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Can Leather Pants Be Considered Formal Wear?

They’re certainly not athleisure, or business casual. So what occasions are they appropriate for?

Few TV shows have ever been accused of wreaking as much havoc on society as Friends. Over the last decade, the sitcom has been blamed for instilling “toxic dating patterns,” “normalizing predatory behaviors” and trading in racism, sexism and transphobia. There’s even an allegation that the series triggered the downfall of Western Civilization.  

Not to pile on, but I’d also like to point out that it tried to ruin leather pants for men as well. In the Season Five episode “The One With All the Resolutions,” Ross wears leather pants, gets ridiculed, goes on a date, feels his legs getting hot while on said date and finds himself stuck in the bathroom unable to pull his leather pants back up his sweaty legs. The joke is about Ross being his usual pathetic, neurotic self — and more largely, that leather pants are too impractical for other pathetic, neurotic men like him.  

In the scene, Ross wears his leather pants with a tucked-in, dark grayish-blue button-down shirt. Sitting on his date’s couch, we hear his internal monologue say, “God, these pants are burning up.” When he tries to make an adjustment, the friction between the pants and the couch leads to fart sounds. Then he darts to the bathroom where, in an effort to cool down, he has to pull his pants down to his ankles and sprinkle water on his legs. Again, the message is clear: Leather pants aren’t for regular dudes who go on regular dates.

And yet, in the intervening years, they’ve more than persisted. “They’ve been knocking around the high fashion sphere for a few years, probably peaking when the likes of Kanye and A$AP started wearing them — much to the chagrin of macho bedroom rap fans around the world,” Clive Martin wrote in Fashion Beans’ For Fashion’s Sake column. “But recent catwalk developments have suggested that there may well be a thirst for the leather trouser beyond spornosexual swag lords, decaying rock stars and suburban swingers parties.”

“The  [Autumn/Winter] shows last year had more leather trousers per man than a Berlin biker bar, with the likes of Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Saint Lauren and Dunhill all offering the sort of legwear that’d chafe the skin off a rhino,” Martin continued. “Balenciaga also do a pair, but that’s hardly surprising — that they have the crotch still intact and a leg circumference of less than a tennis racket is probably more notable. High fashion is definitely hot for leather, but whether this proliferates to the Bicester Village crowd, or even just the post-metrosexual brigade, remains a great unknown.”

I would say that they’ve definitely proliferated to the mainstream — and whoever the Ross Gellers of today are. I mean, why else would ASOS be selling so many different versions of faux leather pants? Banana Republic sells a version (maybe my favorite?) of leather pants, too. And you can’t get more mainstream than that.

As for when exactly we’re all wearing these leather pants — and the occasions they’re most appropriate for — Sam, who has been wearing leather pants since 2017, tells me, “I like how they look rather than how black jeans look. So I wear them in any situation where I could wear jeans,” which, for him, includes parties, dates and even fancy-pants dinners. “I wore leather pants to a wedding once,” he says. “But that was in Texas.”

Others, however, aren’t so sure you can wear leather pants everywhere. “I’ve owned many pairs of leather motorcycle pants,” a subscriber to the Male Fashion Advice (MFA) subreddit explains. “I can tell you for certain that my motorcycle pants are significantly more comfortable, flexible and vented than a pair of vintage leather pants. Unless you get around on a Segway, you’re going to get sweaty balls.”

Knowing what to pair with leather pants is equally complicated. “I usually wear mine with a white T-shirt,” says a different MFA subscriber. “If I want to dress them down, I’ll wear them with sneakers. If I want to look more formal, I’ll put on a button-down shirt and black boots.” 

But he adds, “You always run the risk of looking like a wannabe rock star.” Which is why most of the guys I spoke with on the subject are fairly anti-leather pants. “A leather blazer with regular trousers would work better,” another MFAer argues.

There’s also a middle ground worth considering. “Look into waxed denim first,” one final MFA subscriber suggests. “Waxed indigos, grays and blacks will all look much more visually interesting and different compared to normal denim. The sheen and smooth-looking surface bridges the gap between denim and leather, while being more approachable and ‘normal’ than leather pants.”

In that way, leather pants are pretty uncategorizable. They’re not formal wear any more than they’re business casual. They’re a beast unto themselves — as good for any occasion as you have the confidence in wearing them.