The Tree of Style: Genres of Clothes for Men
Legend has it that in the temple of the style gods there resides a sartorial tree. And although amongst the mortal fashion scholars there is considerable conjecture as to how many branches constitute it, they concur that the trunk itself is sound. The trunk of all style for men is the tailored suit, the long sleeved and collared business shirt, the necktie, the lace up cap toe or wingtip shoe in either black or brown calf leather, the dark solid sock and the dark leather belt or silk braces. Men have worn this for long enough that even the most dissident amongst us defer to the power (authoritas), dignity (dignitas), and the verisimilitudinous glow (veritas) it bestows on the wearer. At one time in the West, this tasteful dress code was carried by oral tradition emitting from one source. That is to say, that which we consider the democratic style in men’s clothes was actually dictated by a rather small circle.1
Today, wearing clothes has become more truly democratic and one viewpoint no longer prevails. Now, other life styles or sub cultures have grown self-sufficient enough to branch out from the trunk of style. Some of the branches are small and represent but slight deviations, modifications or improvements from the main trunk. Other branches are almost large enough to constitute a trunk in their own right. Ultimately, whichever branch of the style tree you find yourself perched on, there still remains a divide between the tasteful and the tasteless way to execute the look. In order to understand the differences between tasteful and sans gout choices one must consult the oracle of the style gods. Modesty naturally precludes one from offering any candidates. However for the sake of bringing order to the articles which appear here, terms for four major branches of style will be employed and one coverall category of what is never stylish. They are: Fogey, Old-Boy, Old-Boy-Hip, Hip and Slick.
As touched on earlier, today no one viewpoint for men’s style reigns supreme in the national conscience. Even when it comes to tailored clothing, the question arises if indeed there could ever again be a consensus about what the proper look should be. I recently commented to a friend that there seem to be so many distinct and different subgroups and that unlike the first 90 years of the twentieth century when everyone more or less marched to the drum of a single dress ethos; there could never again be a universal style. He replied that there were just as many subcultures then as today, it is that there was common agreement about one dominant look that signified propriety. This no longer exists.
Perhaps the current lack of common agreement about men’s style rests on the absence of one pattern of behavior for the ideal man. At one time everyone wanted to be a “gentleman”. The term itself struggled to define itself within the thousands of stories both fiction and not which pursued plots of “who is a gentleman” and “how to become one” while “outing the imposters” with it ultimately being revealed that the character in doubt “was indeed one” all along.
To be perceived as quality was a preoccupation of all classes and the class that seemed to produce the most well mannered men set the tone. That is because quality in people was associated with restraint as opposed to those who could not resist succumbing to base urges. It is interesting to note that while in much of Europe you were born a gentleman irrespective of your personal character’s flaws or vices, it began to morph into a set of universal behaviors which transcended class. Eventually becoming in the USA something bestowed by the people one interacted with, rather like being knighted hundreds of times a day by people who approved of your behavior.
In any case, they (quality that is) dressed in a certain way and other people copied them. Copied I say because they could never truly imitate the originals. Didn’t Holmes figure out that one man was indeed not a gentleman because his laces were tied too carefully? It betrayed middle class fears of being discovered and it illustrates the mania with which people wanted to be accepted as one of the well mannered set.
I would imagine it was the seminal reason that a coat like that made at the venerable tailoring firm of Anderson & Sheppard (Founded in 1873) could reign supreme in the first sixty or seventy years of the twentieth century, after all only “gentlemen” (and they all shopped at the same handful of shops) could be both idle enough and secure enough to slouch in what some today would consider a shapeless suit and not be told to correct it. Rather like a time when being upper class was considered so unassailable that people sometimes affected purposeful lisps to show that they were powerful enough for no one to ever mention the impediment, let alone attempt to suggest its correction. Thus like the lisp the Anderson & Sheppard jacket was a stance that few could afford both in terms of actual cost and social risk to emulate and so the classes remained a-rift.
Even Fred Astaire, one of the style gods himself, who probably dressed better than any aristocrat of his day, was denied entry to a shop that made formal waistcoats on the strength that he was “Show business people”. Oprah Winfrey’s current ability to make one of France’s most refined shops cower at her displeasure might have made Astaire smirk…and then roll his eyes.
It was related to me by a social scientist that in the 80s when Bloomingdale’s tried to capture some of the proletariat cachet of the English Punks it turned out to be something of a failure. Anything that was copied off of the Punks and totted in Bloomie’s as authentic Punk style would immediately be rejected by the Punk subculture as having lost its caste. Similarly, in England during the interwar period when common people copied a perceived “gentlemen’s” style (The privileged set were the Rock Stars of that era) it was dropped by the very same inner circle it was gleaned from in order that those who were truly part of the group could still identify each other.
Well that was England where class differences are a daily concern. Here in the States, we might have developed a similar class albatross but the country is too big and too young to have gelled to the point that England allowed itself to. Also people no longer desire to be gentlemen; they want to be famous and to be cool. It is no longer hip to be square. But perhaps we can squarely peg what it means to be hip. Being famous is about the present, the future, with the attendant fascination of being able to identify the next exciting wave of fame and fortune. Being cool is somewhat about being considered objectively social and easy going and appearing to make no judgments about the limitations of others. Somehow in the collective societal mind’s eye, traditional genteel garb does not convey that message. Just try getting on American Idol in a three button sack suit, button down and bowtie and see how the crowd reacts.
It amazes me that clothing for being something that can make and/or break the male career oft receives little attention.2 Perhaps the tradition of not paying attention to clothes revolves around culture’s demonizing of the term “dandy”. Templar-like many dandies were persecuted and because their tradition was mostly oral, similar to that of the Druids, much of its lore has been lost. That is the subject of another essay.
In the meantime, you need to separate the social judgment of clothes from the enjoyment of clothes. They are distinctly different and conflicting philosophies. When you judge clothes and the people wearing them you are falling victim to the very class associations you may think yourself free from. If you think everyone else is type cast due to a selection, you reveal more about your own inflexibility and feelings of predestination. One needs to evaluate each article of clothing for its intrinsic merits before it can be determined what improper associations it may also carry. By contrast, people who enjoy clothing may want to be observed but ultimately the clothes are reward enough in themselves and they are rarely looking for the acceptance of others.
To make matters more complex there are people who believe that both solid colors and consistency in the wardrobe is a sign of solidity in the man.3 It may or may not be true but this is also a social judgment it may be wiser to be free of. It has led many a man to attend a Hip social event in his prep school best only to find his outward display of his inner virtue is rewarded by sipping his drink alone in a corner for most of the evening. Instead, you may want to use clothes like a film maker’s costume wardrobe to elicit the response you need from your audience. All clothes transmit messages to the viewer; however the data can be received in different ways. Your blue and white striped tie which blends your white shirt and blue suit together may be my infringed college symbol. As with music, I think Alexander Pope would agree that what grates like demons for some resound as if from angels for others.
Today it’s all about target audience and dressing right. Everyone reacts to clothes, everyone loves clothes. Those who do not love it simply do not know they love them. In our ultra commercial and media driven culture, even subversive countercultures are concerned with looking their part stylishly!
If you run an IT company (or would like to look like you do), you might need to dress differently than if you run a Brick and Mortar or Main Street company. Ask yourself, what are you selling? Considered once to be a vulgar thought, there is no room for that outdated philosophy gleaned in books or from our grandparents. Because in these times we have limited time and unlimited information to sort through, your clothes had better help you make your intended statement. Therefore, do ask yourself what message you are trying to convey and what image you are trying to maintain or conjure. Do you need to tell people you are rock solid, likeable, cutting edge? These factors are considerations. Are you an entertainer or do you just minister to the Stars? If you are a sports agent, do you wear what your clients wear or something that will register trust and empathy within your client base?
But how does all this relate to the sartorial tree of style? How do we delineate genres so that we can proceed to make choices which would please the style Gods? More specifically, to make certain that the reader understands certain concepts of style conveyed in essays found here in a manner which facilitates their involvement, it was felt a reference key would be useful. The categories are neither universal nor empirical. Likewise there is no desire to promote discussions about whether the categories are too few or too many. Rather, it is intended merely as to explain the approach to style and it is hoped it may help the reader to apply what appears here.
Although there are many, many branches on the sartorial tree, there are only a few that will be referred to consistently. The branches concerned with are actually all closely clustered to one another and are closely associated with the trunk. These branches are: Fogey, Old-Boy, Old-Boy-Hip, and Hip. To do any of them well is to have style, and to do any of them improperly would label one as “Slick.”
Fogey (The big F) style is the purist’s style. It reflects a love of tradition so strong that it employs a desire to use clothes materials in their traditional weights, finishes, colors and color combinations that have stood the test of time. Some say the look is dated and others appreciate its Burkean clarity as seen by the ancients. On the young it can look anachronistic and has given rise to the term Young-Fogey. Harris Tweed sports coats (and suits); serge blazers with metal buttons, heavy flannel suits, shirts and ties that hearken back to the 1920s-60s are the primary stomping ground for the Fogey. In America and Japan the post WW2 natural shouldered look is revered and called “Trad”. If you go back to the 1930s in the USA, the look is more international, (sometimes referred to as the International look or the Hollywood look). In England it may be referred to as the Bond Street or City of London look.
For everyone who likes the look of the old movies, Fogey is for them. Generally a heavier tailoring effort, though not always. However, sack suits aside, shoulder pads are heavier, interfacings and linings are heavier and the cloths used are heavier. Shirt fabrics aren’t necessarily heavy but the finer shirt fabrics do not align properly with the jacket weights and the lapels of the jacket may crush the more delicate shirt collar.
Designed at a time when we were less substantial, less affluent and less able to heat our surroundings 24/7, the Fogey look is very comfortable against continued exposure to the elements, as long as it is 60 degrees and below. The concept of summer weights was relegated to mohair, fresco cloth, cotton poplin or seersucker and Irish Linen. Many of these were in much heavier weights than used today (They are all still used today in lighter weights and more exciting colors, and blends) but they were undeniably better than the 16oz worsted or serge and for a time when comfort was understood on a lower level and propriety took precedence over personal relief. Back then, these fabrics must have seemed heaven sent.
A war raged between belt use and braces use for pants with the result that either is considered “Old School” as long as they are in the right pattern, colors and or materials. From the chocolate brown crocodile leather belt with simple sterling buckle (either attached or detachable) to the colorful canvas ring belt to the various beautiful silk or rayon braces.
Because of the weight of many of the fabrics, braces seem to work better because they distribute the weight across the shoulders and literally suspend the pants. By contrast, belts unless fitted perfectly (which is why many use a detachable, adjustable buckle) will be dragged down by the weight of heavier pants.
This is a look that can support elegant lapel pins, stick pins, ascots, walking sticks, hats of all types, beautiful metal jacket buttons and pocket crest badges, smoking jackets in silk velvet, dressing gowns in cashmere or silk, unlined gloves in a variety of leathers, hand blocked socks. Fogey may be outdated but make no mistake; the articles are from a plusher, gilded age of personal indulgence. Unfortunately, the hand made master craftsman cannot always keep pace with the exigencies of modern day-to-day.
The Fogey is currently being marginalized in that many of his sources for piece goods recede. True there still exists enough of a market to continue offering the cloths and accoutrements necessary to make the Fogey what he is, reactionary fabulous. Additionally, shops in Europe still carry and make a lot of Fogey items which although often times from cultures not originally considered a part of the Fogey look are now, due to the exigencies of generally dwindling resources, viewed as comfortable old friends.
Unfortunately for the Fogey, each year sees one of his erstwhile sartorial companion items drop suddenly dead or brought back to life by a demographic which shocks the Fogey out of his boulevardier-like complacency.
Fogey is a dry (Both figuratively and literally from the standpoint of material finishes), mature, all-male look from a time when showcasing secondary sexual characteristics were not a concern of men and they received little influence from any but a small circle of families who all saw things basically the same way. Sources for Fogey include kings and their aristocrats in England, captains of industry and their school/professorial circles in the United States. While having an element of Fogey in or a few outfits of the Fogey style can signify your sense of pride in tradition, immersing yourself in it too deeply may make someone think you are an anachronism. Many who wear this look possess a strong sense of nostalgia and loss…of the colonies.
Old-Boy and Fogey-Hip:
Old-Boy (OB) style is a style that absolutely takes its cues from the Fogey style but does so with up to date fabrics, colors, textures and color combinations. The major differences from Fogey are that there are fewer anachronisms in terms of clothing choices; the “Grand Old World” look is left at home. However, jacket and pants materials are still relatively dry and follow the same mature approach as Fogey without slavishly employing original source materials used by the Fogey. An Old-Boy may wear a tweed suit, but it will be in a 14 oz not an 18 oz. An Old-Boy will look for the dry and traditional but with some levity in the weight and does not mind if the fabrics are not what was actually worn in the past. Not a high gadget look, you will often see adherents of it unable to “log on.”
Old-Boy is in some ways just a diluted version of Fogey. An Old-Boy is a man who supports tradition but is not averse to progress. Old-Boy style is appropriate everywhere but although it is updated enough, it still defers to maturity over youth and propriety over the singles party ethic. The colors and patterns can be quite Bold as long as they are conservative.
In general color combination lean towards the traditional (often influenced by both the hunt and the military) rather than the beautiful. The idea is what is traditional IS beautiful. However the Old-Boy sees nothing wrong with buying a necktie made to modern rather than traditional specifications or in a width that is more up to date.
Jackets are lighter than Fogey but heavier than the next variant and details like ticket pockets and roped shoulders are seen as elegant details from the Casablancan past. They prefer pants with functionality over sexuality and have only the most unnoticeable details, except if they suggest a custom touch.
If pure cashmeres, or cashmeres/silk and wool/ silk are chosen they are chosen in colors and patterns that suggest no excitement at all or were considered bold a long time past. The Old-Boy does not like gimmick fabrics and leaves the one percent cashmeres to the purview of others.
At most, the old boy will spice up his day suit with an Hermes or a Vineyards Vines tie for some jaunty color with most of the other furnishings remaining predictable (if not necessarily devoid of color or pattern).
Things can get more expensive in the wardrobe of the Old-Boy too. Not that the Fogey doesn’t have his odd expensive item but the Old-Boy spends a lot more and on items the Fogey would never dream of spending money on. Blazer buttons in 18k gold on a worsted navy cashmere jacket and handmade crocodile penny loafers are items the Fogey might pass out over when considering the immoderation of it all.
Interestingly, although it was no doubt Hip when it was first introduced, I would group the Carnaby Street color riot along with the Turnbull and Asser look in the Old-Boy category. As long as you are not using superfine shirt materials and you are wearing heavy woven ties that Carnaby/Turnbull look which was once so Hip, is now decidedly Old-Boy.
I mention this to illustrate that being Old-Boy has nothing to do with drab tonality, it is rather details and fabric weights and finishes and an absence of the “designer” ethic. Tongue-in-Cheek references and playfulness in clothes patterns and colors are plenty in Old-Boy style as the Firm of Chipp once and Chipp2 still attests to. Again, combinations can be quite bold as long as they are traditional or play on the traditional.
Although it is a bit of a split hair, Fogey-Hip is a sub-variant accomplished by wearing the more daring but still practically extinct versions of Fogey. A stroller with its black jacket and striped pants would be Fogey-Hip. A bold 16oz tweed suit with a wool challis vest with repeated hunting/country images on it, heavy gauge but colorful argyle socks and country grained boots with an Austrian loden shooting coat is definitely Fogey-Hip.
Old-Boy-Hip (OBH) is similar to Old-Boy except that it uses only the most up to date or latest fabrics that demonstrate the last 30 years of influences in style (in the USA at least) from women, the Italians, Hollywood/Sports and Entertainment, Fashionable Mobsters and the new luxe culture of portable wealth and modernity. Many items that are considered too old fashioned are discarded for new interpretations. A blazer may have gold buttons but they might be white gold and the jacket itself is made from super 120s hopsack with 5 percent cashmere.
You might wear a striped blazer jacket with an ascot but the awning stripes will be in updated color combinations and be made of spun worsted cashmere and the Ascot will be from Hermes. Old-Boy-Hip takes nearly all its cues from Old-Boy but upgrades its panache and luxuriousness. It also displays a certain minimalist expression. Lighter cloths, less decoration on shoes, more suede, more refined, softer, color blend is of particular concern and things are more matched than in Old-Boy where color combinations often eschew the pleasant for the traditional. With OBH, you can be somber or have a color riot, as long as it all matches nicely or is coordinated beautifully without slavish regard to tradition.
Fogey items are copied in the most refined manner imaginable. An 18oz Edwardian tweed suit is re-rendered in a super 110s 8oz smoothly worsted fabric where the texture of tweed is emulated through use of shading and design. We remember the traditional in the conscience but shed the textures and weights for the realities of 21st century living. It is in this category that new cloths will be tried out in traditional colors and patterns. A super 180s worsted cloth is acceptable as long as it is in a charcoal solid or has white pinstripes.
In some ways the Milanese were the originators of this OBH look. They beat the segmented associations out of clothes and freely mixed color and usefulness and purpose to their liking. Thus regimental ties ceased to be a social identifier and instead became a stylish way to blend the colors of your outfit together. In OBH, we know that there are some underlying traditions and principles of style at work but we don’t feel the need to slavishly follow them. It should be mentioned that the Neapolitans have created a niche that cleverly blends elements of Fogey (Think Marinella tie patterns) into the OBH.
Paul Stuart is perhaps the best example of at least the American natural shouldered version of Old-Boy-Hip. Like the furnishings Paul Staurt offers, cutting edge reinterpretations of traditional accoutrements and accessories are often seen with the OBH style. This is the look I think most men should shoot for.
Hip encompasses the modern approach, clothes for the jet age. Hip is an ephemeral idea to grasp and to explain. Hip is of the moment but it is also timeless. With regard to clothes, Hip are those items which are both conformist and pass muster with the establishment but are still cool enough and appeal to the young enough to be not only acceptable but desirable. In other words, Hip shows the young that they can look formal their way without selling out and still look decent and promising enough to their elders. Not that Hip dressing is reserved only for the young, it is more proper to say that it is for those both young and current of heart.
Hip borrows the tailoring of Old-Boy but it uses fabrics that are slightly outside the ambit of most traditional businesses. Fabrics will be made in the most expensive and refined way imaginable but will have just that certain something that makes them wrong for a corporate law firm during the day. Fabrics may have silk in them or a self herringbone which is too large for a banker’s suit. Stripes are generally avoided as being too Old-Boy unless the stripes are decidedly non traditional. Much use is made of the most cutting edge fabrics available like super 240s wool, silk and wool and Bamboo. Often Hip cloths have smoother finishes and are softer than those in the past. For example, cavalry twill will be light weight and buttery soft, as if the Fogey had been beaten out of it.
Many items that are Hip can be used in all but the stuffiest business circles and will remain undetected except by clothing fanatics (who will be relieved that you are well dressed at all) and a handful of people who believe things should all look like they did in 1950. Fortunately the eye witnesses to that look rarely inhabit the contemporary office unless they’ve been taxidermied and placed in a corner. And though their glazed eyes may seem to sneer disapprovingly at you in the elevator bank like those of the heads ranged on Temple Bar, they can do no further harm.
Patterns and colors not always acceptable in the more conservative business environments are mainstays here. Hip fabrics are very relaxed, luxurious and soft – very soft. They often have a touch of sheen to them. The purity of midnight black dye in a wool suit fabric is of paramount importance. Fabrics no longer frequently used for the traditional western day suit such as barathea and faille are common for the Hip wardrobe. Hip employs as staples the fabrics that are used only for specialty outfits in the Old-Boy wardrobe. A worsted cashmere suit is not a luxury for Hip dressing, it is a basic.
Neckties are never traditional looking but the silks and finishes sometimes can be. However neckties are more often chosen judiciously from designer offerings and in colors or shades of colors that no Old-Boy would wear. Although Hip necktie choices can be from the same range as those Old-Boy’s choose from, they should not reference the traditional. When colors are described as “off”, a navy blue tie may have a hint of grey in it, and the weave may be nontraditional. Fabrics are more relaxed and synthetics can appear in small amounts to create certain sheens on the tie’s surface, though 100% silk is still preferred. A satin finish tie will not resemble the self-lined and relatively stiff type made by RL to an updated 1940 ethic, instead it will have a softer, fleshier finish and the colors will be “off” to the eye of a Fogey.
In many ways Hip is the second coming of the jazz age for fashion; a time when people tried to blend in with the city landscape. A time when people from different walks of life formed a sartorial lingua franca which allowed them, when congregating together, to focus on jazz and being cool or tolerant with one another. Hip takes its cues from the concrete and the chrome and the black glass and blue lights of the excitement of city life. It is an assertion that man has kept pace with machine, with technology with the times. That the old tribal jealousies are eroding in favor of a universal culture of men.
Ironically, because the original Victorians would doubtless be scandalized by the parallel, Hip also takes its hues from the great masculine renunciation of the industrial revolution. In this renunciation men forswore the colorful and fussy clothes for plain, dark clothes that made them seem more substantial, more serious and more defensively formidable. These clothes gave them anonymity in a crowded and oft voyeuristic city setting. If you add mystery and sex appeal to the list, you have the second renunciation’s coming. Black, midnight blue, steel grey and a silver grey are along with black/brown the basic language of the Hip suit. When you dress in a certain element of Hip style you are simply aping the materials and colors and lights, in a word the “zeitgeist” of your time and your cities.
Hip has several sub-branches. There is the office Hip for more cutting edge industries and there is the evening Hip of the urbane and talented. In some ways being Hip hides your background and levels the playing field so that you can mingle undetected. It is perhaps the first merit based self-imposed sumptuary law of city dwellers. Colors are more limited in some ways with darker colors predominating. But there are also occasions when the colors are quite bright.
This style carries similar minimalism of Old-Boy-Hip but can be even more streamlined. Pocket flaps on jackets are often omitted; shoes have no brogueing at all, there are more boot styles evident, and black suede is acceptable. White metals for jewelry are preferred. Cutting edge electronics are part and parcel of this look. Hip is useful for cutting edge and artistic industries that want to give off the idea of modernity. I find this look primarily useful for the nightlife.
Basic Hip as opposed to the more advanced version relies on one cutting edge item to make it work. Rather like the idea that you should only wear one individualistic item for traditional black tie dressing; with Hip you should have one item that is current. Perhaps a black sweater from Versace with the medusa logo woven onto the chest or a Necktie from Dolce & Gabbana with the firm’s name woven repeatedly onto it in self silk. It should be mentioned that color combinations can be quite non traditional, a brown suit, a black shirt and a copper colored tie is very Hip for a downtown evening.
In many ways dressing Hip is not so very different than Old-Boy-Hip or even Old-Boy. It is more often a matter of fabric and color choice. The cut of the jacket can remain the same; the pants will usually be belted but will be a traditional cut. In this manner, one could conceivably use the same tailor to make clothes for many different looks.
Additionally, Hip can re-employ a Fogey staple in an updated fashion. The satin finish necktie already mentioned and the white on white shirts, popular as a dinner shirt in the 50s and 60s is now Hip (even for the office) but in lighter weights and finer finishes. It seems that the previous generation damning that weave of shirt as in bad taste was enough to make it a popular choice with the newest jacket wearing generation.
In other ways Hip is the hardest style to pull off. It hasn’t nearly the amount of choices as either Old-Boy or Old-Boy Hip and yet it is ironically the hardest to accomplish and avoid looking Slick. This is why most choose the noir sub branch of Hip.4
Even more ironically, although being Hip in some ways thumbs its nose at the Old-Boy style canon to get it right it helps immensely to understand the elements of the Old-Boy look. This is because dressing Hip is about picking the right cut, texture and finish with regard to clothes and only someone with well grounded taste in what is Old-Boy tasteful can determine what is still tasteful but decidedly not Old-Boy. Did I say it would be easy?
The best example for the contrast between Hip and Fogey I can come up with as an image is a cinematic one. In the Movie Time after Time (1979) the Character H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper to present day San Francisco from Victorian London. Both men are from Upper English backgrounds but what is interesting is that H.G. Wells remains unable to change from his Fogey tweed suit and pocket watch and wanders around in a daze looking so out of place while the Jack the Ripper character is wearing a modern sports jacket with a turtleneck sweater and enjoying the town. It is curious that the film director made this conscious distinction. Maybe the parallel is that dressing Hip brings out the aggressively passionate socialite in all of us.
Hip in the way I use it entails a certain amount of timelessness to it. If you could look at a photo from the late sixties or early seventies, you might see Steve McQueen in a black turtleneck sweater and a black suit. In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) notice that the suits on the men are presented in a way that makes them appear more modern. And being modern was wearing a mock turtleneck in a dark color with your suit. In some ways the modern look is always with us but constantly refreshed with finer or different fabrics. In another way the “future shock” keeps getting reinforced on us and it becomes the reality.
There are many more genres but they are outside the ambit of recurring interest. They are either too fashionable, too flamboyant, too complex, too mired in sub culture (Though I will do articles on sub cultures from time to time and the way they affect mainstream American male attire) or too uncomfortable. The focus will remain in the realm of the tailored clothes for mainstream men who make the rounds in circles of talent, money and education whether it is at work or play. You will find that few categorically exist solely in one genre but that blending usually takes place between abutting styles, thus OBH/Hip but rarely Fogey/Hip.
Clashes arise when genres are mixed from non abutting genres. A hip pair of cufflinks might go with an OBH suit but with a Fogey suit it will look “wrong”. This is why it is important to understand some structure to genres before mixing them. A silk faille double breasted suit is beautiful because it is refined and dry and smooth. In midnight blue, it is very Hip. However add to it the classic J. Press repeating whale tie (Fogey) and you get a disaster. Mixing the wrong genres together goes hand in hand with making the wrong individual item choices on their own. This is referred to as “Slick.”
Being slick is a term unto itself. It is when a person of any class from a culture selects and item that has not got a certain level of objective beauty, refinement or talent innate to its design. We sometimes refer to the choice as garmento or cheesy. How does one develop this eye for selecting items that achieve the proper level of objective beauty, refinement or talent? That is a very good question, and language may prove inadequate for the answer.
It can be said that those who cannot make up their own minds or have no talent for tasteful objectivity rely solely on designers. Sometimes this achieves the person’s aim because good designers capture what our culture finds desirable and turns it into clothing. And not everyone gets dressed for the pleasure of wearing clothes; many get dressed to influence how others accept them. So if you don’t know how to make the right choice, I suppose at least let a designer announce that he/she made the right choice for you. This reaches the Nth degree when the subject announces he is wearing a “Fellini” or a “Bellini” or dispenses with an utterance altogether and simply wears his label on his sleeve.
Here is another way to understand Slick dressing. Within any style, whether you approve of it or not, there is both a tasteful way to execute and a lowbrow one. Therefore, whenever someone does something lowbrow as opposed to highbrow, it makes the observer’s nose wriggle up from suffering observation of the failed attempt. Again, this reaction would be measured irrespective of the judgment of the overall look and with the understanding that the only measured reactions are against those observed actions of having executed a particular look either properly or improperly.
A Navy super 120s suit with violet pin stripes cut in a Paul Stuart style of silhouette is Old-Boy Hip, a Dacron polyester navy suit with a violet stripe at a fashion warehouse is decidedly Slick. A Zegna black crepe suit in the Anglo-Milanese cut with a hand made and finished cashmere t-shirt and Prada boots or E. Green black monks with a double sole can be quite Hip, A black suit made in a heavily padded shouldered style with a self stripe and a black Hanes cotton tee with pointy toed ostrich shoes is Slick.
Items that transcend genres:
I touched on the idea earlier that an article of clothing or jewelry can usually operate within its adjoining genre. Thus OBH and OB can share many articles in common. Dangers arise when you skip a genre and try to place something that is Fogey in the Hip genre. This is because what we think of as Fogey revolves around the homage to the countryside and the outdoors as signs of the good life. That is why Fogey often embraces heavier, drier, rougher, more earth toned shades. For the Fogey, leisure was the country estate.
Today it is the opposite, we tend to think of the city and the indoors as leisure. The good life revolves around city excitements, car or air travel. It requires cooler, Lighter, smoother, finer fabrics in colors reminiscent of urban camouflage with accents of strategic metals.
There are articles which transcend this guideline dividing styles. Many items can co-exist usefully in three or even all 4 of the genres. Some items, curiously enough, do indeed skip genres but we will deal with those few exceptions as they come up.
In black by Edward Green it is universally correct. I always think Sherlock Holmes and the Victorians; tres Fogey, n’est ce pas? However it works in each category in its classic form. To be sure you can tweak it a bit. In chocolate suede it is Old-Boy-Hip and in Black suede it is very hip.
Black Alligator Belt and Sterling engine turned belt buckle:
Is this a Natural shouldered American classic? You bet but it is also a favorite Hip classic. Its simplicity and unquestionable refinement is both Old-Boy in its quiet patrician approach and perfect for the Hip, modern dresser.
Grey suit with black stripe:
This is a very old fashioned Fogey suit in 15oz grey flannel and a heavy black chalk stripe done in a Double breasted 6 on 2 button stance jacket. In two button, notch lapel 10oz 120s and cashmere it is Old-Boy-Hip. However, do it in a 120s and mohair with a black beaded pinstripe in a one button peak lapel and it’s Hip. It would seem the adage applies that what is old is sometimes new.
Button Down Shirts:
Although the fabric choices and colors and patterns vary tremendously between genres all agree that the shirts ruthless design efficiency makes it at a minimum a tie-less staple. In beefy oxford cloth it is Fogey, in pinpoint it is Old-Boy, in 160s broadcloth it is Old-Boy-Hip, in Medium blue satin twill it is Hip and in navy twill it is Very-Hip. We have not dealt with Very-Hip but as an illustration in a Versace silk print the modest button down becomes Uber-Hip.
Here then is the framework of what I hope will be useful for people trying to understand the nuances of different dressing styles. Rather than a tree you can alternatively think of these styles as a continuum, rather like a conveyor belt. At one time Fogey was Hip, and what is now classically Hip today may become Fogey in the future. However the movement from Hip back to Fogey is a slow one. What is Hip may become Old-Boy-Hip for a time before moving along the digestive track of style.
Although there appear to be interesting facts that make one wonder exactly what is new and what is old. Some things have been around for a while but have not been employed by men wearing tailored clothes. Other materials or patterns on materials were Fogey at one time and have been rediscovered as Hip. Yet other items have been used all along. For example, in the book Hatless Jack, there is a mention of a GQ article from March 1961 citing that JFK wore lighter suits in 10-11 oz for fall/winter and 6-8 oz for spring/summer! I have seen few six ounce cloths today and had no idea that 8 oz cloths were regularly produced in 1961.5
Going forward, discussions will revolve around elemental style details relating to Fogey, Old-Boy, Old-Boy-Hip, Hip and Slick. I will flesh out the genres in a common law manner but these control terms will recur to illustrate my takes on different branches of tailored style from the sartorial tree.
1 The suit remains, in spite of “upper class” tastes driving its details, democratic because of its basic simplicity but also because the divide between have and have not is not nearly as pronounced as it once was. Therefore, subtleties continue to separate taste from tastelessness, giving at least the illusion that differentiating the tasteful from the outré has nothing at all to do with money. Because the suit acts like a key to the temple of respect and propriety and seems easily attainable by all, it actually poses little friction between the upper and middle classes. Perhaps this important element serves to keep the suit stable as a democratic symbol. For the moment, I think the suit is safe. DeTocqueville was correct in his observation that whilst Americans do not like to be made to feel inferior they still relish feeling superior, and mastering the suit and tie remains a means to accomplish this, often with aplomb. Also, no other item of clothing possesses the built in message of substance and authority. The Greek philosophy behind the purpose of language may be at work here. The Greeks believed that language should cram as much meaning into as few words as possible (as you can see, I am decidedly not Greek). It seems the suit sends such a world of implicit messages that a replacement cannot be dreamt of in our philosophies.
2 If the USA has say 300 millions split evenly between male and female, I would hazard that 150 million women know that clothes are important and discuss them and plan them all the time and that maybe 2 million American males do the same. Something ain’t right. It’s not that the other 148 million do not care about clothes, it’s just that the choices they aspire to are benighted.
3 Mastery of the use of solid colors in the wardrobe is laudable; using them solely to play it safe is the coward’s camouflage.
4 Noir dressing in many ways is the most minimalist twig on the Hip branch. However, it is a little too safe and predictable, which is partially why everyone does it. Although it fits in with the Greek ideal of “Everything in proportion and nothing in excess” it actually doesn’t look as good on as many people as its simplicity might suggest. Nevertheless, it is the direction we are heading in.
5 Steinberg, Neil. Hatless Jack: the president, the fedora, and the history of an American style, New York: Penguin Group, 2004, p. 182. This is a good book in its own right for describing how articles of clothing go in and out of style.