It is fairly rare to see a pair of pleated trousers in everyday life (outside of the United States) these days. They are, however, enjoying a resurgence in sartorial circles of late. As a long-term enthusiast, I couldn’t be happier about this development. I tend to opt for two forward pleats for all of my lounge suits. Today, the Mad Tailor is going to give some insights and share some of his love for pleats in a world of flat-front trousers.
While many will associate pleats with the aesthetic of the 80s (think American Gigolo, American Psycho [this article goes more into detail on 80s tailoring], Miami Vice, etc.) and that period’s tendency towards volume, pomposity, and the traditionally hyper-masculine (in both menswear and womenswear), pleats are by no means an invention of the 80s. The features of 1920s tailoring (extended shoulders, extreme waist suppression, broad chests, etc.) were turned up to 11 in the 80s. While we shouldn’t discount the fact that voluminous pleats were still mainly employed for their superior comfort and freedom of movement, they also served to underline this aesthetic.
Formality of pleats
As pleats owe their existence to practical concerns, it follows that they are generally more casual (NB, that is why they harmonise so well with turn-ups see our article on turn-ups here). As such, pleats seem quite out of place on very formal suits (there are notable exceptions; more on that later). For example, you wouldn’t want pleats on a dark-blue three-piece suit with peak lapels or on a three-piece dinner suit.
So far, so good. Now that you’ve decided to opt for pleats, which type of pleats do you want? (A note on terminology: forward (or inward) pleats point inwards, reverse (or outward) pleats point outwards.) Traditional, reverse pleats would be a bit strange on a classic lounge suit, as they are considered the most casual of the pleats. While I cannot give a definitive reason as to why this is the case, I did once hear from a British tailor that they are considered vulgar as one could get the impression of being able to look into the trousers from the side. This goes well beyond my sense of propriety, but I’ll leave it up to you. In any case, I would recommend forward pleats for a lounge suit, if only for the sake of tradition. For odd trousers, reverse pleats are a good option.
Appearance of Pleats
In my opinion, when in doubt, formality and manners will always trump appearance. As such, when making clothing choices, I always try to hit the correct level of formality. That being said, there are exceptions for cases where the ‘correct’ level of formality might be unflattering for a person’s body type. For example, I would never recommend reverse pleats to a person with wide hips (as reverse pleats only emphasise wide hips) and would always suggest forward pleats, even for the most casual trousers. The same applies to customers with slimmer hips for whom reverse pleats might be more flattering, even on a lounge suit.
In summary, this is your general framework when dealing with pleats:
- Formal suits = no pleats
- Semi-formal suits = forward pleats
- Odd trousers = reverse pleats
Firstly, to play devil’s advocate, ultimately the question is how formal one considers one’s suit. I could well imagine e.g. a musician or dancer opting for pleats on an evening suit, as it will provide more comfort and freedom of movement. Secondly, the number of pleats may vary. I prefer two, as I feel it provides a better visual balance and is generally more attractive. That being said, I also enjoy wearing a pair of vintage grey Edward Sexton pinstripe trousers from the 80s with three reverse pleats (part of a suit, no less!), so who am I to judge? MM/DC