Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Beware the Bossy Fashionistas

Style, or something not-quite-like it
Ever since I started going to the gym five days a week and wearing tailored shirts, I've occasionally flicked through the pages of Men's Health magazine. It's certainly beats Maxim, although there aren't nearly so many pretty girls in it.

Recently, they published the grandly-titled "Fall 2011 Guide to Style" which I eagerly devoured, since I consider myself somewhat of a stylish guy already, but am always ready to improve my game.

Except I didn't. In fact, I was monstrously disappointed in what I read.

It wasn't just that it was badly written ("Don't try to dazzle," they tell us in Step 9, then later interview infamous seduction artist Neil Strauss, author of The Game, and recommend men "wear something that stands out" and have an "audacious wardrobe.") It was more than they threw out their shockingly poor advice with an overwhelmingly undeserved authority.

Which is, I'm concerned to say, something I've also noticed elsewhere from so-called "authorities" on gentleman's styling.

It was through a very stylish friend from work that I got into reading men's style blogs - but once I got passed the brilliant ones he recommended (The Impossible Cool for example, and awesome Philadelphia shirtmaker Commonwealth Proper) I started to stumble across some truly ropey ones.

The one thing they all shared in common - aside from some remarkably sketchy ideas about style - was that they didn't so much advise men how to dress well, but laid down increasingly inconceivable rules they had to adhere to; with the implication that any deviation was unacceptable.

That's rather the antithesis of what I define as "style", actually. Style isn't being a slave to convention and conformity; it's about finding a look that's right for you. It's about living within the expectations of accepted fashion (matching shoes with your belt and wallet, for example) and then making those conventions your own by defying conformity in every other framing detail. 

Style is something you discover yourself; not something that can be written down like the recipe for chicken soup, or an equation. Yet countless bloggers try; despite many of them being hidiously underqualified to do so; or just obnoxiously opinionated.

Nowhere was this more annoying - or transparent - than on style blogs that had a retail element. Take Mr Porter, for example, who reprinted the list of Gentleman's "essentials" as deemed by Mr Anton Torsten, an art collector from Stockholm.

Swedish men do not have an international reputation for style.
In Torsten's defense, he was compiling a list of essential items for the man who worked a job which required him to wear a suit every day - but even with that in mind, this list is bunk.

(And in Mr Porter's defense for reprinting this list - they're in the business of selling suits, so of course they want to encourage people who don't know any better to sweep half a dozen off their shelves.)

I mean, if Torsten himself does have three blue suits and three grey suits in his wardrobe, I'd go banco that they're crammed between half a dozen other suits, two tuxedos and enough sports jackets to stock Men's Warehouse on Black Friday. His is a wholesale list, not an essential one. I bet he's never lived by it himself.

The fact is, for those of us out there who truly require an "essential" wardrobe, less is infinitely more.

For example, the conceit of Torsten's list is that men are expected to wear a suit every day. He's right in that dry cleaning suits is expensive and damages them, so you want to have a collection to "cycle" through the weeks to keep them as fresh and wear-free as possible.

The truth is, though, that you don't need six suits to do so. Two or three will do.

Since most men slip their jacket off the moment they sit at their desk, having a different jacket for every day of the week is damned ridiculous. It spends most of its life in the office doing what it does in the wardrobe - hang from a hanger. It doesn't need to be washed as frequently as the pants.

So instead of abiding by Torsten's requirements, men should rather buy two or three suits each with two or three matching pairs of trousers. That way they can "cycle" the trousers and wear the jacket one day to the next.

(And since we're on the subject, I think it's probably acceptable to wear a pair of trousers more than once during the week, as well.)

As for the color and quantity... Blue and grey aren't exactly versatile. I think just one blue and one charcoal suit, with two matching pairs of trousers, is more than enough to get most working men through the week.

That leaves instead room for one "essential" Torsten omitted - a black suit and two matching trousers - while still halving the "essential" list of clothing.

Why a black suit? Well, if we're talking essentials what's more essential than that? If you're only going to own three suits, you require a black one - for funerals and, if you absolutely have to, roughing it as formal wear.

Likewise, I have objections to Torsten's demand for six white shirts and six blue shirts (although the tip about keeping a spare at work is a good one.)

If you're going to go for essentials - the absolutely bare essentials - you want six white shirts. Not only does it go with everything, but it also reflects one American fashion concept that doesn't translate to the other side of the Atlantic. The notion that "workers wear blue, bosses wear white."

The term "blue collar" worker and "white collar" are quite literal class distinctions here; so pick your shirt color and make the choice about how you want others (consciously or unconsciously) to view you.

Next, shoes. Torsten demands five pairs of black and chestnut shoes. This is because Torsten is the male equivalent of Carrie Bradshaw. At the most, an "essential" gentleman needs one pair of black shoes and one pair of brown shoes and they need to fastidiously polish and maintain them. That way, they'll last for years.

10 pairs of socks is a reasonable number (given how infrequently I do my laundry), but why Torsten suggested they be in navy blue is beyond me. Navy blue doesn't go with brown. It doesn't go with grey. It certainly doesn't go with black. He selected an "essential" sock color that automatically clashed with half of his "essential" wardrobe suggestions.

An "essential" choice would be black. Black socks go with everything, more or less. What's more, if you buy ten identical pairs you never need to worry when the tumble dryer eats one of them. You'll always have a pair.

The three scarves, 10 handkerchiefs and 10 ties also seem far too excessive to be considered "essential." I wore a suit every day for work for four years and managed to make do with a single plain, black woolen scarf I picked up from a stall on Fifth Avenue after 9/11 (and I still wear it to this day.) Scarves don't exactly get a lot of wear and tear, so it's not "essential" to have spares.

Similarly, your pocket handkerchief should match your shirt - white, as I've suggested above - and is not for wiping your snotty nose on. Therefore I see no reason why you'd ever need to own more than one.

As for ties? You could extend your collection to one for every day of the week and still have more than you'd reasonably ever need to wear. Just make sure one is black, for that aforementioned funeral.

My modest adjustments have neatly trimmed 3 suits, 6 shirts, 3 pairs of shoes, 2 scarves, 9 handkerchiefs and 4 ties from the equation (saving any man hundreds of dollars on his "essential" wardrobe) and personally, I think you'd still be amply equipped - if not more so - to deal with any sartorial situation you might get faced with.

That, my friends, is the essence of an "essential" wardrobe - not Torsten's bloated indulgence.

Which just goes to show that not all fashion gurus pass muster on the Internet; and with that in mind, they'd be wise to stop laying down the law about what men "should" and shouldn't wear.

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