The trousers looked good, but something was keeping me in the fitting room for longer than usual. I liked the wide silhouette and the crunchy feel of the cotton. And they were black, so hardly an outré addition to the wardrobe. No, it was the waistband – wide and elasticated – that was giving me pause. Because where do we stand, heading into the 2020s, on elasticated waists? I didn’t buy the trousers at that point. I went away – and here I reveal either a journalistic curiosity or a weedy case of self-esteem (I think I know which) – to look up “elasticated waists” on Net-a-Porter… and ta-da! More than 100 garments with elasticated waists appeared, many from aspirational labels – Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, The Row. If elastic was appearing in the waistbands of these brands, it was not merely acceptable but luxurious.
“Relaxed dressing is still on the rise,” says Lydia King, fashion and buying director at Harrods, “and elasticated waistbands are just an extension of this more casual mood. It’s a trend that’s reflective of modern lives, flexible working and outfit adaptability.” She points to Joseph, Nanushka and Stella McCartney as brands that have perfected the stretch. Joseph creative director Susana Clayton, formerly of Givenchy, has put elastic in the waist of leather shorts and trousers in light stretch-wool, cotton or silk. “Some have elastic through the whole waistband, while some have it partially in the back for comfort. The style is tailored but with a pull-on, casual appeal.” Raey, the Matchesfashion.com-owned brand, has elastic-back chinos, a suit with elastic in the trousers and jacket, and elastic-waist dresses this season. “I think being comfortable is what luxury is about,” says creative director Rachael Proud.
But there was a time when elasticated waists weren’t so ubiquitous in the luxury sector – before the all-dominating influence of sportswear and athleisure. I am old enough to remember adverts in the back of newspaper supplements for elasticated trousers and skirts aimed, very clearly, at those who had given up style and chic for comfort and food. I may be of the famously slacker Generation X, but I was still fearful that clothes with elasticated waists symbolised a lack of ambition or control. They were for babies or oldies, for the beginning of life and the end of life. For those go-getting years in between – unless you were doing sports – you made the effort to button, zip or belt up.
But the elasticated waistband is clearly very useful and comfortable for every body and every age. Thomas Hancock, founder of the British rubber industry, recognised its stretchy potential early on. He patented elastic fastenings for gloves, suspenders, shoes and stockings in 1820. A 1929 article from The Guardian, headlined “The Elastic Vogue, a Modern Comfort”, reveals that even then its inclusion in clothing was still something of a novelty (readers were advised to remove elastic from their knickers before washing), while celebrating it as a time-saving and easeful device.
But elastic’s elasticity was also what went against it. That it expanded with our movements and body shape, allowing us to be more comfortable, was anathema to western codes of dress and physical appearance. “On one hand, elastic is about control – in the 19th century it was often used in loops to hold garments in place and in underwear to contain the body,” says Dr Rebecca Arnold, senior lecturer in the history of dress and textiles at London’s Courtauld Institute. “Yet the fact that it can contain the body means that if elastic migrated from underwear and sportswear into everyday fashion, it became associated with ‘letting go’.”
Clothes in the west, she points out, have traditionally been cut into precise shapes. “We fitted our bodies into this tailored form. We have been expected to exercise and diet to create the body for this controlled, fitted line.” An elasticated waistband transgresses those ideas of what our body should ideally look like. “Elastic allows for greater movement. This is encouraged for exercise and sportswear, but frowned on for daywear as it suggests the body might expand.”
If we are now in a place where fashion is accepting of expanding waistlines, well, we’ve come a long way. The evolution that has brought stretchy fit firmly into a high-fashion landscape reflects progress. “The rise of athleisure, its translation into luxury wear and the rise of a haute ready-to‑wear for women who need clothes that fit to their bodies, rather than vice versa, means those lines have been crossed,” says Dr Arnold. Clayton agrees. “Athleisure paved the way for luxury to be understated and modern,” she says. “It was first seen in the rise of the trainer, a move away from heels into a more casual, contemporary way of dressing. It’s now crossed into all parts of the wardrobe.”
Almost 10 years ago, I attended a lunch alongside many other female journalists, at which a male designer announced to the table that women needed to wear high heels “for their silhouette”. I remember one editor agreeing with him, humble-bragging that she rarely wore “less than four inches”, as I shuffled my trainer-clad feet under the table. Would that be said now? I doubt it. In the intervening years, more women designers have come to the fore. In turn, their clothes have been bought by women who require garments with style, but also function. “I know I can do my job better when I feel comfortable,” says Proud. The fashionable silhouette is now less defined by the male gaze, but by the different requirements of a woman’s life. “Status dressing has changed,” adds Clayton. “That has come from the way women are spending their days, the way they work, travel and how that has evolved.”
Throughout the 20th century the raising and lowering of women’s hemlines made headlines, tracking our emancipation, sometimes occasioning protest marches and serving as a symbol of revolution. Now we’ve shifted the focus. If you want to track our progress, check the amount of stretch in our waistbands. Because the revolution is elasticated. And comfortable.