Pants Guide 2.0

The guide is divided into two main sections:

I. The Basics – Fit, Materials, and Construction

II. The Styles – From Shorts to Wool Trousers

I. The Basics

  • Fit – Before you ever think about color, material and special details, you need to make sure your pants fit (which is no surprise if you’re a regular MFAer). In short, pants should stay up without needing a belt or suspenders, and they should follow the line of your legs. For some guys, that’s going to mean straight-leg pants, for others, that’ll mean slim or skinny pants – don’t let the name get in the way of the fit. Levi’s 514 cut, for example, is labeled Slim-Straight, but thin guys will find themselves swimming in them. Since boot-cut jeans are larger at the ankle than the knee, they don’t reflect the contours of an actual human leg. There’s more discussion (here, here, here, here and here, for example), but the short version is that boot-cuts aren’t as flattering to the human body as straight or tapered pants. I’d also advise you not to get hung up on the tagged waist size, since vanity-sizing means that a “32×34″ pair of jeans may have an actual waist measurement of 34-35”. As Esquire points out, your pants are almost certainly lying to you, which means you need to either (1) try them on, (2) order from somewhere with an excellent exchange policy, or (3) find the actual measurements online before buying. For more on the principles of fit, Primer has the best overview I’ve seen.
  • Materials – Some folks use “khakis” and “chinos” interchangeably, but if you want to be pedantic about it, “chino” refers to the style of twill cotton fabric many casual and dress pants are made from and “khaki” refers to a common color of chinos.. Cotton is also the source of denim, and Momotaro (a high-end Japanese denim company) argues that Zimbabwean cotton is the best. If you’d rather wear pants that were walking around a field instead of growing in it, wool is a textile made from the magical coats of sheep. In general, you’ll want to stick with natural fibers (100% cotton, linen, or wool) over (1) synthetic blends, where a percentage of the weave is made up of a man-made material like polyester or spandex, or (2) full synthetics, like nylon. (Note that this isn’t the case for pants you might wear for athletics or other outdoor activities – running tights, hiking pants, etc. Synthetics can help with drying and wicking, so they’re great for exercise/athletic wear).
  • Construction Details & TerminologyPleats are the sewn-in folds of fabric at the waist of some trousers. In almost every case and unless you have a large, protruding stomach, you’ll want to avoid pleated pants in favor of non-pleated flat-front pants. Creases are the ironed lines running down the front and rear of some pants, and they’re generally found on more formal trousers. Creases often look out of place on casual chinos, and they’re definitely a no-no for jeans. Rise is a word to describe measurement C on this chart. You’ll generally find higher rises on dressier trousers and lower rises on pants you’re less likely to tuck shirts into, like jeans and casual chinos. Break refers to the amount of fabric that’s folding when your pants sit on top of your shoes. Cuffs are a sewn-in, permanent fold at the bottom of some trousers. Note that cuffs are different than simply rolling or folding up the bottom of chinos or jeans. For the front pockets, the four main styles are on-seam, off-seam (or “slash”), jeans-style pockets. In the back, you’re looking at trouser pockets, flap pockets or, again, jeans-style pockets. Here’s a photo collage with some visual examples of the different types. Most pants have a zipper, but many jeans (especially raw and shrink-to-fit) and some casual chinos have button flies. Most casual pants will have a standard waist button, but dressier pants will often have a clasp, and some chinos will have a double- or triple-clasp enclosure (with a hidden button and two waistband clasps). The goal of all these extra clasps and buttons is to make the waist of your trousers lay neatly, without pulling or rolling the material.

II. The Styles – From Most to Least Casual

  • Shorts – From the spring/summer guide: Look for simple, chino shorts with a narrow leg opening. Ideally, they should be lightweight cotton that hit 1-3” above your knee (7-9” inseam, depending on how tall you are). You won’t go wrong with tan or khaki, but navy and light gray are good choices too. If your style is a little more preppy, then yellow, light blue, madras and seersucker are on the table. J.Crew, Lands’ End, Uniqlo and H&M will all have good options. For more information, there’s a detailed infographic on shorts here, and a lengthy, contentious discussion of the infographic here.
  • Jeans – There’s already an incredibly thorough denim guide in the sidebar, so do yourself a favor and dive in. Here’s the incredibly, incredibly abbreviated version – look for slim or straight denim in a dark, non-distressed wash. No bootcut – ever. Selvage is sometimes, but not always, a sign of quality. If you’re wearing raw/dry denim, wash is as infrequently as possible (6 months to a year between washes isn’t uncommon). At the low end, Levi’s are a good choice since they make a wide variety of fits, they’re available to try on everywhere, and their prices are reasonably low (although I realize they aren’t nearly as affordable or widely available outside the US). If you have access to an H&M or Uniqlo, they’re also good sources for affordable denim, although be aware that most of H&M’s jeans and some of Uniqlo’s cheaper jeans are lower-quality than Levi’s. For an intermediate pair of jeans, Put This On recommends 3Sixteens, and I strongly second that. At the high end, you’re generally looking at either Japanese or US-made jeans from retailers like Self-Edge, Blue in Green, Context, or Unionmade.
  • Canvas “duck” pants – Pants made from heavyweight canvas fabric. The are basically blue collar work pants, which is how you should wear them – don’t try to dress them up. Dickies (surprisingly) makes a slim-fitting pair, and LL Bean Signature has another affordable option. At the higher end, Naked & Famous makes both Weird Guys and Slim Guys in selvage canvas duck.
  • Cords – I’ve been surprised to find out that corduroy pants are kind of divisive on MFA – some people strongly associate them with being dressed by their mothers as a little boy. That’s not my experience at all, and I see cords as a fall/winter staple. They can be trouser-cut (with trouser pockets and on-seam or off-seam front pockets) or built like jeans (which are generally called 5-pocket cords). The former are dressier, and the latter are fine with a t-shirt or untucked ocbd. For a modern look, you’ll want to look for a relatively fine-wale cord, although a chunky wide-wale cordcan look great in the fall or winter with a big, heavy sweater.
    • Casual chinosThe most versatile pants. If you’re over 25 or so, these should probably the be core of your pant wardrobe (pant-robe?). Two big debates here are (1) inseam length and (2) color. On the first, I think you can get away with a full break (or a little more) with casual chinos, since you’re wearing them more like jeans. Just make sure they’re slim enough to stack instead of puddling all over your shoes. That flexibility goes both ways, because I also think no-break chinos and rolled-up chinos look great. They’re casual enough that you can get away with a lot. Some deal for color – tan, British khaki, navy and grey are the standards, but [1] there’s no reason to avoid red, green, yellow, bright blue or other ridiculous colors in the spring and summer. For another example, [2] these are the color options for Dockers Alphas. 

      For a really solid affordable option, Dockers D1s (straight-fit, not very slim below the knee) and Alphas (same waist/hips/thighs as the D1s, but tapered below the knee) are available at most large department stores, and you can generally find them for about $40. Target, Lands’ End Canvas and J.Crew are also good sources for affordable casual chinos. If you’re looking for something a little higher-end than J.Crew or Dockers, look at Epaulet, Rogue Territory, Unis, Wings + Horns, Norse Projects, Sunny Sports, and Save Khaki.

    • Moleskin Pants – Not made of what you think. Moleskin is a tough, sueded cotton material that’s often heavy, which makes moleskin pants generally appropriate for fall/winter pants. Look to outdoorsy companies for these – Orvis, J.Peterman, and Barbour, for example.
    • Dress chinos – One step up from casual chinos, and the difference is in the fit and details. Dress chinos will have a sharper finish (rather than a worn, washed look), and generally also have a clasp closure and creases. Don’t wear them quite as slim as jeans or casual chinos (but not baggy either), and there’s less room to get the break wrong (see the fit guide above for more on breaks). These can be dressed up with a sharp navy blazer, but it’s hard to wear them casually without looking like a casual friday goofball who doesn’t know how to dress himself. Epaulet, Brooks Brothers, and J.Press have high-quality options, and look at J.Crew, Lands’ End, and H&M for more affordable pieces.
    • Wool trousers – The dressiest pants you can wear that aren’t part of a suit. There are a lot of options for fabric and color, but if you’re just starting out (which is likely, since you’re reading this guide), it’s hard to go wrong with grey tropical-weight wool. Grey wool trousers, a navy blazer, and a red repp stripe tie are classic, but with the large number of possible knits, weights, and colors, wool trousers really deserve a guide of their own. In many cases, but not always, these are going to be cut a little more traditionally and not as slim as chinos. Look for these from traditional menswear makers – Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and J.Press, for example. [3] Example 1, 

      [4] Example 2, 

      and [5] Example 3. 

    • A special note on cargo pants – [6] These are easy to do wrong, 

      but there are an increasing number of slim-fitting options if your style already leans toward rugged and outdoorsy. If you wear a lot of Patagonia and you’ve put a few thousand miles into your Danners, [7] there are [8] some [9] options for [10] modern cargo pants.

    Here’s a quick image gallery that gives you a sense of how wide-ranging styles and colors can be (click through to imgur for a much larger image)

    Collage #1 

    [12] Collage #2 

    [13] Collage #3 

    To wrap up, I want to reiterate that this is a starter guide, and couldn’t include all of the information, photos, or links to retailers that I wanted it to. As always, suggestions for revisions, extensions, and additions are always appreciated. Thanks!

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