“Has Nicholas got some other trousers?” my father asked, as we were getting ready to go for drinks at our neighbours’. The question was too delicate for him to put directly to my school friend, who was staying for a week in the holidays after our A-levels, and whose clothes had created a certain tension in the house. In particular, his extremely tight-fitting trousers — a pair of honey cords and some faded blue jeans with large silver fly-buttons on the outside — brought two or three unmentionable things very close to the surface. Surely he must be as self-conscious about them as my parents were? A tone of strained forbearance was typical of their attitude to the clothes, shoes and hair of the young. In the tortured indirection of middle-class embarrassment, they even praised certain aspects of Nicholas’ trousers — “Sort of elephant cord, I suppose, aren’t they... mmm, rather a super colour?” — and made nervous jokes about his flares, focusing their interest well below the knee. But Nicholas, whose adolescent revolt was more ruthless than mine, only drew strength from the atmospheres he created. Twenty years later, his trousers were all that anyone remembered about him.
To be a teenager in the late Sixties, then to find oneself ineluctably a young gay adult in the Seventies, in the high noon of tight trousers, was to be dizzied by male peacockery. There was an endless parade, as tormenting as it was exciting, of flaunted masculinity. Yet how paradoxically feminine it all was. Not only inch-thick soles but unisex clogs and high Cuban heels; not only the flowing and wandering locks that had crept, through the later Sixties, down the neck and onto the shoulders, but hairdos, shapely, bouncing, bouffant; and then the trousers, which sought to emulate the length and elegance thought desirable in a woman’s leg. They were elongated as far as was practical, the waists hoiked up to the navel, the lower cuffs extending downwards into shoe-concealing flares, which like the long pants of circus stilt-walkers might also disguise raised heels. And how flattering they were to the slender, and, of course, to the genuinely tall. The high tops might have a broad waistband like a sash — a broad belt made a further, optional, emphasis on the flatness of stomach (some trousers, like some swimming trunks, had an inbuilt simulacrum of a belt).
From behind, the buttocks, though tightly covered, were oddly de-emphasised by the high waist and the plunging verticals of the design. In front, some unspoken agreement, some strange concurrence of the zeitgeist, had licensed display. The effects were sometimes blatant, often modest, and on occasion, by some imponderable deployment of underwear, as blankly unrevealing as an outfitter’s mannequin, in the days before they, too, took on particulars.
None of this was very practical. Trouser pockets were a problem, since anything squeezed into them ruined the line. I remember some mushroom-pink cords with enormous patch pockets reaching half-way down the thigh, and framing the crotch like chaps. Back pockets were fit for nothing thicker than a shopping-list, or (which one often saw) the tight-squeezed fingertips of a girlfriend’s hand, as a couple strolled down the street. And if you were even a little overweight, the virtues of the design seemed to turn on you and define your shortcomings. There was no hiding place. The look showed the capacity of any but the simplest fashions to become very slightly grotesque. Even rock groups, whose photoshoots and album covers were galleries of trapped and squeezed genitalia, could look rather a sight.
To gaze now at old photos and archaic home movies of crowds on the King’s Road from 1972 to 1975, is, of course, to see fashion dominant. The foppery of huge shirt collars and lapels that spread to the armpit; tight shirts with three buttons undone, necklaces and pendants; fabrics natural and very much not, velvet worn with rough denim, the sheen and crackle of synthetic fibres, unbreathing polyesters with their problematic odours; the abundance of colour, viridian, mustard, salmon, the gift to men of the open-minded Sixties, soon to be repressed by sterner fashion dogma. Past whale-backed Saabs and Triumph 2000s, they waft and strut down the road, dreamlike and a little ridiculous, showing off to a busy little strip of the world that is also showing off to them. And there at the bus stop, unnoticed, the old Chelsea couple who’ve dressed much the same for the past 40 years, and will always do so.
Of course, it came to an end, this period of uncomfortable, high maintenance display. It was slackened, diluted; the Eighties came with their different extravagances. From the following era of the loose and subfusc, it took on an improbable and ridiculous air, though one for which many must surely have felt a half-shameful nostalgia. Flares were quite quickly over — and I remember their passing in a curious way. My father, born in 1910, a country bank manager, wore suits to work and at home relaxed in grey flannels, or cavalry twill trousers that he called “slacks”, but to me were the staidest thing imaginable. He had always thought flares absurd and “a bit pansy”, and my own first attempts to get hold of some had been as furtive and urgent as my first sexual quests. But at last, after years-long cajolement from me, he warily agreed to buy himself a new suit with trousers that broadened, just perceptibly, at the lower hem. The first time he wore them he might have been in drag, so unhappy did he feel. And already flares were finished, he picked up that message with a promptness never shown in any other sartorial matter, and within
a month the suit had gone back to the shop to be straightened. It was another reminder, I suppose, that fashion is not for all.
Alan Hollinghurst is a Booker Prize-winning novelist.
This article was first printed in the Spring/ Summer 15 issue of Esquire's Big Black Book, On sale now in selected newsagents and direct from Apple Newstand.
Time for a flare comeback?