Friday, June 8, 2012

Keeping Your Balance

Chapter 70
Dressing well is all about sartorial balance. 
Formality against informality...
Color against color... 
Pattern against pattern... 
Contemporary style against historical fashion.

Any imaginable variation on any style of fashion, in fact, must be weighed, and weighed carefully, against its opposite variation to achieve a harmonious whole. The goal is always an average between the two extremes that is not too far out of the range of normal for the particular place that you are; whether this is attending a wedding or shopping for groceries. The problem, of course, comes when a man doesn't know what to wear at all, much less how to find what an average value is, and even less how to work the extremes to maintain that balance properly. 

This is most glaring when celebrities attempt to do casual-formal wear, as we have seen recently. So we are subjected to such aberrations as a tuxedo jacket with sneakers, or a patterned shirt, or a loosely-knotted long tie, or a silly hat, or sloppy jeans. Their thinking is that the dinner jackets' formality will be offset by the other things, and the average will be dressy-casual. 

This doesn't work, of course, because the attempt to balance two polar opposites is increasingly unlikely to create a harmonious average the farther apart those extremes are. In fact, dinner dress is so extremely proscribed, it takes very little to push its balance to a place of informality: as little as a subtly-colored boutonniere, a flash of pocket square, a rakishly-designed waistcoat, or even the material of the jacket itself, is all that is needed.

Creating a balance in everyday wear is much easier than attempting the same in formalwear. Most men have a passing experience in the art of color and pattern matching. At its most basic, it is an intuitive reflex. A dark suit needs a light shirt and a bright tie, for instance; or else the suit looks muddy and somber. A light suit looks better with a patterned shirt of a darker color, and so on. Making informed decisions regarding pattern takes more experience, but is also largely intuitive. Matching a plaid shirt with a plaid tie may look busy if they are in the same color range and size, especially if paired with a plain suit; but a suit with a subtle pattern paired with a very light plaid shirt and a very strong plaid tie may look very handsome indeed. It's all in the balance created between the factors.

These basic style decisions can be complicated with variable factors such as the time of year and the immediate weather conditions. For instance, on a bright day, a pair of tan trousers may look fine with a mid-grey plain weave jacket; but on an overcast day, a darker grey herringbone jacket may look better. In the heat of summer, a shirt and tie may look overdressed in lieu of a simple polo shirt under your jacket; but in the fall, going without a tie may result in an underdressed appearance.

Another factor to balance is your immediate purpose. A matching three-piece looks official and professional for a business meeting, but a simple change out for an tattersall waistcoat looks less stuffy for an evening out. Running to the auto-parts store to buy an oil filter and spark plugs in a suit and tie may raise some eyebrows, but a hardy tweed jacket, open-collar shirt and dungarees says grungy business is at hand. A seersucker suit, loafers, and bow tie looks fine on the boardwalk, but you wouldn't wear it to church. Again, most of this is a matter of intuition for most men, once one gets past the mistake of mistaking the social average for the sartorial average.

Notice I have said nothing about shorts and tee shirts and flippy flops. These are not adult clothes, despite the depressing number of adults who wear them. Striking a balance is not about looking like the uninformed man-children surrounding you. It is about the grownup clothes you choose to wear. It is possible to be properly-dressed and not look out of place, as the above examples prove -- in fact, the proper result of a well-balanced, properly-dressed man is to make those who are not properly-dressed feel suddenly ill-at-ease and self-conscious in their own clothes, awkward and naked. This is not a result of any action on your part, nor in fact should it be: you, merely and simply dressed, should be all the catalyst necessary.

If this all seems a little overwhelming, take solace in the fact that you are not alone, nor are you solely at the mercy of your intuition. All the major factors of sartorial balance can be reduced to three continua, and these continua can be visualized and plotted against each other as axes on a three-dimensional graph.
The graph can be viewed as a cube, with any point within it defined by the three balance factors. The continuum has definite limits; it is not unbounded on all sides. The axes divide the cube into eight octants, which represent the limits of the extremes in the factors of grownup clothing. The ideal is not the exact center of the cube -- depending on external factors as noted above, the ideal for any given circumstance would describe a point somewhere in the cube's interior. The external edges of the cube are the limits of perspicacity, where clothes become costume

Let's use the Continuum Cube to demonstrate just how skewing works. We'll start at an easy point to visualize: the corner of the cube that pegs all three scales for formal, town, and historical wear. Can you guess what it is? Of course, it's the dress suit: white tie, tails, boiled-front shirt, and patent leather pumps. You can't get more formal/town/historical than that. 
As you can see, the dress suit is easily knocked off its apex by the addition of a simple boutonniere, which will skew it down the X axis, slightly away from formal. Substitute balmorals for pumps, for instance, and the skew moves toward sporty and country, and even slightly innovative, and just like that we're off the face of the cube and into the interior. This simple example demonstrates why proper white tie is as exacting as it is.

With everyday wear, you won't be dealing with the extremes, though; you will be dealing with any number of factors that will average into a value on the continuum. The Continuum Cube only works as far as the physical aspect of your clothes -- but how you wear them, your degree of insouciance and panache, can have an effect on where they skew on the Cube. 

With practice, you can keep the Continuum Cube in your minds' eye as you decide what to put on, place a target area within that cube, and choose clothes that will average into that target area. By looking at what you wear in this theoretical way, and fitting them into a matrix, you needn't be operating solely on intuition and guesswork, but have a solid guide for making wise decisions, and thus a greater opportunity to always be Dressed Like a Grownup.

Click here to go to Appendix 2, which covers the complete Continuum Cube in more depth.

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1 comment:

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