Unpacking Harry Styles’ big pants

As their storied history attests, big trousers are so much more than a nostalgic fashion throwback. Styles’ brazen bloomers feel like a powerful sign of our times.

Earlier this month, Harry Styles unveiled the details of his hotly anticipated new album, Fine Line – out, incidentally, on 13th December. The cover offers a lot to unpack. It’s shot by Tim Walker, fashion’s most whimsical imagemaker, through a fisheye lens (a Walker trademark) and features a sumptuous, pastel-hued set designed by Shona Heath. At its centre stands Styles, resplendent in a fuschia silk blouse and matching suspenders, his hair quaffed, hips popped, with one hand pointing to the ground. But for all the cover’s beauty, and Styles’ directive hand gesture, all we can focus on are his wildly wide-legged, sailor-style trousers, replete with high waist and gold buttons.

The singer’s eye-catching ensemble, no one will be surprised to learn, is bespoke Gucci – Alessandro Michele is a close friend of Styles’, who is an ambassador for the Italian fashion house – and was styled by Styles’ recurring collaborator, Harry Lambert. It’s typical of Styles’ gender-fluid aesthetic – as he told The Face earlier this year,​“What’s feminine and what’s masculine, what men are wearing and what women are wearing – it’s like there are no lines any more.” And indeed, in his bold choice of baggy trouser – a trend that has made a notable comeback in menswear this year, as evidenced on the runways of Marni, Versace, Off-White, Jacquemus and more – he follows in a long line of men and women who have championed the look.

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Perhaps the first example of wide-legged trousers in Western history is the bell-bottom, adopted as standard uniform by sailors in the 19th century because they were easy to roll up in high water. They next emerged at Oxford University in the 1920s, in the form of Oxford bags: billowing trousers, with an ankle width of up to 25 inches, worn by student rowers, who liked to slip them over their rowing shorts on cold mornings, sparking a widespread craze thereafter.

An article published in The Guardian in May 1925 proclaimed, The great majority of undergraduates have succumbed to the prevailing fashion. Some have done so in greater and some in lesser degree, for the law of the baggy trousers is a very flexible one and admits of many interpretations.” In their dissection of the look, the writer touches upon a point that has remained relevant of the baggy trouser throughout its history: it is a bold, unapologetic style, intended to make a statement. 

This was certainly the case when it entered the realm of women’s fashion – also in the 1920s – offering a casual alternative to skirts and corsets. Coco Chanel, who is said to have dressed in her boyfriend’s suits in her youth, was an early pioneer of the trend, creating elegant, relaxed-style trousers for women to wear while playing sports. By the 1930s, wide-legged trousers were being worn for the everyday, a fashion led by the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, who were stylishly indifferent to the controversy they caused.

The Second World War and its attendant financial and practical concerns saw the baggy trouser trend lie dormant for a while, but their comeback in the 1960s was a whole new chapter. Enter, the flare: expansive descendent of the bell-bottom, a style first adopted by the peace-loving, convention-rejecting hippie movement in the mid-60s. By the end of the decade, flares were everywhere, their mainstream appeal largely propagated by musicians of the era – everyone from rock n’ roll gender-benders Mick Jagger and David Bowie to pop stars like Sonny and Cher and ABBA, and R&B legends Earth, Wind and Fire, flaunted the flamboyant trouser. 

The 70s provided an abundance of landmark moments for the free-flowing trouser in other cultural spheres too: the re-emergence of Oxford bags, courtesy of the British Northern Soul community, whose famously frenetic dance moves were facilitated by their capacious attire; Yves Saint Laurent’s lauded (and loose-legged) women’s pantsuit, Le Smoking, as captured by Helmut Newton in 1975; Diane Keaton’s baggy beige numbers in Annie Hall (1977) and John Travolta’s striking slacks in 1977’s cult disco drama, Saturday Night Fever, aptly described by The Guardian as the flare’s swansong. 

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Karl Kani

During the 80s, wide-legged trousers saw a dip in popularity, side-lined by leggings and slim-fit jeans. Once again, it was music that sparked a baggy pant revival – by the mid-90s, they’d become a mainstay of grunge (think: Kurt Cobain’s loose-fit, ripped Levi’s), acid house (whether in dungaree or sweatpant form) and, of course, 90s hip hop, from Tupac and Marky Mark to MC Hammer, whose singular take on harem trousers became a fixture in the sartorial lexicon. In all three instances, the adoption of a wide-leg trouser makes sense – not only in terms of the physical liberation they offered as a form of dancewear (in the case of the latter two movements), but also because these subcultures were defined by their rejection of mainstream values, of the commerciality and conservatism of the decade and the distinct inequality this spawned.

As before, the baggy trouser could be seen as an act of rebellion, while neatly aligning with 1920s economist George Taylor’s Hemline Index, the theory that, to quote Ronald Chan writing for Reuters, when hemlines go up – think mini-skirts – the economy looks rosy and everyone is optimistic. When hemlines go down – think long dresses [or in our case, commodious trousers] – the economy looks uncertain and gloominess prevails.” Of course, wide-leg pants soon entered the world of mainstream 90s fashion too, with American designer Karl Kani emerging as the reigning king of baggy denim, sported by every reputable hip-hop and R&B star of the decade, regardless of gender; and brands like Kikwear, UFO and JNCO creating perhaps the most excessively loose (“phat”) pants to date, a look embraced by ravers and skaters alike.

Since the dawn of the 21st century wide-legged trousers have made regular reappearances – from their frequent gracing of the Gucci runway during the 00s to Phoebe Philo’s memorable revival of the style during her esteemed tenure at Céline, from their prominent role in the ongoing street and workwear revival, right up to their current favour among menswear designers. Which brings us back to where we began: Styles’ new, wonderfully ostentatious addition to the baggy trouser timeline. These brazen bloomers feel like a powerful sign of our times – as their storied history attests, they’re so much more than a nostalgic fashion throwback, they’re a subversive, gender-bending sartorial statement that continues to crop up (or billow out) right when we need it most.


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