Wide Boys

03rd December 2020

With flares re-appearing in menswear collections by Gucci, Tom Ford and Dries Van Noten – and on the legs of pop icon Harry Styles and other stylish men about town – Alex Bilmes asks, do you dare to flare?

Words by Alex Bilmes


I blame Harry Styles. Once, as the prettiest boy in that prettiest of boybands, One Direction, Styles was a skinny-jeaned scamp who bestrode the narrow pop world like a mop-topped colossus, insofar as it’s possible to bestride anything in denim that restricting. In recent years Styles has reinvented himself, in musical but especially sartorial terms, as a cross between a Laurel Canyon flower child (winsome, ethereal, extremely wide-trousered) and a louche disco troubadour (sexy, snake-hipped, extremely wide-trousered). Harry Styles wears flares – serious,Saturday Night Fever-style loons — and rarely since the heady days of Travolta in his prime has any single male pinup exerted such influence on the width of trouser hems appearing in the recent men’s fashion collections.

This reporter last saw Harry Styles — with a name like that, how could the fashion establishment resist? — in the flesh in Rome, in the summer of 2019. The occasion was a party celebrating the latest collection from Gucci, the label that, under designer Alessandro Michele, has led the way in terms of publicity and sales in recent years, and for whom Styles serves as model and muse. Michele’s aesthetic fuses multiple youth cult styles of the Sixties and Seventies, from beatnik to goth, but the overarching affect is early-Seventies hippy royalty — Talitha Getty in full regalia — and, sure enough, the entertainment at the Gucci party in Rome was supplied by no less a countercultural icon than Fleetwood Mac’s gypsy fire-woman, Stevie Nicks. Harry Styles joined her on stage to duet on her deathless hit, “Landslide”.

He was wearing a double-breasted suit in off-white, trousers impressively flared, over a low-cut white vest, the better to show off the matching pair of swallows tattooed on his chest. His hair, as American singer-songwriter Warren Zevon once reported of the werewolf of London, was perfect.

Of course, in fashion as in pop, there’s nothing new under the sun, and Styles is paying conspicuous homage to the great flare-wearers of so many of our youths. (Though not his youth, since he wasn’t born until 1994.) I’m thinking of the enduring public representatives of mid-Seventies men’s style: Bruce Lee; the teenage Michael Jackson; Bryan Ferry in his lounge-lizard prime; Starsky and Hutch, and their English equivalents, Bodie and Doyle of The Professionals; those bell-bottomed sensations, the Bay City Rollers; and my personal favourite and every journalist’s fantasy figure, Robert Redford, circa All The President’s Men. Women, too, of course: Lauren Hutton, Pam Grier, Farrah Fawcett and her fellow Angels.

Even back then, flares were a statement. They were a statement best made by the young, and beautiful, and thin. See above list. And so, unless you are one, or preferably all three, of those (lucky you), flares are not necessarily to be trusted (even if, as well as Gucci, the look was also on show at Tom Ford and Dries Van Noten). They might be generous to ankles, but they can be terribly unkind to hips. Those whose dancefloor diva days are behind them might be advised to give them a wide — a very wide — berth. The same can be said of much of the current youthquake-inspired styles: tie-dye, bandannas, beads.

I have a friend and colleague, the dashing Ben Cobb, of LOVE magazine, who has been rocking flared trousers, wide-lapelled jackets, unbuttoned spread-collared silk shirts, ankle boots and aviator sunglasses since Harry Styles was still in short trousers. Ben, a front-row fixture at the men’s shows in Paris, Milan and beyond, is, I believe, as much responsible for fashion’s current obsession with swaggering Seventies style as anyone. He wears clothes from Gucci, Tom Ford, Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten, mixed with some vintage pieces. It looks terrific on him. But he is whippet thin, teak tanned, daringly moustached and preternaturally cool. He lives the look.

I confess that, born in 1973, I was too young for flares the first time around. (There are, it’s true, photos — redacted — of me on an outward-bound course on Dartmoor in the summer of 1984, in which my bell bottoms got into a frightful tangle after snagging on a gorse bush. But that was an aberration.)

The closest I came was in the late Eighties when, as a spotty teenaged devotee of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, the bands associated with the so-called Madchester phenomenon, I arrayed myself in baggy long-sleeve T-shirts, bucket hats, Lennon specs and the briefly ubiquitous “straights” — hilariously flappy jeans (32”!) that weren’t really flares because they were wide from belt to toe, rather than flaring at the bottom. Mine were made by the Lancashire couturier Joe Bloggs. Wearing them, I felt – to quote the legend printed on a popular t-shirt of the period – “cool as f**k”. No doubt I looked ridiculous. That’s OK, I was 17, and skinny as a cigarette. Like Harry and Ben, I could get away with it. I wouldn’t dare try it now. Some things are best left to the professionals. And The Professionals.

Alex Bilmes is editor in chief of Esquire.

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