A Guide to Pant Length

understanding pant length

A few weeks ago, Belle linked to my 2009 guide to pant length and one of her commenters pointed out that although much of the post was still relevant, styles had changed. It’s five years later and ankle pants are almost more common than full-length, so some of my tips are definitely outdated. And since puzzling out pant hemlines is something that many women struggle with on the regular, I thought I’d take this opportunity to refresh and revise that post!

First and foremost, different pant lengths suit different shoes. Those slacks that look killer with your ballet flats are gonna look downright goofy with your platform slingbacks. Those jeans you love to wear with your stack-heeled boots are going to appear utterly preposterous when you throw them on with flip-flops. When you’re on the hunt for new pants, be sure to bring the shoes you intend to wear with them into the fitting room. Otherwise, it’s a total crap shoot. More on the pant hem dilemma right here.

Also, you’ll encounter different length challenges depending on the style of leg. Skinnies bunch, widelegs engulf, straightlegs pull, and on and on. Yet another reason to bring or wear the appropriate shoes when trying on potential new pants.

And finally, while extra length can be dealt with, lack of length is far trickier. If you unearth a pair that fits you gloriously and suits your budget but is miles too long, a tailor can rescue you quite easily. Gorgeous pants that are meant to be full-length yet expose your ankles will be tough to lengthen to acceptable proportions.

Now let’s see some visuals:

Full-length pants too short for heels

Full length pants that are too short for heels

Here we see a trouser-style dress pant with a crease and fairly wide leg opening worn with heels. They are riding several inches above the floor and showing almost the entire foot. This means that by current standards, they are too short.

Full-length pants too long for heels

Full length pants that are too long for heels

Pants that are too long are often wide-legged or flared, like these pairs of jeans. If the hem covers the entire front of the foot and makes the wearer appear to be footless, they are too long. And, actually, this applies regardless of whether the shoes are heels or flats! We need to see at least a peek of foot.

Full-length pants at correct length for heels


If you’re doing full-length pants or trousers with heeled shoes, they should look like this. In my opinion, pants should not graze the floor, as that’s just asking to ruin your hems. About one inch above the floor when you’re standing straight will work just fine. See how just the tip of the toe peeks out? And in the back view, see how about an inch of the heel is showing? Conditions are perfect.

Full-length pants at correct length for flats


These guys are a little closer to sweeping the ground, so you could certainly go up a half-inch or so. You still want the hem to be pretty darned close to the floor if your pants are meant to be full-length, even if your shoes are flat or almost-flat.

Now, both of these pairs have fairly wide legs, although one pair is formal and one casual. Things get trickier if you’re doing slimmer styles like straight legs because the opening at the hem may ride on the bridge of your foot.

Straight leg pants with heels and flats

straight leg pants with heels and flats

Here are straight leg pants worn with both heels and flats. If the pants on the left were any longer they’d bunch over the bridge of the foot and get caught on the back of the shoe. If the pants on the right were any longer, they’d bunch over the bridge of the foot and drag on the ground.

So: Better that your straight-legs ride a little higher than your trousers to prevent awkward encounters with your feet and the floor. But since we want full-length pants – especially dressy ones worn for professional purposes – to appear longer than this, straight legs may look a little less elegant. My guess is that ankle-length and cropped pants gained popularity because they look intentionally short instead of shrunk-in-the-wash short, which can happen with certain straight legs. And so …

Ankle pants at correct length for heels

Ankle pants at correct length for heels

SUCH a subtle difference between the straight legs above and these ankle-length pants, I know. And in some cases how high a pair of pants rides at the waist and how high your heels are may nudge them over the edge into ankle-length or just-a-touch-too-short-length.

In my opinion, the key here is that we see the entire bridge of the foot and the hem hits at ankle height. You can go a bit higher or lower than this, too, and still be in ankle-length territory. Notice that one of the key differences between these ankle-length pants and the straight legs above is that this pair is slightly tapered.

Ankle pants at correct length for flats

Ankle pants at correct length for flats

If you’re doing flats with your ankle pants, ideally they should show a bit more ankle. Why? Because when they’re longer they’ll look just like the straight-legs above. Ankle-length pants are meant to look a bit short and show a little peek of skin. When you’re wearing flat shoes and the bridge of your foot is parallel to the ground and therefore downplayed, showing more of your ankle makes this style of pant look fun and intentional. This is especially true if you go for oxfords which cover your foot entirely. 

Skinny pants that are too long

Skinny pants that are too long

These are very mild examples, but show the issues that can arise with truly skinny pants. Now, if you’re tucking into boots, your skinnies can be miles too long and it won’t matter a bit. Cuff them and tuck them into your socks. Bam. But if you’re wearing super slim-fitting pants with heels and they bunch up at your ankles, they will look too long. If you’re doing skinnies with flats, same deal. With denim and pants made from fabrics that are slightly stiff, you can just tuck some of the pant length back into the pant leg itself for a French cuff and no one will be the wiser. No hemming needed, no bunching visible.

Skinny pants at correct length

skinny pants right length

Skinny pants that are worn untucked with either heels or flats will look the most polished and chic worn at ankle length or above. No bunching, no knocking into your foot’s bridge, a clean, neat finish.

Fit issues with full-length tapered styles

Fit issues with tapered pants

Based on what I’ve read and seen, full-length, slouchy, pleated, tapered pants are meant to pool a little at the ankle, so the pair on the left is fine. The pair on the right is tapered but not skin-tight at the ankle, so tucking it into ankle boots looks a bit off. There’s some pooching and bunching, and the curve of the ankle is obscured. Probably better to untuck your tapered pants or even cuff them so they hit at ankle height or above instead. Which segues nicely into …

Detailed hemlines make pants look intentional


Shorter length pants with gathers, ties, and cuffs are GREAT options because they broadcast intentionality. The bottom line is that no matter how long or short your pants are, you want to look like you’ve chosen their length on purpose. They’re not this long because you’re wearing your heels-length pants with flats today and they’re not this short because they’ve had an encounter with Hot Dryer. When they’re finished with hemline details, you’re telling the world that you know exactly how long your pants are meant to be and exactly where you’d like them to hit on your leg line.

Is all this written in stone? Will you burst into flames if you don’t follow these guidelines to the letter, measuring down to the centimeter where your pant hem hits on your ankle or foot’s bridge? Am I saying that these are the only ways to wear any kinds of pants correctly? Is getting your pant length just right going to make or break you as a fashionable person? No. Also no. Hells no. And allow me to give you a giant heaping pile of NO.

The Pant Hem Police are especially lax these days because SO much comes down to personal style and preferences, and even if they weren’t this is seriously nit-picky, granular stuff. But since questions about the “right” length for various styles of pants worn with various styles/heights of shoes are posed to me on a near-weekly basis by clients, readers, and Corset customers, I wanted to outline the current guidelines as I understand and employ them myself.

None of my figure flattery advice posts should be considered gospel, including this one, and I fully expect you to read them with a grain of salt. Style “rules” are merely guidelines, no matter who is dispensing them. I trust you to use your judgment. And I trust you to take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent.

So! Was this helpful? Do the guidelines make sense? What combinations of pant-length and shoe-style are you most likely to wear? Are you wearing ankle-length pants these days? They certainly are the dominant style, it seems. Anything you’d add?

Anyone wearing straight-legs and have some additional input for making them look great? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!

Related posts:

All images courtesy Nordstrom // cc

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Originally posted 2014-04-21 06:09:20.

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18 Responses to “A Guide to Pant Length”

  1. bubu2

    Sal – you are just the best at these kinds of posts! I learned so much about things I always kind of knew peripherally were off, but could not pinpoint why. Thank you! My biggest pitfall is buying pants thinking I will wear them with heels, then remembering heels are uncomfortable and that I end up in low heels or flats most of the time. Any tips what to do when you have made this error- can those pants be salvaged?

  2. Cynthia

    And…this is why I wear skirts every day 🙂 Although sticking to only wearing flats makes it a lot easier to decide where to hem pants, I must say.

  3. loubeelou

    Every once and a while I will have a pair of pants that magically fits with flats and heels. I think it has something to do with small jaunts up and down the scale – lose a few or gain a few and suddenly the pants become longer or shorter. Ha!

    I recently bought a pair of what I think are considered cigarette pants – like a little higher than ankle length and slim fitting. I feel very French in them and they make me want to dance like Anna Kendrick in a recent SNL sketch that was riffing on something French (I know very little about France). Anyway, I love them with high heels but I think flats will go great too. Very versatile.

    • ktmarie

      omg that skit! we have been dancing around the house like ‘french’ Anna Kendrick since that aired. we also have no idea what it was riffing on but enjoyed it anyways

  4. Lisa Wong

    Very thorough post, Sal!

    I find that a length that ends at the ankle, or 1″-2″ above it to show the ankle bone, works for the skinny jeans and trousers I prefer to wear with flats and low heels (max. 3″) almost daily.

  5. what not

    Sal, do you know if these rules have changed with the ups and downs of fashion history? Obviously pants are a relatively new thing for women, and the silhouettes have changed over time, but these rules seem to make aesthetic and practical sense. So were there different pant-length guidelines in the 60s or 80s or whatever, or have they remained more or less stable since women started wearing pants?

    • Sally McGraw

      GREAT question! I will have to do some digging to get true historical perspective, but I can say that these guidelines shift quite frequently in the present day. My older post on this same topic was five years old, and ankle pants were just starting to become popular. The pleated, slouchy styles of today hadn’t yet made it on the scene, so much of today’s post wouldn’t have made sense just five years back!

      I’ll see if I can find some resources. Looking at old photos of Katherine Hepburn and then later Audrey Hepburn and some 70s magazine images, it seems like they began around these lengths or maybe a bit shorter, then lengthened in the 70s with the advent of bellbottoms.

      Anyone else have historical info, images, or resources to share?

      • Jennifer

        This is purely anecdotal, but my grandma used to be a seamstress in the 1940ies and early 50ies (After that she worked in another field and therefore didn’t keep up with changing trends.) She is still pretty great at all kinds of alterations, only that her idea of the right pants length is about half an inch to an inch to short for modern taste. Since she claims that she learned it that way, I would assume that in the 40ies and 50ies – at least in Western Europe – people indeed wore their pants shorter than today…

  6. Aging fashionista

    Ok, Sally! sorry, but I am about ready to give up on fashion altogether after reading this. I agree with the subtleties that come into to play with pant lengths but add to that cost consciousness, availability, time available to shop, ESPECIALLY figure flattery for different body heights and sizes, shoe height and vamp, etc and its all too too much pressure. I thought fashion was about having fun with clothes and style and we were moving to a more inclusive era. This is like way to much work for me. I Know these are not Rules but I will likely stick with skirts, straight leg or flared jeans with heels, and flared trousers and be mildly out of date.

    Makes me more committed to a more limited style, as others have indicated, as its less complicated, altho also potentially less interesting..

    • Sally McGraw

      I completely understand, my dear. For what it’s worth, I did my best to include as many styles as I could in this post, but some of them can be totally ignored if they’re not your favorites! For instance the pleated/tapered style is pretty fringe at this point … anyway, it might seem less overwhelming if you just focus on the styles you already know you like and want to wear.

      • Aging fashionista

        I think also I need to do what the bloggers do so well, take lots of pics/selfies of muself in different styles to see what works for me. Anyway, great tutorial! Even if I have not graduated from Pant Lengths 101 yet:)

  7. SarahC

    I can’t disagree with anything you say here, but I just can’t accept the idea that I need 2 separate collections of pants for heels and flats! As a tall person, it’s hard enough just finding the correct basic inseam for myself. I often wear boots to conceal hem issues.

    What is the difference between “full length pants” and “straight leg pants”? To me, the “too short for heels full-length pants” look almost identical to the “correct length for heels straight-leg pants”

  8. Rachel

    I got used to wearing my pants quite long, because I’m short and it was easier than getting them hemmed. But this weekend I finished sewing my first pair of pants, and spent *ages* trying to decide exactly what length the hem should be, now that I had the choice! They ended up just above the floor, ie full-length for wide leg with flats. 🙂