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Slacks vs. Trousers vs. Suit vs. Dress Pants

Here we take a close look into the differences and similarities between slacks, trousers, suits, and dress pants to determine the best way to wear them and pair them.

This is a businessman wearing black slacks heading to the office.

There are different types of pants for various occasions. Even if you don’t care for fashion, you know it wouldn’t be advisable to wear denim shorts to a formal dinner. There is nearly a pant for everyone.

Some may seem the same but differ by a tiny detail. How do we know which one to wear for which occasion? Eager to find out? Let’s go!

Pants are bifurcated garments covering each leg separately from the waist down. In the UK, pants refer to underwear, whereas trousers are what the US refers to as pants. Slacks are loosely fitted pants. Suits are formal and are paired with a matching coat, whereas dress pants are more semi-formal.

Whether you are a fashion snob or just looking for a suitable outfit for Saturday night, there is a broad selection of pants from different materials intended for specific occasions. Let’s explore the difference between slacks, trousers, suits, and dress pants.

Table of Contents

First and Foremost: What are Pants?

This is a woman wearing a pair green trousers heading off to the office.

As simple as it may seem, Pants have different definitions and cultural significance for people worldwide. When people in the UK talk about their “Pants,” they are referring to their underwear. Countries like North America, South Africa, and Australia refer to pants as a garment tailored from the waist down with a fly-front and hoops for a belt.

On a manufacturing level, you can define pants as a bifurcated garment, an item of clothing made up of two panels of specific material. They start from the waist down, covering each leg separately, and end by the ankle.

What Led Up to the Invention Of Pants?

BALEAF Women's Riding Pants Full Seat Breeches Equestrian Tights Horseback Horse Jodhpurs High Waist Silicone Grip Pockets Black S

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Many years ago—around 3000 BCE—horses were domesticated and became a standard mode of transport or an essential commodity for labor-related work. Alongside the growing use and dependency on horses, the simple wrap-around garment they’ve been rocking was very impractical and kept getting undone.

Eventually, horses became a symbol of class in many regions around the world. Not many people could afford them, and therefore, if you had one – you had money. You’re probably wondering, what on earth do horses have to do with pants?

Well, a couple of years ago, a team excavating the Yanghai tombs in Turpan, Xinjiang, the western regions of modern-day China, had unearthed a beautifully preserved pair of pants. Thanks to carbon dating, the pants date back to around 3250 BCE.

The construction of these pants is composed of multiple panels of cotton fabric. The design of the pants and the chosen material suggests that horseriders use them to protect themselves from the cold weather and the horse itself. That’s what horses have to do with pants. The rest—as they say—is history.

What are the Different Parts that Make a Pair of Pants?

This is a pair of blue jeans on a wooden surface.

There are five parts to constructing a pair of trousers: the cuffs, a fly, a form of trouser support like a belt or suspenders, and the pleats. Here is a small description for each:

Cuffs

Cuffs are a means of finishing a tailored piece through a process called Hemming. It is to avoid the material from fraying, and it polishes the look.

Fly

A fly is the bit of material that covers the buttons or zipper that connects the opening of the trouser. In front of the groin region, the fly’s position makes it easy to put on and take off the trousers and a practical means for men to open when they need to urinate.

Trouser Support

Traditionally, trousers, like that of the formal-striped trouser, don’t have belt loops. Instead, the design requires the use of suspenders. There are buttons on the outside of the waistband for the suspenders to loop onto. An accompanied waistcoat covered these buttons. In the modern era, trousers have belt loops on the waist-band for belts.

Interestingly, even though pants with belt hoops in the early 20th Century were considered informal and incorrect. It was wartime, and the material to make the elastic bands for the suspenders was in short supply. As a result, men began wearing belts with their formal suit pants, gaining popularity it became the preferred look.

Pleats

The pleat is on the front of trousers, just below the waistband, and they help give shape to the classic trouser. Depending on the design, trousers can have more than one pleat and can face a different direction. Each type of pleat has a unique name to it.

If you would like to read more into the different pleats for skirts and pants, here is a link to purchase The Complete Pleats: Pleating Techniques for Fashion, Architecture, and Design book by Paul Jackson.

Before We Continue; How are Pants Different for Females and Males?

A man and a woman wearing pants.

In the western world, we all know that there was a time when men wore the pants of the house if you will. In ancient times and particular cultural contexts, both women and men had worn trousers. It was only in the modern world that pants became an exclusive item of clothing for men as either a cultural custom or by law.

In the 1850s, women began protesting against this law because pants offered many more benefits than long skirts. For instance, they provided more protection from the elements and a lot more freedom of movement, which would help women feel empowered in a limited society.

When it comes to the mechanism in the design between men’s and women’s pants, they differ on a few design and silhouette differences. Let’s explore the differences between them:

The Rise of the Pants

The most obvious difference between female and male pants is probably the rise. The rise of a pair of pants is the measurement from the crotch seam to the waist band. The reason for the different cut and design of the rise of the pant is self-explanatory. The rise can be broken up into front and back side pieces. The type of rise for pants can greatly affect the silhouette trying to be achieved.

Basically, the difference between the rise of high-waisted pants and a pair of low-rise is exceptionally different. Finding the right rise for your body type takes a bit of time. It requires the willingness to try, commitment, and some pretty good friends that can offer an honest opinion.

The Difference Between the Sizes of Female and Male Pants

A man and a woman wearing pants.

Let’s start with the most obvious difference; the size. Men are generally larger than women, and their body is shaped differently. Men’s pants or trousers are technically larger and wider in their sizes than women’s.

Women’s pants are more skinny-fitted, whereas, with men’s pants, you can get a basic cut or slightly tampered.

If you walk into a shop and pick up a pair of men’s pants in size small and compare it to a women’s size small – the pants for men will be generally larger. The material for men’s clothing is also typically a lot sturdier and better put together since pants worn by women were fashionable and didn’t worry about longevity and sturdiness.

Not only are female pants smaller in size, but they are also narrower in their design. The design originally was to ensure that the silhouette and shape of the women’s figure wouldn’t be affected in any way. If you ever wondered why most female pants don’t have pockets, you are safe to assume it’s to maintain a woman’s hourglass figure.

What is the Deal with Pockets in Female Pants?

For women’s pants, you nearly feel lucky for even having pockets when purchasing a pair of pants, even if it’s the tiniest pockets that can barely fit, well, anything. How and why did it get like this?

There was a time when men and women both carried their possessions in a pouch attached to a string that could be slung over the shoulder. It wasn’t till the 17th Century when clothing designers decided to attach these pouches to their clothing items. However, this was only applicable for men, and therefore, women continued to use a pouch.

The thing is, the pouches were tied to women’s waist, which was underneath their dresses, making the pouches inaccessible in public spaces for women would have to undress to get to their pouch.

It took decades for pockets to become a consideration in women’s fashion, for they weren’t in charge of any finances or needed to carry anything, especially when they were married. Their pouches essentially became an additional accessory that would match their outfit altogether.

It took events like the French Revolution to hinder the prospect of women having pockets. These were intense times, and people took drastic measures to ensure chaos. One of these measures was banning women from having pockets and pouches altogether if they were secretly concealing any revolutionary material.       

The Rebellious Staple Called the ‘Suffragette Suit’

Women for decades had been demanding access to more practical clothing, and it wasn’t till the first world war that they took matters into their own hands. The development of the ‘Suffragette Suit,’ a suit specially designed and intended for women, had taken the North American public by storm. The suit, in all its humbleness, had at least six pockets.

What are Slacks?

Van Heusen Men's Traveler Slim Fit Pant, Black, 32W X 30L

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Slacks are a type of pants that are considered informal by their design. Interestingly enough, sometimes the word “slack” refers to all the different types of pants or trousers. Many people use the term to refer to pants made for women.

Unlike other types of pants, they don’t come with an accompanying jacket to complete a look. Slacks are a more casual design of pants, compared to the more formal intention of trousers. They are loosely fitted.

The name itself suggests a loose design. “Slacks” is a word that originates from the Saxon word “slak,” which translates to the word “loose.” The material used to make these loosely-fitted garments is most commonly wool due to its soft and lightweight characteristics.

What are Trousers?

Lee Women's Flex Motion Regular Fit Trouser Pant, Black, 14

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Trousers, as aforementioned, are what those from the United Kingdom call pants since the word “Pant” refers to their underwear.  The name originates from Scottish turf. They were initially referred to as “Trews” and wore them as their undergarments. Channel your inner Scottish accent and try to say it—it sounds like ‘trousers,’ right?

What are the Different Types of Trousers?

Trousers follow suit—pun intended—when it comes to appearance to that of slacks. They are tailored and have a formal design of pants. However, different materials and design techniques have resulted in a plethora of trousers for any occasion.

Formal-Striped Trousers, or as Some Refer to as the ‘Spongebag Trouser’

Lars Amadeus Men's Stripe Dress Pants Straight Fit Vertical Stripe Formal Pants Business Trousers 28 Blue

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As the name suggests, formal-striped trousers are worn exclusively for formal events in Western societies from the early years of the 19th Century. Worn strictly by men, they were introduced as an accompaniment of the everyday frock coat.

The design of these pants has a split in the back part of the waistband, called the fishtail design, which is held up by suspenders and covered by a waistcoat with pleats for ironing. These trousers actually refer to the stripe pattern that goes down the front of the legs. These pants do not have turn-up cuffs since it’s considered informal.

There are various materials used to make formal-striped trousers:

  • Melton Cloth, woven wool in a twill form.
  • Worsted Wool, a high-quality type of yarn.

The color of the material used to make formal-striped trousers is a combination of the following mute colors:

  • Black
  • Charcoal Grey
  • Silver
  • White

The textile patterns for these trousers can be a simple combination of material to make a plain grey, or they can be spiced up and made as to the following:

  • Houndstooth
  • Plaid

Short Trousers

AG Adriano Goldschmied Men's The Wanderer Slim Trouser Short, parched Trail, 34

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Depending on the style of trousers design, short trousers can reach knee height or be a bit above or below the knee. Unsurprisingly, people often wear short trousers in the warmer months of the year.  There is no specific material or color allocated to making a trouser.

Jeans

Lee Men's Performance Series Extreme Motion Straight Fit Tapered Leg Jean, Maverick, 34W x 30L

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Jeans are a type of trousers made from durable denim cloth and are probably the most popular type of trousers in this article. The most common type of jeans is the blue denim pants developed and patented in 1971 by Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss & Co.

Initially worn by miners, the material to make jeans is a durable warp-faced textile pattern made of cotton. The way the twill weaves creates a ribboning effect at a diagonal angle. Using indigo and white thread to create the warp-faced textile is what creates that much-loved denim color.

What are Suit Pants?

Amazon Essentials Men's Slim-Fit Flat-Front Dress Pants, Black, 30W x 32L

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When someone refers to a suit, they refer to a few clothing items that make up a formal or business-like look. Many people tend to classify Suit pants as a type of dress pants, which isn’t wrong, but they differ on a textile level. The material used in constructing suit pants is typically lighter than in dress pants which pairs with a matching jacket.

To complete a suit, you need matching trousers and a jacket or a coat, which would be the expected look in the early 20th Century. The outfit is only complete when accompanied by a collared shirt with a tie and a formal pair of shoes. Some suits are three-piece, which includes a waistcoat to the attire.

Apart from the traditional means of using wool, there are various materials used to make suit pants:

  • Cotton.
  • Linen.
  • Wool
  • Polyester.

It’s expected only to use one color when wearing a suit to ensure the correct formal attire. These are the three traditional colors commonly used to make a classic suit:

  • Black
  • Grey
  • Navy

What are the Different Types of Suit Pants?

The design of suit pants has evolved over the decades. All suit pants from the early 1900s had a standard cuff width and were straight or wide-legged. By the 30s, suit-makers began tapering the bottom parts of the pants. Since the 60s, entirely tapered suit pants have created a slimmer look and continue to be the preferred look.

The most common design is traditional when designing different suits pants, is to have two front pleats, which provides more comfortable seating. Nowadays, fashion designers have made pants for suits that don’t have any pleats and are still considered the most formal pant type.

When it comes to listing the different types of suit pants, the easiest way to classify them is by region. The suit had taken a unique shape in Britain, Italy, and Northern America. Let’s explore these differences with particular focus on the type of suit pants:

British Suits

Haggar Men's Premium No Iron Classic Fit Expandable Waist Pleat Front Pant, British Khaki, 44x30

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British suits provide a better silhouette than the American suit because of the tapered waist of the suit. These trousers have generous legroom and are high-waisted with two or three pleats, making them a lot more flattering than the American style.

Italian Suits

DTI GV Executive Italian Men's Two Button Wool Suit Ticket Pocket Jacket 2 Piece (42 Regular US / 52R EU/W 36", Charcol)

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Italian suits also have tapered waists and complete the look with a slim finish. Unlike the American design, the Italian suit uses less padding and lighter materials in its manufacturing. The pants are also tapered and very slim in design as it sits comfortably on the hips.

North American Suits

Chaps Men's All American Classic Fit Suit Separate Pant , Grey Sharkskin, 32W x 30L

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The easiest way to differentiate North American suits is by their loose, box-like shape and the lower armholes than the other two designs.  The trousers seem to have the least amount of effort in their design, for they are straight-cut with no pleats to provide a more fitted look.

What are Dress Pants?

Calvin Klein Men Modern Fit Dress Pant, Black, 38W x 30L

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Dress pants, as the name suggests, are for dressing up. These pants are to complete an outfit that could be for formal and semi-formal events.

There is a wide range of materials used to construct dress pants:

  • Cotton
  • Linen
  • Synthetic materials.
  • Wool

What are the Different Types of Dress Pants?

Since the design of dress pants intend to accommodate a range of formal and semi-formal events, there are quite a few types of dress pants out there. Let’s have a look:

Chinos

Amazon Essentials Men's Slim-Fit Casual Stretch Khaki, Dark Khaki, 32W x 30L

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Chino pants emerged on the scene during the mid-19th Century in both Britain and France as military attire. However, the material itself originates in China. When veterans returned from the battlegrounds, these militant garments were called “Pantalones Chinos” in Spanish, translating to “Chinese Pants.”

The textile weave for the cloth to make Chinos is a twill design traditionally made of 100% cotton. Due to mass production, many chinos available in the market are made from a synthetic material to mimic the texture of cotton. Regardless, this type of cloth is relatively durable, making it more appealing to use for military clothing items.

Since they were initially part of the military uniform, Chinos traditionally come in a Khaki to camouflage themselves in battle. Nowadays, chinos are very fashionable and come in a broad range of colors.

Formal Dress Pants

IZOD Men's American Chino Flat Front Straight Fit Pant, Black, 32W x 34L

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As aforementioned, formal dress pants are very similar to suit pants. However, the material used in formal dress pants is more durable and heavier than your traditional suit pants. Also, a significant difference is that it is not required to wear a matching jacket with formal dress pants.

A Summary of the Differences Between the Different Types of Pants

The line between certain types of pants is very thin and can be somewhat confusing. Below is a simple summary of the key differences between slacks, trousers, suits, and dress pants.

 SlacksTrousersSuitDress
StylesInformalFormal-Striped; Jeans; ShortBritish; Italian; North AmericanChino; Formal
MaterialWool; Synthetic MaterialsDenim; WoolCotton; Linen; Wool; PolyesterCotton; Linen; Synthetic Materials; Wool
Traditional ColorBlack; Denim; Grey;Charcoal Grey; Black; Silver; WhiteBlack; Grey; NavyKhakhi
OccasionCasual; Everday; Semi-FormalCasual; Everday; InformalFormalFormal; Semi-Formal

Conclusion

Men’s and women’s pants differ in terms of the shape and practicality of pockets, but their history is the same. It’s strange how there was a time where both men and women wore pants, but it would be considered unlawful or culturally offensive.

Before defining the differences between slacks, trousers, suits, and dress pants, one must first clear up where you are in the world. Before you do that, you have to understand that pants and trousers are the same things.

Pants in the UK refer to what North Americans call underwear. Pants in the USA are an item of clothing you wear to cover your underwear from the waist down to the ankles. In contrast, the UK calls them trousers.

Slacks refer to more loosely-fitted pants, whereas trousers can take on various shapes for various types of events and spaces. Suits are exclusive for formal occasions and workspaces, whereas one wears dress pants at semi- and informal events.

Some consider suit pants to be a type of dress pants. The material used to tailor suits is often lighter than the material used for dress pants. One should wear a matching jacket with a suit. It isn’t necessary to pair dress pants with a formal coat because it’s about dressing up for an event, and some events are not simply not formal.

So, you probably know now that there are different pants for every type of occasion. Well, whenever you are shopping for pants, or trousers, for a special event – you can always refer back to this article to help guide you on your selection,

Sources:

Amazon: Complete Pleats Pleating Techniques Architecture

Archaeology: China World’s Oldest Pants

Bespoke Unit: Suit Styles

Mavi: Men’s Pants Rise

Daily History: When Did Men Start Wearing Pants

Stack Exchange: Difference Between Slacks, Pants and Trousers

GQ: Suit History by the Decade

Pediaa: Difference Between Trousers and Pants

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