The Trouser Department III: Pleats and Pockets

Thus far in this trilogy (part I, part II) we’ve covered the various different elements of the trouser silhouette; comprising leg width, hem line, rise, turn-ups and the possibility of plain hems. Now I’m going to draw all of these elements together (hopefully), through a discussion of the much overlooked subjects of pleats and pockets.

Pleats are a somewhat complex subject, so I’m going to try to keep this concise. As you will doubtless know, there are two types; forward facing, which face into the middle of the trousers; and reverse facing, which face outwards towards the sides of the trouser. You can see examples of both in the photographs of myself below. Pleats can be combined in a number of ways, arranged as either single, or double pleats on either side of the trouser fly to add interest to the trouser itself.

The fundamental consideration with regards pleats is the way in which their shape will influence the shape of your trouser and therefore the silhouette of your body. Pleats of any kind will add extra cloth and fullness to the leg, so will suit larger frames.

They are not however, as is popularly believed, solely the preserve of those of us with large thighs – such as my unfortunate self. In reality, pleats can help to sculpt the figure, but forward and reverse facing pleats tend to do this in different ways. The reverse facing pleat creates a pleat which runs very squarely through the centre of the leg and into the trouser crease. Given the way the pleat is sewn, it has little give and it essentially produces a boxy shape across the front of the trouser, as you can see happening on the trousers of my double-breasted suit below. This shape of pleat compliments boxier cut jackets, and given that it creates a very square, crisp shape, it can juxtapose nicely against a soft trouser cloth (moleskins and corduroys for example) which will often produce softer lines running down the legs, given their soft drape. Alternatively, pair them with very crisp, structured wool (as below) to add some very interesting angular lines to your trousers.

Forward facing pleats are perhaps the rarer style of pleat seen today, despite the fact that for decades forward facing pleats were the ubiquitous choice for tailored trousers, seen repeatedly in sartorial British tailoring periodically between the 30s and the 80s. The forward facing pleat is my personal favourite, and well worth experimenting with, because unlike the boxy shape of a reverse-pleat, forward facing pleats fall outwards from the trouser waistband, draping smoothly over the hips and falling elegantly through the leg. The effect of this is to create the bottom half of an hourglass shape (this shape being the aim of all good tailoring, running downwards from the waist of the wearer; it’s a sophisticated shape and very striking.

In order for pleats to have these desired effects however, I have two key rules for pleated trousers which really are worth bearing in mind. Firstly, pleated trousers ought ideally to be worn with turn-ups, as the focal point turn-ups provide at the bottom of the trouser, balances that of the pleats at the top. Secondly,(and particularly relevant to forward facing pleats) pleated trousers really do benefit from a higher rise, this gives pleats the space to drape properly, and the closer the trousers sit to the waist, the more they can help to define an hour-glass shape running through the body.

A word also must be mentioned about how to ensure that pleated trousers hang neatly. I would suggest that if the trousers are formal, wear them with braces, as these will not only suit the classic style of the trouser, but help keep the waist of the trousers sitting nice and high, without being uncomfortable. Belts can feel terribly tight and constricting around one’s waist, which is a fundamentally more fleshy part of the body than the hips, where your bone structure gives the belt something solid to tighten around.

Many gentlemen are not keen on braces, so if you can’t face wearing them, then try to find or order trousers with waist-adjusters, as more often than not (although they’re traditionally worn with braces) they will do a fine job of keeping your trousers sitting neat and true on their own.

All styles of trouser pockets in simple terms are welt pockets. The welt pocket is simply an opening in the side (or the top) of the trouser, through which the pocket is accessible. The shape of this welted pocket however, can take a number of different forms, which can radically alter the image that your trouser presents. The most common and perhaps understated design is a simple slanted pocket. This will go with most pleat formations and is (by the standards of modern tailoring), the most conventional pocket shape.

However, I would suggest that there is a subtle, yet nonetheless immensely satisfying alternative option for your tailored trousers: the vertically cut welt pocket. Here, as opposed to the opening of the trouser pocket slanting, the pocket runs through the side-seam of the trouser vertically, keeping a clean, neat line through the side of the trouser. This pocket has its genesis in the Edwardian era, but was popularised first and foremost during the 20s and 30s. The reason for this is simple, the pocket runs parallel to trouser pleats, and doesn’t jarr against their shape. The vertical-cut welt pocket is the perfect compliment to pleats; it keeps the trouser looking neat and linear, as well as giving pleats the space to become the focus of the trouser.

Using vertical, as opposed to slanted welt pockets on your trousers is (in my humble opinion) a seriously smart move. It’s a very subtle change from a slanting to vertical opening, but in an understated way it makes a huge difference to the cut of your trouser. The line of the trouser simply looks neater, and the pocket looks cleaner. It works equally well with a flat-fronted or pleated trouser and also gives the impression that you’re simply a confident dresser – choosing something different, understatedly stylish and out of the ordinary, but which also will have no impact upon your comfort, or the functionality of the pocket itself.

I do have two other suggestions for you though. If you’re into retro style, or simply fancy something different (and pleats don’t appeal), then why not opt for either Jodhpur or frog-mouth pockets? These two are similar in design, and essentially are two separate takes on the classic type of pocket found on jeans; as opposed to sitting at the side-seam of the trouser, the frog mouth pocket slants away down the side of the trouser front, whereas the opening of the Jodhpur pocket is slightly higher and runs horizontal to the waistband, as can be seen in the images below.

Both these shapes are highly unusual by today’s trouser-standards and make a very sharp, modern statement. As is the case with the vertical welt pockets, these shapes have their origins in the Edwardian era, and also enjoyed a brief spell of use in the early 1920s, (as can be seen from the Gatsby tailoring on show – which made heavy use of frog-mouth pockets) before becoming the fashionable pocket of choice in the 60s, making them a cool and contemporary feeling option. Note that for obvious reasons of cut, these pockets cannot be cut with pleats, so are there to satisfy the demands of those of you who feel more comfortable in a flat-fronted trouser.

Drawing all this together then, I’ve suggested a number of things to you; formal trousers suit a higher rise than the high-street would have us believe, trouser legs look more elegant if fitted properly, and turn-ups can help balance any trouser and add a touch of panache. The thing to do now, is to experiment! I find old photographs and old fashion plates the ideal source of inspiration to try new trouser styles, as the unusual selection of photographs provided show. The key is just to remember the basic rules; certain pleats do certain things, different pockets will produce different effects, and turn-ups need to be certain lengths to flatter certain figures. Otherwise, the possibilities for a diverse and different trouser wardrobe are quite simply endless!