Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe. Here’s what to look for in trousers.
Well-fitting trousers are among the most difficult items for a woman to find and good trousers also cost considerably more than skirts, so it’s an area where mistakes can be painful. My advice is – if you find trousers in a cut that suits you, buy the same shape in every fabric and colour that you find useful rather than searching fruitlessly for different shapes. Everyone’s pet manufacturer is different – Boden’s curvy cut and long back rise seems to suit me, while my more boyishly built best friend favours Next, which for me is a tad tight on the thigh.
Sadly, manufacturers never seem to have cottoned on to the fact that a woman’s body is different from a man’s and the majority of women’s trousers still have a fly front as if a woman needed access to her penis, rather than side or back zips, which give a cleaner line. Currently, plain fronts that don’t add bulk are in style, which is fortunate, but with the trend to volume, I predict we’ll see the return of baggy trousers with bulky pleats that will do none of us any favours.
A slightly low waist (far left) is probably the most flattering trouser waistline for the average woman – that means one sitting just below your navel, often called ‘mid-rise’. With the waist set here, there’s less fabric to billow and pouch around your stomach when you sit down, your torso is slightly elongated, making it look thinner, and the leg is barely foreshortened. Many women over 40 believe, however, that high-waisted trousers (sometimes called ‘classic waist’ – centre above) are more comfortable than low waisted. If you think this, it may partly be that in your ‘heyday’ the waistline was set at the navel or above and you haven’t changed your ideas. OR, it may be that you’ve been trying trousers with too low a waist (a huge trend among the young, right above) or with too short a rise in the back – even a low-waisted trouser should come up higher at the back than at the front, so that it doesn’t slide off your arse when you bend forward. There is, unfortunately, no way to decide which is the most comfortable rise for you other than to try on shedloads of pairs of trousers and find out. Once you’re found your correct rise, measure it, then carry a tape measure with you when you’re shopping and measure pants before trying them on – it will save a huge amount of time.
Because they are based on menswear, many of the commonly available trouser styles are unflattering to women, especially those who are short or carry weight on their lower half (ie, most of us). It’s my personal belief therefore that all women should avoid shorts, cropped trousers and trousers with ankle detailing, and should also be wary of other pants designs that add bulk to the legs, such as cargo pants. Not only do most women not have the height to carry off these garments, they are also often made in cheap materials that slouch around your body.
Fit and maintenance
Never buy trousers in a shop without trying them on and when you’re in the changing room, squat down – if you can’t do this easily put them back on the hanger as they will not be garments you can spend all day in comfortably. It helps if your trousers have a degree of stretch – say 3 per cent elasthane/lycra, even in formal pants, and if you’re buying a suit, get two pairs of pants, as they take more of a hammering than the jacket. Always get the two halves of the suit dry-cleaned together.
These are trousers that look good on most women
Jeans. Recognised by fashion designers as the most important garment of the 20th century, the standard jean is made from tough cotton twill that came originally from Nimes in France, hence ‘serge de nimes’ – denim. Originally a man’s garment, classic jeans have a front zip or button fly, a back v-shaped waist yoke and five pockets, including a ticket pocket. Seams are flat-felled and stitched in yellow thread, and all points of wear are reinforced with metal studs. From this point of origin, of course, there are endless variations in colour, fabric and width of leg.
The best all-rounder for most women remains the indigo-dyed bootcut jean, seen at far left in Levi’s Relaxed Fit bootcut, where the slightly heavier bottom to the leg balances your hips. You can get away with flares if you’re tall, but skinny-fit (left) are dangerous territory for almost all women.
If you can find a cut with the side seam set slightly to the back, it will give more ease, while designs with the side seam set slightly forward can elongate your legs – for ideas on what might suit you, visit www.levisstore.com and click on the Jeanfinder.
Wear your jeans with democratic footwear such as leather boots, loafers or sandals, or a walking shoe or trainer, not with court shoes – this look is currently very trendy but is ageing on mature women: it just looks like you forget to change out of your work shoes and are uncommitted to a casual look. This jean shown above right is possibly the worst combination for women of average height and weight – high rise, skinny fit, worn with shiny court shoes.
Sleek, fitted trouser. By far the best trouser shape for most women, cut with a slightly low waist and a bootcut or full leg, and a touch of stretch in the fabric, these trousers are still curiously hard to find with a side zip. When you do, snap them up. The waist and hipline are much cleaner than pleated trousers and give you more options for your top layers. If you can’t get the side zip, a fly front will do, however, and it’s much more readily available. These pinstripe ones (far right) are from La Redoute, but try Debenham’s for a wide range.
Palazzo pants (right). In chiffon or other fluid fabrics these are a good evening option for women who aren’t comfortable in skirts, while the same cut in a knit fabric is also good for lounging about in. Don’t wear the flare too wide if you’re short. This double-layer chiffon pair are from John Lewis.
These are trousers that work for some women, in some circumstances
Fly-front, pleated trouser (left). A commonly available trouser for women, especially in suits, which is a shame, as it creates unnecessary bulk around the waist and hips (if you’re unconvinced about this, try sitting down in them and see how much excess fabric pools around your gut). If you can’t find anything else, at least choose pleats that are as small as possible (allow for extra give at the back if needed with an elasticated waist), a full leg and a dark, fluid fabric. In black, with a side stripe in satin, these are the classic tuxedo trouser to be worn with a ‘smoking’ jacket for evening.
Cargo pants (left). Although these are a useful garment for casual wear, you can stray into the area of ugly and bulky very easily, so watch out for the pocket construction and choose ones where only the pocket flap is on the outside of the leg, rather than the whole pocket box. These Boden ones shown are nearly as sleek as jeans.
Jodphurs (left). A riding garment from India, real jodphurs in stretch cavalry twill or other options such as denim are a very elegant garment on thin, taut women who are out riding, but are really best avoided if you’re not on horseback unless you want to put up with stupid comments all day long about where your horse has got to…
Sweatpants. The go-to trouser of the desperately uncomfortable, traditional sweats with a gathered ankle make even athletes (who have fabulous bodies) look terrible. Traditionally they were worn only for warming up on the field but today they are ubiquitous lower-class wear. However, there are more stylish options. For sports, getting to and from the gym and even lounging about at home, opt for the more flattering yoga trouser shape, with a deep non-binding waistband, loose leg (some have zips at the ankle) and side stripes, like these ones from Adidas (left), which also have a stomach-flattening wrap-over front.
These are trousers that are generally best avoided
Capris (left). One of the most unforgiving trouser constructions known to womankind, the cropped, tight leg on a capri makes all but skinny women look like pigs on stilts, especially in a pale fabric. Best avoided unless you’re thin, and not too tall – they were originally popularised by Grace Kelly, who fitted both of these descriptions admirably.
Pedal pushers (left). Even worse, pedal pushers are bulky trousers that crop women in half along the leg, right where she needs it least. A youthful style that doesn’t work on mature women.
Zouaves (left). A garment that might have been created just to make women look ridiculous, these are based on men’s military pants from Algeria. Extremely loose to cope with the heat of the desert, they really shouldn’t be worn by women as they make you look three feet tall. If you really get this hot in summer, wear a dress or skirt instead.
Harem pants (left). These high-waisted, gathered trousers rotate in and out of fashion but are really best rejected by anyone with pretensions to personal style. The gathered fabric adds huge bulk to your silhouette and the high waist foreshortens your torso. Combined with a tapered leg or a cuff, they reach the heights of the truly horrible and if you think you’re hiding your fat rolls, you couldn’t be more wrong. Avoid like the plague.
Culottes, wrap trousers and trouser skirts are all options if you have difficulty finding trousers you like.
Culottes and trouser-skirts (right). These vary in style a good deal, but at their best are very useful garments for women who like skirts but need the practicality of trousers. Culottes and trouser-skirts differ from cropped trousers in their cut, which should be gently flaring in the leg, never tapered. Look for the same attributes in trouser-skirts as you would with your normal trousers and skirts – a clean waist with either a small waistband or none at all, a gentle A-line, good drape and a flattering length. The danger area is pleats, as many manufacturers add waist pleats to cope with the fullness of the leg – avoid this if you can. This neat denim trouser-skirt is from country-clothing supplier Orvis.
Wrap trousers. These are hard to find in ready to wear (the black ones shown here are from La Redoute) and the woman searching for them is better served by sewing patterns. Obviously, this means you either have to make them yourself or take them to a tailor/seamstress, but the end result is a unique garment that is made to your measurements. These patterns are from independent pattern company Sewing Workshop: the Origami Skirt (shown in brown print) is actually trousers with asymmetric legs and a wrap front, while the Tahoe Pant (shown in blue) has one leg which is cut so wide that it wraps at both front and back. The garment looks like a wrap skirt until you take a stride and is one of my favourite options for summer.