The biggest thing to happen in men’s trousers for years – no, decades! – very nearly passed me by. Conservatism had closed my eyes to a revolution that’s under way everywhere under jackets (but over underwear). It’s happening all around us, in plain sight, right now.
What a time to be in trousers! Make no mistake, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in what Americans insist on terming “pants”. Looking back, 2018 will prove to have been a startling year in the history of what Australians know as “strides”. To paraphrase the Master, the strides they are a-changin’ – and the cause of that revolution is the elasticated waistband.
Until recently, I was hardwired to regard trousers suspended by elastication with, if not quite profound disdain, then certainly deep suspicion. A trouser needed a reason to be elasticated. Tracksuit trousers are justifiably elasticated, for when you are stretching sportily. Pyjamas are justifiably elasticated, for when you are unconscious or in hospital. Maternity jeans come elasticated, for excellent reasons not applicable to me. In any other context an elasticated waistband seemed to be an admission of weakness, or irrelevant. British newspaper supplements have long been part-funded by ugly advertisements for elasticated “comfort” trousers, for the obese or infirm.
Yet as the world turns, so trousers have adjusted. Sportswear has leaped beyond its original mission to become a central component of mainstream casual-wear across the globe. And along with sneakers and track-jackets has come the elasticated-waist trouser.
This phenomenon has trickled remorselessly upwards through the ecosystem of menswear. Five years or so ago, nylon tracksuits apart, you could also buy elasticated-waist jeans – often with stretchy ankle cuffs too – which were just vile. Then luxury companies began making tracksuit trousers in cashmere: perfect for plutocrats to pad around the house in. And now menswear designers are combining the materials and construction of “traditional” tailored trousers with an elasticated waistband. The result is so compelling that what was once declassé will surely soon be de rigueur.
My conversion came late last year in a London sample sale for the American designer Phillip Lim – a pioneer when it comes to these pants. A pair of trousers in a dark-green superfine wool that combined staidly proper creases down each leg with an elasticated waistband tightenable via a black leather drawstring caught my eye. At £60, why not experiment?
Reader, I’d marry them. These trousers have shown me that an elasticated waistband need not be for men who have given up on dressing well: instead they can empower a man to feel free, move easily and appear semi-formal – all in one fell swoop. They might just be ideologically attuned to our times too. As the terrible phrase “who wears the trousers?” suggests, pants have long been synonymous with power when it comes to gender relations – but who’s to say that wearing trousers that make men feel better might not make them be better people too?
During the Winter 2018 menswear season in January, I strode from show to show in my rapidly expanded wardrobe of elasticated-waist trousers – a Paul from whose pants the scales had fallen. Exciting new additions to this revelatory trouser style were everywhere. At Ermenegildo Zegna they came in a cashmere-wool mix with buttoned snaps at the ankle. At Giorgio Armani we saw them in checked mohair, at Hermès in technically treated silk. They were there at Lemaire, Berluti, Louis Vuitton, Paul Smith, Brioni – all the apex menswear marques and more. At Alexander McQueen, the designer Sarah Burton boldly called hers “joggers”, and coupled one pair with a tuxedo jacket and sneakers: it looked great.
The stretching definition of socially acceptable trousers that has brought this about is neither decadent nor derelict: it’s just practical, and part of a broader recalibration of masculine attire. As Tom Ford recently observed in the trade publication wwd, male consumers “want luxurious pieces but they are dressing in a more casual way”. So get into a pair of smartened-up elasticated-waist trousers. You have nothing to lose but your belt.