Friday, June 10, 2011

Personality, Incorporated.

(Part Nine of the series "Dressing the Average Guy.")
Chapter 18
Today, let's wrap up our look at how the psychology of personal style is shaped early in life by our likes and interests, and figure out how to effectively --but unobtrusively!-- incorporate those likes and interests into your grown-up, mature style. If you can cast your mind back to two weeks ago, in Part Seven, you remember we started by looking at the sartorial fashions that surrounded you in your youth, whenever that may have been, from the late '60s up through the '90s; and last week we looked at some examples of fictional styles as well, all of which came together to form an "other-time" that directed your subconscious in a style direction, which reflects the happiest time of your life.

For the sake of expedience, we'll use some catchall terms to divide this "other-time" up into manageable temporal chunks, and I will do this by co-opting a term that we're all familiar with: blankpunk. At its simplest, it is a literary device that invents a world built on one particular technology that is extrapolated to a highly sophisticated level, usually of a dark and gritty nature.  It all began, of course, with "Cyberpunk," coined by author Bruce Bethke in 1980. We'll set aside the literary connotations of bleak, dystopian societies populated by marginalized, mechanically-hybridized loners, and focus solely on the physical characteristics of the clothing involved in each case.

The "future" is a very ordinary
double breasted suit, with the
lapels cut off and the show
buttons removed. The intention:
streamlining the unnecessary;
the result: a bit awkward.
From a style perspective, we'll call "cyberpunk" every fashion that comes from the future. Fashion-wise, it's actually a bit of a cheat, for two reasons: one, by definition, there is no "style of the future;" because, (and this is point number two,) "future styles" are always derivative of the year in which the story was actually written (or, in our case filmed.) Look at and compare the clothing styles in, say, Metropolis, Soylent Green, Blade Runner, and Babylon 5. Ignoring the future's apparently ubiquitous jumpsuits and military uniforms, ordinary clothing was modelled on contemporary outfits and suits, with minor variations in the cut of lapels, overall length, trim, etc., to look different (read: "futuristic") to the contemporary viewer. If your escape ran to the future as a kid, get a mental basket ready to put your favorite things in. In this basket let's put things such as, say, Rick Deckard's shirts and ties, John Sheridan's lapel-less jackets, Han Solo's vest, and similar stuff.

A truly atrocious movie,
unfortunately, despite its
steampunky goodness.
The widest-known blankpunk was invented in 1987: steampunk. Its extrapolated technology was that of the Industrial Revolution, and its highly mechanical aesthetic enjoys an enthusiastic following today. The era is supposedly 1820-1910, but the fashions portrayed tend to stay right around the region of 1880 or so, and is most accurately described as "Neo-Victorian." Remember we are divorcing the connotations of the literary style from the purely sartorial Victorian matter. If your fancy ran to the 19th century as a lad, in this basket place all the toys of your youth that fit that style: the Disney frockcoats, the Sherlock Holmes tweeds, the Old West dusters, the brocaded waistcoats.

Transpose steampunk to the inter-war period of 1920-1945, and the aesthetic becomes dieselpunk: Chrome, grease, and sleek art deco lines replace steam's riveted brass, exposed pipes, and dials. Originally even darker and more grimy, a sort of post-steampunk, (think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,) its fashion is classic film-noir, but for my purposes will cover the entire swath of the Classic Age. Toss Rick Blaine's trench coat, Indy's leather jacket and fedora, and Arthur Hastings' suits in this basket.

Though Captain Hastings is often overlooked and in the shadow of Poirot's
fastidious threads, you could nevertheless do worse than closely studying
the sporty, casual ease of the little Belgian's Lagonda-driving sidekick.
Atompunk covers the pre-digital period of 1945-1965, including mid-century Modernism, the Atomic Age and Space Age. Throw Roger Thornhill's suits in this basket, and everything ever worn on Mad Men. This takes us right up to the mid '60s, when the fictional worlds of yesterday abut the real worlds you grew up in. This gives us a complete timeline to with which to work...almost.

Not based on any historical
styles, but Hobbit fashion
has a lot going for it: the
handcut square buttons,
rough fabrics, rich colors,
and well-shaped lapels.
Among all the retrofuturism and suppositional history, there is a blankpunk style that doesn't fit the pattern. I'll call this elfpunk. Inspired by the movies based on J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and J.K.Rowling's works, they depict a world that, unlike cyberpunk, is steeped in history and myth, rather than looking forward technologically. The deep past of Middle-Earth, the hidden present of Hogwarts, or the just-around-the-corner-ness of Narnia are simpler worlds, places of yearning, just out of our grasp. Into this basket go the suede jerkins, hoods, and cloaks, the rustic colors and forged metals.

Now that we have real and alternative history chopped up into discrete stylistic periods (with rather cool names,) we can go about the process of incorporating discrete elements into your individual look. Here is where the rubber meets the road, where the structure of classic style meets the form of your personal style. It is work, and study, and a cautious alchemy of balance and control: the proper result of which is something which looks effortless and unplanned; unassuming, yet unique.

First, the baseline of Classic Style, the framework on which fashion rests, must be clearly understood. In Part Five, the Science of Style, we covered just what that baseline is. Incorporating personal style involves deviating from that baseline. Just what to deviate, and how far, is a judgement call that only you can make; but I can provide guidelines to help you along the process.

What exactly fulfills your Second Great Secret? For some men, the answer is so obvious it isn't even a question. For others, it may take days of soul-searching, note taking and pondering. When all is said and done, take a mental basket, such as we used earlier, and fill it with the trappings of that era, those elements that left you feeling best; whether that be styles, fabrics, colors, or accessories. For men, thinking in this artsy, right-brain, touchy-feely way isn't easy. You were warned, this is going to be work!

EPIC FAIL. Just...epic.
The manner of incorporating said trappings into a wardrobe requires finesse. The execution should appear to be insouciant and innocuous. If it appears at all as if you are trying for an effect, you have failed, and the boundary between clothing and costume has been breached. If the effect appears aware of itself, (or in other words, if you appear self-conscious,) you have failed, for your clothes should never call attention to themselves. If your clothes appear different, stand out in a crowd, or draw attention to themselves, you have failed. The distinction should be so subtle so as to not be immediately noticeable. Anything else is costume.

The amount of incorporation should be carefully weighted against the overall effect. Ideally, the deviation from Classic standard should be minimal in relation to the Classic proportions: the easiest and most glaring error is to go completely overboard in an effort to be different. Too little deviation can look like a sartorial mistake, or an odd detail that merely looks out of place. Too much deviation, and we are into the realm of costume again.

The balance of elements should be observed. This ties intimately into the amount of incorporation.  A small but strong accessory can balance an outfit, or the entire outfit can be balanced by a slight change in overall detail. This balancing point is the make-or-break of any suit of clothes. The balance of formal vs informal, and studied vs insouciant, have been touched upon previously. This latest, classic vs personal, is just one of the many balances you must take into account.

The cornerstone of personalization is in the details. (This falls into the category of slight and overall.) Subtle jacket deviations from standard can be explored in lapels, pockets, shoulders, and button stance, to name a few, as well as materials, color, and construction. Shirt variance is often seen in color, pattern, and materials, and of course the cut and style of collar. Trousers can vary widely in rise, width, and flare, as well as construction.

A less-integrated but more facilitative option for personalization is the use of an accessory. Hats, ties, shoes, of course; but minor bits like pocket squares, watches, boutonnieres and lapel pins can play an important role as well.

Okay, guys, got it? Nothing to it; easy as pie. I cannot go into each permutation of every detail, of course, any more than I can tell you every suit to wear. It is not an easy row to hoe, but it will yield results far in excess of the effort you put in -- if you do it correctly. It's not a move to be taken lightly, and in all honesty, I won't hold you at all in disregard if you decide the risk is not worth it, and continue to wear the Classic Style unaltered, as you have been. Jumping in too early, too eagerly, or unprepared, can result in a disastrous two-steps-back situation from which you may find it difficult to extricate.

Ultimately, it's all up to you to find the balance, but I will help you out with some examples.

To bring some steampunk into your attire, if you go with dark grey wool for your jacket, you could also go with braces on your trousers, raise the jacket's button stance, and preserve the balance. Do this with a bow tie, and the balance starts to tip. All this and a lapelled waistcoat, and the balance is tipped--it's too much.
A classic suit with just a lapelled waistcoat would balance, though.
A classic suit with a plain waistcoat and arranged pocket watch would preserve the balance. Add a stiff collar, though, and the balance is tipped.
A completely classic suit with a stiff collar preserves the balance.
Spats that are very subtle and understated with an otherwise completely standard classic suit would not tip the balance. Add anything else--it's costume.

For a little dieselpunk, chalkstripes would work with a classic suit. Doublebreasted chalkstripes are on the verge. Add wingtip shoes, and it begins to tip. Add a boutonniere and fedora -- too much.
A standard suit with a slightly broad button stance, and subtle spectator wingtips would just start to tip the balance.

An English touch that adds to many blankpunk schemes is the tightly-furled full length umbrella, used as a walking stick. Used on a bright, sunny day, it will tip the balance, however.

For a touch of the '70s, a standard suit with pagoda shoulders and roped sleeveheads would not tip the balance. Add a Windsor-knot tie, and it's right on the edge. Broaden the lapels by an inch: too far.
A standard cut suit in a maroon-and-rust weave doesn't tip the balance, but the addition of a broad-point collar, striped shirt would. Think outside the box: a vintage LED watch may work well.

For a bit o' the future, the "current view" is a trim fit with dark color and contrasting detail. Narrow lapels, dark blue cloth with bright teal buttonholes, for instance, or quite bright monocolor tie or pocket square. Too much is too much, and it will end up being too fashion-forward -- which is just as bad as too fashion-backward.

Good luck, have fun, and remember, dressing like a grown up doesn't have to be stodgy, or boring, or even ordinary; with the addition of this little bit of psychological wizardry, the first Two Great Secrets will be yours, and your wardrobe will never be the same!

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

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically, Part Eight 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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