An introduction to the language of clothing for men
Too many men are bewildered by the unspoken language of clothing and fashion.
Rather than attempting to piece together the latest rules of fashion, rely on three fundamentals to shape your wardrobe as a man: the basics of fit, style, and accenting.
Anyone who's had to spend a long day at the mall with a serious shopping enthusiast already knows that fashion is a language — and probably thinks of it as a staggeringly incomprehensible one as well.
Everyone likes to think of himself as a well-spoken, articulate individual, and the idea that our clothing is speaking for us before we get a chance to open our mouths can be an uncomfortable one.
Unfortunately — or fortunately, for the sharp dressers among us — the human brain loves assumptions, particularly assumptions drawn from brief visual impulses. We save computing power in our brain by relying on past experience to teach us what a particular appearance means.
In our caveman days this meant reacting reflexively to visual cues like “bright colors are poisonous,” and now it means that we form our impressions of people based on their appearance.
However beautiful your face may be, the reality of most social situations is that your clothes are going to do most of the talking in those first few seconds of visual processing.
With the exception of the occasional beach party, we spend most of our public lives with about 90% of our bodies covered. The covering is going to make the impression. Understanding and controlling what your clothing is saying about you may be the most important conversational skill you ever master.
Clothing that Speaks Well — The Basics
The good news is that “well-dressed” is an easier target for men to hit than women, and it doesn't require hours of pouring over fashion magazines. Menswear is flexible beyond the power of a “what's hot, what's not” article to address.
Looking good is far more about finding the style that works for you than it is about following the latest trends — think of it as having something interesting to say, but with your clothing.
Happily, the staples of menswear — the suit and the dress shirt — have remained fundamentally the same for a hundred years.
Stylistic touches have come and gone, but it's likely that you could wear your grandfather's suit (cut to your measure, of course) without anyone finding it too out-of-place.
You won't need to immediately jump into details of lapels, vents, yokes, and other accents to build a good look — instead, focus on the overall impression that you want to give.
Find a solid, recognizable image that you want to present, and then work with your wardrobe — or ideally, with your tailor — to come up with the details that achieve it.
Basics of Fit
Nothing is more important in constructing your appearance than fit. Well-fitted garments follow the lines of the body without hugging them tightly, while poorly-fitted ones sag or pinch; the best-fitted garments will emphasize a man's best lines and disguise the rest.
There is no substitute here for custom work — unless you happen to share the exact measurements of the model used to program the machines, a mass-produced article is going to fit poorly in at least one way, and likely more than one.
Seek out a tailor you feel comfortable with, and ask them to help create a cut that suits your body.
In general, adjustments and details are designed to heighten the viewer's awareness of the wearer's physical strengths. Thin men can benefit from wider cuffs, broad men from high waists;
Tall men treasure low-notched lapels while short men will want their jackets cut short in the back to lengthen the presence of their legs.
These are the details that tailors earn their living with — find one who will talk frankly about options for your body type, rather than simply recommending a similar pattern to every customer and adjusting only the measurements.
True custom tailoring (also called “bespoke”) will include consideration of fabrics, patterns, pocket styles, venting, and more — all of these should be discussed in the context of your body and your look.
Basics of Style
Style is about being who you want to be. If you're a world-beating corporate player on the fast track upward, there's a look for you.
An off-beat performance artist keeping up contacts in the coffee shop scene has another look. And in between, there's a world of formal and informal, classic and trendy; conservative and daring.
Fortunately, the rules are simple and flexible — if you know that black, gray, and navy blue make more formal suits than other colors, that solid colors are more formal than patterns, and that ties are more formal than open collars, you've already conquered the basic sliding scales.
Move around within the boundaries of those basics to meet your needs, mixing and matching as desired, and you'll be well on your way to crafting a style that speaks for you.
A solid black jacket might be very dressy with matching trousers and classic Oxford shoes, but throw it over a bright shirt and a pair of jeans and you're set for a night of casual dancing.
Dress a brown suit up with a conservative tie and a complementing pocket square over a crisp white shirt and it can stand toe to toe with all but the most traditional business attire.
Keep an eye to the realities of your environment, so that you don't wind up wearing heavy worsted wool in the summer heat, but otherwise rely on good fit and the most basic guidelines in crafting your own look — small changes in any aspect will net big results, so long as the cut is crisp and the fundamentals observed.
Basics of Accenting
The devil is in the details, and little accents will go a long way in setting your style apart from others. Beyond the suit and shirt, men can consider hats, shoes, haircuts, jewelry, and even non-visual cues like colognes to craft their image.
These are highly personalized stylistic elements (sometimes literally, in the case of a monogrammed watch or handkerchief); don't be afraid to make them your own.
Some people still say that Abraham Lincoln won his first election because he took a young girl's advice and grew out his beard, and who are we to argue? It certainly looks good on him in the photographs.
Once again, a few basic guidelines are more valuable than a textbook of dos and don'ts — black is still more formal than browns or other colors, socks should blend smoothly into the trousers, and jewelry should be simple and unobtrusive (and limited to a marriage band and wristwatch in the most formal settings).
Anything done with your hair or beard should obviously be neat and even. Beyond those basics, the style is once again up to you — and ideally, to a thoughtful discussion with a tailor who knows your appearance and your style goals.
Menswear is not about following rules or trends. It revolves around a shared understanding of the more and less formal options for men, and variation within those broad guidelines.
With the help of a skilled tailor, creating a wardrobe that stands apart is neither an expensive nor a time-consuming process — individual pieces will be higher-priced than their off-the-shelf counterparts, and the initial fitting will be much more intense than a visit to the changing rooms, but the result will be a few pieces of perfectly-suited clothing that can be mixed and matched to create outfits for every occasion.
Each combination will say something that was thought out carefully ahead of time, and people will remember how clearly your clothing spoke to them long after they forget that awful opening joke your dad told you to memorize for introductions and speeches.