Take a walk down any British high street today, and a recurring motif will emerge. As spring begins, and customers’ thoughts turn to bare ankles, the shops are full of culottes. For every budget, taste, and occasion, there is a pair. They might be denim with unfinished edges (Topshop) or tailored and navy and destined for the office (Marks Spencer). In designer fashion, there are nautical versions with button-down fronts (JW Anderson) and voluminous creations in black leather (Tibi) while Stella McCartney’s are a vision in soft grey boucle.
In many ways, this is a weird trend, given that culottes have often been a sartorial punchline. Think of Eurovision 1974, and Agnetha Fältskog’s shiny blue pair, with calf-skimming tulip-shaped hems – an outfit so comical it has since become part of the fancy-dress vernacular. For anyone who went to Brownies in the 1990s, culottes were the flappy, conker-coloured shorts worn while sitting cross-legged on a dusty church hall floor feeling anything but cool.
But culottes are selling – lots and lots. At Whistles, between 1 January and 23 March, sales were up by 422% compared with the same period last year, with culottes outselling skirts. Marks Spencer reports strong culotte sales, too, with a leather Autograph pair, hitting shops later this month, predicted to be one of the big sellers of the season.
Even those who are actually selling culottes have had their reservations. “I think culottes are not very flattering on most people, to be honest,” says Whistles chief executive Jane Shepherdson. “But ever since we first brought them in, about two years ago, they keep surprising us.
“They are so popular that we have been looking at some of the skirts in production and wondering if we should be joining them as culottes,” she adds. “I suppose it might be because they are quite an obvious trend – like a midi skirt – and they represent a change in the long-standing silhouette, from skinny bottoms and oversized tops, to the opposite.”
“I remember saying a couple of years ago, ‘I bloody hate culottes,’” says Justin O’Shea, buying director of luxury shopping website MyTheresa.com. “But I’ve come around to accepting the culotte. They seem to tie in with the way that fashion is heading, which is that women are dressing for themselves and each other and not to appeal to men. A woman who would wear culottes would probably be very fashion forward and not girly – that’s kind of the point of the design.”
Appropriately, Culottes have a feminist backstory. After their popularisation in 18th-century France (so closely were they associated with the ruling class that their opposers were known as “sans-culottes”) in Victorian England they were trousers in disguise – skirts that would split apart to enable women to ride horses, play tennis and ride bicycles.
As ever in fashion, much of the appeal lies in the fact that culottes feel unexpected and different to the mainstream – and as with any quirky clothing shape, styling can be tricky. A neat vest or T-shirt, either tucked in or short enough to show the waist, can be a helpful counterpoint to all that volume. Block heels, too, will make you feel a little taller, even if you don’t fancy tottering around in stilettos.
For some younger shoppers keen to buy into the trend, the answer might be showing some skin: “For summer,” says Asos womenswear design director Vanessa Spence, “we are offering matching jacquard bralets and culottes, which offers our customer a young, fun way to wear the culottes.” But for the power players who wear them while sitting in the front rows of fashion shows, the aim is to look kooky and cerebral rather than deliberately sexy. (See early adopter Victoria Beckham, who wore culottes to underline her high-end designer credentials at New York fashion week in September 2013.) In fashion circles, culottes are an alpha statement: either “I don’t care if this looks a bit weird because I like it” or “my legs are so thin that I can even wear these culottes”, depending on your levels of cynicism.