Wednesday, December 08, 2010
The Four B's of Men's Fashion
HISTORY MATTERS. Since nobody cares about new Obama theories, I'm going to talk about something important. Men's fashion works in decade cycles. The 1950s were a freak show of beige suits, wide lapels and loud, short ties. The 1960s were reactionary and far spiffier, lots of dark suits, narrow lapels and skinny ties that reached almost to the belt. The 1970s were a complete disaster -- double-wide lapels, doubleknit suits, and a psychotic mixing of patterns among suits, shirts, and ties. The "greedy" 1980s were another highpoint, a classic Wall Street look of white shirts and tailored suits with lapels and ties of just the right width. Then the 1990s came, and the question seemed to be, 'How much seventies stuff could we get away with now?' Answer: Pretty much everything except doubleknit, only less with the width, please. Result: awful.
Whatever you do, pay no attention to THIS guy.
The world's leading spokesman for 'neutrals' and
'Everything goes with everything else.' uh, Wrong.
Which brings us to the 2000's. By the book, it should have been a good-looking decade for menswear. But it wasn't. Isn't. Tailoring, lapels, and tie width have returned to esthetically correct proportions, but there's something going on with patterns and colors that shouldn't be. Men have somehow gotten the idea that everything goes with everything. It's not true. The fabrics are great, the stripes and windowpane checks and argyles are all nice enough, but it's suddenly become the rage to dress like a cuisinart of patterns and colors. Bright pink ties with busy shirts and gangster-striped suits. Some of the suits even have four or five buttons, and the firmament is beginning to collapse. What's going on?
Gayness. Metrosexuality. Herd instinct. Men who need help.
Why I'm offering some rules. I call my prescription the "Four B's." What does that mean? Beau Brummel and Brooks Brothers. It was Beau Brummel who laid down the foundation of all modern menswear, postulating that men are not male birds; their impact should consist of themselves, not their duds. He counseled black as the default male color, solid, stolid, and never wrong. Brooks Brothers interpreted Beau Brummel for the twentieth century: dark blue suits, white shirts, and quietly elegant ties incapable of distracting from the character of a man's face. They were right, with a few very minor exceptions. Hence, my rules for the coming decade, which I can only hope will make the 2000s an anomaly rather than the beginning of a pernicious new trend.
1. It's really hard to improve on a white shirt.
Let's face facts. Men aren't any good at dreaming up 'outfits.' Forget all that metrosexual talk about 'neutrals' and the appropriateness of mixing stripes, checks, etc, as long as there's some difference of scale. Men can't do that. We wind up looking as if we'd been dressed by our wives or girlfriends (best case) or our mothers (worst case). The only 'neutral' we can or need to understand is a white shirt. The only thing that forgives us automatically for all our other combining decisions. And, yeah, I'm deliberately and ostentatiously excluding the blue shirt and the white collar with some other color shirting (Brit Hume take note), because as we get older, every deviation from the utmost simplicity makes us look like we're trying to be younger than we really are. And when we're young, it's still wrong to put on something that makes the world think, "He's young enough to get away with it." Which means we're not really men yet. See? Also: forget the button-down collars. The one thing Brooks Brothers got consistently wrong. In old age, William F. Buckley looked like the oldest prep school senior in history.
2. Avoid suits that cause people to see the pattern before they see you.
Maybe you want to look like a racetrack tout from a Damon Runyon story or a gunsel from a Raymond Chandler novel. Stifle that urge. It's a character defect. Men are not a package or a fashion statement. If there's anything to them, they're themselves. The only thing anyone should ever think about your clothing is that you're well dressed, not dressed up. If they see you approaching and think, "Wow. The stripes on that suit are killer" rather than "Here's Bill, looking great again," you've screwed up.
3. Ties are not your natural enemy, but they sure can be.
Remember that the knot of your tie is just below your face. Women have labored for thousands of years to get men to look into their eyes before ogling their breasts. Ties should not be substitute breasts. I have chuckled for decades about the term 'power ties,' be they yellow, salmon, or -- as in our day -- poisonous pink. So-called power ties are nothing but men's cleavage. They're not about power at all; they're about sexual ego, which should flow not from fabric but the eyes. Women who display cleavage also make up their eyes to return the attention where it belongs. Men can't do that. Result: Power ties make you look like a damn peacock, bird brain highlighted. How to pick a tie? Muted elegance of pattern, quality of fabric, and -- if you must make a statement -- a neutral metallic like silver that says you'll learn nothing about this man unless you meet his eyes and face. Also: Never pink. An absolutely ironclad rule with no exceptions. Windsor knots okay with Windsor collars, double Windsors never, under any circumstances. Finally, the new ego statement of disdaining a tie, like that creep on the Fox Business Channel, is the biggest loser statement of all. It's like not wearing pants, the first thing anyone notices about you and a thing that's bound to catalyze automatic judgments before they see anything of you as an actual person. It's obnoxious, moronic, and rightly frowned upon.
4. Don't draw disproportionate attention to any part of your attire.
This is a follow-on to the previous rule. Wearing a suit with no tie is an example of this rule. But so is wearing flashy suspenders with no suit jacket. You are not what you are wearing. Every time the first thing someone notices about you is what you're wearing or not wearing, you become a woman, subject to the same arbitrary judgmentalism. When they move into fashion critique mode, you become an object, not a person. For the same reason, do not affect Gucci loafers or a Rolex watch. (Gaudy accessories are always gaudier on men.) They should always observe that you are nicely appointed, not that here are some spectacular accessories containing a male of the species.
5. Always err on the side of simplicity.
I've covered the white shirt part. This is analogous. Don't mix dramatics. If your suit has a pattern people might notice, wear a solid color tie. When you dress for business, don't wear any loud or bright colors. You're not Beyonce and you shouldn't be. If you're casually dressed up for a party and your slacks have a pattern, wear a blazer and a solid color tie. If your blazer is camel colored, wear a red tie. Period. If you feel compelled to wear a red vest with your camel blazer, wear dark slacks and a tartan tie. Don't mix patterns.People will talk.
6. Color rules for men are absolute.
Blue suit? Black shoes. Brown shoes brand you, quite literally, as a Nazi. (Why did the Nazis have such great uniforms? Because Germans have the worst color sense of any people in the western world. If you doubt me, go to Germany. The Frankfurt Airport alone will precipitate esthetic nausea. Probably why they've been such a problem for the rest of us.) Don't mix browns or beiges with black. Ever. Don't wear black suits. (Sorry, Beau). They make you look like an undertaker. If you wear a black blazer, your tie can be any color but brown or beige. If you wear black slacks, your shoes and socks must also be black. In that case your sportcoat can be any color but brown or beige, and your tie the same. Why? Because if you have a brown tweed sportcoat, why are you also wearing black shoes? Don't wear pastels. Ever. They're for women. Period.
7. Don't ever try to be cute or whimsical.
It always makes you look like an asshole. No matter how you think you look in some specific context, imagine how you'd look at a 7-11 in the ghetto. Don't wear corduroys with whales on them. Don't wear prismatic sportcoats or trousers. If you must wear leather, be prepared to back it up or don't put it on. Period.
8. Don't ever wear white sneakers.
Men don't do that.
9. Denim is a two-edged sword and time is not on your side.
Some older men can wear jeans. Most shouldn't. Why? Because men's asses get flat and awful, and whether you think you're telling the world how youthful you are or not, the world sees an old guy with a flat ass and a Viagra prescription.
10. Clothes make the man, but only if there was a man inside to begin with.
Yeah. You can wear whatever you want -- all my rules aside -- but you better have a face and eyes to back it all up. I call this one the Alpha Rule. I wear whatever I want. Why? Because I mostly follow my own rules AND I never go anywhere anymore. Because I have nothing left to prove.
Thing is, I know a bunch of you are saying, 'This doesn't apply to me' because they wear tracksuits everywhere and jeans so huge nobody could ever mistake them for Beau Brummel, and all I have to say to you is this: They're ALL judging you, every moment of every day. The same way you judge women, with the flick of an eye, everyone is also judging you. Not whether they'd jump in the sack with you or not, but whether they'd trust you, hire you, or believe in what you have to say. If you short-circuit their appraisal process by the way you dress, you're making yourself a loser. Because there's no upside to men's fashion. It's all downside. Everything they notice about the way you dress is a distraction from the only thing you have to offer: what's behind those eyes of yours.
Best example? Barack Obama. Best dressed politician since JFK. What did he achieve by his wardrobe? Only transparency. His beautiful suits and faultless taste never became an issue separating us from his character. A luxury no woman has.
P.S. In case you think I've been too harsh, here are are two hints, one from my long departed dad and one from the master of all punks. 1) There's no such thing as being over-dressed for an occasion; and 2) You can't ever have enough leather jackets and coats if your preference is denim pants.
P.P.S. If you're a punk, boots and boot chains are also necessary. If you can pull it off. Which reminds me of the InstaPunk fashion code, one rule only: Dress like a toff from the waist up and like a biker from the waist down. It's worked for me since long before most of you were born.
P.P.P.S. Uncharacteristically, this post was vetted by three longtime friends and commenters. All of them wanted pictures to illustrate my points, not that they disagreed with my analysis or my rules. Which is why I'm soliciting those images from you. Go for it. I'll post an Addendum if you'll offer up pictures tied to specific parts of the post. Deal? A couple wanted bad examples from network, cable news, and sports shows. A third wanted GOOD examples -- how men should look -- from Brooks, J. Peterman, etc. Do what you will. I'm stunned by how seriously they all took a post I regarded as a day off. Shows what I know.