Why Are Pants So Big (Again)?

At some point in the past few years, as if we didn’t have enough to worry about, everyone’s pants started to look wrong. For an improbably long time, the “right” pants — meaning those that conveyed some socially agreed-upon, base-line level of stylishness — had been, in a word, small. Snug through the thighs, throttled at the knees, close-cut at the calves, on intimate terms with the ankles. Running a minuscule gamut from skinny to the slightly-more-accommodating slim. There were exceptions, particularly when it came to women’s pants. But on balance, fitted was the way good pants were supposed to fit.

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My pants had been slim for some 15 years, since so-called skinny jeans first hit the market in earnest, around 2005. Narrow silhouettes quickly spread, until they felt less like a trend and more like a structural fact of existence: A decade after their ascendance, slim-fit pants remained common currency across generations, demographics and body types. BTS, at the time the biggest pop group in the world, wore them. Underground Chicago drill rappers wore them, too. Hollywood leading men and neighborhood baristas, wedding planners and basketball players, morning-show hosts and accountants, youth pastors and construction workers, your nephew and your aunt. You might have wondered if we’d reached the End of Pants.

And then, in a rupture whose center I place within the broader pandemic-era upheavals of 2020, the “right” pants began to lurch away from the leg at scale. Jeans, a kind of Patient Zero for pants trends, showed symptoms of acute-onset elephantiasis. Stylish friends of mine and strangers whose outfits I ogled online abandoned their slim-fit denim for straight-leg vintage Levi’s 501s — something like the Greenwich Mean Time of modern pants — and then swiftly abandoned those for ever-ampler models. Paul O’Neill, the global design director for Levi’s, told me that in recent years he noticed a rise in kids hitting “thrift stores to buy jeans with a Size 46 or 48 waist and belting them, to get that oversize look.” He’d made some of the company’s baggiest-ever pants in response, and even baggier ones were in the works.

Month by month, pants got puffier, growing higher rises and sprouting more and more pleats. Hemlines that once severely tapered now expanded, hovering like U.F.O.s above shoes or pooling atop them like swirls of soft-serve ice cream. On Instagram, fashion mood-board accounts, which aggregate “aspirational” imagery, did an increasingly brisk trade in photographs from the late ’80s and early ’90s of people wearing billowing trousers by Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Yohji Yamamoto.

All manner of pants polarities rapidly inverted themselves. Perhaps the most epochal illustration concerned, of all people, Barack Obama. In 2009, he threw the first pitch at the All-Star Game wearing shapeless, wide-leg Levi’s — ur-uncool “dad jeans,” at the time. They inspired widespread ridicule, because the way pants fit is a kind of lingua franca: Even people who claim not to care at all about clothes feel qualified to judge. A decade later, though, those kinds of dad jeans were looking better than ever, and here were photos of Obama pushing 60 in far-too-tight, far-too-cropped chinos during a visit to Kuala Lumpur. Looking at these pictures side by side, we had incontrovertible proof: Skinny pants were the real dad pants now. You might still be wearing them, but they were no longer “right.”

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