A Second Look at Trouser Turnups (Cuffs)

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

A Second Look at Trouser Turnups (Cuffs)

In Europe, more men seem to be wearing cuffed trousers lately.  Whether men have been influenced by jean legs being turned up in almost every style and online magazine imaginable, or whether men are just looking for a change in their wardrobe, perhaps the trouser cuff deserves a closer look to understand its history and function.

In recent years, the perception of pant cuffs has been that they are mainly Anglo-Saxon, and perhaps even passé, or that trouser cuffs are for heavier men, who should, along with cuffing their trousers, add trouser pleats at the waist for comfort and for making a larger waist look better, as flat-fronted trousers do nothing to mask a growing midline. But, are these perceptions true?

Maybe I have been too quick to dismiss the trouser cuff as a style rut option, and so I set out to study the subtlety of the trouser cuff in bespoke suiting.

EDWARD VII …1890s and early 1900s

The search for the history on trouser cuffs leads to the story of Edward VII, who purportedly pioneered the the trouser turnup, or cuff, in the 1890s. Edward specifically designed the pant cuff to be worn on poor-weather days. The cuffs raised the pant leg and avoided muddying the trouser bottoms during bad weather. While other men were known to roll-up their suit pants legs by hand to protect the fabric from the mud (since the luxury of bricked or cobbled streets and sidewalks was not always possible), Edward simply had the feature ‘ tailored-into ‘ his trousers in the form of trouser turn-ups.

At the time, the back of the cuff was cut shorter than the front of the cuff, with more fabric sloping forward towards the shoe, to make for a nice fabric break across the top of the shoe, but still steering the fabric clear of the elements of weather. Gradually, people began to take note of Edward’s cuffed trousers, and emulated the look.  But, while in the early 20th century, cuffed trousers may have served as attire for rainy days, eventually the original purpose of the trouser cuff was altogether forgotten.

Locating full-length photographs of Edward VII is not easy. First of all, King Edward was a large man, and perhaps not a fan of having his entire body photographed. Secondly, King Edward was known to don a kilt, which gives no chance to analyze his trouser selection.  Still, here are two photographs from around the year 1900, one with trouser cuffs, and the other without.

King Edward VII (center), with what appears to be cuffed trousers, most likely worn on a rainy day (notice the man to the far right appears to have hand-rolled his trouser legs), perhaps to avoid getting the fabric wet.

A postcard featuring King Edward VII, sans the turn-ups. Most likely the weather was favorable this day.

1920s — Until The Onset of World War II

In the 1920s and 1930s cuffed trousers became an epidemic, signifying elegance. In 1931, it is a little known fact that Louis Freeman was issued a patent on placing small holes inside the cuff of the trouser leg, to keep debris from gathering inside the cuff. Details such as these are of interest, as it is possible to have a tailor integrate historical details such as these into our clothing today.

As World War II approached, cuffs on trousers were actually prohibited in order to save fabric (flaps on coat pockets were also prohibited for the same reason).

At the onset of the 1940s, just prior to wartime clothing restrictions, we see a nice example of trouser turn-ups with this Donegal Tweed Suit. Notice the wide pant leg and what is most likely high-waisted trousers:

1950s to 2000 – A Half Century of Trouser Cuffs as an American Institution

With wartime clothing restrictions a thing of the past, men of the 1950s were ready to take on the trouser cuff again. Besides, no one likes being told that they “can’t” do something, so it is easy to imagine that the allure of a return to the pant turn-up may have been quite strong. Add to this, Marlon Brando debuting hand rolled cuffs on his pants in 1953 to show off his motorcycle boots, and you now have a style (or perhaps fashion) epidemic.

London Teddy Boys 1950s 

The decade of the 1980s debuted what some perceive as a downturn in men’s style. Often, suits appeared to be clones of each other with double pleated and cuffed trousers abounding with no consideration to many other trouser style options. Hence, by the year 2000, cuffed trousers with double pleats became thought of as repetitive and boring.

The year 2000 until now

As the year 2000 approached, Americans began to veer away from cuffing the trousers, in favor of the perceived more youthful European flair of eschewing the cuff altogether in order to preserve a fluid body line. The perception began to grow that pleats and cuffs are for overweight men and no pleats and cuffs are for fit men.

But, as we see more fit men becoming educated about the subtleties of suiting, in the last few years we are noticing more trouser cuffed legs on the horizon on men regardless of body shape — and with fairly good results, with men who are around 5’10” and taller. It seems to hold true that men less than 5’10 should still avoid the trouser cuff, so that the legs will not appear shorter than they really are (caused by the horizontal line that is created by the cuffs running across the bottom of the trouser leg).

Some Touted Rules on turnups

Cuff

Any trousers with wide legs

Trousers with double pleats

High waisted trousers

Trousers with long legs, to add interest to the vertical line in order to add balance to a tall body

No Cuff

Pants with a flat front waist

Trousers with short legs (men less than 5’10”, as cuffs create the perception of shorter legs)

Either Option

Trousers with single-pleats may be cuffed or not cuffed.

Understanding some accepted rules gives a good base knowledge to work with, when making decisions on whether or not to break the rules. Typically, when you have cuffed trousers, you also have a double-pleated waist front. A few perceptions that generally hold is that double-pleated trousers look best cuffed, and also that double pleats work well for heavier men, who need extra room in the mid-section when sitting, as pleats expand the area and provide more comfort. Very thin men who need to add a little shape around the waist area may find an advantage to wearing trouser pleats—as well as men who like to wear suspenders (obviously, with no belt).

One point in regard to cuffs that is also agreeable, is that cuffs add weight to the bottom of the pants, creating a better trouser drape, although heavier fabric may be sewn into the bottom of non-cuffed trousers for the same effect.

Cuffs should never be worn on tuxedo pants, as the overall vertical line of a tuxedo should be kept clean.

Today

Daniel Craig, 2012

The Armoury, Hong Kong, 2013

RELATED ARTICLE : Raising the Trouser Waistline