Succumb to the Siren Song of Unflattering Pants

By
Pants.

I noticed them first while waiting on subway platforms, observing what I mentally filed as “awkward cutoffs.” They weren’t ripped up or anything (not “boyfriend” jeans) and they weren’t cuffed; they were just sort of fringily there, not quite hugging the calf, just hanging out a little above the ankles. It took some time for me to connect these with another emergent pants genre: the tight-hipped, wide-legged, cropped, quasi-sailor guys on offer from designers like Rachel Comey and Jesse Kamm. The Rachel Comey Legion pants — sailor-shaped, elaborately cropped, widely knocked-off — constitute the clear evolutionary missing link here. Let’s say the defining characteristics of the pants I’m talking about are as follows: snug around the stomach, breezy around the ankle, some not-apparently-flattering play with structure and volume in between. You might call them awkward. You might also call them ugly.

The hard facts: These pants embody a masochist aesthetic. They are ostensibly “chill” and yet they are not comfortable — high waist, no stretch, devious center seams. At their most extreme they have the potential to be punishing both physically (you don’t feel good) and visually (you don’t look so good, either), which seems like a remarkable achievement. We have arrived at wide-leg pants that are somehow more restrictive than the typical tight ones. These pants propose a pants-strategy that is the exact inverse of jeggings.

“Everyone is carrying these goddamn pants and I’m pissed,” wrote Silvia Killingsworth at the Hairpin. She called them “horrendous.” The “biggest offender,” she felt, was Everlane, “which is just straight-up lying in its ad campaigns and saying that these pants look good on everyone.” (Everlane: “The most flattering pant you’ll ever try.”)

Everybody is entitled to get mad about pants, but to fault these ones for looking strange is to miss the point. The problem here isn’t the pants; it’s Everlane’s ad copy. These pants were never going to be sensibly anonymous basics, at least not for a consumer cohort that imprinted on skinny jeans. These pants are supposed to be kind of ugly.

I’m less interested in Devil Wears Prada–style pedantry here (though, yes, Vetements probably does deserve some credit for certain iterations of these ugly new pants) than in considering the psychology involved — the way that certain garments stir up a feels-so-wrong queasiness that tells you you’re about to make either a very bad decision or a great one. Here’s a hypothesis: More often than not, looking cool means looking almost but not quite ugly. There must be risk; that’s how you display your love of danger. A tasteful knee-length dress with a nipped waist and a full skirt and just a touch of stretch is never going to look cool because it makes it too obviously easy to look good. Refinement lies in finding ever subtler and more discerning ways to be almost-ugly. Things that have achieved recent ubiquity by their nearness to ugliness include Birkenstocks, top knots, and millennial pink. The pants of 2017 join this fold.

I invite you to remember the way it felt when you caught your first glimpse of skinny jeans, probably sometime in the mid-to-early aughts. Remember when skinny jeans looked bad?

Remember how, by then, you’d read a thousand jeans-for-all-bodies magazine features explaining that boot-cut jeans would balance your thighs? (Yes, normal, you’d think as you read.) What would happen to the thighs now? Were these freaky new pants appropriate only to people like the skinny architecture student in my freshman-year French seminar — an early adopter — who had essentially no thighs in the first place? Sure, she looked cool. But who else possibly could?

Pretty much everyone, it turned out. Daring to flirt with lack of flattery is a project available to all; if anything, it’s boring when only the thin and conventionally hot partake. And even if skinny jeans now seem like a neutral part of your lower-body architecture, it’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case.

The current generation of awkward pants dredges up all kinds of memories from the pre-skinny-jeans era. The past few years’ worth of “mom jeans” harkened back to a past that predated the typical millennial shopper; the new pants have a pungent familiarity. These are pants that conjure what my friends and I once called flare flap, that dread scourge of late-’90s middle school: flood-length bell-bottoms terminating stiffly, abruptly above your sneakers. Now — against all odds! — flare flap is chic. It doesn’t look good, quite, but it does look … intriguing. Such pants are hostile to every idea I’ve had about legs since puberty. They present a challenge. Who will accept it?

“Do you own any pants by Jesse Kamm?” a friend emailed late last month. “I feel that I am supposed to understand them to be ugly, unflattering, and overpriced, but I am trying on a pair now and I … love them.” These were not the Sailor ones but the Ranger ones, she hastened to specify — so, not so wide-legged, but still rigid, cropped, and high-waisted. I imagined funneling my own thighs into their canvas. I liked it.

She returned them, cowed by the price, but who knows? She might try again. Or I might. We have a lifetime to find new ways of looking almost ugly. This is the insidious way trends spread, after all, until one day you look up and realize they’re everywhere: not by brute force, not by direct appeal, but by tricking you into letting down your guard.

Succumb to the Siren Song of Unflattering Pants