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Dockers can’t run from Dad Pants

In the spirit of Father’s Day, fashion’s mass market has turned its attention to men, parenthood and style.

A new Dockers advertising campaign stars Sarah Harbaugh lamenting the fashion crisis facing her husband, San Francisco 49ers football coach Jim Harbaugh.

He is the victim, Sarah intones, of Dad Pants – those terribly unflattering, ill-fitting, excessively pleated trousers that are often favored by men who relish comfort in their clothes above all else. They are saggy trousers that do nothing to flatter a man’s physique – particularly his tush – and, indeed, they can make an athletic man resemble a schlump.

Famously, President Barack Obama wore a pair of his beloved Dad Jeans in 2009 when he threw out the first pitch at baseball’s All-Star Game. Specifically, they were a pair of baggy, faded dungarees that were a few inches too short. He has since reassured the country that the first lady has seen to their disposal.

The advertisement positions Dockers as the remedy for Dad Pants. Buy a pair of Dockers and restore your father, your husband, your significant other to a state of fashion savvy, according to the commercial. He will not be cool, but he will no longer be embarrassing. That is the underlying message.

The stumbling block, however, is that if there is any one brand that deserves the blame for having created the problem of Dad Pants, that brand would be Dockers. In short, the company is suggesting that it can save men from the very blight it was instrumental in creating.

Levi Strauss & Co. introduced Dockers in 1986. The early advertisements positioned the pants as a kind of guy’s uniform – a garment that was not intimidating, not flashy and certainly not fashion.

In a 1997 story in the New Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell parsed one of the earliest advertising campaign for Dockers. The commercials were filled with baby boomer men standing around in proudly nondescript pants. Their heads had been edited out of the shot and their conversation was a pastiche of non sequiturs – guy talk turned into rakish poetry.

The point of the ad was not to celebrate all that distinguished Dockers, but to wallow in all that did not. They were generic pants with their pleated fronts, welt pockets and overly roomy silhouette.

In an era when married men were happy to let their wives shop for them, Dockers were an unabashed hit. Men flocked to them because other men were flocking to them. They were safe.

The ubiquitous trousers soon begat imitators that claimed – not to be better-made, better cut or more stylish – but even more sack-like and generic.

In the 1990s, after sales began to falter because of the competition, Dockers shifted its message – if not its aesthetics. It introduced its “Nice Pants” series of ads, which injected a hint of sex appeal into the conversation about the pants.

But the company purposefully refrained from making the pants themselves sexy. Which is to say, the pants still had a rather uninspired fit. That did not, however, stop millions of men from buying them and even claiming them as their de facto business casual uniform.

By God, Dockers, so many stylistic sins you’ve committed over the years!

Now, for Father’s Day 2014, where does Dockers, which accounts for about 12 percent – about $60 million – of Levi’s total revenue, get the audacity to claim any aesthetic higher ground?

While an email to Dockers representatives remains unanswered, a clue can be found in its recently introduced Alpha Khaki – a slim fit trouser. It is more body-conscious. It has a lower rise. It is ostentatiously not a Dad Pant.

But it is not fashion.

For example, would Scott Alexander Hess, an author and fashionable regular guy, ever wear Dockers? Even the slim-fit Alphas?

“My first thought was absolutely not!” he says. “I wouldn’t wear Dockers. I doubt if the new slim fit would work for me. I’m very picky.”

In trying to save men from the blight of Dad Pants, Dockers is running away from its own dubious legacy. It’s denying its own success story. No, Dockers are not fashionable. They are not especially attractive. And well, they could have been kinder to a man’s derriere.

But buried in that anti-style history is the reality that Dad Pants – those please-throw-them-out pants – often represent a mindset that puts vanity at the end of a long list behind school drop-offs, soccer practice, yard work, saving for college and the 9-to-5 grind.

As Hess says, even he thinks he has a “a pair in the closet for a day to paint the walls or do yard work.” Of course, his Dockers are cut off, frayed at the hem and stylishly ankle length.