In January many publications list out their top ten guidelines for surviving the new year. I even came across a website listing out various peoples’ top ten maxims of style which makes for some interesting reading. So I thought I’d have a stab at it myself but I needed twelve!
Some people compile lists which are a thinly disguised summary of how they themselves dress. Others do it as a list of guidelines to be followed, albeit from their subjective viewpoint. This list is an attempt at the latter. I’ve tried to make them more generic and generalizable to anyone, not just those influenced, as I obviously am, by Mod conventions, and tried to avoid as much as possible my own personal prejudices. Also these are aimed at someone whose daily life involves at least a business casual aspiration on the casual-formal continuum. So, In no particular order, and with apologies for the wall of text …
1. To thine own self be true
Know yourself, your size, the context of what you’re dressing for and the message you want to send. Like it or not you are sending a message with your clothes – sometimes obvious, sometimes more subtle – every time you step into the public domain. Cuff links will make an outfit a notch higher in formality than button cuffs but could be viewed as flashy or frivolous by some. A pocket square serves no practical purpose but will signal that you’re the kind of man who takes some extra care in appearance. The state of your shoes (shined or neglected) sends a clear message about your fastidiousness too. Dressing purely for ‘comfort’ at the expense of any evidence of style may get you noticed for the wrong reasons. What message do you want to send when you step out the door?
2. Stay off the bandwagon
Before buying something, especially if it’s a ‘trendy’ item, ask yourself ‘if I take a photo wearing this and look back at it in years to come, what are the chances that I’ll regret it?’ Some people are happy to bounce from trend to trend leaving a ton of discarded clothes in their wake. If I’m gonna spend a chunk of money on an item of quality then I want it to last, and thus to look ‘in place’ for many years to come not just the six months of the fashion cycle. The further away from ‘classic’ an item is, the less likely it will have a lasting shelf life.
3. Be yourself – everyone else is taken.
What we have come to know as ‘sprezzatura’ really is a load of bollocks. It may be defined as ‘studied nonchalance’ which is an oxymoron. Deliberately omitting to fasten collar buttons on a button-down shirt, or knotting a tie with the back blade longer than the front doesn’t make you look casual and louche in the way you’re flaunting the accepted standards of dress, it makes you look like a knob! And worse than that – given the frequency with which these habits are on display nowadays – an unoriginal knob at that!
4. It ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it.
When it comes to black tie, do it properly or stay home. Creative versions that are on display on red carpets and awards ceremonies almost always fail, and attempts to ‘casualize’ the look (why?) as displayed most egregiously by Ralph Lauren in his dinner jacket and jeans phase, or Brad Pitt with his frequent display of tieless black tie, inevitably look dreadful. There is a small amount of leeway for self expression with black tie (wing collar or turn-down collar shirt; studs, buttons or fly front; peak or shawl jacket lapels; single or double breasted; black, midnight blue or – in hot climates only – ecru; cummerbund or waist coat – or neither; batwing, thistle or diamond point bow tie; white or coloured pocket square; pumps or lace-ups, in calf or patent) but attempts to go beyond a convention that’s over a century old are doomed to fail.
5. Don’t overdo the small stuff
Choose accessories with care. Functional items like scarf, umbrella, sunglasses, gloves, hats in certain circumstances all serve a purpose, but don’t overdo the metals. I knew a baptist preacher who would dress for church with a ring on every finger, and even though he would wear a high crossover double-breasted suit he still managed to squeeze in a tie pin, a tie clip and a cross pendant between his tie knot and the high V of his jacket. Quite what he thought might happen to his tie that warranted such corralling escapes me. The whole effect was way too much, he looked like a travelling jewelry store. Again, back to maxim #1, what message was he trying to convey? That he can afford all his schmutter, so he’s rich? To me all it said was that he was completely devoid of any taste!
6. The fit is it.
This one has been included in many lists, possibly because it’s the most important, but fit is everything. A well fitting suit bought for $200 will look infinitely better than a ‘designer’s name brand’ suit costing ten times that amount that doesn’t fit. Remember that suits bought off the rack are designed to fit as many people within each size bracket as possible so there are less left over at the end of the season. They weren’t tailored with YOU in mind. When trying on jackets the fit of the shoulders is most important – chest and waist can be adjusted much more easily. Ask around and find a decent seamstress or tailor. Have trousers hemmed to just skim the top of the shoes or with a slight break in the crease. Have jacket sleeves adjusted to the bottom of your wrist bone so they show a quarter inch of shirt protruding. Have the waist nipped if you yourself have waist. Have shirt sleeves adjusted accordingly and have the side seams of your shirts slimmed if necessary. Better yet know your shirt size, not just your collar but your sleeve length. Avoid shirts with open box pleats, as unless you are shaped with a body like a pear they will be extra baggy at the the most noticeable area – the waist.
7. Tie it right.
There are dozens of elaborate methods of knotting a tie. All you need to know are the four-in-hand (the most simple method), the double four in hand (exactly the same but with a second wrap around of the big blade) and the half Windsor (which makes a slightly more substantial knot and uses up more of the tie if that’s your desire). Pinch the top of the front blade as you’re cinching the knot to make an attractive dimple, and get to know your starting position so that when tying is complete the front blade is slightly longer than the back blade and just brushes the buckle of your belt.
8. Start slowly.
If you’re starting your sartorial journey or embarking on a major overhaul of your wardrobe, be cautious about spending too much money too soon, especially if its on items that look good on a photo in a magazine or on the internet but will have no practical use in your own life. There are a plethora of resources available on the Internet with suggestions as to where to begin, usually entitled something like ‘the ten items every well dressed man must have in his wardrobe’. They will inevitably suggest that you need a navy blazer, mid gray flannels, khaki chinos, Oxford cloth button downs, a navy and a charcoal suit, black Oxford and brown derby shoes, some repp striped ties and a gray v necked sweater. This selection all seems a bit bland to me but it is sound and well-meaning advice – in certain circumstances. If those circumstances match yours then it’s a good place to start but if you’re on a different pathway these suggestions may be moot. The wider point is that you should carefully pre-select your wardrobe basics and go for the best quality you can afford, avoiding impulse purchases. Once you get the versatility of having basics well and truly covered then you can go about acquiring more esoteric items. A basic navy blazer or suit can be personalized with your choice in tie and pocket square (generally less expensive items) and thus get you a lot of mileage but you couldn’t say the same about that pair of tangerine suede bucks!
9. Tread carefully with patterns
An outfit devoid of all patterns can look very bland. See Barack Obama or Donald Trump for examples. Regardless of your politics it’s hard to argue that the navy suit, solid white shirt and shiny solid tie is visually snooze-inducing. Adding a pattern and/or some texture makes an outfit so much more interesting. The easiest place to start is with striped shirts and non solid ties. Even if you stick to blue for work shirts there is a variety of blue and white stripe variations that you can employ to send the message that you own more than one shirt, and these patterns can be combined with textures such as twills, herringbones, oxfords and end-on-ends to increase the visual interest. Loud and obnoxious ties will get you noticed for the wrong reasons but if you stick with club stripes and smaller repeating patterns (‘neats’ or ‘foulards’) you can add visual interest in a way that won’t make you cringe when you review your wardrobe in five years. Textured ties such as knits, grenadines, donegals and slubby silks or linens increase your permutations and add seasonal flavour.
10. Master the basics.
Considerable praise is handed out in response to pictures posted on the Internet of men wearing a gingham shirt, fair isle sweater, glen plaid jacket, black watch tie, herringbone trousers, spotted socks and suede-and-calf spectator shoes. Looking good in a plethora of patterns comes with a very high degree of difficulty, and praise from some internet geek clique doesn’t necessarily translate to looking stylish in the real world. Do you want to be noticed for being ‘that guy’ who always has some kind of gimmicky quirk to his daily outfit, or would you rather portray the quiet confidence of a man in a well fitting dark suit and tasteful shirt and tie? Scan the Internet, magazines, films etc and (bearing in mind that well dressed celebrities are few and far between) when you see a picture of someone who provokes an instant reaction – be it positive or negative – pause and ask yourself why. This way you can identify those things which turn you off and those things which you can confidently import or adapt into your own personal style. Perhaps the two most admired style icons of classic menswear are Cary Grant and the Duke of Windsor, and not without good reason, but they come from opposite ends of the pattern spectrum. Mr. Grant was well known for a monochrome look: grey suit, white shirt, grey solid tie, whereas the duke demonstrated advanced level pattern combinations that remain very difficult to emulate successfully. The beginner is advised to pick his point of entry towards the Grant end of the continuum and as confidence, knowledge, and daring are acquired along with the requisite wardrobe items he can gradually move closer towards the duke in terms of pattern and texture combinations. The old adage about aiming to mix patterns of different scales remains a maxim that would be unwise to ignore.
11. From the floorboards up.
We are frequently told that women notice a man’s shoes first. I have no idea if this is true – ask around the women who you know and see if you can get a consensus. Either way, the balance of an outfit is ruined if so much attention has been paid to the suit, shirt and tie but the shoes have been neglected.
We are told that a black plain or cap toe Oxford is the non plus ultra of business formal footwear but I have never owned a pair. For the man who owns one navy suit reserved for weddings, funerals, bah mitzvahs and job interviews only (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in today’s world of dressed down workplaces) then these would be the shoes to compliment that suit. But for those of us with more sartorial aspirations a black Oxford is a limited and unadventurous choice given the options out there. Black calf is the most formal choice to go with a navy suit but medium to dark brown in either leather or suede can look equally smart and a little less severe. I never did see the attraction for monk strap or double monk strap shoes but their popularity seems to be on the wane now (see what I wrote about bandwagons?) Moccasins or loafers are a classic choice that can work well with outfits from jeans to less formal suits. Chelsea boots are arguably the most versatile of footwear but be aware of the variance even within this clearly defined category. Sleek last shapes in shiny calf leather with single soles will be a lot more formal than suede or rawhide versions with clunky commando soles. In any case unless you’re deliberately going for a scruffy nonchalant look (in which case, why are you reading this?) keep your suede shoes brushed and sprayed with protectant and keep your calf shoes shined. A quick swipe of edge dressing can also go a long way towards tidying up a shoe that has seen some action. Be aware of where your footwear lies on the continuum of formality and make sure it’s in a similar position to the rest of your outfit to avoid exposing your lack of stylistic knowledge with a lack of congruity between your shoes and what’s above.
12. Even when you’re off duty, you’re still on.
Back to the first maxim – what message do you wish to convey when you are away from work? I see loads of pictures of well-dressed ‘jacket / suit and tie’ fellas on the Internet who fail so dismally when it comes to casual wear. Perhaps they rely on those accepted conventions and boundaries of classic menswear to help them create more formal outfits but their style collapses when those boundaries no longer exist, as is the case for casual wear, where anything goes.
So the goal is to keep in mind principles outlined above, in particular when it comes to fit (baggy jeans, skinny jeans, Bell-bottom jeans, carrot-shaped jeans? – no!) and not jumping on trendy bandwagons. Also, even though you’re ‘off duty’ keep in mind the level of formality for the event. Even at the beach or a barbecue on a hot day you can express your style with slim cut above-the-knee cotton shorts, a well-fitting polo and Seavees. You won’t look OVER dressed but you’ll be infinitely BETTER dressed than the fella who showed up in a wife beater, gym shorts and crocs!