Thai elephant pants are practically the official uniform of the female backpacker in Southeast Asia. Worn loose and flowy with a certain boho insouciance, the pants work perfectly everywhere from sacred temples to white sand beaches.
Elephant pants are ubiquitous in Thailand– you’ll find these iconic printed pants with banded elastic cuffs at every market, usually for under $5. But while these billowy pants feel hippie-chic in their natural environment, can they really be worn back home? Or do they suffer the same fate as bridesmaid dresses, suitable for the occasion, but never really meant for everyday wear?
These are the questions that came to mind as I shopped elephant pants at Chatuchak market in Bangkok. For five bucks, I figured it was worth the gamble to take the elephant pants home for a road test and see if I could make them work on the cut-throat fashion streets of Manhattan.
Until, that is, I arrived back home, unpacked my suitcase and realized I forgot to buy the darned pants (note: buy it when you see it, a rule I preach and should follow more often). Fortunately my shopping buddy Anne came to my rescue (see how Anne styles her pants below) and gifted me an authentic pair she bought on the streets of Bangkok.
For this Thai elephant pants challenge, I was hoping to get a few takes so I reached out to my my traveler community in search of participants. The response was not exactly overwhelming, but two fellow travelers agreed to share the results of the challenge here.
My Road Test: Can Elephant Pants Work on Streets of One of the World’s Most Fashionable Cities– New York?
My first impression when I tried on the elephant pants– damn these are comfortable.
My second impression– these pants are the single most unflattering thing I have ever put on.
Plain and simple, I looked like I was wearing clown pants. I made my best effort to “tone down” the clown look. I added a crisp white shirt. Clown goes to the office. I tried a hip moto jacket. Clown fashion fail. But it seemed like no matter how I styled the elephant pants, I couldn’t get the circus out of my head.
Finally, I gave up on finding something edgy to pair the pants with and went for straight-up simplicity, settling on a plain, fitted tube top. With a few adjustments to the pants (I rolled over the waistband and tucked the telltale drawstring out of sight), the pants did deflate a bit, and if I squinted I could almost pretend they were palazzo pants.
Like any good fashion blogger, I decided to go for the “high/low” look, showing off my skill for effortlessly pairing five dollar pants with spendy accessories. I added my most expensive shoes (sample sale Manolos) and some gifted bracelets (Hermes and Julie Vos) and headed out the door.
Following in the steps of my favorite fashion bloggers, I present my “modeling” poses– melancholy blogger carrying notebook for spontaneous sketching (Hermes natch) and the classic, three-quarter turn-to-make-these elephant-pants-look-as-slim-as-possible pose.
So did the outfit work? In New York, everyone is so self-absorbed I doubt anyone noticed what I was wearing. That said, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to test this outfit out at a fashion event or a super trendy restaurant– it might just be a home office day kind of thing.
How did the other travelers fare?
West Coast: Color and that Laid Back California Attitude
San Francisco resident Anne Lowrey has been traveling to Thailand and wearing elephant pants for years. But it’s one thing to wear elephant pants in Thailand or in the privacy of your home office. I challenged Anne to take her elephant pants out onto the chic streets of San Francisco.
Anne easily pulled it off in that West coast, carefree kind of way. I love how Anne’s slim, but colorful tank adds a pop of color. The flip-flops keep it California casual. In this case, West coast definitely beats East coast.
Erin Discovers the Wrong Size is the Right Size
Elephant pants are one-size-fits-all and are usually huge– like so enormous that you could gain thirty pounds and not even notice because they would still fit perfectly (which sounds pretty dangerous). So when I saw travel writer Erin’s slim looking elephant pants, I wondered if they were actually the same pants at all.
Erin explains that she thinks they actually bought children’s pants by mistake, noting they are also not quite long enough. In any case, Erin loves her Thai elephant pants and didn’t have much of a problem styling them to wear back home in Oregon (pictured here on the grounds of the state capitol). Erin pairs her pants with a sleek, bright top (a perfect foil for the baggy pants) and even obliged my request to go “glam” by bringing out a pair of slingbacks (Erin notes “it’s only proper to be a little dressy when visiting the capital.”)
How did Erin feel wearing her elephant pants back home? Well it is Oregon, where wearing unique outfits/combos is a trend and people actually want to be noticed for their non-conformity, so it’s hard to raise any eyebrows. While Erin felt a little silly a first, she ended up enjoying the look, and reports that “people looked at my pants and smiled or nodded and I started feeling less silly. It was fun and we ended up running a whole bunch of errands before going home. I think it’s good to change things up and try something new every once in a while.”
Nicely done, Erin. Pro-tip– look for children’s elephant pants for a sleeker fit.
The Kid Takes it For the Win
While Erin looked pretty chic in her kid-size elephant pants, how would the pants look on an actual kid?
Travel writer and mom Sally didn’t want to find out. Sally was mortified when her own mother gifted her ten-year-old daughter Alannah a pair. Sally had planned to use the pants as a dust rag, but when she saw my request, agreed to let Alannah style the elephant pants for this post.
Sally gave Alannah complete creative freedom in styling her elephant pants while on a camping trip. Instead of going for an obvious matchy-matchy look, young Alannah thinks outside of the box and deftly pairs her elephant pants with a baby blue dog tee-shirt. This eclectic street style look, topped off with a pop of color in her turquoise footwear choice, reveals Alannah’s potential as an edgy fashionista along the lines of Chloe Sevingy.
Alannah is not only naturally chic, but practical too and reports that the pants survived an action packed day filled with bike riding, sand sculpting and other camp activities. Who knows, Alannah’s look might inspire today’s children, ever seeking more comfortable clothing into a whole new look.
Elephant Pants: Are US retailers Already onto this Trend?
As soon as I started writing this post, I noticed that pants very similar to elephant pants were showing up everywhere in New York. Was this some new trend, started on the streets of Bangkok, that was now taking over fashion circles? I’m not sure but the reinterpreted pants definitely seem to have a sleeker cut and better fit. While I’ll still wear my elephant pants around the house (and maybe down the block to the bodega) I’d probably opt for a more updated version for a night on the town.
Featured: Michael Kors pants, Allen allen print pant, Lucky brand orange pants
Thanks again to Anne Lowrey of Part-Time Traveler for sending me the pants, and Erin of Traveling thru History and Sally and Alannah of Our3kidsvtheworld for their modeling shots!
Thursday 15th of April 2021
Hi Kristin, I just found your very old post on this subject after googling "Elephant Pants Vietnam". We visited Vietnam and Cambodia about 4 years ago and, of course, came home with a few pairs of Elephant pants. The Cambodia pants did not hold up well but the Vietnam pants are still doing well. During the the past year of staying at home due to COVID, these pants have become my daily wardrobe staple. They are so very soft and comfortable. I wear them with a simple v-neck tee-shirt and flip flops. It gets really hot here during the summer (Central California) and these pants are perfect. I also use them for lounging around and sleep pants. I haven't worn them out of the house other than a quick trip to the market or drug store. I did the google search because I am hoping to buy another pair or two after these wear out. Not sure if/when I will make it back to Southeast Asia so I want to be prepared. I found that the pants with the smaller pattern are much more attractive than the large elephant pattern. I also bought a pair in a much fancier color and non-elephant batik print that have been hanging in my closet since we returned. Just found them so may pair with a nice black fitted tank and some nicer sandals and try wearing out to dinner this summer. And, I may take another poster's advice and take out the ankle elastic. Thanks for the fun blog and memories of Southeast Asia. It is truly an amazing place to visit and a grand adventure for sure!
Thursday 15th of April 2021
Hi Pea, thanks for your comment! True it's an old post but I try to write about things that won't change that much-- elephant pants are here to stay. I just pulled mine out of my summer clothes bin (yes, still in perfect condition!). I'm glad you're enjoying your pants, let's hope we can all visit Asia soon!
Saturday 23rd of June 2018
I wear my elephant pants all the time at home, everyone loves them. I bought mine in Bali. I bought a few pairs for friends and family, and they all love them, when I go to Bangkok I am going to buy many more.
Friday 26th of October 2018
Hi Shelley! Haha I totally agree, so comfy and a great cheap gift item.
Wednesday 13th of April 2016
If you take a gander through any of the random street fairs that seem to pop up in New York City in the summer time, you'll find elephant pants for sale at at least one stall. I snapped a picture of them to share with the people I met when I toured Cambodia, adding in that they cost nearly three times what we all paid for them, AND didn't come with the fantastic memories of a great trip!
Thursday 3rd of March 2016
It was a standing joke on our tour that everyone had to buy a pair of elephant pants while in Vietnam/Cambodia/Thailand. I love them, especially pulling them up to make ¾ length. I have elephants from Bali and bought a non-elephant pair in Cambodia and think they are the most comfy thing ever. I live in Brisbane, Australia and the warm temperatures mean I will wear them a lot - even wore them on the plane home. I am going to make a pattern from them and make my own from some floral batik material bought in Malaysia. I find that plain tops work best to calm the patterns down. Team with a dressy pair of sandals and you always look good! ;-)
Tuesday 2nd of February 2016
I popped the elastic out of the bottom of the legs and love them as just flowy boho pants!
Thursday 18th of February 2016
I can't believe I didn't think of that! Great idea reduces the clown effect!