Did you know that flared trousers were originally designed to be utility pants? Until recently, I never would have considered the flare to be on that list. The British Royal Navy decided to make the trousers a uniform item in 1817. The pants later made their way beyond the military line in the 1960s. Through GI and civilian anti-war movements, the flare became an iconic shape for the countercultural opposition to the Vietnam war.
Back in the day, safety equipment on the ship wasn’t so advanced. Often there were times when sailors were swept overboard without a life vest. The need to survive led them to an out-of-the-box idea, to create a float with what they had on…their pants. By knotting the ends, the large surface trapped enough air to keep one afloat long enough for help to arrive. Other practical uses of the bell-bottom were to shield cold water spray from getting into boots. The bottoms could also be rolled up knee high when scrubbing deck or wadding to shore. It also improved time for sailors to take them off when they needed to abandon ship in a heartbeat.
For many years, sailors were the only ones wearing the flared bottoms. All this changed in the 60s when both GI’s and civilians started anti-war movements like ‘Stop Our Ships (SOS)’. Thousands of sailors protested the war by refusing Vietnam duty and sabotaged Navy vessels from sailing. The flare became a symbol of rebellion in an extremely polarized Vietnam War society. The flower children made it their ‘anti-uniform’ by customization, like painting peace signs and flowers onto their flares. The restyled version became a symbolic piece that was seen anywhere from anti-Vietnam war protests to the catwalks of Paris.
Though all this meaning and cultural significance are but whispers of the distant past, we associate flares with the unique music and art that came from that time… a groovy, radical spirit. I’d like to give a shout out to the W’menswear design team for the Sealab Pants that are based on the original Naval trouser. There are still people like myself who are inspired by the historical value of design. As a practical person, I also love how the Sealab pants are slightly flared, have many big pockets, and a length that finishes just above my sweaty ankles. It’s hard-hitting gear that pays respects to the practicality and utility of its origin. From pure utility to social revolution, flared pants are a testament to how usefulness and change are constant variables that redefine meaning.
Cover photo: Gippo
W'menswear editorial photo by Eric Kvatek, Words by Buranee Soh