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.


  1. Mr. Thompson,

    I've been wondering this for a while given how high the very top of my Pelvic bone is: When you say the top of the Pelvic Bone, do you mean the top of the Anterior portion of the Pelvic bone, where it starts to curve in and up toward the posterior and where there seems to be a very nearly imperceptible notch?

    Because if we are talking the tip top, then my trousers would be about 3-4 inches above my navel. The Vitruvian Man appears to bear my Top Anterior Pelvic Bone theory out. The verbiage is a tad tricky, so I think I have the right of it, but defer to your well-researched expertise.

  2. You're right; it's the top anterior of the bone, just under the topmost ridge or notch. Much above that, and your trousers end up anchoring on soft tissue instead of a relatively inflexible and immovable point.