How To Wear White Pants Without Discarding Your Dignity
A few guidelines for pulling off your most polarizing piece of clothing with confidence.
I am not sure how we got the idea that no one should wear white clothing before Memorial Day. It may be a misreckoning of what Miss Manners, in 1990, called “the White Shoe Edict”—the stipulation that the only time it is correct to wear white footwear is in summer. The shoe rule may have made sense at the time, but in 2017, it lies crumbled under the weight of a billion pairs of sneakers.
When it comes to certain staples such as t-shirts, button-ups, and teeth, white is never controversial at any time of year, as Miss Manners again notes. But nothing is truly off-limits anymore: Standards have eroded so thoroughly that propriety scarcely registers as a concept. Even if there were a fashion rule book that the populace could agree to accept as authoritative, we’d need to amend the so-called Memorial Day rule with an eye toward climate change.
White symbolizes purity, but no one would call it demure when it’s the color of your trousers. Instead, it conjures the flamboyant jauntiness of pants worn at the seaside, perhaps with a boater hat. Or the New England rakishness of John F. Kennedy on a sailboat, maybe with bold, blue socks or a summer-weight, navy sweater. Worn with a field jacket, a pair of white pants can lend you the subtropical glamor of a Graham Greene character.
But a pair of white pants is often a cause for distress among those inclined to wear them. Sometimes the distress comes from merely being witness to them: This $1,000 pair of ripped white jeans from the brand Fear of God indicates the general state of affairs: Many, many clothiers are asking you to spend money on pants without spending a moment’s concern on whether their pocket bags are visible—which, in this product shot, they clearly are. This sort of truth in advertising complicates the meaning of transparency.
The See-Through Conundrum
All of which brings us to the central shopping problem with white trousers: locating a pair that are reasonably opaque. This isn’t a simple matter of getting what you pay for. The problem can manifest even with trousers made with great care and expense by the most respected names in menswear.
The only surefire solution is to have them lined. I was reminded of this a few days ago, in the changing room at Bergdorf Goodman, while I was in the process rejecting three pairs of semi-transparent white jeans from otherwise-reputable brands. The sales assistant sympathized. “Three years ago, I found a good pair of white Seven [for all Mankind] jeans.” she said. “They were thin enough to be cool, but not thin enough to see through.”
Her testimony called to mind a nightmare white-suit experience that a colleague recently endured. He wanted to be married in a white suit, so he visited a respected tailor shop he’d worked with before—only to receive an ensemble only slightly less translucent than sheer muslin. He got his money back and floored it to the nearest Suitsupply, which saved the day with white silk. “The fabric is really durable and breathable,” he said. “It took the beating I gave it really gracefully.”
I spoke about all these issues with Edoardo Fassino, who is the creative director and chief executive officer of PT Pantaloni Torino, which designs pants, and only pants, with a rigorous attention to detail. Fassino said that the company’s white trousers are selling well, especially in Japan, where they’re often paired with blue blazers.
The Fabric Solution
The key, he said, to producing a decent pair of white trousers is to know that “the choice of fabric is related to the fit you want to realize”—for instance, a skinnier cut necessitates a correspondingly thicker cloth. In PT’s case, this might bring you into the realm of cotton piqué. Elsewhere, you may find yourself examining heavy twill cotton-linen blends or conversing with your tailor about the versatility of winter-white flannel. You may also decide that you’re willing to settle for a slight bit of sheerness in order to look the way you want when mooching off someone’s else summer share. If the guys at Canali are not losing a lot of sleep over this, should you?
I would also add that good posture helps one to wear white in a way that highlights its healthy and wholesome vibes. It is certainly crucial to the sartorial success of sailors visiting New York for Fleet Week, in their “service dress white” or “summer white service” uniforms. The sharpness is essential: When it comes to white, crisp is ritzy, rumpled is potentially chic in a bed-headed beach-bum way, wrinkled is dicey. Stained is awful, obviously.
The main reason that wearing a lot of white imparts an aura of luxury is that it indicates your strong relationship with a first-rate cleaner and your privilege not to sit anywhere grubby. This is the true spirit of white clothing as worn throughout the contiguous U.S., where it is seen everywhere from the West Egg of James Gatz (aka Jay Gatsby) to the Southampton of Sean Combs (dba Puff Daddy, when he threw his first White Party in 1998).
The Great White Way
If you want to wear your white pants with dignity, Fassino explained, use a trick that, at first, feels counterintuitive: Don’t pair white pants with white underwear. “Everyone thinks you have to wear white underwear, but this is not the right trick,” he said. “Even if you are white, your skin is not white.” Try something closer to the general color of your skin tone when seeking to blend in at the non-stop white party of the season.
Who else is betting big on white pants this summer? Who isn’t? In some John Varvatos window displays, it’s the only thing to see. California denim brand Frame has added “blanc” as a choice for its l’homme straight jean. Historically, Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label gets high marks for doing white pants well.
Some of us, finding this all too stressful while nonetheless admiring the textured vibe of white denim, may start browsing for white jackets. It’s a perfectly sensible way to get in on this without risking the dirty slats of an Adirondack chair lining the seat of your pants.
But—simply to indicate that this a mass trend strong enough to sway the big boys in fast fashion—I also need to point out that Zara is heading into summer by proposing a “weekend getaway” look that combines high-waisted, wide-legged white jeans and a slightly stretchy, “denim-like” white trucker jacket. If your getaway involves a weekend of housepainting, this might be the right way to go.