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 fa├žade 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.

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