What are slacks? What is the difference between pants and trousers? Where do you use slacks vs. dress pants? In the world of men’s fashion, we talk a lot about jackets, coats, shirts, and suits. It’s somewhat natural to forget that pants matter, too. After all, there’s not that much avant-garde you can do (fashionably and legally) with tubes of fabric for your legs, right?
Not quite! There’s a world of difference between what’s acceptable to wear on the golf course and what you can put on for work, and that goes as much for our bottom halves as our top halves. If you don’t want to be the man in slacks when everyone else is wearing chinos, this is the article for you.
Today, the skilled experts from the Oliver Wicks team will walk you through the differences between slacks, chinos, khakis, and men’s dress pants. They will also tell you more about slacks, when they’re the best choice to wear, and even give you some hints on styling them.
Is it time to take your leg game to the next level? Let’s get started!
Let’s kick off with a problem. If dress pants and slacks both exist, what are dress slacks?
The answer is linguistic, not fashionable, as all three are the same thing!
Strictly speaking, if we had to define slacks, they’re formal wear that covers the bottom half of your body and stretches full length (i.e., waist to ankle). While “pants” is a rather extensive category covering anything from jeans and cargo pants to the bottom half of a tuxedo, the word “slacks” brings a loose but dressier style to mind.
Slacks are any pants on the dressy side but are not made to be part of a suit. Suit pants (vs. dress pants) are strictly designed to be part of a suit and should never be worn separately.
Dress pants/slacks thus occupy a solid spot in the “business casual” and “semi-formal” camps. They’re not the jeans you’d wear to kick around the house, and they work in less formal business settings, but you wouldn’t wear them to a fully formal event. If you couldn’t squeak them in at a typical day in the office or a more casual summer wedding, then they’re not dress slacks.
Why the dress slacks vs. dress pants terminology, then? Pants is a very American word, whereas slacks, while in common use in parts of the United States now, is an old-fashioned British import. While it was common a few decades ago, the term is quickly falling out of favor. Likewise, it’s not used in the United Kingdom much anymore.
Some people distinguish between dress pants as slightly more fitted and somewhat more formal, with dress slacks being slightly looser and less formal. Still, others see them as synonyms. It’s a little confusing, we know. They’re the same thing in most modern usage, and that’s probably the best way to proceed.
Talking about words, it’s worth knowing that the name “slacks” comes from a Saxon word for rope ties, heavily associated with sailing. This is because sailors would typically use spare bits of rope to hold up loose pants they could move easily in, and this is probably where the idea that slacks have to be a loose fit came from. Of course, in the days when most tailoring was done from the loom of the village weaver or the sack your flour came in, slim fit was not an option!
Still, others argue that “slacks” was only used as a fashion term once women’s suits and pants became a thing. It was used to denote women’s nonsuit pants vs. the “pantsuit,” which was just a suit for women but with a pair of pants and jacket. It’s not a skirt and jacket, which can also be termed “suits” for women’s formal wear office.
We’re sure that cleared everything right up, yeah?
It is, quite legitimately, a somewhat confusing batch of terms used, sometimes at least, on the user's whim.
As we mentioned above, most modern uses of pants and slacks in the United States are synonymous. Do note, however, that our neighbors across the pond, Britain, have a completely different modern take on “pants,” namely, that your pants are your undies, boxers, or tighty-whities, so that’s always worth bearing in mind if you’re talking across borders!
What do the British call dress pants and slacks then?
Just in case you needed another word for your leg coverings!
Before you feel like you need to grab a notebook (or a headache pill), let’s get this properly cleared up:
- Trousers vs. Pants: They’re the same thing, with “trousers” being the favored modern British/European term, while American’s use “pants.”
- Trousers vs. Slacks: They are highly likely to be the same thing, too. “Slacks” is an older American term for “pants,” and “trousers” is used by the British for anything Americans would call “pants.”
- Slacks vs. Suit Pants: Slacks are designed to be worn without a specific jacket in business-casual situations and look great with blazers, dinner jackets, or sports coats. Suit pants are always at least two pieces and should only be worn with the matching suit jacket.
- Dress Pants vs. Slacks: Today, these are taken as synonyms for semi-formal pants. An older usage is that “slacks'' are a little looser and less formal than tighter “dress pants,” but that distinction is rarely used nowadays. However, it’s still worth bearing in mind.
That should make navigating the men’s fashion world a little easier! Now, let’s look at some other distinctions.
Chinos are men’s pants with some set characteristics. They aren’t like khaki pants, as they’re never pleated, and come in any color you please. They have small, internal pockets and are very versatile. Typically, they’re made of lightweight cotton. They’re sometimes called “preppy,” as they share a similar ‘casual-formal’ vibe with dress pants, rather than being informal. They always have a tailored fit, which appeals for many men tired of baggy casual trousers.
That said, if we look at chinos vs. slacks, they are not the same thing. Think of chinos as one step down the ladder from dress pants. You certainly can dress them up a little, and you will look very nice in them, but they’re not quite able to transition into all the same spaces as dress slacks can. It’s a coffee date vs. dinner date situation, although just to confuse people, some folks use the terms interchangeably,
So let’s add to our list the following:
- Slacks vs. Chinos: Slacks/dress pants are ever so slightly more formal than chinos. Chinos are a great transition between informal and semi-formal menswear. They can be dressed up very smartly but can’t go everywhere dress slacks can. They’re often used in “preppy” casual looks.
Uh oh. We’re going to hit another of those confusing areas here, so strap in. We promise we’ll clear it up for you!
Khaki pants are men’s informal cotton pants, and they are also (who would have guessed) always khaki-colored. Yup, it’s the name of the color, not the actual pants.
A rather drab color, it came to be the default men’s pants color used in desert and tropical military uniforms in the mid-nineteenth century. At least in legend, it was possibly invented by men dyeing the heavy-duty cotton fabric with things like tea and curry powder. Indiana Jones and other such heroes imprinted it into men’s pop culture, and we ran with it from there.
Their American history began when Dockers near-singlehandedly convinced offices that we needed casual Fridays as a break from suits. Of course, we are also required to wear our Docker’s men’s casual khaki pants to said casual Fridays! After World War II, they became famous men’s homeware, and that hasn’t changed, although they’re seen as a little low-brow today.
They’re OK for home, the golf course, or to go to the shops, but they’re not all that stylish. They’re a little baggy, can’t be dressed up, and the slight color is a little dull. Many modern men probably wear jeans, or other informal pants like cargo pants, in place of khakis.
Some people try to argue they’re the same as chinos, and sometimes they’re confused with each other, but they’re not. So this gives us the following:
- Slacks vs. Khakis: Khakis are brownish, casual cotton men’s pants with a baggy cut. Most slacks have a tighter fit, come in various colors, and are far more dressy than khakis. You could not wear khakis for semi-formal events but can wear slacks/dress pants.
- Khakis vs. Chinos: Chinos are a step up from khakis and a tiny step down from dress pants or slacks. They have more colors, fit tighter to the body, and look more styled/dressy than khakis.
There you go! We hope that’s all much clearer now.
So, in a world with so many style options, what are slacks for men best at?
First of all, they are incredibly versatile in the fabrics used. Slacks can be cotton, like everything else we just looked at, but they could also be linen, wool, and much, much more. This means they can more easily be used year-round, no matter the weather.
Secondly, they’re smart without being overly formal (unless you want to make them formal). In this way, dress pants vs. chinos are very similar, and both allow freedom of movement and can be worn comfortably, which suits can’t always manage. Slacks and a shirt can go almost anywhere acceptably, and you’d look smart but not overdressed. Yet, if you want to take that look to the next level, you can throw on a blazer, make it a better shirt, and add smart accessories. This way, you can fit into a semi-formal or business-casual occasion with ease.
So here, you have a pair of pants that can take you through everything until you need a full formal suit. It could easily look good at a casual gathering, step up nicely for a coffee date or quick meeting, or can be formally dressed up for a friend’s wedding.
Why not use chinos? Firstly, they don’t have the “upper” versatility of slacks in that they’d be a little too informal for many situations, including weddings and dates. Although they’re pretty comfortable to wear, they also tend to only come in a tighter, nearly slim-fit cut with a flat front. With slacks, you have more options to choose the fit and look that you love the most.
Now that you know everything about slacks (and the difference between pants and trousers), it’s time to get to the meat of the issue. How do you wear slacks? As we have mentioned, they’re incredibly versatile as a style, so that means what you choose to wear with them will influence your overall look very strongly. Provided your suit fits well, it’s hard to look bad in it. Not so much for pants alone! Put together the wrong slacks outfit, and you could look unkempt, gauche, or like a try-hard.
Not with the Oliver Wicks team here to help, however! So let’s get started.
What style characteristics can change how your slacks look? Let’s take a look:
- Fabric: The way a material looks and hangs will influence what they cost and how they look, so choose accordingly. Blends are often the smart way to get the very best of two fabrics with none of the downsides of each, as with mohair suits. Fabric choice can heavily affect how formal pants look. Go light in hot weather and heavy in the cold.
- Closure: You find button-up and zipper slacks. It doesn’t matter for style, but it will affect comfort.
- Lining: Pants with a lining are great for guys who might have skipped leg day once or twice, as they add some subtle volume. They’re also fantastic in cold climates, as they insulate you. If your slacks are very pale or have a thin fabric, they also prevent embarrassing ridges or transparency. You don’t need a boxer check with a lining to make sure your bright red boxers aren’t showing through white pants. In a hot climate, however, you’ll roast. If you can afford it, silk or silk-blend lining is both moisture-wicking and luxurious on the skin and hangs beautifully.
- Pockets: Pockets are convenient, and it’s rare to have men’s pants without them. However, they do add bulk. The style, the configuration, and the number of pockets can affect how your pants sit, so bear that in mind. More pockets also equate to a less formal style.
- Fronts: Slack fronts can be flat or pleated. Pleated slacks add a little extra fabric, so it’s great for men with wider hips or thighs. They also provide balance to a frame with big shoulders and lean hips. Flat fronts, however, work brilliantly with longer jackets and coats and accentuate good bodies.
- Cuffs: Cuffs on your pants can be a “cheat” way for tall men to get extra fabric, but we’d rather advise fitting your pants properly instead. Made-to-measure is always a good option for taller men. Cuffs make looser pants hang well and add a personal touch, but they look a lot less formal than a standard straight pair.
All these elements can combine to work best for you, creating your style and comfort. As some of them do affect how formal or casual the slacks look, you may find yourself needing to buy what’s practical for the intended use rather than comfort and style alone.
What are the two most common fashion faux pas men make with their slacks? It’s either poorly fitting to their rear end, so you have a saggy, baggy hanging fabric instead of something that fits well and shows off your buns, or you choose the wrong trouser leg length.
The wearer's saggy rear problem is often invisible, too, as it’s not a view many men check regularly. It’s near impossible to fix this without tailoring, so it’s a good idea to invest well when fitting rather than try to retrofit it.
Pant leg length is a whole kettle of fish unto itself. We have some fantastic tips on how to fit your leg length well in this article, including a helpful video. Tiny little mistakes in length can change a look from suave to gauche or ill-kempt, so we highly advise watching it.
Deciding what to wear with slacks must start with the slacks’ color itself. You’re not wearing a suit, so being too matchy isn’t a good look. Your style should also come out, so you want colors you like. Then, you need to consider the occasion. You could strut your stuff in your bright violet slacks at an event but not wear them to work, for example.
What primary slack colors should every man have?
Black doesn’t have much use as a suit color, but black slacks are immensely practical. Black has the benefit of being usable with almost any other color you could want. It’s also versatile, in that you could wear it to work, lunch with a client, then wear them out for dinner, too. It’s a great color, whether you opt for the plain black or a subtle pattern.
Many shy away from this color, seeing it as “difficult” to wear. The thing is, a high-quality pair of slacks shouldn’t pick up every speck of dirt anyway, as the fabric should resist naturally. This is an excellent color for morning and afternoon events, summer and outdoor events, and weddings.
We’d say you need a pale gray and charcoal for maximum wardrobe versatility but have at least one or the other to start. These colors are great for the office and acceptable at nearly any semi-formal or casual business event. They also look great with a range of knitwear, shirts, and blazers, so they go almost anywhere.
What black can’t handle, navy can. It’s one of those colors that look great on every skin tone and perfectly match most clothes. It’s also an excellent way to avoid black for evening events without looking inappropriate.
Typically, you should own a blue pair of slacks and a tan or khaki pair, but if you happen to use jeans and khaki pants and don’t fancy either color for more formal events, you can skip them.
How do you pick the fitting blazer and shirt colors to go with your slacks? As we mentioned, you don’t want to look too matched, or you may as well wear a suit. Here are some basic “rules” to help you put together a look. Of course, fashion rules can always be broken if you’re confident, but it will help you get used to dressing smartly.
You can use a classy tee-shirt with slacks for a smart-casual vibe if you wear them day to day. Make it a well-made and structured one without a print, and keep it stylish. Likewise, don’t use one under a blazer. Consider a collared tee, especially for casual work environments. Generally, however, a shirt is the best way to look stylish in slacks.
First up, white shirts are always a classic choice, although they’re often not the best choice. You can’t go wrong (except paired with bright white pants), but you can often be more right. They’re outstanding, however, if you want to contrast your blazer and pants because you don’t always want a third loud color in that situation.
Contrast usually looks good, so put your bright or very saturated colors, and your black shirts, with pale pants. Keep your pastels, pale patterns, and light colors for dark slacks. Likewise, if your blazer has a pattern, use plain shirts and pants and vice versa. If you’re wearing a blazer or coat, let that and the slacks make the color statement you want, and put an understated, neutral shirt (black, pale beige, pale blue, or white are good) underneath.
Do give the shirt fabric some consideration. Cotton works with nearly anything, as does silk, and other fabrics need more thought. You don’t want an ultralight summer shirt over heavy winter trousers or flannel shirts with a delicate linen pair of slacks. Synthetics tend to look cheap paired with ‘good’ fabrics, so handle with care.
Not in the mood for fashion experiments? Here are some tried-and-trusted color pairs:
- For weddings: Black and white or navy with a pale beige/white. Alternatively, depending on the exact dress code, use a muted solid color with charcoal. A pastel shirt with black or gray pants, or lighter color/pastel shirts with ivory pants, would work for summer or outdoor weddings.
- For the office: White or light blue (or white with a light blue stripe) with beige/tan, gray, or navy.
- For date night: Any of the above combos. Or pick black slacks with a colorful shirt that has some personality but isn’t garish. Use gray or charcoal pants, weather dependent, with a pastel shirt.
- For lunch or afternoon semi-formal events: As with summer weddings, think breezy, tropical colors. Pale beige/tan, ivory, and soft gray pants are all good. Subtle stripes-on-white, pastels, and soft solid colors work.
- For a night on the town: If you want to look sharp but don’t have a dress code, then go wild. We’d say black or charcoal pants and a show-off bold shirt or blazer make a great pair, but don’t let us hold you back!
Once you have your core look together, it’s time to have fun with accessories. Typically, you don’t want to overload your outfit with accessories, but you can and should have a little fun. A pocket square adds a little color and personality for more formal functions (but not the office). Ties work great at weddings, the office, or more formal functions, while an open neck keeps the look casual or daytime.
Shoes can also add formality or reduce it. However, if you go for sneakers instead of a solid leather shoe, make sure they’re elegant and clean, and consider using a “statement” sneaker rather than any old athletic shoe if you want to look fashionable and intelligent instead of geriatric.
Bracers can be fun and quirky or match your belt with your shoes. A wise man’s wrist watch never looks wrong, especially with a blazer. Keep it slim and luxurious for more formal events, and use your flashy or sports-style watches for more casual venues.
There you have it! Now you not only know the answer to the question, “What are slacks?” but you also know a little more about other styles of men’s pants, when and where to wear them, and how to make the best of your look.
We’ve also looked at what material slacks are made of (and why it matters), the best slacks for specific functions, and how to match them well to your shirt or blazer. We’ve even dipped into their history a little!
You should now feel a ton more confident about dressing well for all occasions and how to pull a look together with nifty accessories, too. Remember, not only does Oliver Wicks offer tailored slacks for you to enjoy, but the team is always happy to chat about fashion with you, so don’t hesitate to reach out today.