Style: Men flout tradition with 'go to hell' pants

CorrespondentMay 21, 2014 

Take a walk through the throngs of tailgaters at Carter-Finley Stadium, along the lawns of UNC’s frat court or at just about any wedding or garden party in these parts and you’re bound to see them: “go to hell” pants.

The brightly-colored slacks – in vivid hues ranging from Wolfpack red to lime green – give men a more refined means of saying “go to hell” to the fashion mores that restrict them to boring pants in neutral shades. GTH pants inject a pop of color into men’s wardrobes, and in the South, they’re becoming more popular than ever.

“I think the South has always embraced fashion in a slightly different way, and bright colored pants are no exception,” says Barton Strawn, creative director and founder of Raleigh-based Lumina Clothing.

Origins of GTH

While Southern men have certainly been wearing bright colors along with their de rigueur seersucker for generations, the term “go to hell pants” wasn’t coined until the 1970s, when writer Tom Wolfe used the phrase in an Esquire article to describe the attire of Boston preppies on Martha’s Vineyard.

“The trend really established itself in the Ivy League community with colors that were just a slight jump from navy or grey,” says Strawn. “With the fraternity scene in the South building off of this, it makes sense that the trend would grow down here and establish itself in a different way. The fact that it gets so hot here, and guys are looking for lighter weight pants to wear, also builds into the bright colors, which for some reason seem to go together.”

The trend may have originally gotten its start in the Northeast, but it hit its stride once it traveled below the Mason-Dixon line.

“We think the popularity in the South can be partly attributed to weather, and also to a slightly more playful attitude when it comes to dressing,” says Ian Murray, co-founder and CEO of Vineyard Vines, a preppy retailer opening a store in Raleigh’s North Hills this June. “That being said, we love to sport colorful pants throughout the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and we see the look in the Northeast a lot, too.”

The GTH statement

For those who wear them, the pants are about more than just fashion. They make a statement about the wearer, and his attitude about life.

“We try to not take ourselves too seriously, and I think anyone sporting colorful or patterned pants is probably thinking the same thing,” says Shep Murray, co-founder and CEO of Vineyard Vines. “It’s all about having a little fun.”

Fun certainly describes some of the newer takes on GTH pants. Along with the bright colors, many companies are making the pants adorned with everything from tiny embroidered animals to funky patterns like the oyster shell-printed “Shucker” pants from Atlanta-based clothing company Southern Proper.

How and where to GTH

“Go to hell” pants make a bold fashion statement, and the wearer must be careful to pair them with neutral colors and understated accessories so as not to look clownish.

“If you are wearing a bold or bright color on the bottom, balance it with a solid, typically white, or simple shirt,” says Emmie Howard, co-founder of Southern Proper. “Let the pants speak for themselves. There is also no substitute for classic navy blazer – it pairs with any and every ‘go to hell’ pant ever made.”

Knowing where to wear the pants is just as important as knowing how to wear them.

“I think the South has decided that they need to be versatile, but in my opinion they shouldn’t be worn for quite as much as they are,” says Strawn. “Football games and weddings are always good opportunities, as well as summer cocktails and beach parties. I think that any time you have a more formal event, you should think twice about them, though. I love a splash of color, but it is not always the best idea and come come off as a little over-eager.”

Though he’s an advocate of restraint, Strawn can still be found wearing them on a regular basis.

“My favorite pair is an original Nantucket red pair in Lumina’s first run of pants,” says Strawn. “I wear them some during the week, but normally more casually on the weekends and to summer parties. I am also an N.C. State grad, so any chance to wear red pants is a good one.”

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