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Let’s not be shy about this intimate ingredient of good tailoring

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Traditionally tailored trousers from a 1914 advertisement by JC Leyendecker © Alamy

I have long had a problem with crotches. When I was the menswear critic for this paper, I would find myself focusing on the crotch to encapsulate the failed cut of a pair of trousers. It was usually with London’s heritage tailors who were trying to mimic international luxury brands on a catwalk. About a Hardy Amies show in 2015, I wrote that the tailored trousers “were woeful around the crotch”. I would then find myself apologising for it: “This isn’t being prurient, honest.”

The reason is simple. Traditionally tailored trousers are cut to sit flush under the skirt of the jacket. This high-waisted cut gives the effect of a crotch that is empty, even concave. Contemporary casual trousers, like jeans or chinos, have evolved from functional workwear or uniforms, cut for brisk ease of movement. They have a roomier, more flattering crotch.

Like I said, I’m not being prurient, I swear.

This season, the issue has come unexpectedly to the fore. Towards the beginning of the Martine Rose spring/summer 2023 show in London last June, a model walked out with busted fly. At most brands, it would be a styling faux pas that would probably cause the designer to be sacked.

Man in long tan-coloured shorts and yellow T-shirt

Man in blue trousers and small jacket

For Rose, it was intentional. She is a designer-as-agitator, unafraid of perversity in fashion. In previous collections, she’s shown city-boy shirts cut so tight it was as if they were bursting at the buttons. Her terrible crotch trousers were to draw attention to this part of the body about which many men are squeamish. “I’m playing with stuff that’s really on the nerve,” Rose once told me.

Meanwhile, that same season in Milan, Prada showed a series of black leather short shorts with zips on either side of the crotch, creating a flap like a fold-down hatch. The zips act like sight lines to the crotch, and were shown in tandem with conservative black tailoring. Nothing on the Prada catwalk happens by accident: it appeared co-creative directors Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons were interrogating why certain cuts are acceptable in menswear, and others are considered outré.

Man in black leather shorts and jumper with bag

Man in black leather shorts and sleeve-less top

Back in London, young designer Steven Stokey Daley of SS Daley, latest winner of the prestigious talent-scouting LVMH Prize, manipulated trousers to render the crotch irrelevant. Only graduating in spring 2020, Daley made his name a few months later when Harry Styles wore a pair of his supersized trousers, made from some old floral curtains. As with many young designers, Daley’s catwalk goes beyond gender. A couple of days before his most recent show, he said to me, “What’s an SS Daley gown?”

His answer: a super-supersized pair of trousers, cut so roomy they could be hoicked up to the chest, what would have been the crotch now a long languid line over the sternum and stomach. The look was an extreme for the catwalk, but it chimed with how many twentysomethings like Daley view gender and the body.

I’m sure there are some readers who’d like to cover their ears and pretend I’d not started talking about it: they just want to wear a good pair of trousers. But, as Robert Armstrong recently pointed out in these pages, the general design of trousers is well below par. It’s been this way for so long, we just accept it. But what if we moved beyond the uncomfortableness of talking about the crotch? We could encourage better cutting. At the moment, it’s like designing a car while ignoring the front bumper.

The point is innovation. When tailored suits evolved from military and riding garments, it was through acts of innovative, intuitive design. That design is now called “traditional”, as if it had always been that way, ignoring the radicalism of its beginnings. Too often, menswear labels rely on cut-and-paste design, copying what was done before rather than creating original patterns responding to the body. Copies become copies of copies, and any sharpness or purpose to the design is blunted.

Converging are three separate tides. The tailored trouser that has historically sat flush but now needs a rethink to work as separates; the functional trouser that has lost touch with its roots and could do with a reboot of its function; the exploration of looseness and silhouette by a new generation of designers approaching the body beyond binary.

There are some producing intuitive, thoughtful cuts. Service Works is a three-year-old London-based label that updates chef pants for everyday wear. The cut is roomy yet specific; the elasticated waist can sit either high or low; the pants are flattering to men across generations.

Man in blue suit

Man in green suit

Meanwhile the Norfolk-based label Old Town uses precise pattern-making and historical knowledge to make contemporary pants that work with the body. I’ve worn a pair of its Stove Pipes design for years, cut from navy cotton twill. The Stove Pipes sit flush, yet also have functional roominess.

Both are brands that clearly take pleasure in the act of design, including how the trousers work around the crotch, rather than avoiding the subject and cutting them inadequately with no thought.

But recently, I’ve taken a different path. I know what I want in a pair of trousers, I know my own body best, and feel no embarrassment at taking my own measurements. Home-sewing has typically been a gendered tradition, laughable for men. Why? I’ve started making trousers for myself.

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