Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring Break Experimentation!

Chapter 7
It's a dangerous trend when a firm and distinct distinction is not made between childhood clothes and grown-up clothes. When men don't know how to dress like men, they tend to not act appreciably different than children. This juvenilification is especially noticeable in the formative college years, but men of all ages can take something away from this week's installment.

Spring Break! -- That yearly 7th-inning-stretch taken by college students. Millions upon millions of young people, newly freed from parental control, woefully unprepared to deal with the action/consequence paradigm, spend several days running afoul in a beery haze, and making generally poor decisions in unfamiliar places.

So what does Spring Break have to do with dressing well? Instead of giving a straight answer, (which you know I'm loathe to do!) here's a mental experiment: send two identical university students on their spring break. They will travel to the same destination, stay in the same hotel, attend the same parties, ingest the same number of beverages, perform the same pranks, schmooze with the same sorts of ladies. One is dressed as per "The Standard," tee-shirt, cargo shorts and flippy-flops. The other is dressed in a more classically elegant and proper fashion.

At the end of the week, let us quantify which man had the "better time," assessing a number of criteria. Who appeared more self-possessed and confident? Who comported himself with more grace and dignity? Who was more likely to be admitted to private soireés? Who attracted more favorable attention from the girls?  Who was more likely to be believed by the constabulary in case of an unfortunate infraction? In short -- the man who was dressed like a grown-up.

Even with all other behaviors being equal, dressing with more finesse will result in the appearance of greater decency, and will set you apart from your peers -- even when the extent of your objective is just more and better spring break action. Hopefully, though, your goal is less nefarious.

Dressing well on holiday is not beyond the scope of even the most cash-strapped underclassman. It takes no more effort to dress well, than it does to dress badly. It does involves planning for different situations: an outfit suitable for the boardwalk at noon is distinct from an outfit for casual dinner in the evening. It doesn't take much of a stretch to make the transitions, though. Here are some tips for casual vacation wear to help you on your way, whether you are a student or a retiree.

First, let me make it perfectly plain that this is vacation wear. You wear this when you are somewhere else, and it is obvious your sole objective is holiday enjoyment. You don't wear this in town, to the store, or as everyday wear. This is not everyday summer wear. Resort-style situations only. Am I clear? Good.

Sneakers are still not appropriate, unless you are playing tennis or a three-on-three pickup game of hoop. Nor are flip-flops -- EVER. There are too many other very nice options: boat shoes, suede bucks, spectators, saddles, and loafers of all descriptions are great alternatives to the same ol' same ol'.

Ditch the cargo shorts in favor of shorts of the Bermuda style, with clean lines and a proper waist. It's a subtle difference that looks much nicer. Similarly, delete the jeans in favor of light-colored and lightweight trousers. Khaki is the standby, but white or light colors add an essence of elegance.

Tee-shirts: no. Substitute collared shirts. Loose, short sleeve prints or fitted golf shirts, or anything in between. Use your ingenuity -- as long as it has buttons and a collar.

Socks; either none, or white low-rise ankle socks with shorts. Stick to light colors or patterns with trousers, with Classic Style rules -- high enough to show no leg-skin when worn.  

No baseball caps allowed. Vacation is a perfect time for light straw hats with a moderate brim, Panama style. No sombreros, hombre.

No fanny-packs, man-bags, or other silliness. You're on vacation, so leave your luggage in your room. Carry the basics and no more: it's so much more elegant that way.

Wear a jacket. WHAT?! Yeah, that's right, a jacket. Not all the time, obviously, but the use of a jacket can really take your resort attire to the next level of excellence, either paired with slacks or the "Bermuda suit" of jacket and shorts. Wearing a traditional jacket of light fabric, unlined or just lightly structured, is no warmer than a windbreaker or flannel shirt, breathes easier, keeps the sun off, looks amazingly classy, and it's just as easy to wear. There really is no downside to going with the classics, even on vacation.

Here are some illustrations by way of example. They follow all the proportionate principles of Classic Style, so they are just as correct to wear today. Some details of fashion change over time, but there is no reason these can't look just as sharp as they did 'way back when they were new.

Let's start off with the guy in the red. See just how easy it is to alter the Old Standard into a classic ensemble? By merely swapping out a tee-shirt for a light sweater, cargos for Bermudas, and sneakers for white canvas boat shoes, you simply and easily stand out from the massed legions in their mass-produced crapwear. The guy on the left sports a prime example of a casual Bermuda suit.  His shoes might as well be modern Sperrys, and the light linen blazer he wears over a short-sleeved golf shirt keeps things breezy.  A straw hat, and bandanna in his breast pocket finishes the elegant look: all are just minor tweaks to the basic outfit. 

If you're off the shore and on the streets, don't discount a light summerweight suit for strolling around town. This tan suit with madras tie, suede blucher shoes and straw fedora would certainly look good at a nice dinner or walking the local shops. Notice especially the use of the scarf with the other outfit. Don't downplay the importance of the light scarf: loosely tied as a day cravat around the neck, it enables the jacket to be worn over a tee-shirt while avoiding the dated Miami Vice vibe. Use it with a jacket over a shirt without a collar, or paired with a jacket instead of a shirt altogether -- (be sure to keep the jacket buttoned unless you are going for the Yul Brynner look.)

There's no need to be tied slavishly to the jacket, though. Notice how the use of basic white slacks with a simple striped golf shirt can be just as striking. The details, like the white suede shoes with red rubber soles, and day cravat, make the simple outfit timeless and classic. Don't fear the day cravat. The day cravat is your friend.

This demonstrates just how easy it is to make a regular "home" outfit that one might wear in the summer, into one equally suitable for vacation wear, just by swapping out dark slacks for light grey ones, a brown trilby for a white Panama hat, and conservative brown captoe shoes for flashy spectators.

Here's the other extreme in resort wear -- probably as far as you'd want to push this classic ideal without crossing over into costumery. The chap on the left looks a bit ordinary, what with the shorts and plaid top. 
By swapping the shirt for an unstructured jacket, and adding a square scarf, you get a whole different "old money" vibe that works today, right down to the blue Sperrys. Worn with no shirt and a neckerchief, the jacket becomes the primary covering. With an unlined jacket, this way is actually more comfortable than wearing no shirt at all -- you have free cooling airflow while keeping off the direct sun.

As with any of these suggestions, possessing the force of character to be able to pull off these ensembles is a mitigating factor. Let's face it, some people can do the day cravat look, and some can't. The trick is to not wear anything self-consciously. If you are uncomfortable in an outfit, others are guaranteed to be uncomfortable with it as well. If you wear your clothes indifferently and well, all others will notice is how good you look. Give the Bermuda suit a shot when you go "on holiday" this spring and summer!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Throwing Fits

(Part Six of the series "Dressing the Average Guy.")
Chapter 6
Your long tutelage is coming to an end, Grasshopper -- the Term is nearly over, and Finals are drawing near. Congratulations on making it this far! I've filled your noggin with synaptic goodness re: gladdening your rags, and you are on the cusp of putting that knowledge to good use...

I can hear the groans starting already: "Come on, Thompson! You've been dragging this out since February, fer goodness sake! How hard can this be?! Why can't I just go out and buy a darn jacket now?"

At which I merely grin inwardly, knowing your reaction is exactly what I was hoping for. Why, a scant few weeks ago, the extent of your sartorial perspicacity was whether to wear your AC/DC or Big Johnson tee-shirt, and "formal wear" meant tucking that shirt in. Now look at you! Clean and clothes-conscious, you're wearing what you have with more care and attention, your waistband is sitting higher (yes, I noticed, and good job,) and you are straining at the bit to move to the next level. You are right at the threshold of a Larger World, but you still need to learn a few things.

First, we need to acknowledge that, despite all the badly-dressed people on the planet, we live in a golden age of clothing, that affords us a freedom in our attire unlike any period in recent history.

We are unbound from the chains of class identity: in decades past, a person's station in life dictated his attire, and heavens forfend if you deigned to dress above or below your station! There were rules upon rules for what you were allowed to wear, and when, and for how long. You may think people looked better a hundred years ago -- but that was largely just the upper-middle class and above, and only because societal norms stipulated that they had to. Today, we have none of that, especially in America, and all men are truly equal, in that those old rules have evaporated.

Modern manufacturing means that even the poorest man can afford clothing that a hundred years ago only the richest could pay for. Modern cloth can be made lighter, stronger, and more durable, and churned out in shiploads by cheap labor in foreign countries. Or it can be painstakingly hand-fitted and sewn by bespoke tailors, right here in your own country. Every man has access to the best clothes he can afford, and at every level, "the best" is better than what was available in the past.

Ironically, all this freedom is a double-edged sword. Most men choose not to dress at all, for a variety of misconceived reasons. You may have fallen prey to one or more of these fallacies yourself:
...Baggy clothes and sneakers are more comfortable and less restrictive than fitted clothes and good shoes.
...Good clothes are uncomfortable, itchy, awkward, and hot.
...Nice clothes are more expensive than slouchy clothes.
...Nice clothes give an improper impression of who you "really" are.
...Holding onto a childhood ideal of dressing down will keep you young forever.

Whatever your hangup used to be, name it, and then chuck it away. Being aware of why you shied away from dressing like a grownup before, will help you from falling back into that trap later.

Your next major hurdle, then, is to actually source your new finery.

Although men's clothing stores abound, I would actually recommend you to NOT buy a new suit. Why? Remember the concept of insouciance we discussed previously? Your aim is casual elegance, an air of dressing as if you always had dressed that way. Nothing breaks that illusion more thoroughly than a shiny new suit. You want your clothes to have provenance, like you have owned them and worn them for years. You haven't, of course, so you need a suit that has been owned and worn for years by someone else. Presto -- instant history!

I would also recommend you NOT buy a suit of matching articles. Buy separate trousers, jackets, and vests. By using "odd" pieces, and combining them in different ways, you cultivate the façade of your casually insouciant history.

This can become a bit of a treasure hunt: you're out in search of quarry, instead of merely buying something offa' the rack because the salesman says so. But hey, we're men: hunters, not browsers! It's more fun this way. Hit the estate sales, the yard sales, the thrift and secondhand stores. Concentrate on upper-class neighborhoods, as they will have nicer "source material," and usually the articles' lives weren't as vigorous. You're looking for pre-worn, not threadbare! Remember to always keep the principles of Classic Style in mind, and the vagaries of Fashion will become less relevant.

Since you are going for everyday wear, stay away from banker's pinstripes and smooth, fine fabrics. Rugged, casual, outdoorsy jackets are a good standby for starters, and that means thicker, rougher materials, like tweeds, herringbones, and woolens. Summerweight fabrics and cottons in light colors are winners too. In short: stay away from anything that looks like office-cubicle-monkey-wear. The point, after all, is to look good when you're not working.

Shy away from online finds and eBay, until you are better acquainted with fit. And speaking of fit, find yourself a good local tailor: if possible, a good full-service bespoke tailor who is familiar with making suits from scratch, rather than just an alterations tailor. Dressing well with used clothes requires those clothes fit like they were made just for you -- otherwise, you're just a guy wearing someone else's suit. A tailor can make even grossly outsized suits fit like a dream.

Become the best friend of your tailor. Bespoke tailors are a breed apart, are glad to meet people that want to dress well, and are happy for the work. They can work wonders on old suits. You can buy an old suit for, say, fifty, have your tailor re-work it for a couple hundred, and come out of it for far less than buying an off-the-rack suit for hundreds more, that wouldn't fit as well or look as good. As you build a rapport with your tailor, you will probably at some point grace him with an order for a fully-bespoke item, which he will surely appreciate.

If the concept of even paying a tailor $200 for a $50 suit makes you blanche as you gaze forlornly at your empty wallet, don't worry -- there is no financial limit to dressing like a grownup. In the upcoming months, you will learn to do the work yourself and save the cash. In addition, learning some tricks of the tailor's art will give you more latitude and freedom in choosing "provenanced" clothes. In the meantime, you will perhaps have fewer choices before you, and more searching will be required, but finding used articles that still fit you nearly perfectly with no alteration, and for next to no cash layout, isn't an impossible task.

When choosing a suit, whether from estate sales, yard sales, thrift or secondhand stores, in preparation for your tailor's (or your own) remaking, there are some tried-and-true guidelines for disproportionate people.

If you are overly short, or overly fat, or both, your choice of fabrics and style can minimize the problem. Stick to vertical stripes or plain fabrics when you can, and avoid checks, plaids, or horizontal stripes. Keep the colors on the dark side; it's true what gals say about black being minimizing. Patterns should be subtle and uninvolved.

High lapel notches (where the lapel meets the collar, also called the gorge) make the lapel look longer, giving an illusion of height and narrowness. Higher lapel breaks (where the lapel folds over,) similarly, give a longer torso and also help the short of stature. Single breasted jackets are more slimming than double, and choose thinner fabrics to reduce bulk.

Cuffs on trousers shorten the legs visually, so should be avoided by short men. Similarly, styles without belts give more leg and avoid the horizontal lines. Keep the legs narrow, but not so narrow that it draws attention to a prominent gut. A tapered leg would be called for here.

Large guys should favor proportionally large tie knots, bow ties should be lined, with tall leaves and chunky knots, and if your neck is thick, collars with cutaway points are not your friend. Keep your collar notch wide enough to frame the tie knot and no larger, and you can wear higher collars than most men as well.

Short men should not disparage a shoe with a bit of a built-up heel when every inch counts.

Hats should have a higher crown, with a turned up brim, like a Homburg. Brims should not be too narrow.

On the other hand, men that are thin and tall are able to wear just about anything well.

Overly thin or overly tall, or both, can offset the gaunt effect by reversing the abovementioned tips:

Bold checks, stripes, plaids, and patterns can be worn to good effect, as can double-breasted jackets and heavy materials. Avoid pinstripes if possible.

Wearing lighter colors and/or bright vests work well. Sweater vests can add bulk across the chest.

Tall fellows should keep their lapel gorge on the low side, and the lapel break should be proportionately low as well. With lapels, it's all about the illusion of proportionate length vs. width.

Trousers look good with cuffs on tall guys; it shortens the legs. The legs themselves should not be too narrow, to add visual bulk down below. The horizontal lines of a belt are welcome as well.

Long ties should be in the narrow family of knots, and bow ties look right at home on the tall or thin gent. Collars can be proportionately low and wide, right out to the cutaway collar. Collars that are too tall or narrow are not flattering on the thin guy.

As far as hats go, the tall or thin can wear a variety of styles well -- but the crowns should not be too high, and care should be taken that the brim is not too wide for the figure. Older fedoras with 3" brims tend to look caricaturish on overly thin men.

Thus steeled with these hints, you are now prepared to jump into the fray, and meet your sartorial destiny. Good luck, and happy hunting! Next week, we'll look at some concepts in vacation-wear, and the next time we meet on Dressing the Average Guy, in a couple of months, we'll learn another Great Secret of Dressing Well.

Click here to go to Part Seven of Dressing the Average Guy.

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part Five of Dressing the Average Guy.

Click here to go back to Part One of Dressing the Average Guy.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Science of Style

(Part Five of the series "Dressing the Average Guy.")
Chapter 5
Welcome back, my young charges! The time has finally come to step into the world of Classic Style. As I alluded to last week, Classic Style is not "just a suit," despite first appearances -- it is the framework upon which all modern variations of grown-up clothes are built. Since the early eighteenth century, what we call "a suit," viz., the trousers/vest/jacket combination, has undergone continual refinement and perfection, both in design and construction. But, before going forth and shelling out your dollars, you need to know just exactly what Classic Style is, and why it works. With this knowledge, you will be able to look at any piece of clothing, and not just realize that it looks wrong, but be able to quantify exactly why.

The basis of Classic Style is simply that clothes are fitted to the natural shape of the human form. This may seem obvious -- clothes are made for Homo Sapiens, after all -- but most articles of clothing deal in various exaggerations and distortions of form. These exaggerations can work within the Classic Style framework to enhance the proportions of any figure, but without knowledge of this all-important framework, things can get ugly and unflattering very quickly.

To illustrate the proper fit and proportion of Classic Style, we shall use the familiar Leonardo da Vinci sketch of the Vitruvian Man, marked as shown, and then virtually dress him from the feet up.

We won't go into any details of fabric, color, pattern, or texture just at present -- solely the fit. First, the shoes. They must be made of leather, with leather soles. There are a myriad of styles and methods of fastening, which I will detail at a later date, but the proportions must not be extreme in the length of the toebox, the height of the heel, or width of instep. In short, they must match the shape and proportions of the human foot, and if properly made and cared for, they will support the foot at all points and be comfortable to wear for decades.

Inside the shoes are worn socks. Not much to say on this subject, but they must not be white, must not sag, and must cover your calf to such an extent that we can't see your leg under your pants.

Trousers of any sort have a few very simple rules. There is not a lot of trouser structure dictated by Classic Style other than width and length.

Notice the blue line marked at A on the diagram. It is placed at the top of the pelvic bone, a couple inches below the navel. This is your waist, and thus where the waist of the trousers must sit. Fashion tends to adjust this line up or down over time, but the ideal place is right there. The pelvic bone is a solid anchor point which doesn't change when you move or walk, making it the best place for the waistband to firmly sit. Visually, it puts the transition between the chest and abdomen where it belongs naturally, hides any prominence of the belly, and frames the entire length of the leg.

If the waist sits too high, it restricts the abdomen and becomes uncomfortable, not to mention the soft tissues of the gut are not ideally suited for holding up pants. It also makes the torso look truncated, the legs overly long, and the long fly emphasizes any prominence of the stomach.

If the waist sits too low, the trousers sit on the hips, which is also uncomfortable and restrictive. The waistband then strains against any movement of the legs, and tends to "walk itself" even lower, necessitating continual "hitching up." The current trend is toward these low waists, and not only is its placement suboptimal, it visually lengthens the torso and makes the legs look disproportinately stubby, any "spare tire" is unveiled to the world, and in the worst of cases, the upper glutes are actually over the waistband, making the simple act of sitting a revealing experience.

Notice now the purple line at E. This is the southernmost extremity of the legs. The fashionable length may rise and fall with the rolling years, like the waistband, but ideally it sits just at the ankle. When standing, the hem should be on a slight diagonal, just covering the top of the shoe as to show no sock, and laying lightly across the instep of the shoe. When sitting with your legs crossed, the pant legs will rise to show just a bit of sock -- this is right and proper.

The width of the legs, as well, varies with the decades. Ideally, they should be wide enough to allow the fabric to fall in a smooth line from the widest point of the hips to the ankle, without sitting tight against the leg at any point, or billowing out at the hem.

Concerning your shirt, there are a great variety of styles and colors, but it is good to keep the proportions of the body preserved: the armholes should not be too large around, the collar buttoned should fit smoothly and comfortably around the neck without gaping, and it should be fitted from the shoulders into the waist to avoid excess fabric at that point. The tails should be long enough to tuck into the trousers and stay tucked. The cuffs should extend no further than the wristbone. Barrel cuffs (i.e., those that aren't French) are preferred for everyday use.

Now let's move on to the waistcoat (vest, in America.) This is most often by men considered optional, and is the first article of clothing regularly dispensed with. Before dismissing the humble vest out-of-hand, though, give it some consideration. There is a great deal of latitude in cut and fit, and it has historically been the point of greatest personalization in everyday wear. Fitted waistcoats are preferred to those which buckle across the back, but in all cases the one inviolate rule is that the bottom edge of the waistcoat must always extend further than A in the diagram, so as to cover the waistband of the trousers. Seeing a flash of shirt peeking out from under your waistcoat is reprehensible.

Classic Style ex desideratum includes a tie of some sort. Ties come in all shapes and sizes, long tie, bow tie, ascot, cravat, etc., and the one you require depends largely upon your personality and your personal morphology. (If this sounds like a topic suited for its own post at a later date, you're right! We'll cover this in detail later.)

But the most essential element is the jacket. There is some odd primal drive in the species to wear a jacket, so this is a concept that you will inherently understand. Your jackets may have in the past been of leather or denim or vinyl, and may have gone by the name of Biker, Bomber, Windbreaker, or Letterman. Even if you lived your life in a tee-shirt, and if it was cold you threw on a flannel shirt, untucked and unbuttoned, guess what -- your shirt had just become an ad hoc jacket!

So allow me to formally introduce you to the Grown-Up Jacket. It is in fact a highly engineered and constructed piece of clothing, that serves an important aesthetic function as well as a practical one. Underneath a jacket's fabric is a complex matrix of felt, canvas, horsehair, (yes, really!) melton, and cotton batting. There is a forest of pad-stitching, quilting, stay-stitching, and a dozen other stitches you haven't heard of yet, hidden deep inside. The modern jacket is a marvel of illusion: it looks simple, but isn't. The lapels, which look like they would fasten to the neck, don't. It looks like it simply wraps around you, but is made of multiple panels and darts. It looks like it fits right on your shoulders, but is in fact supported by a shaped canvas scaffolding. It looks like it would be restrictive and warm, but (especially in summer-weight fabric) it can be cool and comfortable.

There are a thousand details that differentiate one jacket from another, but for now we will only concern ourselves with the bare details of fit within the framework of Classic Style.

As to the silhouette: a proper jacket does not unduly accentuate any aspect of the human form. The shoulders, to the waist, to the hem, should follow the line of the body, the fabric following the curves smoothly, without wrinkling, pulling, or puckering. The shoulders should not be too wide, should be only moderately padded, and constructed so as to be in the shape of the natural shoulder. The collar should sit firmly against the back of the neck, and into the transition from the notch to the lapels. The lapels themselves should lay flat and tight against the chest at the top, and smoothly roll over to the buttoning point at the bottom.

As to the fit, it is very important that a jacket fit properly. Unlike the unconstructed jackets that you are used to wearing, a real jacket needs to fit you. When you wear a jacket, it should sit naturally to your body, as described above. It should not be too tight across the chest, nor should it gape open. When unbuttoned, the fronts should stay in place and not cross over or fall away. The armholes should not be so large that your jacket restricts you when you raise your arm. The jacket sleeves should sit slightly above your wrist bone, so that you show a quarter-inch of shirt sleeve at the wrist. (Many men wear their sleeves far too long.)

Now let's return to the Vitruvian Man.

The total length of a jacket should be as shown in the diagram with the green line B: the length from under your arm to the hem should be the same as the length of your arm-- in other words, you should be able to curl your fingers and grasp the bottom edge of your jacket when your arms are at your sides. Notice that this puts the bottom edge of the jacket at the red line C, which being as equidistant from the center of the Vitruvian Square as the waist at blue line A, the symmetry of the figure is preserved -- and also points out the vital importance of keeping a proper position of the waistband.

Take note of the lapels, shown by the yellow lines D at this point: by following the position of the inner lapel line from the neck to the waist point, and continuing these lines to the bottom edge, the cutaway from the buttoning point to the bottom edge is determined. As mentioned before, lapels are today purely cosmetic. Fashion has changed the width and length of lapels over time, but it is important to keep in mind the lapel's functional roots. 

The lapels should not be so thin that they won't meet if they were flipped over. Time, and decades of fashion change, have shown us that the ideal width for lapels is midway across the chest, between the lapel's inner edge and the armhole; so that the outer edge of the lapel points more or less to the edge of the shoulder. This provides a neat division of the width of the chest, evenly breaking the expanse of fabric. Less width than this, and you look all chest, and the lapels seem stingy and anemic. An error in the other direction, and the lapels look large and bulky.

This brings us to the buttoning point. There is a very simple rule that is followed with a proper jacket: the only button that is ever fastened is the one at (or nearest) the waist point, for reasons demonstrated above, at the intersection of lines A and D. Never button the bottom button of a two-button jacket, and never button the top button of a three-button. They are there for show. A vestige of historical use -- nothing more. They are not designed to be used. You have surely seen jackets of five or six buttons, that button all the way up like a vest -- they are not adherents of Classic Style, but aberrations of Fashion. (With the knowledge you have now, you should be able to instantly see the insignificant lapels, broad swath of chest, awkward front cutaway, and tubelike fit of this style.)

Since we started with shoes, we shall end with the Hat. Fortunately for all, the advancement of hat science was arrested around 1960, and has progressed very little since. This means any hat made in the last hundred years is pretty much equally acceptable today. In keeping with the overall theme, the watchword is moderation. A hat is a very personal purchase, and rest assured I will cover the topic in depth in future installments. While fedoras and trilbys of all manners are acceptable, (as is the newsboy and driving cap,) you should eschew extremes, like overly low crowns like the porkpie, overly round crowns like the bowler, and brims that are either too narrow or grandiose. (A brim of two inches for a fedora is a good average.)

You may well notice that basing the Classic Style on a Classic model like Mr. Vitruvius here, will work very well on a man of, well, perfect proportion. But what if you aren't perfect? What if you're too short, or fat, or tall, or have a prominent gut, or are barrel chested, or have no chest at all? What if your neck is scrawny, or walk with a stoop? Well, the brilliance of Classic Style is that by working within these limits, and tweaking the proportions of the details, you can compensate for just about any physical shortcoming. And we'll cover that, the next time we meet. See you then!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically, Part Six of Dressing the Average Guy.

Friday, March 4, 2011

But What Of The Oscars?

(Part Four of the series "Dressing the Average Guy.")
Chapter 4
It's Oscars week, so you might have joined in this week thinking I was going to cast a critical eye on the Oscars. You'd be forgiven for thinking that: it's a pretty common thing for red-carpet awards celebrations to be followed up by the sartorial love-it-or-hate-it gabfests. And you'd be right: ordinarily I'd be right there among the fray, slashing and burning what passes for formal wear among the Hollywood glitterati -- but not this time! Fear not, though -- as the months roll on, there will be plenty of opportunities to wade hip-deep in awards media of all sorts.

It does bear mentioning, though, that formal wear has a fairly rigid set of standards, so it's very easy to do perfectly well, if you know the rules. If you don't know the rules, though, there's a million ways to get it completely wrong. Here's one example of right and wrong, in Goofus and Gallant fashion, just because I can't help but indulge myself a little. 
The ne plus ultra of formal wear is knowing the rules so well, you are able to bend them just enough and no further, and turn your attire into something transcendental. But I will go no further than this just now. Frankly, you're not ready. We're just getting into the meat of your everyday wear, O My Average Guy, the wee formative stages of your transformation; and black tie is a specialized, rarefied world that would only get in the way of your development and cause undue confusion, were I to mention it now.  We will get into the details, trust me...but it will come in time.

If we take anything away from the Oscars, let it be this: the rules for formal wear -- and by extension, any sort of clothing -- become rules through decades, and sometimes centuries, of tradition. But there is a limit to how far backward you can look before clothes cross the line into costume. For our purposes, i.e., Dressing the Man of the Twenty-First Century, (in other words, you,) we need reference no further back than the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century.

Does that sound like we're peering too far back in the dim mists of time for any sort of modern relevance? Allow me to elucidate with a brief history lesson. For most of recent recorded history, clothes were pretty much worn right off the looms on which they were woven. A toga or kilt was simply a length of cloth, draped, pleated, folded, and fastened. Double it over, cut a hole for the head, and sew it up the sides, and you have tunics, cassocks, robes, and such. By the time the Dark Ages rolled around, clothes-making had advanced to where the clothes fit the shape of the body, but were still based basically on the drape of a tunic. Later improvements through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were mostly concerned with fashion.

It's all an interesting study for the history wag, but today, for our purposes, we have no need for discussion of frilly shirts, ruffled collars, or powdered wigs, nor obsolete items like hose, breeches, jerkins, doublets, slashed sleeves, cloaks, or hauberks. No, it wasn't until the 1830s that the die was cast that has lasted for two hundred years: the development and use of the modern trousers, shirt, waistcoat, and jacket. This tried-and-true combination has stood the test of time, being continually refined and improved, but never substantively changed.

Take a suit of clothes of 1850, 1900, 1950, and 2000, and the changes through all that time are those of fashion alone. Widths, lengths, proportions,  details, and fabrics change slightly decade by decade, but the essential underlying style, and in fact even the essential method of construction, remains rock-solid.

When fashion becomes more important than style, things go sideways quickly, so it becomes very important to understand just what Classic Style is: the ultimate advancement of scientific cutting and tailoring techniques and materials, honed over centuries, that fits and complements the figure itself. The application of fashion without Classic Style will always look "off," although you might not presently be able to quantify just why. Classic Style without fashion, on the other hand, is like a boat without a rudder. Once you understand the concept, you will find a world of freedom within the framework of Classic Style, and be assured that anything you wear will work for you and not against you. So at our next meeting I will demonstrate just what exactly makes Classic Style so perfectly suited to the human form, and help you make some formative decisions about the application of said Style to yourself, your personal fashion, and your wardrobe decisions!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically, Part Five of Dressing the Average Guy.