A Menswear Memoir

The Present and How It Got That Way

 

May I Help You?

It is not necessary to have personal style. It is possible, I suppose, to live a richly fulfilling life paying no attention to how you look. There are myriad excuses for doing so; and myriad examples of men who have: Samuel Johnson, Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. The difficulty in so living would only come from outside. The world will judge you by your appearance. You might ignore this fact. You may be forced to ignore it, if you lack the means to put on any sort of style. The world will judge you as disadvantaged if that is how you look, whether by necessity or by choice. To overcome the adverse effects of an absence of personal style requires compensating strengths, attributes and achievements. If your fame precedes you and you think your clothes don’t matter, you’re quite right. You and I get the treatment we look like we deserve. If a guy shows up disheveled, unkempt and wild-looking, who is not actually Zuckerberg, it’s “Back of the line, buddy.”

Maybe it's just the pocket square?

Maybe it's just the pocket square?

 

We all know this. What is the point of stating the obvious? The point is that the fundamental reason for slovenliness is not what is commonly thought; the underlying cause is in the nature of the human condition. The reason that men who have the means to do otherwise choose to dress badly, is neither laziness nor stupidity, nor is it simply a lack of respect. From a lifetime of observation I have come to realize it is just this: fear. Laziness doesn’t explain it. Nor lack of pride, nor simple obliviousness; these are all but symptoms. It is pure, soul-level terror, deriving from not knowing how. And the reason we don’t know how is that the teachers have all but vanished. A parallel idea: who would learn to ski if all the ski instructors disappeared?

Histories of dress chronicle stylish folks. The archives omit the outliers, the slobs; so it is hard to say whether the current epidemic of excessive slovenliness has recurred throughout history. It does seem a recent phenomenon, though. Conjure an image of what Tom Brokaw calls The Greatest Generation, just one or two back, and you get a vision of suits, hats, Argyll sweaters, Chesterfield coats; Perry Como, Ward Cleaver, even JFK; dapper at the office, the club, the game. Appropriate. Handsome. Not fussy or uncomfortable, not Beau Brummels, dandies or prideful balloons, just ordinary guys living ordinary lives.  

...Or that one extra button left open?

...Or that one extra button left open?

These men look like men, not children. They don’t wear baseball caps and cargo shorts except in appropriate locations. They are fearless. Why? Because they know how. That’s all. Someone helped them learn to dress with dignity. A dignified person in a dignified clothing store showed them the ropes. “Nothing to worry about, kiddo. Just put this on with this. Good. Sport jacket. Gabardine trousers.  Johnson & Murphy oxfords. Voila.” Or maybe Dad taught them, but more likely it was Joe the clothing salesman; or even more likely it was the Joe Dad brought you to, the one he had learned from. “Right. This goes with this. That fits you. That suits your style. Perfect.” Now the economics of being Joe, trusty, reliable Joe, in the Smalltown America men’s store of memory, are kaput, totally over, replaced by behemoth boxes in suburban parking lots, where the clerk on the floor might, if he or she had been there that day, hear from the assistant manager what the regional manager said about this pair of pants or that shirt line, in between comments about the new POS software and the necessity of being punctual… As far as helping a guy develop a sense of style? It’s the blind leading the blind. Or, really, the almighty sales commission leading the clueless who’s selling to the blind. “Yeah, that fits you great!” Old Joe done been here and gone.

But you want to have style. No “back-of-the-line for you, buddy.” You want to dress yourself in a way that says who you are, who you want to be; and you want to be seen and appreciated for being the unique, capable, educated, fortunate individual you are. So now what? Well, we have a full spectrum of possibilities to choose: at one end the rebel in gym shorts and sleeveless tee; and at the other extreme the perfect conformist in a navy blazer and khakis. Neither is you, even though in our 21st century democratic universe no one will publicly judge one look versus another, but neither are you an urban guerrilla or a country club nabob. You want some creativity, some sex appeal. You want to be noticed, not for what you have on, but for the general impression you make. You’re not a Nobel-winning economist, so you need some respect, the approving nod, the glance, that head-to-toe once over. You know you want it – and you’re terrified of the opposite: being ignored, or worse, ridiculed.  

Maybe just looking like you mean it. 

Maybe just looking like you mean it. 

So here are three simple, primary rules in creating the visual image that enhances your life experience. Follow them and create the visible version of the You that you want to be. Be an individual with style that suits your mentality and expresses your personality. Overcome fear!

1.       Exposure 

Check out how stylish men look. (You do not have to be gay to do this.) Open your eyes. Look around. Who looks good to you? On TV, in magazines? (Careful here – most men’s magazines are terrible, slavishly advertorial and dedicated to the bizarre. The best-edited ones are Japanese; it’s actually better if you can’t read them.) All around you there are men who have good style. Not that they are models, dandies or fops. Just guys who look like they’ve given some thought to their dress. Take into account the physical differences between you and them and make adjustments. If you are 6’3” and weigh 230 chances are you can’t wear fashionably tight fits, but on you baggy stuff is worse. Notice details: colors, patterns, lengths, accessories, contrasts, blends. What do you like?

 

2.       Execution

Do it. Don’t put it off. Just imagine this or that kind of an outfit on you. Start with an idea. Then go get some new clothes, for God’s sake. You do not have to get rid of everything you’ve been wearing, maybe, depending on how long it’s been since you went shopping last. You will find things to wear with what you already have. Pick a store carefully; not by what they carry or what somebody says about it; visit the place and see how the people who work there look. If you live in rural Wisconsin or even in Reading, Pennsylvania this may require some travel, because the place where Joe used to work closed in 1995. There are thousands of stores, though, and thousands of good people willing and able to assist you. The shop proclaims itself by the way the staff looks; if you decide to shop there, chances are you’ll look like them when you’re done.

 

3.       Excellence

This is where we go a bit beyond just plain common sense. If you’ve ever had to make a choice from among a group of similar items and have come away having chosen the most expensive, although you had no idea of the price of each, you will understand this. Fine quality has an indefinable element about it that “proclaims” itself. My theory is that there is a transcendent element to quality, which, like Malcolm Gladwell posits in his great book Blink, communicates itself to us in ways that are impossible to quantify precisely. An easier way to say this is to assert that things of excellence earn a reputation over time that comes to be generally accepted in the market place. So excellence is not simply price. The intrinsics of an item of clothing: the fiber, the stitching, even for example the pressing, when designed and executed excellently, do the thing they are supposed to do better than things less well made. This is what the mythical Joe knew. That shirt, that sweater, that pair of pants is better than that other one: more worth the money, will last longer, look better, and be more comfortable because the things that make it so are rare, rarely used, and the result of arduous trial-and-error, lifelong expertise and dedication to an ideal. Of course in our throw-away culture this is not the norm. Often the latest thing is all the rage. Personal style that is built on this trend or that fashion, on this hot item or that new logo, is built on common perception and is therefore common, not personal. True style rests on finding the right thing for you from among the time-honored purveyors of excellent merchandise.