The history of menswear has given us a rule book that borders on the canonical in it’s strict adherence to historical precedent. But unlike its biblical counterpart, the Bible of menswear rewards those that can break it's rules rather than condemning them.
There is no rule that cannot be broken, except those that cannot, reinforcing the idea that every rule is proven by its exception.
Building a wardrobe of value
Creating a wardrobe that speaks to your character is a step in building personal style akin to abstract expressionism in art. It can be achieved but is best approached with a solid education in the classics.
It is a common pitfall we see with many men that try to emulate those they most admire, aping the affectations but missing the solid base on which those style quirks have been allowed to create interest. A slightly turned up collar or unbuttoned button down works as a contrast to the subtle perfection of an outfit, a counterpoint that loses its nuance when not confidently played on an otherwise orthodox ensemble.
With that in mind, I hope to work through the subtle canvas in which we can paint our personal flourishes. How to always look refined, so that any detail that contradicts that refinement is just that - a subtle contradiction. The beauty of classic menswear is that it moves slowly in it's changes, it is tried and true over the past century, closely tied in to the mores of each era, slightly adapted with each trend, but generally returning to a modicum of its original base.
Learning and understanding the base of each evolution of men’s style provides the room to swing your personal quirks without knocking down the furniture, or your friends and colleagues image of you.
Fit is the most variable element in men’s style. While fabric choices turn slowly, variations in fit swing like a pendulum as each generation tries to distinguish itself from the former. Understanding the needs of cloth, and it’s ability and necessity to drape, will inform the wearer on what fits, what is a good subtle variation on the norms of fit, and what is ultimately incorrect.
All garments, with a few exceptions like leather and felt, are created with cloth that has a warp, a weft, and a straight and bias grain on which it must perfectly fall.
The easiest way to understand the concept of grain, is to see how the weft (the open ended threads) fall straight over the warp (the bound edge that would stretch across a frame to have the weft woven over it), is to hold a handkerchief. Hold it from two corners closest to each other and it should fall flat, the warp and weft being straight up and down. That is correct grain. Hold the same handkerchief from corners diagonally opposed, and the grain is now at a perfect 90 degree angle, creating a bias drape. It should again fall flat but with slightly more give and stretch. Hold it off any of these points and the cloth will fall sloppily and roll, the grain now not sitting true.
Clothes that are cut well are cut with the grain religiously coddled and protected, so your jacket will fall flush and full where drape has been given, trousers will fall with stripes in a perfect line from pleat to centre cuff.
Herein lies the rub - if you don’t allow a garment enough cloth, it will never drape. The beauty of its fall will be marred by its straining against a prodigious derrière or a trained bicep.
So a good rule of thumb, if you cannot pinch the cloth of a garment at any place it falls, the cloth has been cut too tight and it’s ability to drape negated.
“Elegant drape and balance trumps perfect fit in most tailored garments”
There is another factor concerning drape that will appeal to the pragmatists in us all - cloth that cannot drape, that is stretched across the body, is being pulled too thin to age well. A garment with that extra 10mm throughout will age infinitely better than anything worn in a more exacting fit.
As with all rules, they are made true by their exceptions, and the exceptions on drape and fit generally come with garments we want to show their wear and age more readily than we’d like from a tailored garment. A leather jacket worn slightly too slim in the sleeve will tunnel, creating ripples around the elbow that gives the highs and lows that show its wear, as with denims creasing behind the knees and at the whiskers.
A concept I have always found more useful in determining how to pair colour, texture and pattern is the idea of visual weight. Understanding the weight of something visually is key in being able to balance the weight aesthetically across an outfit. While rules around colour are often quoted and strictly adhered to, being able to really play with colour, texture and pattern requires a more comprehensive understanding of how the interplay between all can be balanced or made imbalanced for specific effect.
I like to think of pattern as being a means of progressing through the stages of understanding clothing - for those less confident, a sparsity of pattern is an effective way of looking sharp. Adding pattern can be gradual, finding the ways in which it best expresses your personality.
As a general rule of thumb, and again all rules are proven true by their exceptions, I think of the layers of tailoring starting with the shirt as the base, jacket as the mid layer and tie as the forefront.
The scale of pattern is generally the first consideration, rather than colour. Wildly varying colours in pattern can be worn to great effect, so long as there is clear delineation in scale of pattern.
Patterns of equal scale, even when those patterns are as varied as a stripe and a paisley, tend to blur into one another making the combination cluttered and hard on the eye.
Pattern is not the sole means of judging visual weight, however. Colour and texture both play importantly into how present a garment is visually or how much it can become part of the background. Cloth with more sheen, such as a satin tie or a mohair suit, will have greater visual presence than something with a more matte hand, all other factors being equal.
The ways that this can be used to cause balance or interest, to attract the eye or hide from it, is a tool that can be well employed by a savvy dresser.
Knowing the limitations or constraints of the body is key in employing the characteristics of a garment to better flatter the varying bodies we deal with. A diminutive frame that wants to appear bigger than life can choose a cloth with sheen, its visual weight making a smaller garment more visually powerful. Conversely, someone with a large foot can opt for soft suede shoes that eat light rather than reflecting it, making the foot less visually imposing.
Mixing these textures and their respective visual weights is a master stroke of astute dressing. While a flannel suit may appear rumpled and bucolic with an Oxford cloth shirt and a wool challis tie, the small change to a poplin shirt and satin tie suddenly provides a balance and variance in visual weight to allow each element of the outfit to balance comfortably.
For those of us that take great pride in our wardrobes, and that have a love for being always properly presented, the risk of over-dressing is always a constant. Knowing your audience - and dressing is always a sign of respect to those we deal with as much as it is our own personal expression - means knowing when to turn down the volume or when you can afford to crank it up to 11.
The history around these garments can also provide some clues in to how they should be worn. Cloth that is designed for the boardroom makes much less sense for cocktails on a Saturday afternoon, just as a gamekeeper cloth sends a very distinct message when employed in the office.
So knowing the categories in which each fall is the first step in being cognizant of how you choose to fall into the formality of each occasion.
I generally would group tailored garments in to the four following headings;
Occasion, Business, Leisure and Sporting. With lines often blurred and sub groups that may straddle more than one category, there is infinite nuance to be discovered, but as a general rule we can try to operate in this framework.
Occasion dressing, or formal dressing, is characterized by it’s paucity of colour and pattern, the simplification of its details, and the more rigid set of rules we have carried from nearly a century ago.
While the rules around strict black and white tie dressing are the most rigid of all categories of tailored clothing, understanding the basic precepts of formal wear can be the difference in something that doesn’t adhere to the rules still being accepted as passing in spirit.
Formal wear is, unsurprisingly, the most formal. It is here that cloth tends to have the most sheen, with silks and mohairs providing visual interest and weight that cannot be added with colour or pattern.
The exclusion of details made for practicality or durability also defines formal wear. Jackets tend to be ventless, as hands aren’t meant to be buried in a dinner suits trouser pocket. Trouser bottoms are uncuffed, as it is unlikely we’ll be much trudging through a grassy moor while being presented for dinner. Jacket pockets are flawless besoms, as the practical consideration of a pocket flap to mask a slightly bagging pocket is moot - your dinner suit is unlikely to have pockets stuffed with the days necessities.
So knowing the rules are for simplified garments in most lustrous cloth, with the most spare palette of colour and texture, navigating a formal occasion without a specific dinner suit is easier to imagine.
Business dressing becomes more variable, as business can mean anything from financial, legal, mercantile or creative, through an endless list of business occasions requiring a modicum of formal attire.
To again distill the fundamentals of a business wardrobe, we are looking for less overt formality than occasion dressing, but still a level of refinement and orthodoxy higher than leisure or sporting clothing. Cloth shouldn’t have the same amount of sheen as it’s formal equals, but rather can vary in texture from the subtle softness of flannel through the subtle sheen of worsted. Beyond those parameters, where it ventures into the rustic tweeds or the highly refined mohairs, we step outside of the established guidelines. Guidelines you can be happy to break once you know where they are.
While the daintiness of formal clothing is to be eschewed, there is still a boundary of formality we don’t want to dip below. Sporting details such a patch pockets and open laced shoes send a message of casualness that you may think carefully about voicing.
The palette tends to err from the severity of formal wear into colours indicative of the business environment. Cold colours are the norm, with more in the blue and grey family that reflects the city around you. Earthier tones tend to be reserved for sporting or country wear, and while rules such as “no brown in town” are as antiquated as the language employed in expressing them, the spirit is there. A subtle palette that exceeds formal wear but still adheres to subtlety, detailing that can offer practical function for a lifestyle in the city, and a base of textures that never flies as high as satin or as low as donegal and raw silk.
Leisure wear is how many of us tend to indulge, and while some of us may indulge in technical sportswear, that is not the leisure I am referring to. Leisure wear regards the garments that you wear while socializing in a private way, and it is where the rules are most relaxed. Personal expression being what it is, if we employ an amount of respect to the venue and the company, there isn’t many ways we can go wrong. Leisure wear in the classic wardrobe can be likened to Friday casual - you’re not going to show up in dirty sweats and trainers, so not should you show up in clothing of a formality that will make your friends uncomfortable.
Cloth choices tend to be the broadest here, with raw silks and linens being as appropriate as doeskin flannel or cashmere. Loafers and derby laced shoes become much more viable, as do odd matched jackets and trousers or elements such as knit shirts, cardigans, sweaters and the like.
Personal expression is key, and knowing what works at the pub on a Sunday or a fancy restaurant on Saturday night is the boundary of etiquette to be employed.
Sporting wear is a category that is almost obsolete for many of us, having been overtaken by true casual wear, but worth mentioning as it bookends so neatly with the other end of the spectrum.
While occasion dressing errs towards sheen and lustre, sporting wear emphasizes pattern and texture. The austerity of functional details we find in our dinner suit is a direct contrast to the practical nature of tweeds, moleskins, cords and cavalry twills.
Many details that we see in our more casual tailored garments were given birth to the practical requirements of hunting. Bellows or patch pockets, throat latch collars and the like are all functional elements given free reign in country fare. Employing elements of this mode of dress for leisure wear is an effective way of dressing smartly but without an excess of formality.
The rules of classic dress can be a tool for dressing your own personality or a prison cell to enslave. Learn the rules and you will be master of every occasion, every garment, and you will never be unprepared for any event.