Should a man wear slim- or wide-cut trousers?

The battle lines are drawn: does a man look better in slim- or wide‑cut trousers? Our two arbiters of sartorial taste, Tom Stubbs and Nick Foulkes fight it out. Portrait by Trent McMinn

From left: Tom wears Thom Sweeney bespoke suit. Nick wears Kent & Haste trousers
From left: Tom wears Thom Sweeney bespoke suit. Nick wears Kent & Haste trousers | Image: Trent McMinn

Go straight by Tom Stubbs

I'm in good shape, and yet it’s still damn tricky to pull off wide trousers – they’re just not hugely flattering. They need a high waist in order to hang properly, but if you have even the slightest belly – and who doesn’t? – they sit over the top, accentuating it. And unless you’re a tall fellow, they’ll make you look stocky. 

From left: linen/cotton suit, £2,140, www.brunellocucinelli.com. Cotton trousers, £280, www.acnestudios.com. Cotton gabardine trousers, £190, www.boglioli.it
From left: linen/cotton suit, £2,140, www.brunellocucinelli.com. Cotton trousers, £280, www.acnestudios.com. Cotton gabardine trousers, £190, www.boglioli.it

And while wide tailoring can have a Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief elegance, there’s a danger of veering towards “dad trouser” territory. Wide chinos on the wrong person can look more like collecting kids on the way back from the garden centre. 

That’s the point about narrow-cut tailoring – it’s youthful. Younger men almost universally wear narrow cut trousers, and older men look sharper, more Rat Pack-like when they do. Of course, in hotter climates, loose linen trousers have more practical currency, but you really need to understand what to wear with them, which can be hard to get right. Anything too drapey and you can get lost in all the fabric; paired with a too‑slim-cut top, the look can be unbalanced. 

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It’s true that volume and width is a concept now coming through in more designers’ collections. Armani stylishly evolves the wide-leg look every season and it has become something of a signature at E Tautz, while Ermenegildo Zegna’s new cotton-linen gabardine trousers with a high waistband, pleats and front creases would be perfect for summer. But it’s still something of a niche trend, more talked about than worn. So while wide trousers make a strong fashion statement, narrow cut is the preferred choice. I have a beautiful Brunello Cucinelli sapphire cashmere-mix suit that’s cut close to the body – it’s not a fashion statement, it just looks great without trying too hard, and works for evenings too. 

And I often wear bespoke suits by Thom Sweeney. The tailor mixes a British sense of proportion with Italian-style light construction to give a flattering silhouette that’s slim without being restricting and in which the jacket isn’t too short. My favourite has beautifully cut trousers with a double pleat that tapers into a neat peg with a turn-up. 

From left: cotton malfilé trousers, £310, www.canali.com. Cotton trousers, £395,  www.thomsweeney.co.uk
From left: cotton malfilé trousers, £310, www.canali.com. Cotton trousers, £395, www.thomsweeney.co.uk

I was recently talking to a Savile Row tailor about my Sharpener column and he said that what constitutes a sharp suit in almost all his customers’ eyes is one that fits close and flatters. My clients, often actors dressing for formal occasions, are in agreement – after getting themselves in shape, they don’t want to hide their toned physiques, and although they have the stature to pull off a more voluminous style, they aren’t keen on it. I can’t see this changing. When men look at themselves in the mirror, they want a suit that makes them look lean and trim – and that remains narrow cut. 

Hang loose by Nick Foulkes

From left: linen straw cloth trousers, £960, www.armani.com. Coated cotton trousers, £650, www.bottegaveneta.com. Virgin wool trousers, £805, www.ferragamo.com
From left: linen straw cloth trousers, £960, www.armani.com. Coated cotton trousers, £650, www.bottegaveneta.com. Virgin wool trousers, £805, www.ferragamo.com

During 2013, under my online alias Swellboy, I wrote the following lines: “I have a multitude of fatuous, doomed sartorial campaigns underway at any one time. I see myself as something of a clotheshorse Canute or a dapper Don Quixote as I try to reinstate cravats, patterned braces and broad lapels – and, of course, continue the grail-like quest to restore the elephant-legged trouser to its position of importance”.

Having written these words I imagined that they would wander the virtual wilderness forever like some unheeded Old Testament prophet, and then went for fittings with both Terry Haste and Mariano Rubinacci for wide-legged trousers. How could I have known that no less an individual than Giorgio Armani was galvanised into action by my words. He has been quoted as saying of his spring/summer 2016 collection: “After years of skinny tailoring, I sensed the need for a relaxed naturalness, for clothing that caresses the body instead of rigidly sculpting it.” Among the others who clearly scoured Swellboy for style pointers is Ermanno Scervino: “I felt the time was right for large pants. Trousers with volume create a much softer, informal look,” he has said.

From left: couture cotton/linen gabardine trousers, £850, www.zegna.co.uk. Purple Label wool trousers, £690, www.ralphlauren.co.uk
From left: couture cotton/linen gabardine trousers, £850, www.zegna.co.uk. Purple Label wool trousers, £690, www.ralphlauren.co.uk

To be honest my vision, if you can call it that, was less about “caresses” and more about a reaction against the hegemony of TV-personality tailoring. It seems that for a decade, maybe longer, men’s clothes have been designed to suggest they were made for the wearer when he was in his teens and been recently rediscovered at the back of the wardrobe: trousers terminating above the ankle, the back of the jacket skimming the coccyx, buttons straining at the front and that utterly ghastly triangle of white (inevitably) shirt formed by the waistband of the trousers and strained front of the jacket. 

Narrow-cut suits lack dignity; you can get away with one if you are a young Hollywood star (by virtue of being American and young) or possess an athletic physique. Many older men have explained that it makes them feel younger, but I am afraid that for most men over 30 it will take more than a tight suit to sculpt their form.

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But I did not have to wait until I reached 30 to despair of my body. In tailoring shorthand I suffer from vps (very prominent seat), vpfc (very prominent front chest), shf (stoop head forward) and dr (drop right: shoulder) – and you can chuck in sloping shoulders and a sway back for added grotesqueness. The good thing is that all these imperfections disappear with well-handled drape.

And voluminous trousers mean pockets can be used without fear of provoking lewd remarks about their contents. And fob pockets can be installed behind waistband pleats – I can accommodate a Dupont lighter and cigar cutter in one and loose change in the other. Bigger darts at the back and fuller construction mean hip pockets will not bulge and nor will the viewing public be treated to the sort of rear view most associated with male ballet dancers. I also like the orbit of the wide trouser bottom as it swirls around the ankle like a little Charybdis of cloth… but that’s a matter of personal taste. 

The slight cloud on an otherwise sunny sartorial horizon is the possibility of the loose look catching on. Then, of course, my naturally contrapuntal nature will dictate that I embrace a closer-fitting silhouette – a horror to be avoided and not just for my own sake. But for the time being I am happily contemplating the return of the zoot suit to my wardrobe. 

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