Our appearances tell the world not who we are but who we would like to be. From our hair, or lack of it, adornment in jewellery, watches, the cars we drive, the cigarettes we smoke and the ping of the lighter that lights them - all tell the story of who we would like to be identified as. From how polished our nails are, or the presence of tattoos and piercings, near everything we do is a reflection of our own self image, and a projection of who we would like to be.
There are few aspects of our daily life as adaptable or as fluid as our wardrobes.
They are costumes of our idealized selves, literally a suit of armour to help us battle our way through the trials and tribulations of the professional world. Every profession has its standards, and every professional has their way of adapting that standard to themselves, be it conscious or no.
The beauty of classic menswear, and a big part of why I love it, is the fact that it is rarely revolutionary, but rather evolutionary. The changes can be tracked by decade rather than season, and it is slight adjustments that complement the individual, both physically and in less tangible ways, that takes well dressed to best in class.
Below are a few rules that should see any man aiming to build a wardrobe do so successfully and without fault.
1. Know the Rules, Understand the Context
For generation upon generation, from frock coats through to the establishment of the lounge suit as the standard of business formal, men learned the rules of dressing first from their father, then from their tailor. A boy could expect to learn the basics of dress from his father - when a suit is appropriate and when a blazer will suffice, how to tie his four in hand and bow, how to keep his shoes polished. To visit his father’s tailor was a rite of passage that many well-dressed men still remember fondly, and many great tailors will make it through three generations of a family before hanging up his shears. From his tailor men would learn how to dress for their builds, their complexions, and their everyday activity.
But something changed in the 60’s about the time JFK opted to go naked to his inauguration - hatless, at least, which was tantamount to being bare-assed in those times. Fashion started to infiltrate menswear. It was now fathers asking their sons how to dress, as the fashions of the times went from street to store, not vice-versa. A generation broke the verbal history of classic menswear, and we went from decade to decade of revolution rather than evolution.
That menswear has rules is what scares many men away - there is a lot of esoterica and obscure vocabulary that can be daunting to those uninitiated. But unlike womenswear, which sets its watch by the season and flips its priorities by the designers whim, men need only learn a few things. What is the standard, and what works for him. So a few fundamentals that are easily learned and quickly mastered;
The Lounge Suit - Easily summed up as a business appropriate suit of matching jacket and trouser. The classic palette of Grey and Navy is the most universally accepted, while Black is most often considered an evening suit in the classic tailoring world.
The sporting suit - Not often referred to in the modern wardrobe, a sporting suit is one worn for sports - primarily hunting. Patterned suits in tweeds or thorn proofs, in palettes of greens, browns and tans, things that would now be considered very English. What we have brought with us into the modern lexicon, however, is the sports coat - the odd jacket worn in non-traditional suiting colours, patterns and textures.
Formal Wear - Described below, a great rule to follow with formal clothing is that the more formal it is, the less open to interpretation. Formal clothing is something of a costume, made for specific occasions to ensure a consistent level of formality. Should you feel comfortable enough in your relationship with the host, bucking that courtesy is a risk you can take. Many a confidant dresser has adapted formal clothing to his personality successfully, but it is definitely a move for an experienced hand.
The Morning Suit - Also called a cutaway, the morning suit is the day time equivalent of the dinner suit, most recognizable as what would be worn to Royal Ascot or a formal day wedding. It is most traditionally worn with a black or charcoal coat, cutaway and finishing behind the knee. Odd trousers in a small tonal stripe, called Cashmere stripe trousers, despite usually being made of wool are worn below, although some rogues such as Prince Charles will wear matching light grey trouser/jacket combos. A double breasted waistcoat in Dove (light grey) or Buff (cream), a formal white shirt and a tonal ascot at the throat make up the majority of the habit. A top hat literally tops it all off.
The Dinner Suit - Often referred to as black tie, or a tuxedo after the famous Tuxedo club of New York where it made it’s American debut. A dinner suit is in black, or occasionally midnight navy, and worn with a bow tie, a white bibbed shirt, be it pleated (plisse) or dimpled (marcella). The dinner suit is an investment, and for those who love their wardrobes it often ties with the overcoat as the most significant single investment in a wardrobe. As they are worn less, and generally will last much longer, elegant men often put a little more thought, time and money in to the execution of each. A few rules for the dinner suit -
Black Tie is always worn with a bow tie. A four in hand tie with a dinner suit is fundamentally incorrect. Also - a bow tie is something that is knotted with each wear, one that is pre-tied is only appropriate if it spins or shoots water.
Matching elements on your dinner suit - your lapels, your bow, and your cummerbund should you choose to wear one. They are usually found in some form of silk - Grosgrain is often the bespoke choice, Barathea for something a little less archaic, Satin the most recognizable.
White tie - The most formal of traditional formal wear that is still commonly worn, and following that trend, the least open to interpretation. A white wing collar shirt, a white marcella bow tie and matching waistcoat is non- negotiable. A tailcoat cut short to just cover the bottoms of the waistcoat in front, double breasted but generally non fastening, with matching trousers finished, as with all formal clothing, cuffless. The most appropriate shoe is a well-polished opera pump, but a pair of plain black oxfords will do just as well in a pinch.
To quote the great G.Bruce Boyer on formal clothes:
In the early years of the twentieth century, a gentleman’s wardrobe was prescribed by the hour: morning coats till noon (or a short “stroller” jacket at a private gathering), lounge (business) suits until 6 p.m. (although swallowtails, striped trousers and top hats were still de rigueur in many professions), then evening clothes of one sort or another, depending on the occasion.
Of course, the high degree of prescription in dress was merely an objective correlative for the greater sense of rigidity and ritual about occasions. Every sport, for instance, not only dictated its own specific outfit for participants, but for observers as well. The most famous story about a breech in this etiquette took place one day in the early 1900s during the London season. King Edward VII happened to glance out a window and saw his master of the household, Sir Derek Keppel, entering the palace wearing a bowler hat. “You scoundrel!” the king yelled at the man. “What do you mean by coming in here in that rat-catcher fashion? You never see me dress like that in London!” Tough man with the proprieties, was Edward.
The king was a stickler for detail in an age of details. He once told a friend, who had proposed to accompany him in a tailcoat to a picture exhibition before lunch: “I thought everyone must know that a short jacket is always worn with a silk hat at a private view in the morning.”
Edward would be rotating in his hand-carved coffin if he could see what some people’s approach to coordinating outfits is these days. While we’re mercifully relieved of all that stifling rigidity, the downside to it is that, when the rules are thrown out, unbridled freedom often leads to chaos, confusion, frustration and terrible insecurity. Not to mention that some folks should be given warnings about assaulting the environment–you know, like obscene billboards and such.
Fortunately, there’s still one garment, the time-honored tuxedo, that prevents such fashion fiascoes. The one decidedly good thing about wearing a tux is that a man doesn’t need to make any decisions or worry whether he’s making a mistake: the prescribed outfit, top to toe, works perfectly fine. That is, works well if one knows the occasion calls for “Black Tie.” There again the Edwardians provided the rules governing the occasion by stipulating on the invitation what type of dress was expected. These days “White Tie,” “Full Dress,” “Decorations and Medals” and other such instructions are quaintly arcane at most functions. And the best place to see a tailcoat is in an old Fred Astaire film. Generally, the only men who own their own tails are diplomats and symphony orchestra conductors. If you are escorting a debutante to a fancy ball, rent.
2. Care for Your Stuff
Nothing looks better than a well loved pair of shoes, creased and polished, worn and resoled and polished a-glow again. Good clothing is an investment, and like an investment it needs some care to make sure it has a full life.
Dry cleaners are a last resort, not a regular occurrence. The method of dry cleaning is aggressive and damaging to cloth, and a well made garment is as much about the press as it is about the stitch, so regular dry cleaning is to be avoided. A good rule of thumb with tailored garments -
Rotate them regularly - When worn, cloth becomes warm and damp, the sad nature of our perspiring human bodies. Warm damp cloth is most likely to pill, to wear, and to stretch. Aim to have enough tailored garments in the wardrobe that none will be worn more than once in a working week.
Hang them warm - The miraculous nature of wool means that the fiber likes to return to its woven form. Wrinkled cloth and stretched seams will try to return to true if they are hung while warm from the body. So rather than drop your coat on the bed or on the back of a chair when you return home, put them on a shaped hanger. Your clothes will thank you for it.
Brush your garments - Dust and dirt abound, and when regular sponge and press is not an option, a good brushing will go a long way. Brushing the cloth helps return the fiber to its true direction, removes dust or dirt that may be sitting in the cloth, and will stave off the need for cleaning. The best brushes are natural bristle - horse for a softer brush, better for fine and delicate clothes such as cashmere or superfine wool, boar bristle for when you need something stiffer, such as tweeds, overcoatings, thornproofs or cottons.
Nurture your shoes - Your footwear is the most easily identified when shoddy, but also the most rewarding to care for. Like your clothing, shoes benefit from the following - Rotate them regularly. Never wear them two days in a row, and if wetted, should be offered an extra day or two to get fully dry. A solid brushing after each wear will see the need for a polishing greatly reduced, although polishing your shoes is something you should do yourself. If you haven’t learnt the method of glacage from your father, learn it and make sure you show it to your son.
Shoe trees are to shoes as a good shaped hanger is to a suit, if not more so. Shoe trees are best when lasted, but still far better than nothing even when they aren’t modelled from the last. Put them in when the shoe is warm, before you apply the brush. Dustbags are great to stop dust from settling, but a brush is equally effective in removing it once it has.
3. Fit, Fit, Fit
Fit is to clothing as location is to property - arguably everything. A poorly fitted suit, no matter how beautifully made, will look appalling. Likewise a below average suit can be greatly improved by good tailoring. Look for these keys -
The collar - a jacket hangs first from the collar, second from the shoulder. Look at these two places when judging fit. A well fitted collar will be firm to the neck through a normal range of motion - that doesn’t include star jumps and burps, but driving, speaking on a phone, shaking someone’s hand - none of these should cause your jacket to need adjustment.
The shoulder - Extension of the shoulder is largely dependent on the shoulder pad, but ideally it should extend just far enough past the edge of the deltoid to fall straight and not divot when worn.
The chest - Despite the trend for slim and fitted clothing, there are parameters to what is slim and what is tight. A proper fitted chest on a jacket should fall to the button without creasing or ‘breaking’ as we call it in tailoring. Being practical garb, your suits should fit as you would most often wear them - if you carry a wallet in your breast pocket, your should fit it with that self same wallet.
Length - The most often mistaken are of fit on any garment is the length - particularly for those that feel they need to compensate in one way or another. Think of images of NBA players in jackets of zoot suit proportions. It does little to mask their height and instead makes them appear even taller. Likewise, many shorter customers over compensate by slicing their jackets so short as to look like a waiter in a French Bistro.
An easy rule to remember, is that most parts of a garment are made to cover certain parts of the body - a jacket should cover the torso, so ideally finishing at the base of the derriere. Sleeves cover the arms, not the hands. Gloves are for hands, not jacket sleeves! Likewise with trousers - properly fitted they should cover the legs, from just below the natural waist, falling to rest lightly on top of the shoe.
4. Keep it Simple
The most common mistake of those who are trying to build a wardrobe, and all of us who are passionate about dressing well are guilty of this, is indulging in the novel, the interesting, the different, for love of the garment and not the harmony of the whole. As Beau Brummell, that grand forebear of the male wardrobe put it -
“If John Bull turns to look after you, you are not well-dressed, but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”
The absence of colour and pattern in an outfit denotes it’s formality - the most formal, like the dinner suit, is simply black and white and without pattern. Often the very buttons are covered adding to the austerity. Likewise can be said for business - if you aim to look formal and serious, a palette of subdued colours and plain or very small patterns will serve you best. And in the great logic way that menswear tends to follow, the formality of a pattern follows directly it’s descending scale - a very fine pattern the most formal, great big patterns the least. The same can be said for textures, fine wale cord for an elegant option, while wide wale is best kept to the weekends.
5. Be Comfortable and Enjoy
You will never feel comfortable in any occasion if you don’t feel so, and nothing is more of an impediment to productivity than being pre-occupied with ill fitted or poorly styled clothing. Your wardrobe should be a cinch to dive in to of a morning, should see you through the day with aplomb, have you shoulder to shoulder with both clients and colleagues, and whisper your quirks and idiosyncrasies only to those that are listening closely.