Suggestions for the serious dresser
Admit it- You want to present yourself in a certain light. You want to be different in the way you dress but not unusual or the suspect of caring too much about clothes and not the matters at hand. A man who is together, sharp and elegant but without revealing what exactly makes that so apparent. You want to be admired and wondered at, but in a subtle way not like a crass arriviste. But, unless you understand the subtleties of dressing well, how do you affect this purpose of knowing at what point you have gone too far? To you, you look attention getting and fetching, to everyone else you are as garishly loud as a klaxon. In short, you want your outfit to accomplish the same touch of expensive cologne dabbed around the ears, rather than a dousing. How do you combine the subtleties of being admired for the classic-ness of your demeanor and yet still remain modern?
The universal language of what makes a man well dressed is more varied than it has ever been. Men in black suits with black shirts and no ties make deals with men in sack suits and oxford button downs paired with navy ties sporting little green whales. Do they despise each other? Do they even notice anymore? Different silhouettes for suits abound and are the fashion all at the same time. The differences can be regional (London, Milan, Naples) or simply a matter of fit and taste.
One needs to consider what image they want to present to the world. To pursue the image of someone not yourself too often is to lose yourself in the process. You may be dreaming of a look that may or may not work on you personally. You may also be dreaming of a look that doesn’t work today for the purposes you need it to. For example, you may want to look like a particular actor from the 1930s but can you really carry it off, today?
Think about what personal look you want to cultivate before choosing a manufacturer’s suit style or a custom tailor’s house silhouette. Bear in mind that no matter what a tailor assures you, their basic silhouette will not change that much, no matter what sort of suit you request. It is virtually impossible for one tailor to exactly reproduce another tailor’s work even if they have the garment in their hands. Therefore, if you are not happy with the house style or the manufacturer’s style from the start, it may be time to move on to another destination. A destination where both look and fit jib, and one whose comfort and ease makes you happy. And you should be happy, you dress for others, at least reserve comfort and ease for yourself.
I patronize Nino Corvato as my custom tailor because I like a soft shoulder (actually, no shoulder) suit jacket with a soft body and yet very clean lines with a definite shape. It is a no nonsense business look that is tailored cleanly and also sweater-like at the same time. Mr. Corvato borrowed from everywhere, Brooks Brothers natural shoulders and unpadded jacket, Italian precision and cleanliness, and an English sense of propriety. It is a fusion, a handsome, timeless, international look, for an international, modern, important person. However, just going to a great custom tailor doesn’t always ensure universal success. There is another customer who gets suits made by Mr. Corvato who has, to my eyes, the worst taste. Every time I drop by the studio, it seems I see yet another gorgon-esque suit fabric being made up at this customer’s behest. Hey, that’s his style, having bad taste! Who knows, maybe it even works for him.
Another client used to get what I called “Dr. Evil” suits (as in the Austin Powers trilogy of films) made in standard pinstripes, solids and plaids. The jacket was a Nehru and the pants were made in double width! Sometimes you want to stand out a lot, sometimes not at all. Either stance can be a tremendous boost to your image, just make sure you “know thyself” in this regard. It might be fun to wear a top hat or spats in the privacy of your own house (air guitar for dandies?) but consider the effect that will really have amongst your peers. If you don’t care about that effect, that’s great but you are also not part of the audience this essay is intended for, that of the serious man of talent who wants to present himself both pristinely and nattily.
You must straddle the fence between who you really are and how you want to portray yourself. If you want to seem more English, then perhaps one of the Savile Row tailors or even Cheo or Logsdail in NYC? Ask yourself why you want to be seen in a certain way and if it makes sense for who you are and what you do. If you are an aristocrat and a man of leisure, perhaps a medium grey cashmere chalk stripe suit, spectators, grape colored poplin shirt with contrasting white pinned club collar and white French cuffs and a whimsical tie from Lee Allison. The look is quietly decadent, uncaring about what people think, self indulgently stylish.
But, what if you are the CEO of a successful (or working towards being successful) corporation and want to let everyone know that you are to be listened to at all times? You might need something like a charcoal single breasted peak lapel suit jacket with a white pinstripe, white spread collared shirt with skull and crossbones cufflinks, Maroon tie with small white polka dots, black alligator belt with sterling buckle and black wingtips. It is all a matter of who you are and whom you need to be. Be honest with yourself and if you can afford it, get a qualified, talented “wardrobe engineer1”. They can save you a lot of time and frustration and ultimately, money.
Now, with regard to shirt choices. We live in an age where anything goes as long as it is smartly done and well coordinated or contrasted with the proper accessories. When in 1998 I got my first batch of made-to-measure shirts from Hilditch and Key, one I chose was a solid red body with contrasting white spread collar and French cuffs. Back then it was a show stopper. However, just a few years later a proliferation of colored and patterned shirts hit all industries. Today, my red shirt would hardly be noticed. Almost anything goes nowadays, even in the so-called conservative cities and industries.
While white shirts will almost certainly always be considered the mark of quality in a man, now you can wear a selection of patterns and colors that have completely removed the shock value from what Turnbull and Asser used to do. It seems every conceivable pattern and color has gone main stream2. How does one then stay in front of the curve? For now, look for shirts with red patterns on them, either bright red or burgundy on a white background (with or without white contrasting collar and/or cuffs) or shirts that are either solid lavender or purple or have patterns in that color on a white background.
1 They do exist and can give you invaluable help but they are rare these days, very rare. Someone whose image is everything should consider it, if they have the budget.
2 Due in part to the degage and “look-at-me” stances of the dotcom era when there was a social revolution of sorts and, additionally, the office wardrobe broke down, any dress shirt was appreciated as an effort, even if it was bold or hideous.
What are the elements the serious, modern man considers when he chooses clothing to purchase and gets dressed?:
Cloth weights- You might dream of wearing what they wore in the old movies but unless you are a purist, there are ways to incorporate hints of the look in an updated manner. Today fabrics need rarely be heavier than 11-12 ounces per yard. There are reason for this trend. Improvements in central heating, and more disposable income in our time for the average person obviate the need to preserve a suit forever3.
Colors/patterns- There is a tendency to get fanciful things made when one goes custom. That’s fine but bear in mind today’s exciting fabric may be tomorrow’s curio. I think, unless you already have a closet full of things, there is nothing wrong with getting an understated item. For one thing, if you can wear it every day, you can really see how well the suit’s4 construction performs under constant use. Also, if the suit is high grade, people are going to notice it anyway (at least people in the know) and that obviates the need for that yellow windowpane. Solids, discreet pinstripes and dark plaids accomplish this.
If you need to get something with more “bite” then consider pinstripes in alternative colors (to the standard grey, white or blue) or chalk stripes. The fainter the chalk stripes, the less the fussy (but out-of-the-know) set may sneer but the less style you will have also. Chalk stripes, if they suit your personality, are the ne plus ultra of dressing. However, they are an aggressive stance and if you are one to be molded by the opinion of others, you should make another choice
Fabrics- There are fewer mills which produce fabric, and some of the beautiful things from the past are no longer made. That’s the bad news. The good news is that some of the staple things are better made than ever before. The legendary film actor, Alan Ladd might have looked both tough and cool in his 14-15 ounce worsted “Drape” suit (with enough shoulder padding to land a helicopter on), but today you can achieve the same look with a 9/10 ounce birds-eye in a 120s (with or without 1% cashmere.) We are heading towards a finer, lighter more “Luxe” world of suit fabrics for men who have to do important things in an effort to become those men of leisure many of them aspire to be.
Although my choices of fabric, color and texture would vary according to your occupation (or sniff, lack of it) I would suggest that weight, at least for woolens, has left the building. 12 ounce flannels should be the absolute heaviest suit a man owns for blizzard conditions, and even then it should be a more refined flannel (perhaps with a cashmere admixture).
The old style flannel and tweed weights and textures are beautiful and yet inappropriate for today’s modern man who wants to be taken seriously. Using cashmeres or worsteds in tweed patterns are the modern way to look like the gentry of the past. For example, Harrisons of Edinburgh markets a Glorious Twelfth fabric book which is particularly interesting. The cloths are worsteds in tweed patterns with a shading style that makes the cloth actually look like tweed from a few feet away. Again, the effect is a salute to the past without being shackled to it. Fox Flannels round out the modern man’s choices. They’ve been weaving flannel for a long time but have kept step with the times and produce a flannel that has an airy weave and is light. You would swear it has cashmere in it, but it doesn’t. Again, looks just like the original but made for a well dressed 21st century man.
In general the super 100s and 120s 2×2 (double ply both weft-wise and woof-wise) fabrics are the workhorse of the suit wardrobe. I make assumptions here. I assume one wants to nod to tradition and yet be taken completely seriously today and admired for his efforts. If you want to wear what they wore in 1941 in terms of weight and finish with exactness, then be my guest, just be prepared for all the eye rolling you won’t see taking place as you exit a building. For every day wear, super 130s and up are not advised. However, for that special suit for a party, to really wow the competition in a meeting or for a dinner with the significant other at that extra haute restaurant then do indulge yourself in a 150s (or higher) material.
Fabrics by Harrisons of Edinburgh, Holland and Sherry, Zegna, Minnis, Dormeuil all make 120s fabrics that are excellent year round suiting. Especially Holland and Sherry has combined modernity, durability and that Old English look. *Zegna*’s colors are beautiful and so are their cashmeres. Another firm that makes beautiful cashmeres with excellent colors that are more “British” looking is Harrisons of Edinburgh. Bear in mind that odd sports jackets should have trousers in similar weights and finishes with some exceptions.
The same weight/finish ratio applies to shirt fabrics. In general try and keep the fineness of your shirt’s fabric in and around the fineness of your jacket and pants. There is a relatively wide range of what shirt cottons fall into this category but it is as good to keep in mind that a royal oxford shirt in 100s 2×2 is better paired with an 8-12 ounce flannel than it is a summer weave worsted or fresco. Similarly a Viyella brushed cotton or cotton and wool mixture, even the finer ones from say Acorn, look better with a cashmere sports coat or 11 ounce faux tweed worsted than a summer weave sports jacketing. Voile is for the summer as is the linen/cotton combo. Of course, if you live in areas of extreme temperatures year round this may need to be altered. Do some men wear voile year round? Yes. Can you do it? Yes. It is just better to develop a sense of balance before you begin experimenting.
Neckties- Nothing kills an outfit like a cheap or garish necktie. If you can find the better quality neckties for less, that’s excellent. However, learn the labels of the necktie makers who make superior quality neckties and wear them. Cheap, flimsy or poorly executed ties (colors, dyes, prints, tints etc…) detract from your own substantiality. Generally the better the quality of the tie manufacturer, the harder it is to go wrong.
Sometimes a tie works better with a given outfit or a given season but aside from that consideration, men today wear ties meant for summer in the winter and the reverse as well. I’m not defending this approach, it just happens to be the current state of affairs. Neckties from makers such as Drakes, Ralph Lauren, Charles Hill (or Turnbull and Asser), Charvet, Borelli, Paul Stuart, Marinella, Hermes, all get the Dandy seal of approval5.
There is a certain look the right necktie possesses, which is rather difficult to convey with mere words. A good necktie looks rich and attractive and desirable. A cheap one (even expensively made) just looks naff. If you wear a cheap necktie, a man of taste will not be able to look past it and may be unable to concentrate on what you have to say. Oh, and never have a woman choose your neckties for you, unless you happen to want that particular woman and she will be wearing it for you later on.
Color choices vary a great deal by region but in the USA we are inheritors of the old English gentleman’s choices and Anglo-American military color combinations6 (from both the modern and horse and musket period). Although the English seem to have developed a philosophy of style from the 1960s onward of clashing their colors with a lot more regularity. I happen to like this look myself… occasionally. American men are more impressed with complimentary colors or colors that contrast with a certain degree of smartness.
Whereas you can find an Englishman wearing a Bengal stripe shirt with sulfur yellow stripes with a salmon pink tie on top of it and look smart doing so, An American would prefer to see a shirt with blue pinstripes paired with a maroon solid tie. Striped ties are very “It” right now and we in the USA do not care much about the associations certain color combinations on the repp may possess7, as long as it compliments or underscores what we are wearing. I see the late night host Conan O’Brien wears a lot of repp stripes and they frankly are variegated specifically to coordinate with his outfit and blend all the colors together (including curiously enough, his hair color). This blending of all the other colors of the outfit together with the repp stripe tie is an interesting phenomenon which used to be the purview of the paisley tie, which is itself coming back into vogue.
Again, unlike in England where men almost revel in clashing or mating discordant colors that should never be next to each other…ever, Americans tend towards the blended, the easy on the eye, the well matched, in short the harmonious. There are reasons for this. A pot pourri of influences in this crossroads nation of men’s style which includes but is not limited to the African American, Hollywood, Alternative lifestyle community, the Italian color sense, female influences and the Rap community have all contributed to this. Meanwhile the Englishman still proudly wears the “dressed in the dark” but nevertheless purely “Anglo” male version of the suit and tie. Both nations have a “Go to Hell” code of dressing; the codes are simply different in timber. However, both are to be enjoyed, rather like competing drams of the best single malts.
Certain color combinations are more pleasant than others. On a white shirt, almost anything goes, whereas patterns and colored shirts obviously take a little more skill to match with a tie. Without going into the tedium of what color combinations go specifically with what, at least if you’re going to clash, do it with an expensive necktie and well made shirt, it will forgive a multitude of sartorial sins.
Wear good shoes and socks, the best you can afford. Although they do not have to be the very very best, stretch here more than anywhere else, and keep them and your socks always in good repair. Your socks should always cover your calves when you cross your legs, if they roll down too often, get rid of them. Centuries ago, being fully clothed in Northern Europe was the mark of the Christian gentleman versus the barbarian invader and the concept has stuck.
You can drive yourself mad looking for interesting colors and patterns but it is enough to match the pants (with some exceptions for white pants when you should match the shoes or wear a pastel, but then there are so very few occasions for white pants, sigh) with your hose. Both over-the-calf or mid-calf socks are acceptable, but they should stay up. There are a lot of men who love sea island cotton, but many think that a thin, merino wool keeps the foot drier and more cushioned than the cotton sock.
Belts or braces? Good question. I like both…but not at the same time. It is, however, up to you. Buttery leather belts which are cut specially to go into the sterling, engine turned buckle are both the highest form of the art and easily adjustable to your girth du jour, happily. Braces are also comfortable but seem to have developed some associations these days which is not altogether pleasant or positive. If you don’t remove your jacket or wear a vest, then braces definitely. A belt should be simple and match your shoes. Braces can be simple but can also be fancy with a pattern like the limited edition ones made by Trafalgar.
Here then is at least a glimpse into what to consider when considering custom made clothes and the accoutrements that will properly accompany them.
3 In 1940, I would imagine many men had one or two suits and had to make ‘em last, nowadays you might get tired of a suit long before it has seen its day (generally, all other qualities being equal, the heavier the cloth the more rubbing it can endure).
4 Shirts, shoes and anything else custom that gets used frequently can fall under this same auspice.
5 There exists a relatively long list of good tie makers. However, I am holding back a few choice names of makers at the behest of colleagues because it occurs to them that after I praise a tie brand’s qualities its price will skyrocket on eBay.
6 Which is culturally why combinations from other countries often seem “wrong” to traditional American eyes.
7 The English can take that quite seriously in England, that certain striped ties belong to members of certain schools, clubs or regiments. In the USA, we have a freer approach which is in the middle between Italian any color combination goes and English color restrictiveness.
Modern suits are lighter and weight and frequently have a cashmere content. Woven neckties in soft silks that complement both the suit and the shirt are more in vogue than in recent times.
Something old, something new. A navy suit with a high cashmere content and an irregular nailshead is both a tribute to 1930s style and the realities of modern tactile expectations.
A dapper man in the modern but serious style. The red shirt with white chalk stripes and white collar and cuffs is a very modern and yet pleasing interpretation which picks up the red stripe inside the white chalk stripe of the suit. Red is increasingly becoming an accent color to trump the hoi polloi. The pocket square was purposefully pulled up for a better view of it.
Beautiful cashmere sports jacket paired with a perennial favorite, a repp stripe tie. Not associated with any regiment, it is a current manner in which to tie together all the colors of one’s outfit. A tweed overcoat is thrown over the entire ensemble to give it a country/Edwardian flavor.
Detail of the tweed overcoat’s cuff. A lighter weight tweed coat is a nice touch for casual Fridays in the city.
Again, something old and something new. A 1930s style stripe in modern colors, weight and fabrics. The effect makes for a lighter, softer version of what we find most handsome about the past.
Inset detail for the Prince of Wales plaid suit.
A Prince of Wales plaid suit in a single breasted model with peak lapels works for exactly the reason it is considered wrong, it is unexpected and yet an eye pleaser which makes it a favorite of the dapper dresser. Notice how the strong, horizontally striped shirt works well with the indefiniteness of the suit’s plaid. Note also how the luxurious repp necktie and the pocket square serve merely to blend the entire look together. Being smart in an underlined manner is one way to navigate these uncertain times.
A beautiful and lightweight suit with a red chal stripe, outlined by a white pinstripe. A darker blue shirt for the lighter shade of the suit complements the salute to spring. The repp tie once again used to blend suit and shirt together.
A closer look.
The complete outfit, brown shoes, burgundy socks. What is more important is that this photo was not posed, it was a quick sit down and displays the comfortable ease of the outfit. Comfort is really what it is all about.
Detail of the outfit’s layers. Braces, pants top detail and shirt front, all working in perfect harmony.