(Illustration from “Men in Style” by Rizzoli. The book is out-of-print, but I happen to have a copy which I bought at Britches of Georgetowne in the 1990s.)
There is a certain men’s wear retailer in Central Virginia, which has as its slogan “dress better than you have to.” To my mind, that’s a noble sentiment and a dying art. Or perhaps it’s not a dying art so much as a dying preference to be well turned out. Somewhere along the way, we as a culture, seem to have lost our taste for refinement.
Or am I wrong?
Glance out your window. What do you see? All too often, I feel that we choose to present ourselves in a very unflattering light. Was this the natural extension of the free-spirited 1960s? And if so, to what end? What are we trying to express when we appear in public dressed in sweatsuits, cargo shorts, flip-flops, tanktops, or painted on jeans — the provenance of disaffected teenagers? Americans tend to worship youth. But when we try to imitate youth when we are fortunate enough to have gathered a few more years under our belts, we become a grotesque parody of youthfulness. People trying too hard to be hip, and just not getting it. Look what happened when Pat Boone decided to revamp his image to be more in synch with the modern age. Not that I’m a fan, but c’mon….
It wasn’t that long ago that the ideal image of a modern man featured a more mature gent. The pages of American Apparel and Esquire were filled with illustrations by L. Fellowes and others (like our man above) depicting a guy in what was considered his prime. These fashions weren’t all trickle down. Some were popular on college campuses and worked their way into mainstream wardrobes — penny loafers, for example.
The quest, like today, was tending toward comfort. The Duke of Windsor was famous for flouting convention — wearing belts instead of braces (suspenders) and soft collars instead of the high, starched Edwardian rig of his father. Altogether a less structured way of dressing that was very modern.
The difference is that comfort today is defined by a complete absence of structure. Comfortable clothes are those which keep you warm or cool and do not bind. Sounds like a sweatsuit, looks like a sweatsuit…. must be a sweatsuit. We have come full circle to the utilitarian coverings of the Neandrathal. We have taken dressing for the day to mean “being clothed.”
Probably because nudity is still frowned upon in public.
What can you do? Herewith I unveil the Easy and Elegant Five Step Program for the Underdressed.
Step one: Get out of sports gear unless you’re on your way to participate in a sport. Wear real shoes. The best shoes that you can afford (with rounded toes. Square toes are never elegant.) And keep them polished. If you wear cargo pants, try regular khakis. If you wear jeans, try some in a linen/cotton blend. If you wear khakis, upgrade to wool trousers– flat front for casual, pleated for dress — worn at your waist. T-shirts? Go for polos. Polos? A dress shirt. Make it a button down for a casual look.
Step two: Coco Chanel was famous for her dictum to take one thing off before you leave the house. I’ll go the other route. Put one thing on. Preferrably a sport coat or blazer. At the very least a sweater, even if worn as a scarf over your shoulders. You will instantly look more put together.
Step three: already wear a sport coat or blazer to work? Try a well-cut suit with french-cuff shirt and tie. And please don’t forget a pocket square. White linen is always right. Silks allow for another means of expressing your creativity.
Step four: you’re a suit at work guy? Please find a good tailor and have them fitted correctly, your sleeves are too long.
Step five: suits after five. Dark and dressy will do more than set you apart, it will elevate you above the masses.
Obviously my five step program isn’t for everyone, nor is it meant to be set in stone. But for those of you willing to project your inner elegance, this is a good way to start. This isn’t about superficiality, so much as about presenting yourself in the best possible light. First impressions, as much as we hate to admit, count. And fiftieth impressions set your personal brand in stone. I guess what I’m trying to say is: leave an elegant impression — through your bearing, manners, speech, and dress.
So where do we go from here? For my part, I will continue to adhere to Beecroft’s philosophy and always try to dress better than I have to.