“Dress trousers never take cuffs. How could they with their side-seam decoration? A wonderful depiction of this tradition can be enjoyed watching the Fred Astaire classic Shall We Dance.
— Alan Flusser
“[black tie] is actually a uniform, and if one observes a few ground rules, the look is difficult to screw up (although plenty of guys manage to do so).”
— Johnson Gross
While it’s true that other components of a gentleman’s black tie attire generally play second fiddle, if you will, to his dinner jacket (or tuxedo jacket), certain components are essential for extending and completing the look that the dinner jacket first established. Dress trousers (and accompanying elements) are particularly crucial for taking your top half’s polished, formal appearance and extending it across your features, creating a complete and completely elegant whole that would do James Bond proud.
Unfortunately, however, accomplishing this appearance of head-to-toe elegance isn’t as easy as simply selecting a pair of black trousers. There are certain details to keep in mind when selecting black-tie elements for your bottom half, so to speak, in order to accentuate and complement those of the top.
Classic black-tie trousers are always
black (unless your ensemble of choice is in midnight blue, of course), and always
made of the same material as your dinner jacket. In fact, of the entire black-tie uniform, the dress trousers just might be the most codified component with the least room for additional choices—and, thus, they just might be the easiest part of the classic outfit to get right.
Style & Fit
Dress trousers are designed to be as minimal and elegant in fit as possible. The waistband is made to sit at your natural waist, an arrangement which serves several purposes.
First, this fitting sets the trousers’ waistband high enough so that your cummerbund or vest can serve its intended purpose: covering the waistband to conceal and eliminate the line between trousers and dress shirt. Second (and most important for pleated trousers combined with suspenders), the positioning of trousers at the natural waist allows them to fall straight with pleats flat
—no inelegant bunching of material at the pleats or around the hip area. Finally, positioning the trousers at the natural waist creates the longest line possible, lengthening and slimming—a details that’s particularly important for shorter and/or heavier men, but one that even the most Adonis-like figure can appreciate!
Ideally (and depending on your body type), dress trousers are slightly wider at the waist/hip so that they can taper gradually down to the foot: this prevents what Alan Flusser so pictorially describes as “the impression of two legs pouring out of the jacket’s oversize bottom cavity like two straws in a jar”
—an image inspired by fitted trousers beneath a wider dinner jacket. Instead, the line of the trouser should begin by lengthening the line of the jacket before narrowing to the shoe.
[caption id="attachment_232" align="aligncenter" width="400"]
Sylvester Stallone in Classic Black Trousers: Photo by Nicolas Genin[/caption]
Upon reaching the shoe, a gentleman’s trousers should be just long enough to “fall into a slight ‘break’ around his ankles and over the tops of his shoes.”
That is, there should be just enough material to create a partial fold at the top of the shoe while standing—but not
to bunch up around the ankles, ruining the trousers’ sleek, long-lined appearance. While sitting, your black tie trousers will rise up, ending somewhat higher than the top of the shoe—meaning it’s equally important not to neglect such details as your formal socks or hose!
(“[T]here are few things worse than showing some pebbledash shin between where your trousers end and your socks begin,”
notes Dylan Jones.)
Add to these basic style guidelines those details essential to black-tie dress trousers, and you’ll be on your way to compiling a classic ensemble worthy of 007 himself.
Detail & Embellishment
In addition to the sleek, minimal cut of dress trousers intended to elongate an elegant line from dinner jacket to formal shoe, these trousers are designed with certain tiny details in mind that can make or break their intended lengthening and slimming appearance.
First, quality dress trousers are always cut with vertical pockets on the side seam.
These are more difficult to tailor than, say, standard front pockets; however, their nearly invisible appearance adds to the dress trouser’s carefully constructed minimalism. Some better-quality vests are even constructed with side slits in order to enable trouser pocket access!
Dress trousers are also designed with a single panel running down the outside of the leg to conceal side seams. This panel should be of the same material as your jacket’s lapels: so, if wearing a dinner jacket with satin-faced lapels, the side panel of your dress trousers should match.
For a truly classic look, dress trousers used to sport braids rather than flat panels down the outside—in fact, you might still find side panels sometimes referred to as “braids.”
One important consideration to keep in mind is that your black-tie trousers should have only one
panel (or braid): this distinguishes “semi-formal” trousers from white-tie or full-dress trousers with double panels or braids.
Finally, dress trousers are never, ever cuffed. First, the origin of the cuff (or, in England, the “turn-up”) in sportswear makes it inappropriate for formal apparel. Second, a cuff would both interfere with the trouser’s carefully designed side-seam decoration and
break up the elongated line of the leg that’s so carefully crafted by your formal trousers’ design.
Today, pleats have grown increasingly uncommon—largely in informal but also, to an extent, in formal attire. Glenn O’Brien, GQ
’s “style guy,” attributes this phenomenon to “the general revival of all things with an early-’60s sensibility.”
Classic formal trousers, however, are always pleated, though you can find trousers with more discreet pleats if desired. Pleated trousers are compatible with either a waistcoat or a cummerbund.
And regardless of waist covering, pleated trousers definitely
require suspenders in order to fall and hang in the most flattering way possible. As Alan Flusser puts it:
By securing the pant’s rear on either side of its back seam while anchoring the trousers’ front directly above its two main pleats, suspenders allow the natural pull of gravity to keep the pant’s front and back crease taut and in place. The trousers’ vertical lines appear more defined and elongated, while the trousers’ positioning on the waist imbues the overall look with more elegant proportions.
[caption id="attachment_230" align="aligncenter" width="189"]
Black Pleated Trousers[/caption]
“‘Clothes should hang from the shoulder, not from the waist.’”
— Oscar Wilde
Given the pleating requirement of classic formal trousers, then, it’s equally important to discuss classic suspenders (or “braces” if you’re in England
). Originally, suspenders were made in exact sizes, like belts; now, though, they’re made in one size only (meaning that a smaller man might need his suspenders taken in—for the proper machinery, Flusser recommended a shoe repair shop
Most formal trousers are designed to be worn with suspenders, set with two rear buttons, each equidistant from the middle seam, and four front buttons: “two lined up with each of the main pleats (the ones closest to the fly) and another two positioned just forward of the side seam.”
The positioning of the buttons is crucial so that trousers really do hang, “suspended,” from the shoulders (as Oscar Wilde advised); this makes the trousers’ pleats lie flat with the trousers’ front crease retaining its straight line. Buttons that are set too far apart, on the other hand, can ruin the suspension, undo the lines created by the trousers’ pleats, and cause suspender straps to fall off one’s shoulders!
Traditionally, suspenders were always concealed: the only people to see them, other than the gentleman himself, were his valet and, perhaps, a lady. Thus, when wearing a vest, suspender buttons on the outside of the trousers are acceptable (as the vest conceals them); otherwise, suspender buttons should be found on the inside of the trousers’ waistband.
As far as the suspenders themselves go, classic formal braces should be made with knitted ends: these tend to be softer, more pliable, and less bulky beneath a cummerbund or vest. Finally, one’s formal suspenders should coordinate with one’s neckwear.
Quality dress trousers today are made with an adjustable side tab or side-strap that allows you to adjust the fit of your trousers in lieu of a belt.
In fact, consensus among experts is that belts should never, ever
be a part of your formal attire: the belt serves only to add bulk and cut your body in half. Though it has become acceptable today to wear dress trousers with waist tabs only and no suspenders, suspenders are required for the truly classic look. Still, you can tell the quality of your formal trousers by the presence of side tabs:
Even though some men like to alternate a belt or suspenders with one pair of trousers, suspendered pants with empty belt loops is just one of those dodges, born of convenience that thwarts both convention and good taste. If suspenders are going to be worn, ideally the pant should be made with an extension waistband, to smooth over the trousers’ open front, along with some kind of adjustable side tab for additional waist tension when worn without suspenders. While most rules of dress are meant to be bent, this doesn’t happen to be one of them
Flusser (1996), 79.
Flusser (2002), 222.
(A subject for further discussion later on.)
Flusser (1996), 78-9.
Flusser (1996), 79.
Flusser (1996), 78.
Flusser (2002), 222-3.
Quoted in Flusser (2002), 222.
Flusser (2002), 222.
Flusser (2002), 223; emphasis added.