Few words are as polarising in the world of fashion as culottes. Whether to include these shorts-disguised-as-a-skirt into wardrobe rotation is always up for debate. Michael Kors even posed the question “high-waisted flares vs wide-leg culottes?” to his Twitter followers.
How to style culottes
Not quite trousers and not exactly shorts, culottes straddle the line between formal and informal, without ever really moving into “casual” territory. If you wear them cut an inch either way in length you can run the risk of looking frumpy. How to style culottes certainly can be tricky territory to navigate.
For the first time since the 1980s, however, culottes are trending — on the runways, on the street-style set outside the shows — new and improved.
The humble culotte is a style steeped in a history of controversy. It was one of the first garments to bridge the gap between genders. Not only were they used as a term to describe the lower-class Parisian republican in the French Revolution (referred to as “sans-culottes”) but culottes were one of the first items of clothing to empower women.
Long, split skirts were first engineered during the Victorian Era to allow women to ride a horse, just as the men would do, with one leg on either side of a saddle (as opposed to the norm of riding with both legs side-of-saddle) while still appearing as though wearing a skirt. Soon, this evolved into the modern-day culotte; a pair of cropped trousers, cut to the calf with full legs to resemble a skirt. In the early 20th century, women in Paris were arrested for wearing culottes in public, if not, as per regulation, “holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse”.
If recent times have taught us anything, it’s that culotte shorts (or trousers for some) are not only versatile and in vogue, they have some serious staying power.
Designers have been championing the look for some seasons — as far back as resort 2013 — with the style picking up serious momentum at the AW16 shows from the likes of Chloé, Lanvin and Rochas. These designers suggest culottes in everything from fluid silks to supple leather and burnished metallic finishes. The street-style set are also fans, providing ample inspiration on how to style culottes. Writer and stylist Margaret Zhang teamed a cream pair with an olive green tee, red heels and a nude tote.
Proponents of culottes know that due attention should be given to one’s height and size when deciding how to wear culottes. This typically is a style that doesn’t lengthen the silhouette so shorter women may choose to wear culottes with bare legs and a pair of sandals. Consider balancing out the proportions of a wide-legged style with a slimmed-down top or a skin-baring singlet. Finally, opt for breezy, slightly structural fabrics such as twills, silks, chambrays and linen to highlight the structure of the style.
When it comes to how to style culottes for the office, take your cue from Spanish model Eugenia Silva and choose matching tailored separates in dark neutral tones to emulate a fashion-forward suit. Look to a mix of traditional fabrics such as tweed and wool suiting — such as those from Thom Browne — and silk shirting to keep the look polished.
British model Suki Waterhouse interprets the trend in her signature mix of risqué elegance with retro accents. A tailored, plunging vest top offers a perfect counterpoint to the modesty of her fluid, silk culottes in a clash of warm and cool whites. She finishes the look with suede platform shoes in neutral tones and a statement bag to match a bold lip. To achieve a similar look, browse Jil Sander’s offerings, which include culotte shorts in a summery white cotton.
Oscar-winning actress, Louis Vuitton muse and current fashion darling Alicia Vikander shows us how to wear culottes with a youthful, sexy ease, showing a flash of midriff skin in a matching skirt-and-top look. The crisp, white palette offers the outfit a vacation-esque sense of freshness while remaining entirely elegant when paired with her unfussy up-do and strappy heels.
For those feeling brave, try the style in statement fabrics. A metallic finish or leather construction directs the eye to the culotte as the focal point of the outfit. Pair back the boldness with matching accessories and strong silhouettes in neutral tones. Rag & Bone ventured into leather territory with its culotte shorts, which look sharp when styled with brogues in black patent.
For a casual take, look to Giulia Capresi or Hanneli Mustaparta for how to style culottes on the weekend. Add sporty-luxe accents such as a silk bomber jacket or a cosy cashmere knit, finished with a slip-on loafer.