Fundamentals In Menswear: Before You Shop
This article provides any man weary of purchasing his next suit with facts and insights on the industry itself and guidelines for fit and color coordination.
Introduction to Suits and Personal Style
“One must learn the rules in order to break them.” This well-known saying applies to nearly any art form. Whether making an experimental film, free-verse writing poetry, or modifying a roadster in your garage, an appreciation of the classic Orson Welles, Romance poetry, and Aston Martin should be recognized.
We must regard menswear in this way to understand the art form before adding your own unmistakable character. For those men looking for success in dressing well, the real adventure begins with a nod to permanent fashion while covering enough ground to add their taste along the way.
Most attire is sold like coffee these days. We could call it the “Starbucksization” of the menswear industry. Sure, if you happen to like the standard black coffee you can get your order placed and be out the door with your simple cup of joe. But for another dollar and another minute, you could have had a far more enjoyable drink at relatively little expense.
Even if a double shot macchiato is not the preferred drink to black brew, it pays to take the time, know the product, and take a step out of a normal routine.
While learning Seville Row tailoring techniques is definitely not required knowledge in buying a timeless suit, a general understanding of the products and the current state of the menswear industry should be known before walking into the shop. From a retailers’ perspective, moving product to turn a profit (or at least make room for the next big thing) is ultimately the only thing at stake.
A consumer who simply goes through the motions is a goldmine for big business, and you don’t want to get hosed. You want to look smart in your suit.
Inside the Industry
Oftentimes, when a man takes on the task of purchasing a garment, he relies on the shop window or glossy print ad as a standard-bearer of taste. Today, this has become one of the more unfortunate ironies of the menswear industry. The previously unchallenged classicism of a men’s suit has been mired with the market mechanisms of seasonal trends.
The increased visibility of high fashion houses (Dior, Armani, YSL, etc.) and the suits the plurality of consumers can actually afford (Kenneth Cole, Calvin Klein) exist in the same media landscape: adjacent advertisements in magazines, listed web browser ads, and placement in entertainment.
In keeping pace with the growing niche market, the typical retailer decided to ride the wave of the high-profile designer brand, leaving the customer hardly a choice but to base his style on the seasonal winds of fashion.
Unfortunately, the trendy man becomes victimized by the boom-bust cycle of runway innovations. Ironically, the term “fashion victim” was coined by a profiteer of designer trends, Oscar de la Renta, for this exact reason. High fashion and its whimsical, yet compelling silhouettes has disproportionate exposure to the well-built, well-tailored suit so readily seen on the streets decades ago. To a resourceful man looking to what’s out there in menswear, these ads can send mixed, and often misleading messages.
If dressing well were simply a matter of donning the latest designer concepts or owning an expensive wardrobe, fashion moguls should be in abundance. They aren’t. A sophisticated look is not simply bought, it is crafted on the principle of individuality. A man’s personal style relies on his unique physical characteristics.
Knowing Your Fit Before You Buy
We all struggle with fit. Taking one day out of your life to really understand your particular measurements (and there are more than just your waistline and inseam) will eliminate wasted time and a perceived sense of what your generic, off-the-rack size is.
Drawing from my own experience as a man with an inseam longer than his waistline, I am rarely able to find the right pant from the standard, Midwestern department store (not to mention vintage resellers!) and often make alterations to those pieces that make exceptional cases. However, knowing my waist is exactly 32 inches and my inseam is 35, I am already aware my size is outside the bell-curve in typical fits and shop accordingly, often skeptically.
If the pants are ill-fit, the shirt will surely come untucked or cinched, leading to an all out domino-effect of looking, charitably put, less than your best. My grandfather might step out of the woodwork, chewing on the mouthpiece of his meerschaum pipe, call you a “schlemiel” and casually walk away.
Today’s man is constantly foiled by his ignorance or denial of his own dimensions. You simply will not succeed in looking smart and dapper if your physical characteristics are not wholly taken into consideration before you acquire a new suit. If you’ve been plagued by your pastiness or irked by your bantam stature, now is the time to use these attributes as a means to an end in your personal style.
Working with rather than working around these traits make all the difference in dressing sharply. Take comfort in the fact that there is a sartorial solution to every combination of shape and color of man.
Knowing Your Colors & Tones Before You Buy
I have rounded up a few gents and personal friends for their input on this matter. They have also lent their physical attributes as a basis in discussing how despite their disparity of traits, they can look equally dapper if they play their hand right in the fitting room.
Michael: Tall Medium Build and Olive Tone
Michael is dark-haired, brown-eyed, olive-complected and is usually compared to the fabled lumberjack in his natural appearance. Being barrel-chested and above-average in height, standing at 6′ 3″, he generally understands where to start on fit alone. However, he is not sure on how to balance the other side of the equation: how to harmonize colors. The best way to approach his case is to set the goal of enhancing firstly his complexion, and secondly, his eye color.
As a medium-contrast complexion (dark brown hair, light brown skin), Michael can generally get away with wearing any standard combination of shirt and jacket colors. However, due to the hulking stature of his frame, he should stick to solids or understated patterns to keep his ensemble less opulent. If there’s more material to cover more man, the eye should not be overpowered by square feet of check or windowpane patterns.
The richness of Michael’s skin tone is much more easily noticed if he opts for high-contrast in his jacket and shirt. A less-contrasted combination of colors will only balance all three major colors seen, thus washing out this archetype of tall, dark, and handsome. My recommendation, especially for spring, is an ice-cream pastel shirt in any subtle cool color, and a dark solid tie, jacket, and trousers.
Koa: Tall Thin Build and Dark Tone
Koa, in relation of Michael, is just about opposite in physicality. Although their stature is most comparable (Koa is about an inch shorter than Michael), Koa is much slimmer weighing at 170 pounds. He’s first-generation Sudanese-American, giving him a deep dark complexion and eye color.
Luckily for Koa, he keeps a shorn clean dome eliminating more color variables. He admits he has the know-how in color schemes, playing by a slightly different set of rules for color selection and the African-American tones and countenance. The brighter and more dramatic (but not to the point of psychedelic) Koa’s vestment, the more radiant his natural color becomes. He’s got the knack in the color department, but is wavering in understanding proportions.
In addressing his thinness, Koa should first select a more bulky material from the get-go. The decision of a winter wool or cotton gabardine (or gabardine-like) for summer as a base material would add needed heft to his wiry frame. Adding more to his figure, perhaps a waistcoat revealed by a single-breasted jacket, is a safe bet in his particular case.
Regarding his slightly sloped and narrow shoulders, his jacket must accommodate this with subtle fill and stop at the right angle of socket. Because of my affinity for the Beat Generation’s usage of the inch-wide tie, but hindered by my wide shoulders, I find myself a bit jealous in recommending this tie with Koa’s ensemble. Narrow shoulders require a smaller-gauge tie to create the illusion of wideness.
Knowing the importance of classic fit is the launchpad in cultivating your personal style. Now that you’ve bought a few properly-chosen articles, you are ready to impress. So, the next step in this process is, to borrow a song from the iconic Fred Astaire, steppin’ out. There are several platforms to look your best for any occasion.
This discussion is full of contingencies, well-known and inherent guidelines, and is best left for a future article. Decorum in formalwear and casual attire is simply the stage for your style.
A great writer and essayist this subject of self-awareness in menswear, Mark Tungate, once was quoted as saying, “I only like clothes that fit me well and I can trust.” It’s any wonder that Mr. Tungate sticks to the appreciation of fit in his personal style. He’s written a bit about the marketing end of the menswear industry in Branded Male: Marketing to Men (2008) and provides a critical stance on the mixed messages of retail advertising.
His major point, and it has informed some of my views, articulates the problem with enterprises making your style decisions for you.The fundamental goal of finding your style is, at the very least, to appear aware of yourself and your surroundings.
Showing the world your deft decisions without even saying a word changes your fortune. Take your style back into your own hands.