Friday, June 15, 2007
Even Pants Worth $54 Million Won't Make the Man

Only tailors pay close attention to suit pants, like Walt Sherwood, above, measuring a length for a client in North Carolina. Only tailors pay close attention to suit pants, like Walt Sherwood, above, measuring a length for a client in North Carolina.

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007; C01

There are numerous reasons to question whether Roy Pearson has any mother wit, the most obvious one being his belief that a dry cleaner's error with a pair of his pants justifies a $54 million lawsuit. But even from a fashion perspective, his obsession with a pair of slacks that may or may not have gone missing is odd. Of all the items in a man's wardrobe, trousers are the least likely to be on the receiving end of amorous attachment. A man might believe his public persona is tied up in a certain fedora. He might get nostalgic over a well-worn T-shirt from his alma mater. But surely Pearson is alone in boo-hooing and litigating over a pair of dress pants.

Pearson is a D.C. administrative law judge who filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the owners of Custom Cleaners. In 2005, Pearson took in five suits for alterations. He'd gained 20 pounds and the pants needed to be let out. (One assumes the pants had an extremely generous seam allowance.) Four suits were altered without incident. The fifth suit was missing its pants.

The Chung family, which owns the cleaners, says it found the wayward pants and tried to return them to Pearson. He says those pants aren't his. They are cuffed, he said in court, and he is not a man who wears cuffs. The Chungs have offered him as much as $12,000 just to go away. Pearson wanted to go to court.

During his two days before a judge earlier this week, Pearson argued that the lawsuit was not about the pants per se, but rather about the sign in the dry cleaners that promised "satisfaction guaranteed." He was not satisfied.

Still, Pearson began all this over a pair of pants that no longer fit and that he had not worn in quite some time. Of all the sartorial reasons for a man to get riled up -- go sue the fellow who gave the thumbs-up on Crocs, why don't you? -- suit pants are among the most inconsequential of them all.

Furnishings are the elements of a man's wardrobe that are especially expressive and distinctive. Ties are the most succinct way for a man to make a statement about his personality or his mood. Women have been known to judge a potential date by his shoes. Socks have become a way for a man to safely add a dash of color in a gray flannel workplace. Men regularly obsess about whether their shirts have French or barrel cuffs and over the type of collar.

Cuff links often have sentimental value. George W. Bush, for instance, made a tradition of wearing a pair of gold cuff links -- inset with platinum Navy wings -- that were given to him by his father to his inaugurations as Texas governor and president.

A suit, of course, can have panache. The quality of the fabric and the fit can signify wealth and authority. But when the eye scrutinizes a suit, it's really looking at the jacket. An experienced tailor pays attention to a man's trousers, to whether they are hemmed to a precise break over the shoes or whether they have pleats that can exaggerate a beer belly. But when he wants to brag about his expertise, a tailor reaches for the jacket. He will wax on about the slope of the shoulders and the roll of the collar, about how the perfect jacket can improve a man's posture or take 10 pounds off his frame. Weep over a missing blazer? Sure. But shrug off a pair of lost pants.

Dress pants have never been fetishized the way other parts of the wardrobe have. Bluejeans, for instance, have been elevated to a kind of fashion haiku -- deceptively simple, yet filled with emotion, attitude, sex appeal and profound cultural meaning. For proof of how banal men's pants have become, look no further than the nearest male derriere to read the Dockers label. Introduced in 1986, they launched a khakis revolution and made virtually every man who wore them -- which is essentially every man -- look like he was somnambulating toward a life of soccer games, little blue pills and quiet desperation.

There have been attempts to transform pants into talking points. Designer Thom Browne cropped them at the ankle. Former Christian Dior menswear designer Hedi Slimane cut them so narrow they were practically shrink-wrapped onto his models. And too many designers to name have championed diaper pants with the crotch dropped to the knees in the misguided belief that men will want to relive their suckling years.

But in the closets of men who buy clothes, not fashion, pants are merely functional. If they make any statement at all, it is about a man's vigor and his physique. The waist size can be a point of pride or sheepishness. Too many pleats get a man into the realm of costume. Too tight or too short and they make him look as though he should be getting sand kicked in his face. But the loss of even the best-made pair of pants, the ones that accentuate a trim waist and give the illusion of a sprinter's bottom, isn't worth crying over.