A History of British Flannel Trousers (1925 - 1955)
If there was one outfit that defined British menswear during the mid 20th Century, it was the casual combination of light coloured flannel trousers worn with a contrasting sports jacket. For around thirty years, starting in the mid 1920s and then declining with the arrival of ‘youth fashions’ in the 1950s, this was the look that was worn everywhere: From the promenades and beaches of the seaside resorts, to the terraces of football stadiums and everywhere in between, this fashion crossed the boundaries of age and class. It was a look that was just as popular with the average British working man as it was among Hollywood’s elite, many of whom shopped in the UK.
The fashion for wearing contrasting jacket and trousers had its roots in the 19th Century. It had been a regular feature of Victorian menswear and the casual look of light coloured trousers and darker jacket remained a popular summer style in the Edwardian era. It became the sporting look: Think cricket ‘whites’ worn with white canvas boots and topped off with a suit jacket.
Or white trousers worn with a boating blazer. Loose fitting, casual and comfortable, this was the uniform of summer leisure. Sober suiting might have been the respectable choice for office workers, and heavy dark fabrics were favoured by the industrial workforce, but at weekends these were cast aside in favour of comfort.
The look began to develop in the early 1920s when there was a quiet revolution in British menswear. Starting at Oxford and Cambridge universities, a new casual look evolved. Vivid colours arrived, particularly in knitwear, shirt and tie were increasingly abandoned in favour of high necked, brightly coloured jumpers.
In keeping with this celebration of comfort over formality, trousers began to be cut wider and worn longer. New colours and shades appeared as undergraduates experimented with pink, mauve and light green flannel cloth. These ‘art shades’, as they were advertised, seemed revolutionary but never quite eclipsed the popularity of grey and cream for summer wear. The other new arrival was fawn, which outlived the fashion for more outlandish colours but could not quite hit the heights that grey was able to scale.
During 1924 trousers began to be cut more generously, moving away from the very narrow profile of the period. At first the increase was on the upper legs with the width at the ankles remaining narrow. And then during 1925 the width of trouser hems suddenly expanded from a standard of 17 or 18 inches circumference, to 20 inches, 22 inches then 24. As the flourishing fashion was given the name ‘Oxford Bags’, extreme examples appeared with hems reaching 36 inches around the ankles, before settling back to an almost standard 22 inches, hanging below a generous thigh and 24 inch knee.
This new style of wide trousers, worn longer than earlier styles to drape over the shoes, established a template for casual trousers for the years ahead. The colour choices initially diminished as the extreme choices available in the mid-1920s were replaced by a core choice of less extravagant colours. Various shades of grey dominated the market whilst cream or white flannel remained popular for a more sporting look. Some brands offered up to four choices of grey – silver, light, mid and dark – whilst other colours such as biscuit, light green, lovat, nut brown, oatmeal and a range of blue shades were also available.
By the mid to late 1930s a wide range of colours were again available with the ‘Daks’ brand offering their trousers in up to eight fabrics and an incredible range of 41 colours. In the pre-war years most brands concentrated on plain flannels although some offered trousers with an overcheck, making them an ideal accompaniment to a plain jacket. In the post-war years striped flannels became available from some brands, such as ‘Guards’, although it was not clear whether this was responding to changes in fashion or simply that, due to cloth shortages, manufacturers offered whatever they had available.
The smaller details of the trousers fluctuated: both angled pockets and pockets on the side seam were available; flapped coin pockets, more commonly associated with suit trousers, were seen; extension waistbands, fastening with a clip, were popular; buckled side-adjusters appeared and narrow belt loops became common, both allowing men to abandon braces – although interior buttons were sometimes still included for those needing additional support.
Even details like a traditional high fishtail-back with brace buttons combined with belt loops were seen on some trousers. Some brands came with a detachable self-fabric belt. The ‘Sportown’ brand offered extender tabs for braces, which could be concealed beneath the waistband when not in use, a feature most commonly associated with continental tailoring. There was even a style of flannels, sold under the brand name ‘Clews’ that could be quickly converted into Plus 4s for sporting activities.
At times flannel trousers were available in varying widths, with narrower styles favoured by the more conservative male while wider styles – sometimes up to 26 inches – reappeared to echo the heady days of summer 1925 and were favoured by younger men. In the late 1940s and early 1950s flannel trousers started to get narrower as fashions changed, yet still retained their basic shaps.
Yet for all these changes and choices, the basic trouser style went all but unchanged: double, forward facing pleats gave the legs freedom to move and permanent turn ups helped give weight to the hems, allowing the trousers an elegant drape.
It seemed that all the menswear producers offered a selection of flannel trousers. One shop advertised that it carried a combination of 72 sizes and fittings. The chain of Foster Brothers shops offered a range of six trousers: ‘Fostrian’ was the basic, low cost flannel range, coming in over 50 shades; ‘Xtrastrong’ was hard wearing, but relatively cheap flannel; the ‘Sunshine brand had a worsted finish; ‘Crown’ trousers had an extending waistband; the ‘Sceptre’ range offered sloping pockets; and the ‘Royal’ range was the most expensive, in pure worsted or gabardine with sloping pockets and an extending waistband. Foster Brothers also offered the ‘Winit’, ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Stylval’ flannels.
Brands like ‘232 Flannels’ were widely advertised, being available through shops around the country. The brand had been launched in 1922 and its successful advertising campaigns meant it was selling 300,000 pairs a year by 1930. Smokers could even get free flannel trousers by collecting coupons from inside packets of ‘Black Cat’ cigarettes.
One of the major changes came in the mid 1930s when self-supporting trousers arrived. The most famous example was the ‘Daks’ adjustable waistband. Patented by the Simpsons brand in 1934, the design incorporated an elasticated internal belt which could be tightened by selecting a choice of buttoning positions. In addition, rubber pads were sewn inside the waistband to help hold the shirt elegantly in place.
As a Simpsons advertising copywriter put it, these were the “Comfort in Action” trousers that freed men “from the bondage of belt and braces”. They also pushed the sporting benefits of their garments, telling potential customers how Wimbledon finalists and English, South African and Australian test cricketers all wore the brand. These sportsmen were, the adverts claimed: “The cracks who wear Daks.” Presumably, they could also afford the ‘Daks’ prices: In a time when some flannel trousers cost just 8 shillings, Daks trousers retailed at 30 shillings.
Although the ‘Daks’ brand became synonymous with self-supporting trousers, and were at the upper end of the price range, there were a number of similar systems available such as the ‘Flexway’ waistband offered by ‘Austin Reed’; ‘Gripu’ flannels; ‘Selfixo’ had a “half belt of elastic unconditionally guaranteed”; one brand boasted of the ‘Tauttex Griptops’ which held the trousers in the correct position; there were ‘Agrippa’ sports trousers were advertised as the self-supporting brand without belts, rubber pads or ‘gadgets’ of any kind.
Advertisers extolled the virtues of flannel trousers, pushing their products to coincide with spring and summer – but, this being the UK, they were offered alongside raincoats just in case the summer weather turned wet. Catalogue illustrations used to promote the ‘Burtons’ brand showed men gardening promenading by the seaside.
These were trousers that would grace millions of seaside holiday snaps. Wide enough to be rolled to wear whilst paddling in the sea, yet formal enough to be worn with a jacket and tie, this was multifunction fashion. They worked with either flat caps or brimmed hats. The style looked as elegant on men sipping cocktails on the deck of an Atlantic liner as it looked functional on a man taking his dog for a walk. In the street battles of late 1930s London, communists and fascists alike fought each other whilst wearing their wide-cut flannels.
In 1933 the fashionable look was outlined in an advertisement extolling the virtues of wearing ‘232’ brand grey flannels with a sports coat: “They’re going everywhere together! The best dressed men are wearing them! Slipping into grey flannels and a sports coat was once a man’s way of showing that his social activities were over for the day. But today grey flannels and sports coats get out and about. They are known socially … they are in the public eye! The best dressed Englishmen are wearing them on an increasing number of occasions.”
Perhaps the apex of the style came in the mid to late 1930s, in a period when British menswear displayed a confidence that helped reinforce the widely held notion that British men were leaders in world fashion. Light coloured trousers were worn above two-tone brogues; coloured shirts were matched with subtly beautiful ties – whether cheap rayon or expensive silk; stylish belt-back jackets, complete with pleated patch pockets and often made from tweed with an over-check pattern, were at the height of fashion and favoured by young men.
It was a versatile look that allowed the style to transcend the wool flannel that the fashion was most often associated with. For summer wear, British men could buy linen or gabardine trousers in the same generous cut. Across the Empire and Commonwealth, British men took to linen and cotton versions of the style, with tailors across India making wide leg trousers for British soldiers to wear when off duty. For winter there were heavy wool or tweed alternatives. ‘Daks’ offered their grey flannels for standard wear, their ‘tropicals’ in linen for the summer or their ‘rough-stuffs’ woollens for winter. The battered, rather shapeless, light coloured corduroy trousers favoured by Field Marshal Montgomery during the Second World War were part of the same fashion, mixing the comfort of the wide cut flannels with the durability and warmth of corduroy, a fabric more commonly associated with workmen’s attire.
There remains an understanding of the elegant opportunities afforded by plain flannel trousers. Fans of vintage fashions and classic styles enjoy how flannel trousers can be used to create a look that straddles the line between formal and casual. They are a blank canvas upon which an outfit can be painted: A loud patterned jacket can look splendidly striking when worn above plain flannels, whereas a full suit made from vivid checked fabric might just appear vulgar. An added attraction is that grey flannel, in all its shades, can be combined with most colours. And trousers that are heavy enough to keep you warm in winter, yet are cut in a loose enough fit to keep you cool in summer, are simply a logical choice.
The flannel trouser will always be in style.