Until the early-19th century, culottes were a sign of middle-class status for blokes, the sartorial equivalent of a fridge with an ice-maker. They were worn by everyone from Louis XIV to George Washington, to the point that during the French revolution the working class resistance were simply known as the “sans-culottes” because of their humdrum long trousers.
But now the male culotte is making a comeback at an HM near you. Graduate Ximon Lee is the first menswear designer to win the high-street chain’s design award – and his prize-winning collection for the brand includes a pair of culottes.
So with no concern for my safety, the Guardian sends me out on the streets of Hackney in east London to see if male culottes can resurface in the 21st century. The official HM lookbook pictures show models wearing culottes over skinny jeans, so I slip a pair on top of my regular outfit and head to the pub after work. I expect a bit of joshing and banter, but I don’t think I look too bad.
How wrong I am. Shocked faces, mouths frozen in a combination of distaste and horror, greet me, the comments following thick and fast: “If I saw a Tinder date wearing those from outside, I would just turn around and walk away”; “It’s like they had fabric scraps leftover from some Miss Sixty jeans and zipped them together”; “I’m just so embarrassed for you.”
I still don’t think they’re so terrible, conceptually at least. After Kanye successfully rocked a leather skirt and Pharrell wore a kilt, I think people are ready for men with dresses over their jeans. Perhaps, though, it is these culottes with their needless Punkyfish-style zips, random squares of neoprene, girlish high waist and thick tubuluar legs that feel as if you are shoving your legs into al dente rigatone, that are the problem.
The next day I take a stroll in the park to gauge more wide-ranging opinion. Every man I walk past looks me up and down and makes a face, and so I feel like all women do every day. On the upside, the only pocket is located at the top of a long zippable seam, making them the most secure item of clothing I’ve ever worn – which is good, since I imagine you would be mugged more times than average in them.
The thing is, men are prepared to wear outlandish things – Hawaiian shirts, garish trainers, even a neat skirt – as long as they have the appearance of practicality. Culottes, however, serve no other purpose than to adorn an already decent outfit and are, as such, unnecessary frippery. So sorry, Ximon, but I think the male culottes died in the French revolution – these ones, in particular, look as if they’ve been hacked with a guillotine.