An Illustrated History of Formal Checkered Trousers

Discussion in 'Andy's Fashion Forum' started by Sator, Jan 20, 2007.

  1. Sator

    Sator Honors Member

    I always like to imagine what sort of swatches one might find in a 19th century tailor’s shop. I imagine that there would be books dedicated to fabrics specifically for waistcoats - full of much colourful material - for that was where a gentleman was allowed to display his individuality. Alongside that I always imagine to myself that there would be books dedicated to trousers alone. There would a large choice of different striped trousers but of greatest interest to us today, alongside them would be many checks. Of all of these the hardest to find today is fabric that comes close to the sort of variety one finds amongst the checkered fabrics one finds on display in illustrations from the 19th to early 20th century. The variety seems exhaustive and quite unlike anything one would ever encounter in contemporary books.

    Whereas striped trousers have kept a place in the canon of modern daytime formal dress, checkered formal trousers have become a rather rare bird. Perhaps they fell out of favour for looking too formal on the one hand for daily wear yet too informal to wear with morning dress. Yet I really do feel that one could yet wear them today as part of an ensemble for everyday dress - as something that alludes to the eloquent formality of morning dress - and indeed could well be worn with a morning coat - but which still would look informal enough for the workplace matched with a charcoal lounge coat (perhaps even SB single button with peaked lapels). I doubt that virtually anybody today would recognise the combination of checkered formal trousers and lounge suit coat as being in any way akin to morning dress any way.

    Outrageous? Perhaps.

    Before passing judgement too quickly I would like to invite you to look at how elegantly dandyish the look can be.

    Checkered trousers first start to appear in fashion illustrations around the 1830s and remained a fixture of men’s dress for the remainder of the century and right into the twentieth century. Rather than start at the beginning I shall start later with the early 20th century with an illustration dated November 1902. In this illustration you see what is basically a lounge suit coat worn with checkered trousers. It is clearly not quite a stroller, not quite proper morning dress but a step down from that level. In view of a lack of text one can only imagine that by this time it would have been a step up in formality from the lounge suit but a considerable step down in formality from a morning coat. By this time dark colours dominated men's dress sufficiently that the classic pattern of a very sombre formal checkered trousering had become well established:


    Going back in time to 1872 here is a striking example of a formal check. I really like way the checkered trousers on the gentleman on the left manage to be both bold and understated all at the one time. Although the plates are black and white, by this period dark colours dominated by the increasingly ubiquitous black, demanded that formal trousers worn with a frock coat as shown here would have needed to be in austere dark colours. It would seem that that tendency to drabness is being offset by the particulary bold checkered pattern of the trousers.


    Next is an illustration from Il Gionale dei Sarti from August, 1853. The gentleman on the left in the frock coat wears trousers with a very understated and tasteful formal check. In contrast the trousers of the gentleman in the frock coat on the right are strikingly bold. Notice the scale of the checks and unusual change in pattern towards the hems. I particularly like the contrast between the scale of the checks on the trousers and the facings of the lapels. Again by this time darker colours were increasingly become the norm for formal checkered trousers and his trousers were likely to be in shades of grey and black:


    Here is another example of understated checkered trousers from the Gazette of Fashion, 1850. You have to look a little bit carefully to see the check. It is clear that patterns of a scale such as this could only have been made with trousers in mind. Once again you can see how formal dark coloured checks have become standard:


    The following example from Il Gionale dei Sarti September 1850 leaves no doubt in the mind that whoever made these fabrics would have done so specifically with checkered trousers in mind. Look at the very tall, thin rectangular pattern designed to make the legs look longer:


    The next example is an illustration from 1847. The gentleman wears trousers with a light base - but more on this later. Notice the threefold lines which constitute the lines in the check. Again, this design was meant specifically for trousers:


    By way of variation the next couple of examples from the Gazette of Fashion and Cutting-Room Companion are of some more unusual checkered patterns. The gentleman in the middle is wearing a rather exuberant tartan check pattern, which may have even been in a variety of colours. This illustration is dated October, 1853:


    Here is a similar pair of trousers dating from 1860 in a full colour illustration which shows the bold colours in the check. As in the previous diagram the type of coat and colourful trousers identify that this would have been considered acceptable only as half-dress at the time:


    And here are a couple of checks which appear either only at the bottom of the trousers (left) or exclusively on the top and bottom (right). This illustration is dated May, 1853:


    Another type of checkered trousers popular around the mid-century had a white or cream coloured base with a bold overcheck. Their appearance in conjuction with a dress coat suggest these were acceptable with more formal daytime dress:


    Here is another example with a rather striking diamond shaped overcheck (probably from the 1850s):


    Here is a rare illustration of an example dating from the 1840s in Imperial Russia:


    Well, I sincerely hope those of you who enjoy Etutees wonderful essays based around illustrations from the 1920-30s on the London Lounge enjoyed this even a small fraction as much. Far from having merely subjected you to so much baroque bizarreness I hope to have opened your eyes to a lost world: the tailors of those times really new what they were doing.


    There is one thing I thought I should add to avoid a particular confusion that inevitably arises with the modern reader, who wonders what all the fuss is about given how commonplace checkered worsteds and tweeds are in the modern wardrobe. After all checks such as the Prince of Wales check are ubiquitous in the modern wardrobe. So it would seem akin to claiming to have rediscovered the wheel to proclaim the classical formal check to be somewhat forgotten.

    The thing is that these classical formal checks which has been handed down to us from late Victorian times are a different beast to their modern informal bretheren, just as formal striped trousers differ from the ubiquitous stripes on modern suitings.

    By way of illustration here are a couple of examples of modern formal striped trousering out of my own wardrobe:



    As you can see in both examples, the colours are sombre and muted, in shades of black, charcoal and lighter greys. So just as the pinstripes in your wardrobe are quite different to those found on formal trousers, formal checks are a completely different beast to those more casual checks lurking in your wardrobe. Browns, pinks, blues, reds, or yellows may all feature on your Prince of Wales check but during course of the 19th, the waistcoat eventually became the only place a man was allowed to show colour. The colour for neckwear, coats and trousers became very muted by comparison.

    Of course this was not always the case, as earlier on in the 19th century colours were much more vibrant. Nonetheless the balance found in the latter 19th century between the boldness of the checks on the one hand and the sombreness of their colours reached a pinnacle of dandyfied refinement.
  2. clothesboy

    clothesboy Senior Member

    United States
    Yes, I know this post is over a year old but not one comment?

    Reading this I'm struck by how easy it is to see what influenced the "mods". (Other OF's will understand)

    Well done, Sator. Are you by any chance Etutee's grandfather?:p
  3. fullgrain

    fullgrain Senior Member

    The original go to hell pants! Thanks Sator for the work in putting this together.
  4. Alexander Kabbaz

    Alexander Kabbaz Tech and Business Advice Guru

    United States
    New York
    East Hampton
    WONDERFUL! Surprised I didn't see it first time around.

    Do more! Encore!!!
  5. Brideshead

    Brideshead Senior Member

    I missed it too.....

  6. PITAronin

    PITAronin Active Member with Corp. Privileges

    Apropos of almost nothing (save the fact that one seldom encounters cartoons with a sartorial focus), for years I've been trying to track down and frame a Playboy cartoon I saw many years ago. The essence was that two Regency bucks are walking down the street where some malefactor who's been stripped to the waist is being flogged. Observing that the man is wearing checked trousers one of the dandies remarks to his companion something along the lines of "Doesn't he know that stripes and checks just don't work at all well together?"

    (Sorry - at this late date I don't remember the relative size of the patterning of the checked trousers vis a vis the width of the stripes on the man's back to make a more informed judgment as to whether or not the combo was particularly egregious.)
  7. Alexander Kabbaz

    Alexander Kabbaz Tech and Business Advice Guru

    United States
    New York
    East Hampton
    I coulda sworn you said you ignored the graphics and only subscribed to read the articles. :devil:
  8. yachtie

    yachtie Advanced Member

    Given modern "sensibilities" the bolder checks would be a definite improvement over jeans and cords + sportcoats for casual wear.
  9. Tiberias

    Tiberias Active Member with Corp. Privileges

    I have actually been wanting to start wearing checked pants, but I'm not clear on the rules; do you have to wait until after the retirement party, or is just getting your first issue of the AARP magazine sufficient?
  10. Cordovan

    Cordovan Active Member with Corp. Privileges

    Excellant - I was not here a year ago, but I thank clothesboy for bringing it up as I have yet to read through all of the archives on this site. Well done and thank you Sator.


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