Thursday, 22 September 2011

Guest Post - Why style should never be costume

I can only apologise for the recent dearth of posts. A number of 'real-life' issues have recently occupied much of my time, and it's been hard to focus on the blog. I do have a number of posts coming up, though, and I appreciate all your continued visits, comments and emails!

In the meantime, one of my long-time readers has kindly offered to fill the gap with this guest post:

Why style should never be costume

Jake’s earlier post on wearing a jacket without a tie got me thinking. Thinking hard. The innumerable fashion rules that have built up over the years are about as useful as they are subjective and contradictory. The more I read and see and try on clothes (and experiment with whole styles at a time), the more I realize what a limited impact style ‘rules’ can, and ought, to have.

There are of course times when a good style guide is indispensible: your first black tie event. If you are so fortunate, even your first white tie event. Beyond that I feel they occupy a shaky patch of ground. Aside from such situations that need absolute ‘dos and don’ts,’ rules of style should provide no more (and please, no less,) than a helpful guiding hand – something to second-guess your occasional less well thought through instincts with. One might ask a friend what they thought of an outfit, but would you let them dress you? If the answer is yes, stop reading and come back in a few years. If not, then why would you let a set of rules have such an impact? Worse still, the rules have no idea who you are. Ignoring black/white tie occasions, style is used best as an extension of your own self, and when it comes to personality one size does not fit all.

Deep down, other people know this. It is why they avoid men who frequently wear excessively jazzy ties, (and use the word ‘jazzy’ to describe them) – their personalities will often prove to be similarly excessive and irritating. Fakery can be spotted a mile off as well. A man who wears a contrast collared shirt with a diamond stud tie-pin next to his pocket-watch chain and three-pointed pocket square, and who is not at least a minor royal, may be wearing everything the Ralph Lauren advert told him to, but comes across only as faintly greasy. Very few members of the male population look like Ralph Lauren models, and therefore sadly few of us have the build and facial structure to support such accoutrements. This is not to say that traditional smartness can be thrown by the roadside: clothes can be used to change your own mood and attitude along with how others perceive you, without a whiff of pretension. A general feeling of Monday morning malaise will be cut short by the ritual of putting on a suit and tie. Similarly, no matter how lazy you feel on the inside, a well fitting suit that matches the shirt, tie and shoes projects the image of a composed and competent man.

Given how varied we all are, shifts in fashion should be regarded as essentially irrelevant. Skinny fit suits were fashionable, but if you ever played Rugby in your life they probably did not look good. Double-breasted suits are seeing a resurgence now, but will look just as good on some as they did before, and as unflattering on others as they always have. ‘Mad Men style’ suiting has been popular for some time, but adjusting what you wear to account for this will neither impress your boss nor make members of the sex that interests you any more likely to be interested by you. Dressing to suit fashions really serves only to boost your confidence, a boost unnecessary to those who have a real grip on their own personal style. Chasing the endless changes to the appropriate lapel width for a suit will only result in the feeling of style slipping constantly through your fingers. If Tom Ford, for instance, feels that he looks best in a dark suit with an open necked white shirt then that’s good for him: he does. He has the charisma, looks and style at other occasions to pull it off with plenty of margin to spare. Telling him he would look better with a tie is as absurd as it would be to tell Gordon Brown he would have looked sexier and more charismatic without one.

This is of course a sprawling topic, with exceptions and examples to be found in every corner of Google images. In general though, there is only one hard and fast style rule*. A style guide might stop you from looking your worst, but it will never have you looking your very best.
*Never wear black shoes with jeans.


  1. I believe that absolute, objective standards should be applied to men's clothing, though I am well aware of the difficulty of philosophically defending that view.
    Rules are surely descriptive, rather than prescriptive; they delare what usually works, and as such make life easier. If, when trying to learn something, one constantly harps on exceptions to the rules, one is unlikely to learn anything.
    The dislike of rules today comes from the extremely individualistic atmosphere in which we live. The social individualism of the 1960s, combined with the economic individualism of the 1980s, has resulted in everyone's thinking they are "special" so, of course, the rules don't apply to them. But one's subjective feelings (I feel good, therefore I look good), whether one is Tom Ford or not, are, I believe, irrelevant; Mr Ford would still look better with a tie, and to suggest otherwise is, I believe, flying in the face of the facts. Suit with open-necked shirt is a major incongruity; the suit belongs to the formal mode while the open-necked shirt belongs to the casual mode. This combination comes from the 1990s when mixed modes were openly advocated by fashion writers. And, as for the rule "Never wear black shoes with jeans" - it ought to be replaced by "Never wear jeans".

  2. I think a rule that declares what usually works and makes life easier is perhaps more of a guideline than a rule, so to that extent you may actually agree with my guest blogger.

    Unfortunately, where you and I would disagree is that you can objectively say that someone, especially someone with as well-defined a style as Tom Ford, would look better with a tie on, and that that is a 'fact'. In a smart restaurant, perhaps he might. In a cocktail bar in Soho on a Friday night? I'm less convinced.

    The fact is that styles change - they have always done so, and the best-dressed men in any age have, almost without fail, been those who have understood the rules and then had the courage and good sense to ignore them.

  3. @Anonymous,

    I'm not sure you and I disagree all that much, though I must say I don't think absolute and objective standards ought be applied to virtually anything, let alone a topic such as clothing. Either way, I fear Tom Ford would have only this to say about our opinions on his dress:
    As for your feelings on jeans, I'm saddened. Though they have been tainted by association in recent years, they are a wonderful item of clothing, as Steve McQueen kindly demonstrates for us here:
    And, as evidenced by the Thomas Crown Affair, that was a man who knew how to rock a suit.

  4. Google blogger seems to be having all kinds of problems with posting comments at the moment. I myself am finding it pretty tricky, as are other readers. I apologise for this, all I can suggest is that I have had more success using Google Chrome (surprise surprise) but, if that fails, I am very happy to receive a comment by email and will then post it here.

    I have received the below comment from an anonymous reader (the same, I believe, who commented first on this post).

    Anonymous Comment:

    Thank you, Jake and Guest Blogger, for your thoughtful and courteous reply to my comment.
    For my part, I am saddened by the advocacy of jeans for any other purpose than the one for which they were invented. They seem to have become the "default" casual trouser, and to be considered ultra-comfortable, purely because of an unwritten social rule. What is more, the material is hard, and they are too hot in summer and not warm enough in winter.
    With respect to the idea that suit and tie would not look better than suited but tieless in all circumstances, I would wish to distinguish between asethetic standards and social appropriateness. I believe that suit with tie is always aesthetically better, though it might not be socially appropriate in the circumstances mentioned (a Soho cocktail bar). That would not stop me from wearing the tie then; I'd much rather be the only man in the company wearing a tie than the only man not wearing one, and indeed would rather be accused of being "uptight" than praised for being "laid-back", though I know that it is the latter demeanour which is so lauded these days.
    Nonetheless, I don't belive that we disagree all that much; our disagreement may be the product of an age-difference.


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