.2% of the adult African-American population. Belts, those knotchy wonders of practical self-expression, are anathema in prisons making, as they do, excellent devices for self-annihilation as well as fine offensive weapons. Trousers, then, are worn loose, come in a limited range of sizes and, where worn baggy, are usful for concealing whatever your average inmate may have reason to conceal. This enforced fashion then mutates back into free society; those who have been inside wish to make it known, as a threat; as a badge of pride; as a way of retaining a belonging to a not terribly select few. Trousers are worn loose, low and baggy as a challenge to the establishment and as a way of fitting in.

And so we come to the trouser of today: worn low to the point of glorified indecency; worn tight on skinny boys, tightish on Friday managers, loose on blacks and tight on blacks; maybe two meagre inches of fly. Held up not by belt but by cockshaft; the denim torn and worn and faded and scuffed; purple boxered buttocks exposed, fleshy or barely-there but there nonetheless. Mums and dads unite in disapproval, the elderly are sickened, the righteous ban it, young men delight in the brazen wonder of sartorial self-expression. This is trousers as weapons on the front line of cultural warfare – pick the height of your waistband and prepare for war.