The Evolution of Style
A Man's Guide to the New Standards of Dress, for Business and Social Occasions
Level 2 (Start Here)
Level 2? No, you haven’t missed any pages. This is like the big fold out that comes with your new appliance: Quick Setup. We’re starting where there is something to say on the subject of dressing. In the evolution of personal style, Level 2 is the first step; or at least it's the primary place where there's anything to be learned. This is because what I refer to as Level 1 clothing, the sort of stuff you put on to walk the dog or to read the newspaper on the porch -- the old nylon drawstring cargo shorts and that wonderful, faded old tee shirt you got at the Indianapolis 500, the home alone wardrobe -- needs no discussion by me or anybody else. Everyone already knows all there is to know about dressing to chill out. Back in the eighties it was David Geffen, the mega-agent, producer and Hollywood music mogul, who famously celebrated the idea that becoming successful had earned him the right go to his office in clothes he might also wear to clean his basement. This thinking sparked the Comfort Rebellion sponsored in part by the energetic marketing efforts of Levi Strauss & Co., who convinced large corporate HR departments to "give their mid-level executives a raise" by relaxing the dress code to a point where over washed chinos and a golf shirt were permissible at any business occasion. At the time it was kind of threatening to me; I was running a suit manufacturing company. Now, I don’t give a damn if you wear or even own a suit; a retailer is open to anything. Has to be.
These days we are hearing about the second phase of the Rebellion. This is sponsored by the corporations themselves, competing as they are for the top talent among the so-called Millennials, folks who graduated from college 10 years ago (or so,) who for sociological reasons too numerous and too critical to write of here, will show up for work in just about the same clothes that they'd wear for a game of Ultimate Frisbee or Grand Theft Auto. Among the corporate guidelines pandering to these new hires, according to one executive friend of mine who's responsible for over 35,000 employees, are the doing away with desks, workspaces, schedules, and hours of employment. (Think of the circus atmosphere workplace in the film The Social Network.) Needless to say, dress codes are ancient, ancient history. And those of us -- what are we called? -- pre-Millennials? -- who are simultaneously trying to seem professionally relevant and self-respecting, who want to fit in and yet look "nice," are caught in this. So I'm starting here. Level 2 is, like, you know, respectable. Appropriate, but still comfortable and maybe, if we work at it, even hip.
You can show up at your office wearing gym shorts and a tee shirt if you want, I mean who’s to stop you, but if you care about anybody else, if you mean to show some respect for your position, your associates, your clients, or even for your product, you should be in what I'd like to call Level 2 attire.
The hipness, maybe even the appropriateness, of your way-less-than-formal business wardrobe will be determined in the main by the way it fits. Of course personal preferences for comfort and stylishness are still allowed, within reason; and this is not to suggest that a fellow needs to have his clothes custom-made to achieve a good fit, but there are a few details of length and width that ultimately make the difference between dressed and well dressed. But we'll get to that.
Level 2 - The Elements
Clean, unwrinkled trousers. Jeans are trousers, too, but skip the rips and holes.
Dress or sport shirt of woven fabric, in long or short sleeves; or,
Knit shirt, golf club- or sports-team-logo-free, tucked in; or,
Tee shirts, suitably dressy, graphic-free, decent shape, also tucked.
If sneakers, not training shoes; if leather, not hiking shoes. Not sandals or flip-flops. Dress shoes should be reasonably free of scuff marks, somewhat recently shined.
Totally optional, especially in summer; can be colorful, whimsical, with attitude
Should have something to do with the style elements of the shoes (color, texture.) That is, don't wear a black belt with a pair of brown shoes, or a dressy one with a casual shoe
SALT SHAKER -- Definitions and Details
1. The Sport Shirt
Sport shirts are the suit-and tie of this era. From the "hybrid" dress/sport subtle variation you might sometimes wear with a tie, to the madras plaid or the knit variety, there's a million ways to look good and stay relaxed about it. It's the most noticeable element of appearance, frames your face, and expresses your taste and sense of style from jump street.
We in the industry call these conventional shirts by two classifications: wovens and knits. In their long and short sleeve variations woven sport shirts are the next step up the style staircase for professional wear, and there is an almost endless variety of patterns: checks, plaids, stripes, prints, to choose from. Generally these days, particularly depending on your body type, the great big plaids and bold prints are more for weekend, at-home wear, but there are exceptions. As to the collar style, button-down is losing ground in the pattern arena to the plain or cutaway collar style, or the under-collar button down, which is a neat alternative.
A knit shirt, the ubiquitous "polo"** shirt, is tricky, believe it or not. Some are appropriate Level 2 kit. Some aren't. Age, condition, color, collar style and fit are all determinants. You know what I am talking about. It is a dressy knit you'd choose, not to play a sport, but to look "nice." Otherwise forget it. Overwashed, gigantic, 90s era size? Golf club logo (or any logo at all, come to think of it,) no dice. Just screams Level 1 or worse: Good Will clothes bin. This is a seasonal thing, too. The polo shirt should go away with the first frost and come back around Easter. The long sleeve knit, though, is good forever, providing the aesthetic outlined above holds.
The fit of the shirt, knit or woven, is the most important element, however. The way it looks on your frame makes the difference between "dressed" and "well dressed." The shirt should be about 5 or 6 inches bigger around than your chest and belly. That is, it should not be shapeless, should follow your body lines but not be stretched at the buttons. Even when you sit. If you're relatively thin, you can go with 5 inches of room, heavier guys need more circumference. TRY THE SHIRT ON BEFORE YOU BUY IT. Do I have to say these things?
2. Khakis, Chinos, etc.
Just to ease communication we’ll stretch the definition of “khaki” here to include cotton pants of every color.
Khakis are the common denominator of all dress codes. It is okay to wear them with anything, and to any occasion. They became grey, olive, brown, blue, and black. They are the fundamental element in Level 2 dress. And for Mr. Everyman, they are a great blessing: comfortable, easy-to-care-for, and relatively inexpensive, but truly functional and versatile. If you wear them with a patterned sport shirt, let’s say, or a knit shirt, and with a nice belt and clean shoes, you will look neatly put together. You can wear them with a blazer or a patterned sport jacket to a Level 3-style occasion; or with shirt, tie and no jacket In short, they have an almost infinite variety of possibilities for wear and they should be a staple of every guy’s wardrobe.
One major caveat: Neatness counts. Level 2, means someone is going to see you. Make sure they’re ironed. Get them hemmed to the correct length. Have a bit of a break over your shoe. If you prefer to have no cuff, tell the tailor to hem them like dress pants, not with the seams showing like they do on jeans. Oh, and by the way: make sure they fit. Not “cinched-up” looking in the waistband under your belt, not too baggy in the butt, not too tight or too full in the thigh. No matter how much or how little they cost, if you expect to use them for anything over a Level 1, at-home event, they should look tailored.
You may be surprised to hear that jeans can be a Level 2 or even a Level 3 thing, in terms of formality. Naturally the distressed, unevenly faded variety will never stand in for a dress trouser, but straight leg jeans (or “5-pocket” pants, as they are known) in the dark, rich colors, from blue, black and gray all the way over to brown, can be a perfect complement to a tailored jacket in any season. (It may be hard to actually get the necktie thing right with jeans, the rise being lower, but worth a try.) Better jeans may stretch a little, and they will certainly have been washed before you buy them to achieve a soft, lived-in feel. In fact, the wash technique and the resulting color and drape of the legs is the lion’s share of why they cost so much more.
You’ll see really expensive jeans in stores with holes “worn” into them by dollar-a-day laborers with forks and files and stuff. If you want to pay extra for that, I have a bridge we should discuss. Washing them repeatedly so they’re softer before you wear them is one thing, but trying to look like you wore these jeans to Woodstock is just a fake-out.
Terms and Derivations
"Khaki," it is generally agreed by cognoscenti of such matters, is an all cotton cloth of twill construction which is piece dyed (i.e., dyed after weaving,) to a dull tan with a slightly olive cast.
“Chino” was the name English soldiers gave to the light weight cotton material their uniforms were made of while fighting the Boxer Rebellion. It was apparently invented to be ruggedly comfortable for the campaign in China. The English, as you can see, invented everything.
"Oxford" I have heard that a long-gone Scottish weaving company once named their four basic weaves after institutions of higher learning; thus there was once a “Cambridge,” a “Harvard” and a “Yale,” in addition to “Oxford,” the only one to really catch on. There is also a basic style of shoes called “Oxfords.” Interesting, right? Perhaps the name itself leads to persistent popularity. I can’t think of anything we wear now referred to as a “Yale.”
“Jean” is the name of a cloth for making sturdy, durable pants, derived from the old English, “jene fustian,” a name for a heavy cotton twill typical of Genoa, Italy (jean-o-a, get it?). And in case that’s not enough information, denim is a modern-day corruption of the French “de Nîmes,” the name they gave to the same fabric the Genoese thought they’d invented. Coke and Pepsi all over again.