Reader Request: The Pant Hem Dilemma

How to determine the perfect pant hem length for YOUR needs!

Image courtesy Banana Republic

Reader Kerry e-mailed me this question:

Whenever I buy new dress pants for work, I have to have the length altered. Each time, they languish in my bedroom while I try to determine which shoes I should wear to the tailor: should I wear the heels, the flats, the in-between shoes? If I have my pants shortened so I can wear flats with them, they will look silly with the heels and vice versa. But I don’t want to have a pair of pants for heels and a pair for flats, because a decent pair of pants is expense (plus tailoring) and I don’t want to have to buy “heels pants” and “flats pants.”

So, should I wear the middle of the road shoes (with just a bit of heel) when I go to the tailor and know that the pant length may be a bit off at either end of the shoe spectrum? Is it better to err on the side of the pants being a bit too long or a bit too short? Or am I supposed to suck it up and have shorter/longer pants depending on what shoes I want to wear? Am I over-thinking this?

So, pants. If you want the real answer, here it is: You need to have some dress pants that work for flats, and some that work for heels. You don’t have to buy two pairs of each pant style and get one hemmed for heels, one for flats … but if you want to look your polished and professional best, you need to relegate certain pairs to flats, others to heels. There are a larger variety of stylish hem lengths and styles now than ever before, but especially when it comes to dress pants there are guidelines that are widely followed: Trouser and wide-leg pants hemmed for heels should hit very close to the floor, about half an inch. These pants will not work when worn with flats because they will be so long that they’ll drag and get stepped on. Trouser and wide-leg pants hemmed for flats should hit very close to the floor, too, or create a slight gather at the top of the foot. These pants will not work when worn with heels because they’ll be too short to look appropriate and not quite short enough to look cropped or intentional.

There are workarounds, but they’re not ideal.

  • You can use hem tape to make your heels-length pants appear shorter
  • You can use these magnets to reversibly shorten pant hems, but they’re not terribly subtle
  • For casual pants, you can cuff without any tape or magnets

None of these solutions will allow for a pressed, crisp-looking hem on dress pants, so if you work in a dressy or conservative environment they might not work at all. For more casual workplaces, you could probably sneak ’em in.

What does this mean for tailoring? That you should decide in advance if the pants will be worn mainly with heels or flats, and bring your most-worn pair of shoes in that style to wear for measurements. A slight wedge or heel will likely work with both heels-length and flats-length pants in some cases, but true flats and true heels will look awkward worn with a hem that’s too long or short. I know it sucks, and makes it virtually impossible to know which pants to assign to which shoes.* But aside from the temporary fixes listed above (which mean you could hem everything for relatively high heels), that’s what I’d recommend.

How do you deal with pant hems? Do you stick to all flats or all heels to avoid the issue altogether? Bite the bullet and buy or thrift pants and get them hemmed to multiple lengths? Which shoes do you wear when getting your pants tailored? Any other temporary fixes or workarounds to suggest?

*Shoe choice can factor in. For instance, my straight leg pants don’t look right to my eye worn with flats, so I always keep them hemmed for heels. However this is subject to personal preference. I would never say that everyone should hem straight legs for heels. But if you can determine which pant styles work with which shoe heights/styles for your figure, that can help in hemming decisions.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2013-01-22 06:44:45.

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49 Responses to “Reader Request: The Pant Hem Dilemma”

  1. Kasmira

    My solution has been to just not wear pants!

    But skinny jeans or pants seem to be a good solution. The hem length doesn’t need to correlate to heel height since they must stop at the top of the foot.

    • Mary

      Yes! The narrower the pant leg, the more leeway you have when deciding what length to hem for!!
      I’m a bit late weighing in, but Kasmira has hit upon my favorite solution: narrow legs, as found on skinny jeans & cigarette pants. Whatever height of heel you wear, that narrow pant leg will only bunch up around your ankle. But if you won’t be caught dead in narrow-legged pants, it gets more complicated.
      Length and width work together, on pants as well as sleeves and skirt hems. It’s hard to advocate one solution across the board.
      I try to take the time with each client to hit the right pant-hem length: if they don’t bring their own shoes to their fitting, I’ve got some “sample” slingbacks in 1″, 2″, and 3″ heights so they can compare. Or I’ll pin one leg 1/2″ from the floor and the other 1″ from the floor so they can see the difference.
      Some of my clients would get impatient with this, and will just wear their pants with whatever heel height they like. But for many others, who invest big bucks in a new Theory suit, I find they appreciate visually seeing all their options realistically before deciding.
      “Measure ten times, cut once.”

  2. Cynthia

    Yet another great reason to always wear flats. Sheesh, I have a hard enough time finding good pants, thinking I’d have to find good pairs in multiple lengths would be crazytown. Of course this is why most of my work wardrobe consists of skirts.

  3. Ellen

    This is one of the reasons I’ve become a skirt addict, but I must say if skinny pants and flats ever go out of style, I’ll be in big fashion trend trouble!

  4. Jennifer

    Fortunately for me, I decided a long time ago that I can’t wear heels. I have wide toes, and all that weight pushing down on my toes, in shoes that were inevitably too narrow, did not make for happy feet!

  5. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I mostly wear skirts and dresses. With jeans, I am a lazy roller-upper/downer, which accommodates my flats and my boots. The tailor sees me once every couple of years : o

  6. AB

    I only wear flats. It’s a comfort issue rather than a hemming pants issue. Makes it a lot easier when I have to hem my pants though.

    • LinB

      Yup. Am now old enough and married enough that I don’t have to wear heels to attract a mate anymore, so I choose not to wear tall heels anymore. My feet, legs, and back thank me. The low heels I do occasionally sport I wear with skirts. I wear flats with trousers.

  7. Sarah

    Oh my goodness, does reading this make me stabby. I just only wear flat shoes. I pondered this dilemma for a long, long time when I first starting working after college. Then I decided that this is one of those things that retailers make us care about because they make more money this way – you have to buy two pairs of pants to go with your two pairs of shoes. No thank you, I decline. It helps that I hate wearing heels I guess…hemming a pair of pants to a length that only works with shoes I equate to torture devices is really limiting, ’cause I ain’t down with being uncomfortable all day!

    Just to be clear, this issue makes me stabby, not your writing Sally! I’ve just read about this issue on so many fashion blogs and in so many magazines over the years. Whenever the solution is, “Spend more money,” I get stabby.

  8. Anne

    This is a crazy-making issue isn’t it? I am guilty of having pant in all kinds of lengths in my closet. Right now, only pants at the “Fancy” end of the spectrum are hemmed for heels; 3″ heels to be exact. Yes, I do take a measuring tape with me to check. 3″ inches is all my feet and knees will allow. Trouser and boot-cut jeans are all hemmed at 2″. That is my everyday heel height. Skinnies, straight legs, and boyfriends get worn with flats. This season I’ve purchased 3 pair of cropped pants. If the temperature gets above 50 I wear these quite a bit. They seem to look good with a variety of heel heights. I know this all seems complicated but I really hang on to my clothes for as long as I can. Once I get things to work for me I stick with them until it’s painfully obvious that they won’t work anymore. Think of your work pants and shoes as tools of your trade, then take care of them so they will last.

  9. Susan

    I’m encouraged, and frankly surprised, to find other sisters of the Flats Only tribe out there. I thought we were becoming extinct.

  10. Carolyn

    A trick I use to get around the heels/flats/pants debate is that if I feel the need to wear heels to work, wear boots with a heel! Crisp skinny pants that work for flats will work in boots, too, assuming the boots are tall enough.

  11. Eleanorjane

    When I was dressing up for work, I wore heels every day so I was fine. I have more of an issue with jeans ‘cos I’m prone to wear them with heels or flats and I generally only have one or two pairs of jeans at a time. But skinny jeans ruck up fine with flats, so that’s not a worry. Also, it’s winter so everything tucks into boots, regardless of length.

  12. Ame

    I’m all for the wearing one height heel. I’m on flats right now, but when I worked in an office I only bought work shoes that varied half an inch heel height. So everything got hemmed the same, because all the heels were the same height. If I wanted to wear a different height heel (this was rare, since I walked to work most days) I would wear a dress. Makes it easier to get dressed in the morning too, since you don’t have any of those “only my high heeled pants are clean but it’s sleeting!” days.

    I agree with the disgruntled comment about getting us to spend more money, above. I have no trouble buying two pairs of office pants if they are a perfect fit, but I want them to be equally wearable at all times.

  13. Krysta

    I’m with the intelligent and no doubt attractive crowd pointing out that this is one of the major advantages to the skinny/slim/straight style: since they hit higher on the foot, they have considerably more flexibility in shoe/hem pairings.

    • AK

      Agreed. For this reason I’m really only buying straight legs (even for dress pants) these days — much more leeway on heel height. It’s not actually possible to hem a straight leg pant 1/2″ from the ground; it doesn’t go over your shoe the way a trouser, flare or wide leg does. So I just aim for a small break in mid-heels, and am set.

      • Aging fashinista

        But skinny is not office appropriate for many workplaces, nor is it flattering to all figure types. I agree about straights for business wear. They are more versatile. And btw what about ankle?very in now but what shoes? And (tangent) what hose? None is a bit crazy in mn in Jan but do sox look goofy?

        • Sally

          Shoes for ankle length pants depends on your figure flattery priorities. Lowish heels are what many women prefer, but you can do flats or wedges, too. As Andi suggested below, nude fishnet trouser socks can work for winter … though for myself, I generally avoid low-vamp shoes with pants for winter. I do boots instead, or wear them with opaque tights and skirts/dresses.

  14. Laura

    I just bought some cigarette pants at H&M which solve this dilemma, beautifully, since they look great with ballet flats, loafers, sandals, wedges, and heels. And they make me feel like Audrey Hepburn or Jackie O. Of course, they come with their own set of difficulties; for example, right now it is freezing and snowy and I can’t figure out a way to style these pants that doesn’t involve exposed ankles – perhaps some ankle booties would work, but more shopping is not in my budget right now.

  15. Anonymous

    Maybe I’m missing something, but what is the point of wearing high heels with wider legged trousers?
    To my mind, the point of heels is to flatter the leg. If you’re wearing a skirt, dress, or very skinny trousers, you can see the difference, so heels make sense.
    But if you’re wearing something like the white trousers at top right, why not wear a maximally comfortable flat or slight wedge shoe? You can’t really see either the shoe or her leg shape, so why heels at all?
    Currently I only have skinny pants or skirts, so for me it’s all moot, but that’s the reason I’d hem all my trousers for flats.

    • Lauren

      >But if you’re wearing something like the white trousers at top right, why
      not wear a maximally comfortable flat or slight wedge shoe?

      I think the same principle works even with wider-leg pants – a heel or wedge makes the leg appear longer. Sure, you can’t see the shape of the leg, but the lift adds a nice line to the pants when worn with heels or wedges.

      Has anyone ever tried these: Or are they too good to be true? From the “how to use” section it definitely seems like you lose the seam at the bottom of the pants by turning it under – that might be more of a problem for some pants than for others.

      • sarah

        even if you can’t see the leg, wearing heels changes one’s posture -the back is straighter, shoulders back, etc. For me, I only bother to wear “dress pants” as opposed to casual pants in situations where I’ll also want heels (not because I need the height – I’m almost 6′ tall! – but because they produce a posture and gait that I prefer for formal situations).

    • Aging fashinista

      Because we short gals want to be taller. Esp with wode leg pants, otherwise we look to squat (at least i do)

  16. cecelia

    I rarely wear heels with pants, but an ankle boot is a good solution with shorter pants- hides the awkwardness. I also like to get my hems on the wide side so if I temporarily cuff it it still looks finished (you’ll have a bit of a bottom seam but you won’t have the interior side seams showing)

    The only heels I usually wear with pants are kitten heeled mules, but then they get caught under my heels. Flats are just easier.

    Generally if I’m dressed up I wear dresses anyway.

  17. cecelia

    But to add, I do love wide legged trousers. Skinnies are not a hippy girl’s friend.

    • AB

      Nor someone with smaller hips and larger legs. I have tried on many pair and I just feel ridiculous in them.

  18. Marcy

    I have some heels I love that are comfortable enough to wear to work, but I mostly wear flats these days. I have this dilemma quite often and I hem my own pants!

    I have recently expanded into skirts and dresses which helps a ton, but I do find that certain pants “go” with certain shoes so I just have a couple pair of pants hemmed for flats, a couple pair hemmed for heels, and I have one pair that only works with my barely-heels – they’d drag on the ground in true flats but they aren’t tall enough for actual heels.

    My pants fit very close and very well, but true “trousers” are not very fitted and then you can actually cheat a little. Wear the pants higher when you wear flats and lower when you wear heels. Thin suspenders (worn under my top) are invaluable for keeping my hems from dragging on the ground on days when my pants are not fitting as well as usual, so I believe they’d work better than belting your pants high.

    • Marcy

      I meant to mention that hem height is the search that originally brought me to Already Pretty!

  19. DM

    I used to wear mostly heels for that very reason- because most of my pants were hemmed longer and I couldn’t afford to buy multiple pairs (also, being short, most “petite” or “ankle length” pants fit just right with a 2-3 inch heel- no hemming required!) Now, with skinny ankle length pants, I am super lazy and just fold them under if I am wearing flats. Not perfect but works just fine with casual pants.

  20. Olivia

    I only wear flats so all pants are hemmed for them, and I do the hemming myself to save money.

  21. Lisa

    I’ve found that ankle-length trousers with a slim or skinny leg look great with flats or pumps with a mid-height heel (2″-3″).

  22. Sharon

    Remember to wash and dry pants several times before you alter them, especially if they’re mostly cotton! Tightly woven fabrics can take a long time to finish shrinking, so if you get a new pair of pants hemmed to heels length, it may be flats length a few washes later. If you get that pair hemmed to flats length, it may be Pee-Wee Herman length before too long.

    Wear them a few times too, if you can. Many pants will loosen up after you’ve been wearing them a few hours, so that ideal length in the morning may be draggy in the afternoon.

  23. Laura

    I agree with Sally – if you wear traditional dress pants to work, you need to have them hemmed for whatever height shoes you will wear with them – probably heels unless you absolutely don’t wear heels. You can probably get away with a half-inch variance in heels or hem length without it looking wonky, but anything more than that will look ill-tailored. If you work in a business environment you probably need (at least) two pairs of good pants anyway, so just hem one for close to the highest heel you regularly wear, and one for flats or nearly-flats. If you work in a slightly more casual environment but still need to look pretty spiffy, you could have a wide-leg pair hemmed for heels, and a slim pair, e.g. cigarette pants, that you can wear with flats or under boots.

    I simplify things a bit by only buying basically one height of heels – 2 1/2″. That’s the highest I can wear comfortably and still move all day, and if possible I buy wedges instead of traditional pumps for maximum walkability. Then I’ve also got flats and nearly-flats which work with my shorter pants.

    Of course, the other solution is not to wear pants, only skirts and dresses, or only one height of shoes with pants. I tend to prefer heels with dress pants anyway, but I don’t have to wear dress pants every day for work.

  24. Linda L

    I reserve my flats for skinny and straight leg pants/jeans. My legs are short and just look so much better with a heel under wide leg jeans or trousers. I have my bootcut jeans separated into 2 inch heel and 4 inch heel piles. I should do the same with my trousers, as I always have to try them on and see what height heel will work whenever I wear a pant outfit. Petite pants are really inconsistant in the inseams, I find. I usually just keep them as is, because I have so many shoes in every heel height I always have several pair that will work with any inseam length.

  25. sarah

    Tall girls don’t have to deal with this problem. Instead, we have the challenge of finding pants that are long enough in the first place! My solution is simple: any circumstance in which I’m going to *need* dress pants (as opposed to a skirt, or casual pants) is also a circumstance in which I’m going to want or need a heel. And almost all of my heels are the same height – 2 or 2.5″. If I can find nice, affordable pants that are long enough, you’d better believe I am buying them!!

    Also, like Cecelia and AB above, skinnies don’t flatter me, so all of my “dress pants” are wide-legged, which I think kind of solves the dilemma in advance: does anyone wear wide legged *dress pants* with flats – ever? I can’t picture it; it seems like your hems would have to be dragging on the ground, getting dirty and/or frayed. Perfect for expressing a certain chic, louche, devil-may-care attitude, but does anyone wear “dress pants” for this? I do wear wide legged trousers with flats, but I’ve always considered the silhouette the purview of casual occasions and dry summer days.

    • Olivia

      I wear wide leg dress pants with flats. The hem doesn’t drag because they are hemmed high enough not to.

      • sarah

        Ooh, so I’m curious: do you wear your flats and have the hem just skim the ground, or is it hemmed above the ground? How much of the fabric “breaks” above your foot, if any?

  26. Ginger

    I like to wear flats to commute to work. Once I’m at work I’ll put heeled shoes on. I’m not an ultra-high heel wearer, usually when they’re 2 or so inches.
    I wear cloggy walking shoes with a platform-like sole and they’re elevated enough that my pant hem stays out of the puddles.

    So I split the difference. I wear walking shoes that aren’t entirely flat and I wear heels that aren’t real high, and it works out for my dress pants 🙂

  27. shebolt

    I’m guilty of never getting my pants hemmed. I wear whatever heel height works for the off-the-rack length of the pant.

  28. Emilie

    This was helpful. I think instinctively, I’ve gravitated towards wearing flats with pants and heels with skirts/dresses. Although I have never found wide-leg pants to flatter me, so I go for skinnies always.

  29. Stephanie

    I stick to flats as a lifestyle choice. Technically my boots are heals but I think they are maybe a inch. I nearly fell down the stairs caring my son when he was a few months old and have not had a pair of true heals since.

  30. Kari Serenity

    This post makes me glad I only wear flats… Pants shopping tends to be the least fun for me, compared to shirts and accessories and whatnot, so I tend to wear the same ones over and over. Having multiples sounds complicated.

  31. Tragic Sandwich

    I just found your blog, and I’m so happy I did! I only wear flats or very low heels–my feet can’t handle higher heels anymore–and I dedicate pants to specific pairs of shoes.

  32. Nomi

    I only wear flats with pants, and save the heels for skirts or dresses. Makes things a lot easier.

  33. Chrissy

    We all have this problem and my pants are always too long. That includes my jeans, yoga pants and dress pants. I don’t like hemming and the expense of it plus I have lots of too long pants. My solution is too let my flare leg jeans and flare leg yoga pants just drag on the floor. It looks fine and most other women I see out and about let these types of pants drag. The hems get a little frayed but that’s in style and looks feminine and cute. Dress pants are different. I simply wear tall heels with my flared work pants and even platforms. Basically I choose a heel height that allows my pants to graze the floor and cover my shoes except for the toes peeking out in front. This is fashionable and trendy and I rarely see other women in their work pants that don’t touch the floor. I think some people make too big a deal out of pants that are too long. They are really supposed to hit the floor to be the proper length. Of course this, like many other things, is subjective.