Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Men's waistbands have risen and fallen through history

Two types of trouser waistline

By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

The way a man wears his trousers may reveal his age, research says. But when it comes to waistband placement, history shows there is no golden rule.

You no longer have to eye his hairline to determine a man's age. There's a new way to figure out just how old he is: take a look at his beltline.

A survey from department store Debenhams (illustrated below) suggests that a man's waistband rises and falls throughout his life. Trousers bottom out at the age of 16 with below-the-hip styles and peak at 57, just seven inches below the armpit.

Young boys may wear their trousers at their natural waist while being dressed by their parents, but they generally don't return to this style until they reach their late 20s.

Trouser waistline graph

Fashion history shows this seesaw isn't such a new thing - waistlines have been bouncing up and down for hundreds of years.

In Henry VIII's time, men wore trousers called "cannons", whose bulkiness around the thigh drew the eye. The first true trousers in Western Europe - pantaloons - were high-waisted and used light-coloured fabric to elongate a man's figure.

The invention of elastic braces in the 1840s meant that trousers continued to be kept hiked up, although waistcoats prevented waistbands from being seen.

But even with the waistbands hidden from prying eyes, this ushered in a problem that continues until today: Men don't know where to wear their trousers.

Ups and downs

"Historically, braces are used to keep up trousers and undergarments," says Andrew Groves, course director of fashion design at the University of Westminster. "They hold the trouser so it doesn't really touch the body."

By the turn of the 20th Century, with the advent of baggier lounge-style suits, the waistline dropped, ushering in a century of yo-yoing waistlines.

"As fashion has inevitably speeded up, the waistband has shifted up and down seasonally," says Shaun Cole, the principal lecturer in history and culture at the London College of Fashion.

In particular, Alexander McQueen's "bumsters" (revealingly low-cut trousers) and hip-hop music in the 1980s and 1990s influenced people to wear their trousers on their hips… or even lower.

Trends are much slower in menswear... They take longer to filter through
Shaun Cole
London College of Fashion

"Young people of today are used to having boxer shorts hanging out," Mr Groves says. "They think they're wearing [their trousers] normally, but they're actually on the hip."

That perception of where trousers should sit is at the root of the mockery of Simon Cowell, Britain's face of the so-called natural waist. But according to the Debenhams study, Mr Cowell, at age 50, is a bit old to wear his trousers there.

"It just looks odd," Mr Groves says. "[But] it wasn't like he was making a fashion statement."

Fashion tradition is also on Mr Cowell's side. It dictates that trousers be worn on the "natural waist", the narrowest part of the body between the chest and hip. Most suits are designed for the natural waist or slightly below, but jackets hide that fact.

Mr Cole says that a man's body shape determines where he views his "waist" to be. Men entrenched in the gym and fitness culture may be hyper-aware of the natural waist. With a rise in obesity, overweight men may not know whether to wear them above or below their stomach.

This confusion is also reflected in the Debenhams' survey, with research into what the clothing industry calls Under and Over Achievers. Although most men would prefer to fasten the waistband over their natural waist, the survey shows that 20% of older men will ignore their changing body shape and wear their trousers below their natural waistline, rather than buying a larger size.

Alexander McQueen's bumsters
Women led the way in low-cut styles like Alexander McQueen's bumsters

Many men may simply follow what their friends and acquaintances are doing, says Mr Groves, or follow a shop assistant's instructions. They also can be influenced by the fashions of their personal coming-of-age period and then carry them throughout life.

Mr Groves has a hard time believing the waistband trends will continue indefinitely.

"The idea of old people walking around with their pants hanging out is not pleasant," he says. "Are people suddenly going to pull their trousers up? I don't think so."

Although there is no single rule for where a man's waistband should sit, Mr Groves offers a simple test: Don't expose your socks or your belly.

"Pay attention to where [your trousers] join the rest of the body," he says.

And to those who bemoan living in a country of lowering waist lines, he offers some encouragement: what goes around comes around. Fashion tends to be cyclical, so high waists may not be gone for long. Just give it another 10 years.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I am a 49 year old with a 30" waist and struggle to buy trousers off the peg that size. I am often directed to the boys section of shops, what are males waistlines coming to?
Dave, Solihull

Stange comment about showing socks though. Anyone who sees something from the 1960s will see that there was always a 1" gap between trouser and shoe to match the 1" gap between cuff and shirt. Bond does it all the time. That is something that has vanished completely, but I think looks pretty smart.
Peter, London

The height of one's waistband is not dependent on your age, as much as on the fashion of the day. In my grandfather's day, trousers such as the Oxford Bag were cut with a high waistband - he persisted in wearing what he found smart and comfortable. Fashion tradition dictates nothing: it merely reflects the average waistband. High-waisted trousers can be extremely flattering - although they are barely seen these days except amongst vintage enthusiasts or in military formal wear. Today I happen to be wearing high-waisted 1930s cut jeans - and they're great.
PJ Ayres, London

I don't think it has anything to do with age at all - it all depends on the belly issue. There comes a time in a man's life when he has to make the decision that he will stick to until the day he dies - am I an up-and-over or an up-and-under? Whereas my Dad & my brother both chose the up-and-over camp, my hubby has gone to the up-and-under. I guess it all depends on where you want the belly bulge to be seen - in your shirt or in your trousers.

This reaffirms my suspicion that I'm a middle-aged man in a 20-something's body. For a while, I've lamented the trouser styles widely available for my age that are to sit on (or slightly below) the natural waist. I find that by constantly sitting and getting up my shirt rides out and needs to be tucked in time and time again. If so many people would prefer a higher waistline, why are they so hard to find in shops. Perhaps a return to kidney-warmers and braces is too much to hope for?
Rhys, Carmarthenshire

Sadly your graph is wrong: no line for the below the bum cheeks waistline.
AndrewM, London

Trousers are made with a certain distance from where the legs join to the waistband and a certain length of leg.. You can't pull them up any further than this distance unless you want to be a soprano, or you can wear them lower. If the leg to waist is large and you wear them at your waist then the point of legs will be halfway down your thighs. It's nothing to do with your age, it's to do with the fashion of the trousers when you bought them and how long they last. You can't buy trousers that button round your nipples like you saw old men wearing 30 years ago, and they bought them years before that. It's like flat front and pleats, and straight and angled pockets. Fashion designers decree that something is not happening not the people who buy them.
Robert, Glos UK

What makes me laugh is that everyone I've asked who wears their trousers down low say they do this to be different. But they all look the same.
Mik Hatcher, Rochester

Nonsense. You get no choice in what's offered these days - and if that leaves a gut above the belt, that's life.
Rahere, Smithfield

Big belly? Wear 'em high with a waistcoat or sweater or tank top or something to cover the waistband. A belly hanging over a waistband never looks good and can never be "fashionable". The cardinal crime IMO is not the relative height of the waistband, it's whether the inside leg has been correctly judged. People, men especially, tall men worst of all, who wear their trousers floating a few inches above their shoes and socks should be ritually de-bagged in the street and forced to wear their trousers on their head for such a grievous style crime. Unless your trousers are rolled up, if you can see your socks in the mirror when you are wearing trousers and standing up... don't. Go and buy a pair that fit properly!
Richard, London

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific