Are Pleats Actually Coming Back Into Fashion?

Sean Connery's James Bond is one of the most prominent wearers of the forward pleat style, made by Anthony Sinclair here.

GQ posted an interesting article back in February about the supposed return of pleated trousers. Which ironically highlighted just how fickle fashion, and their coverage of it, can be! I haven't seen much evidence of their return just yet outside a few token offerings from a couple of fashion brands. After all, they posted a similar article two years previously. I also recall Ralph Lauren trying, in vain, to bring back wide lapels years ago in the form of their "Garrison" jacket.

But, I say it's about time. Even in the periods where pleats were popular, flat front enthusiasts could still find their preferred style at many stores. It seems like this is the opposite currently. One of my friends suspects this is because of cost. The more you narrow the fit, lapels, shorten jackets, and take off extra fabric in general, including pesky pleats, the more yardage you can get from a fabric bolt at the factory. Which is a shame given that most people, particularly Americans, are not actually skinny enough to fit into these fashions and pleats have the benefit of giving some ease when sitting and moving around. Not sure if I'll buy into a Zoolander-level conspiracy theory about this just yet, but it wouldn't surprise me that mid-to-low end fashion brands are taking advantage of the trend and playing it out as long as possible out of convenience. Sure, you can still find pleats now, but many who used to make them no longer do. If you do find them around town, they will likely be from a rather unstylish brand such as Eddie Bauer or Chaps and have the American standard, double reverse pleats complete with a rather generous cut. You may have to special order or go online to get something that won't look dumpy. The last time I saw pleats on mall brand clothing was around 2006 or 2007.

That's all good and well, but please answer the burning question. Should I wear pleats?

Uh, yeah! You always should have if you wanted to, regardless of whether fashion says it's hip. The problem is that publications like GQ barely scratch the surface in what to actually look for besides "slimmer", in spite of that being the article's title premise. But they are certainly right that after a decade, they look fresh again. Not to mention comfortable after over a decade of low rise, often tight fitting trousers. The biggest benefit, aside from offering some visual interest, is that

So, what should I look for?

Forward pleats are the cleanest and most "formal" looking.
Forward pleats would be the number one thing to look for, in my view. Because of how the fabric is distributed, pleats that face forward, or inward towards the crotch, tend to look trimmer and more formal. The only downside is that if they don't fit quite right around the seat, they'll open up and lose all that tidiness when standing. But if you can find, reasonably alter, or afford to commission a pair that look good, they are well worth it. You'll have the comfort of pleats with more of the trimness associated with flat fronts. In fact, some people mistakenly believe Connery wore flat front during his tenure as James Bond. In Catch Me if You Can, the costume designer mistakenly leaves pleats off of Leonardo DiCaprio's "exact suit" from Goldfinger. They likely saw Connery with the jacket closed and assumed incorrectly. Forward pleats are considered the British standard, though an increasing number of UK retailers have gone to reverse pleats out of convenience. English bespoke tailors still swear by them, however. On the American mass-retail front, this pleat style can still be found from Paul Stuart, Ben Silver, and Ralph Lauren, though rather sparingly for the latter.

Wait, there are more than one type?

There are! Reverse pleats are the current standard in the United States and a little more forgiving, since they can still look good if opened up slightly. Italians seem to have always preferred this style over the forward pleat. The one downside is that they throw some fullness to the sides, which may be a concern if you have wider hips or a larger seat like yours truly. Thus, they generally have a looser and more relaxed look than forward pleats. This may be why so many American retailers went from having both forward and reverse pleated trousers half a century ago, depending on brand, to having just reverse pleats. This has also started happening in the UK, where even Charles Tyrwhitt had forward pleats available just a decade ago but now relegate them to morning wear only. Epaulet, however, has some of the most stylish reverse pleated trousers I've seen.

How many pleats should I have?

If you must get reverse pleats, a single pleat looks best.
One or two on each side, please. Two is traditional, with one deep pleat along the crease of the trouser and one shallower pleat near the hips. The second pleat helps the main pleat maintain a better line when standing up and moving around. One pleat will look a little more sleek regardless of its direction, but will open up a little more with movement without a shallower pleat giving it relief. Triple pleats? Forget about it. The third pleat is just there for extra fullness and looks rather excessive. The latter style was last popular in the mid-'90s and probably died out for a reason.

Contrary to what GQ asserts, however, you don't need a belt with pleats. Some of the most traditional examples of pleated trousers are held up with braces, side tabs, or both. So if you already go beltless in some way with flat front trousers, good on you. Keep doing that.

Yeah, okay, but what do I wear them on?

Anything! Dress and casual trousers, business suits, dinner suits, full evening dress. There's really no rule about it. Heck, you can even get shorts with pleats, though most of the retail offerings look pretty bad to be honest. So... maybe just stay away from those unless they have forward pleats.

All types of pleats can be stitched down a half to a full inch in order to keep them looking cleaner, like the Sean Connery and Epaulet examples shown previously.

I still don't know.

The box pleats here are just a little much.
That's fine. This is just a general outline of pleat styles. There are other types like box pleats, scissor pleats, and so forth that aren't all that appealing, to be frank. Of course, if all else fails and you're still not convinced that you need pleated trousers in your wardrobe, you can at least give darted fronts a go. The darts allow a touch more fullness in front while giving the same appearance as flat front. Generally, no one will notice the dart besides you. This is my favourite trouser front style since it gives some relief from my bigger-than-average butt, but it's also nice for those who want a bit more comfort in general. Having two darts above the back pocket on each side, like most of my trousers do, also helps. Unfortunately, these are harder to find than pleated trousers in any country right now!

It also bears mentioning that cuffs (turn-ups) can be worn with any trouser front style you prefer. Contrary to what you may have been told, there's no real hard and fast rule about pleats and cuffs needing to be on the same pant, nor conversely flat front and plain hem.

I hope this has been enlightening for those who want to try out pleats or were on the fence, but were not sure what styles they should search for. What kind of trousers do you prefer and why?

Comments

  1. Never understood the big hubbub over either style. Just get what you want and stop staring at someone else's pants! But I'm definitely ready for clothing to loosen up a little.

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    Replies
    1. As am I. I don't want things to go back to late '80s bagginess, but some relief from the super slim trend would be nice.

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  2. I really like flat front and don't think the functional benefits of pleats are enough to get them, even if I got single forward pleats (which I assume is the most unobtrusive way of doing them). I don't know about the darts you describe since they might disrupt checks or stripes on the front of pants the same as pleats do. All that said, if people want to get them I'm not going to stop them. You make a pretty good case.

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    Replies
    1. I wonder why you say that? The darts are pretty small compared to those you'd see on a jacket. A similar argument has been made against darted jackets for the fact that they disrupt patterns, but I've never found it very convincing either.

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