Wide boy: What return of flared trousers means for men

"A long leg, an almost 70s flare.” This was a sentence I wrote in my notebook back in January during the men’s AW19 fashion shows. These were the words of Clare Waight Keller, the designer at Givenchy who dressed Meghan Markle for her big day. 

The flare is part of a new era for menswear at the Parisian house, marking a distinct shift from the previous administration, where the brand had come to be defined by streetwear, and a sellout rottweiler-emblazoned sweatshirt. Flared trouser suits in strong red and a fabulous teal blue appeared on models walking through Givenchy’s couture salon in Paris. It all rippled with a breeze of expensive glamour. Waight Keller cited not just the 70s but the 90s as inspiration, another era with a strong flared trouser game if you think of Britpop stars such as the mighty Jarvis Cocker.

Fast-forward a season, to the close of the SS20 men’s shows in June. I posted on Instagram an image from the Celine show by Hedi Slimane, captioned: “A flared Celine jean. That’s all, Paris.” Slimane’s model army strode the runway en masse for a finale rammed to the hilt with flared trouser hems, underlining the fact that the flares trend looks likely to have legs, as it were. I left this show with a head full of images of Yves Saint Laurent during the 70s, on a rooftop in Morocco. I was also more than a little obsessed with the idea of getting my legs into a pair of Hedi’s new jeans.

Between these two moments, Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood had premiered at Cannes. On-screen, Leonardo DiCaprio wears, among other variations on this bottom-half theme, a pair of peachy-pink flared trousers. These were specifically created by costume designer and stylist Arianne Phillips. The trousers had already made tabloid headlines during filming last October. “Pink Pants-er” was a particularly choice pun.

So, with some serious style endorsements of the flare, is it time to quit your designer jogging pants and/or – finally – ditch those infamous skinny jeans? Probably. Donatella Versace, whose latest show featured flares in both house signature prints and black, wants you to strongly contemplate the notion. “Men, I think, are having way more fun than before, experimenting with new silhouettes, colours and prints, and the flare pants are part of that process of exploring one’s own personal style I have been doing for a few seasons,” she said.

Versace herself has often taken her end-of-show bow in a kick flare. She thinks a man in flares reeks of confidence. “The attitude I had in mind was, ‘I like it, so I wear it.’ Like everything else in a man’s wardrobe, whenever you change or introduce a new element, there are a lot of people who are sceptical. More than ever, though, we live in a world where people are encouraged to express themselves – be it through one’s own ideas or style. And I love it!”

Elisabeth Murray, fashion curator at the V&A in London, cites Tom Ford’s SS00 Gucci men’s collection as a significant flares moment, including “a particularly daring python pair”. She thinks the flare comeback is part cyclical, part a general interest in the 70s from designers. “Flares are a way to inject fun and frivolity into menswear,” she says, “which is something we’re seeing on the catwalk.” 

With menswear dominated by streetwear and cult sneakers for a decade or so, the flare could be seen as part of a shift back to dressing up. Suiting has been reinvented again by the likes of Kim Jones at Dior and Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton – two designers who have often been seen as integral to “sports luxe”. The styling of suiting on runways isn’t about a Mad Men-style professionalism. Designs are cut away from the body and worn with wider trousers for a more louche and easy silhouette. Flares are part of a new wave of upscale chic – the opposite of the familiar body-conscious skinny jeans – crossed with, as Versace says, a new experimentation in men’s fashion.

Murray references noughties Gucci as a moment, and Gucci circa now is also key to the flare comeback. Designer Alessandro Michele has featured them in his menswear since 2016 and they are central to the retro maximalism that has become Gucci’s calling card. Michele wears them himself – as seen on the Met ball red carpet in May. This season, Gucci featured velvet suits with bell-bottoms, so the designer is not getting tired of the shape.

Other brands are also onboard. Balenciaga has been toying with boot-cut denim. Martine Rose – a British designer who loves a wide slack – has featured various flared styles for her label and Fendi’s trousers have also recently had a kick to their ankle. Plus the first men’s runway collection by Jonathan Anderson for Loewe – arriving in stores now – features a fantastic pink tuxedo styled with a pair of definitely-swingy-at-the-hem trousers.

Flares have a history that means almost infinite images to mine for inspiration. Sailors are thought to have been the first to adopt bell-bottom trousers in the 19th century, partly because they rolled up easily, while Oxford bags in the 20s saw the circumference of a hem reach over a metre. It was the late 60s when flares took off. By 1969, they were so popular that astronauts on Apollo 11 reportedly wore their spacesuit slacks with a flare. By the 70s, they were on Sonny & Cher’s TV show, the Studio 54 dancefloor, Abba at Eurovision, Slade, Earth, Wind & Fire. Even footballers wore them as part of suits off-pitch circa 1977. Naturally, as all fashions do, they peaked by the end of the decade, replaced by the drainpipes – proto-skinny jeans – favoured by punks. Flares would not return until the 90s, once again associated with music, from Britpop to grunge and rave.

Phillips says the clothes DiCaprio wears are representative of various changes happening in 1969 in politics, Hollywood, and fashion. His character, Rick Dalton, a 50s TV cowboy actor, is, Phillips says, trying to be considered relevant in this new era. “He has many costume changes in this film, one of which is the sherbet peachy-pink flares worn when we see Rick making an effort to keep up with the changing times.”

But what do flares semaphore in 2019? Ben Cobb, editor-in-chief of Another Man (and street style favourite), is a poster boy for the flared look and has been wearing the style since he was 17 when he picked up a pair of the 70s flared jeans. He now says he has pairs for all eventualities, including velvet tuxedos, bespoke suits, and cords. “There is a feeling of elegance and glamour returning to fashion, and flares in menswear are a great symbol of that,” Cobb says. “They evoke freedom and flamboyance.”

There is little doubt that flares are inherently something of a statement – from John Travolta strutting down the street in the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever to Jarvis Cocker in charity shop flares, doing his best lounge singer impression in the video to Pulp’s Babies. Sometimes campy fun, sometimes countercultural and free-spirited. I recall dressing up Jarvis-style (plus hair curtains) to see bands or go to raves in the 90s and am quite sure I considered this a kind of grungy-alternative decision. Luke Leitch, a critic for American Vogue, who recalls having flared cords in the 70s as a child and boot-cut jeans in the early 90s, argues that “they transmit that he [the wearer] isn’t afraid to sail against the prevailing winds of taste. And there’s something about flares when worn with panache, that seems appealingly sleazy.” While they are yet to reach the high street in earnest, vintage styles are a good way to shop the trend for autumn – and bring a bit of a 90s feel to proceedings.

Flares are also often associated with the kind of sexually topsy-turvy and androgynous styling of the likes of Robert Plant, Marc Bolan, Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie – all musicians Phillips says were an inspiration to her when she started her career dressing Lenny Kravitz in the late 80s. “In the early days when we had no money, I would dress him in women’s flares I found at garage sales or flea markets, which had the perfect proportion for him.”

A few seasons ago, as trousers seemed to be getting wider, I bought a pair of black Dries Van Noten kicky flares. As soon as I put them on, something shifted in the way I stood; I felt leaner, a little sassier perhaps, so I reach for them when I’m looking for an extra slash of dressiness. I’ve worn them to the opera in Paris and the ballet in London. Friends have noted they “add a certain swish” to an outfit. “It’s a really sexy shape,” Cobb confirms. “But the fit is essential: it has to be tight on top and sweep out from the knee. They lengthen the leg and make the bum look great.”

Mark Weston, creative director at Dunhill, has since SS19 been experimenting with a split-hem trouser that gives off the idea of an elongated flared silhouette. He says, “I think this is happening as a reaction to the saturation of sportswear and a rejection of skintight jeans. There’s a desire for clothes that combine utility and elegance with a sense of ease.”

Weston says if you’re planning to experiment with this current trouser proposition, you should “wear it slouchy and comfortable – never uptight”. He adds: “Proportionally, the leg will look longer. So the top half should have either a slightly oversized proportion, whether a great T-shirt or peacoat, or a long and lean Chesterfield coat, to balance it out.”

I ask Versace how to wear it. “You know me, I don’t do things half-heartedly,” she laughs. “You either go with it or you don’t. For the less brave, I’d suggest trying them with a suit jacket and chunky sneakers.” Cobb agrees flares work best when they are making a statement. “Go big. Anything less is just a boot-cut.” Francesco Risso at Marni concurs – this season he offers a flared hem in a bold leopard print.

As for the attitude to channel while wearing flares in 2019, the last word goes to Givenchy’s Waight Keller. She coined the phrase “perverse poshness” to describe her menswear designs for the house. This, she argues, is about “looking refined but not really caring about it. There’s something very elegant about that.”


Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye

The Guardian, UK

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