A few weeks ago, Belle linked to my 2009 guide to pant length and one of her commenters pointed out that although much of the post was still relevant, styles had changed. It’s five years later and ankle pants are almost more common than full-length, so some of my tips are definitely outdated. And since puzzling out pant hemlines is something that many women struggle with on the regular, I thought I’d take this opportunity to refresh and revise that post for 2014!
First and foremost, different pant lengths suit different shoes. Those slacks that look killer with your ballet flats are gonna look downright goofy with your platform slingbacks. Those jeans you love to wear with your stack-heeled boots are going to appear utterly preposterous when you throw them on with flip-flops. When you’re on the hunt for new pants, be sure to bring the shoes you intend to wear with them into the fitting room. Otherwise, it’s a total crap shoot. More on the pant hem dilemma right here.
Also, you’ll encounter different length challenges depending on the style of leg. Skinnies bunch, widelegs engulf, straightlegs pull, and on and on. Yet another reason to bring or wear the appropriate shoes when trying on potential new pants.
And finally, while extra length can be dealt with, lack of length is far trickier. If you unearth a pair that fits you gloriously and suits your budget but is miles too long, a tailor can rescue you quite easily. Gorgeous pants that are meant to be full-length yet expose your ankles will be tough to lengthen to acceptable proportions.
Now let’s see some visuals:
Full-length pants too short for heels
Here we see a trouser-style dress pant with a crease and fairly wide leg opening worn with heels. They are riding several inches above the floor and showing almost the entire foot. This means that by current standards, they are too short.
Full-length pants too long for heels
Pants that are too long are often wide-legged or flared, like these pairs of jeans. If the hem covers the entire front of the foot and makes the wearer appear to be footless, they are too long. And, actually, this applies regardless of whether the shoes are heels or flats! We need to see at least a peek of foot.
Full-length pants at correct length for heels
If you’re doing full-length pants or trousers with heeled shoes, they should look like this. In my opinion, pants should not graze the floor, as that’s just asking to ruin your hems. About one inch above the floor when you’re standing straight will work just fine. See how just the tip of the toe peeks out? And in the back view, see how about an inch of the heel is showing? Conditions are perfect.
Full-length pants at correct length for flats
These guys are a little closer to sweeping the ground, so you could certainly go up a half-inch or so. You still want the hem to be pretty darned close to the floor if your pants are meant to be full-length, even if your shoes are flat or almost-flat.
Now, both of these pairs have fairly wide legs, although one pair is formal and one casual. Things get trickier if you’re doing slimmer styles like straight legs because the opening at the hem may ride on the bridge of your foot.
Straight leg pants with heels and flats
Here are straight leg pants worn with both heels and flats. If the pants on the left were any longer they’d bunch over the bridge of the foot and get caught on the back of the shoe. If the pants on the right were any longer, they’d bunch over the bridge of the foot and drag on the ground. So: Better that your straight-legs ride a little higher than your trousers to prevent awkward encounters with your feet and the floor. But since we want full-length pants – especially dressy ones worn for professional purposes – to appear longer than this, straight legs may look a little less elegant. My guess is that ankle-length and cropped pants gained popularity because they look intentionally short instead of shrunk-in-the-wash short, which can happen with certain straight legs. And so …
Ankle pants at correct length for heels
SUCH a subtle difference between the straight legs above and these ankle-length pants, I know. And in some cases how high a pair of pants rides at the waist and how high your heels are may nudge them over the edge into ankle-length or just-a-touch-too-short-length. In my opinion, the key here is that we see the entire bridge of the foot and the hem hits at ankle height. You can go a bit higher or lower than this, too, and still be in ankle-length territory. Notice that one of the key differences between these ankle-length pants and the straight legs above is that this pair is slightly tapered.
Ankle pants at correct length for flats
If you’re doing flats with your ankle pants, ideally they should show a bit more ankle. Why? Because when they’re longer they’ll look just like the straight-legs above. Ankle-length pants are meant to look a bit short and show a little peek of skin. When you’re wearing flat shoes and the bridge of your foot is parallel to the ground and therefore downplayed, showing more of your ankle makes this style of pant look fun and intentional. This is especially true if you go for oxfords which cover your foot entirely.
Skinny pants that are too long
These are very mild examples, but show the issues that can arise with truly skinny pants. Now, if you’re tucking into boots, your skinnies can be miles too long and it won’t matter a bit. Cuff them and tuck them into your socks. Bam. But if you’re wearing super slim-fitting pants with heels and they bunch up at your ankles, they will look too long. If you’re doing skinnies with flats, same deal. With denim and pants made from fabrics that are slightly stiff, you can just tuck some of the pant length back into the pant leg itself for a French cuff and no one will be the wiser. No hemming needed, no bunching visible.
Skinny pants at correct length
Skinny pants that are worn untucked with either heels or flats will look the most polished and chic worn at ankle length or above. No bunching, no knocking into your foot’s bridge, a clean, neat finish.
Fit issues with full-length tapered styles
Based on what I’ve read and seen, full-length, slouchy, pleated, tapered pants are meant to pool a little at the ankle, so the pair on the left is fine. The pair on the right is tapered but not skin-tight at the ankle, so tucking it into ankle boots looks a bit off. There’s some pooching and bunching, and the curve of the ankle is obscured. Probably better to untuck your tapered pants or even cuff them so they hit at ankle height or above instead. Which segues nicely into …
Detailed hemlines make pants look intentional
Shorter length pants with gathers, ties, and cuffs are GREAT options because they broadcast intentionality. The bottom line is that no matter how long or short your pants are, you want to look like you’ve chosen their length on purpose. They’re not this long because you’re wearing your heels-length pants with flats today and they’re not this short because they’ve had an encounter with Hot Dryer. When they’re finished with hemline details, you’re telling the world that you know exactly how long your pants are meant to be and exactly where you’d like them to hit on your leg line.
Is all this written in stone? Will you burst into flames if you don’t follow these guidelines to the letter, measuring down to the centimeter where your pant hem hits on your ankle or foot’s bridge? Am I saying that these are the only ways to wear any kinds of pants correctly? Is getting your pant length just right going to make or break you as a fashionable person? No. Also no. Hells no. And allow me to give you a giant heaping pile of NO. The Pant Hem Police are especially lax these days because SO much comes down to personal style and preferences, and even if they weren’t this is seriously nit-picky, granular stuff. But since questions about the “right” length for various styles of pants worn with various styles/heights of shoes are posed to me on a near-weekly basis by clients, readers, and Corset customers, I wanted to outline the current guidelines as I understand and employ them myself. None of my figure flattery advice posts should be considered gospel, including this one, and I fully expect you to read them with a grain of salt. Style “rules” are merely guidelines, no matter who is dispensing them. I trust you to use your judgment. And I trust you to take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent.
So! Was this helpful? Do the guidelines make sense? What combinations of pant-length and shoe-style are you most likely to wear? Are you wearing ankle-length pants these days? They certainly are the dominant style, it seems. Anything you’d add? Anyone wearing straight-legs and have some additional input for making them look great? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!
All images courtesy Nordstrom
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