The waist, the length and the rise: The details on properly fitted pants

Q. I have a very difficult time getting pants to fit me properly. Pants with 38″ waists are too tight, 40″ too loose, and every pair of pants seems weird in some way below the zipper. I’d rather not spend money on a tailor; but if I do, what am I asking him to do?

A. It sounds as if you have a 39-inch waist, but that’s not the primary issue here. For some reason, most people tend to think of their waist size as the crucial element when buying trousers. The part of your body that you should consider most when shopping for pants is the hips/seat area. When pants fit you correctly across the bottom, you are on your way to a good fit. The other elements can be altered.
Much in the same way as your purchase of a jacket should always be based on a good fit across the shoulders, your pants buying experience should begin with a hunt for a perfect fit in the seat. The waist is a small percentage of the fit in the entire pants and, other than length, the easiest element to tailor. This is particularly true if the seat is already correct and does not need to be adjusted.
It doesn’t take much looking around to realize that men with the same waist size may have very different bodies – think of a thin 6’4″ man with a 38″ waist, a 5’5″ small but heavy man, and an athlete with bulging muscles also with that waist size.  And, again, all any man ever mentions is his waist size. So, how do you know what kind of a “seat” you have and what to look/ask for?
In the clothing industry, this crucial element is called the “rise” – the length from the crotch to the waistband. Trousers come with one of three different rises – long rise, regular rise, or short rise (the usual range is from 7 to 12 inches). A knowledgeable salesperson knows which brand has which rise. The pant rise determines where your pants sit on your body. If it is wrong for you, your pants are not going to fit well and will not be comfortable.
Interestingly, men’s pants that are larger than size 36 are generally only made in even sizes; so men often buy the next size larger than they need. The result is that the seat usually looks like it is too big, even if it is altered. Instead of buying the next size up, if you buy size 38 trousers with your correct rise (ones that fit you nicely elsewhere), “letting out” the waistline is a simple adjustment. Manufacturers leave enough fabric at the waistline for the tailor to work with.
Different makers have certain ways of cutting their clothes. The rise of one company’s pants is higher than the rise from another company. Some American trousers, even the good ones, and most European ones have a short rise. Depending on your body and how high or low you like to wear your pants, you are likely to have a preference. If a man is tall and/or if he likes to wear his trousers high on his waist, he needs a long rise. If he is short, or if he wears his pants low on his hips, he could need a short rise. He might own three pairs of pants that all fit differently.
It sounds as if you have experienced design and fit variations from one manufacturer to another. It is wise to look for a brand or designer whose rise and fit works for you.  And once you have found the right one, buy it, and buy it now. Don’t count on their fit always staying the same. You may be disappointed the next time you go shopping.
Here are some shopping-for-trousers-that-really-fit guidelines. The first rule is to force yourself to actually try on several styles. When trying them on, most men are chiefly concerned with the length of each leg. That is the last thing for you and the fitter to work on – literally the last, as it should ideally be postponed until the second fitting (!). For a perfect fit, slip the pants on without a belt. Position them where you normally like to wear them. This is important. Don’t allow the fitter to adjust them. Put the items in your pockets that you usually carry. Sit down; bend over; move a bit. This will allow the trousers to settle naturally and will help you to judge the fit.
While being fitted, wear the shoes that you plan to wear with the trousers. If you come shopping with a slightly different height heel than you would wear with them, ask the  salesman for a pair from the store’s stock to wear during the fitting.
On your return trip to the store after the main alterations have been made, try them on again. (This time you will have come wearing the right shoes.) Repeat your calisthenics. Now you are ready to address the length. Have the tailor measure each leg separately when the pants are in normal position and you have again filled the pockets. Legs can vary in length. I happen to like trousers with cuffs, but that decision is up to you. I also recommend a slight break in the crease line.
While discussing your question with the tailor at Paul Stuart, Manhattan’s high-end men’s shop, he said to me, “If you are interested in a proper fit, you need to be willing to give the tailor the time to make the proper adjustments.”

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