AKA: Charleston pants (Europe), Collegiate Pants (USA)
How to say it: say it like the university
- 22-23″ inch circumference at the hem
- double pleats under waistband
- wide through the leg
…of the style: It is widely believed that the Oxford Bags were invented by students of Oxford University in 1925 in response to the banning of wearing knickerbockers to lectures. The students apparently wore the ‘bags’ over their ‘knickers’ while in class and removed them afterwards so they could go directly to the golf course etc.
This theory has two issues…
Firstly, a travelling salesman wrote about selling Oxford Bags in the 1880s, and the pants are mentioned in a novel written in 1904 (Robert Barr’s A Chicago Princess). On top of this written evidence, the Rowing Museum at Henley (England) has a pair of white Oxford Bags from 1896. So they can’t have been invented in 1925 if they already existed.
Secondly, knickerbockers do not actually fit underneath a pair of traditional Oxford Bags without looking ridiculous, so it is unlikely that this is what they were used for (Oxford undergrads were quite fashion conscious). It has been suggested that they were actually used by Oxford rowers, who wore them to keep warm between races – essentially they were smart sweat pants.
Whatever they were used for or whenever they were invented, they definitely hit the height of their popularity in the 1920’s. For whatever reason (perhaps so wearers could pretend to be the prestigious rowers) students at Oxford University (and Cambridge) began to wear the wide leg trousers as a fashion garment in the early 1920s and caused quite a stir.
Before ‘bags’ became popular, men’s trousers were traditionally 16-17″ in circumference at the hem giving them a fairly slim silhouette, so the wider leg of the Oxford Bags (22-23″ circumference) were a serious deviation from what was considered acceptable men’s clothing. Some bags have been reported to have had widths of up to 44″, although these were most likely worn to win a be or to attract publicity, rather than as a legitimate pair of pants. As well as this extra width, men started to wear their Oxford Bags in a wide range of colours, moving away from the traditional black and grey in favour of lavender, pink, blue, green and yellow. As Oxford bags spread all over the Northern Hemisphere, a whole look evolved to include a double-breasted sports coat, a flat-topped ‘pancake’ hat, an unrolled umbrella and a pair of horn rimmed glasses with clear glass (The Oxford Look). In Europe the style became known as Charleston pants, while in America they were slightly changed and called Collegiate pants.
Another fallacy associated with the Oxford Bags is that the style died out as quickly as it came. What actually happened was the gimmicky, attention seeking, crazily wide pants disappeared, but the original 23″ Oxford Bags became the norm for mens trousers through the 1930s, 40s and into the 50s. They were no longer called Oxford Bags, just trousers. As well as this, the Oxford Look of the wider pants and sports coat became the standard suit for British Men, effectively changing the face of men’s fashion for several decades.
The style had a revival for men and women in the 1970s and again in the early 2000s, although the revival styles were much wider than the original Bags of the early 20s.
…of the name: The style is said to have been invented at Oxford University so that is where the name comes from. I’m not sure why they are called Bags – maybe because they were wide legged?
- Turkey (the country) banned Oxford Bags in 1927 due to their connection to a gang of thieves. This ban was so serious that a man, newly arrived from London with a pair of ‘bags’, was arrested and jailed for a week for wearing them.
21st Century Oxford Bags
To be honest the term Oxford Bags isn’t really used by anyone anymore other than fashion journalists, and when it is used the term is often attached to pants that are in fact much wider than the original Oxford Bags. The images below are of pants on the market that more closely resemble the traditional 23″ bags rather than the super wide versions.
Alice + Olivia, Roland Mouret