- Jun 26, 2005
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The Day the rules died All that advice in those clothes books you’ve been reading is largely obsolete. They are valuable mostly as curios. Are there some interesting nuggets in them, sure? Is it important to reference the past? I think so. But the actual formulae a lot of classic clothing authors have written about are gone. And those who are convinced there is a formula and it is completely covered by the past are trying to pretend the world they remembered is not gone. The last few such books written of any import at the close of the 20th century usually copied or relied heavily on dressing styles from the 1920s and 30s but also could cover men’s styles right through the 1960s. At the time they were published they still very much applied to a greater or lesser extent (Some of the books presented not what was acceptable but what the author thought preferable) but they were issued right before the great sartorial cataclysm that we now find ourselves in. It reminds me of the worlds right before the American Civil war or the great war and how that idyllic life evaporated forever giving way to a short violent period followed by a more elegant, more comfortable one. Of what use are style rule books for men on how they are expected to dress when no one expects them to dress that way anymore? Sartorially speaking, men no longer live by other’s rules and are free to choose to wear tailored clothing as a means to show off their knowledge of the finer things. The suit and tie have become costume rather than remaining “work clothes” or “just clothes”. Not the costume of the uniform but the luxury costume of dress up. A man chooses a suit as often to show that he can afford a beautiful suit as he does to show that he is hard working, dependable and trustworthy. We are speaking of wearing jousting armor every day rather than the uglier, thicker battle armor. The question is how did these rules die so suddenly? The so called rules were killed off by the Dot Com revolution, the casual workweek and which led to the dissolution of tailored clothes as an enforceable obligation. I think the rules were very much to blame for men disliking tailored clothes. Who wants to be put upon? The rules were mostly enjoyed by people telling other people they weren’t managing it right or weren’t part of the club. Perhaps American men have had enough of that. Obligatory decorum killed the fedora and it might have done the same to the suit. Somehow the suit survived where the fedora became extinct. Probably because the hat causes attention to be focused on a man while a suit if dark and plain enough deflects it. American men by and large do not like to call attention to themselves; except for times and places of their own choosing. Additionally, the suit is neutral enough to escape any permanent negative associations in spite of innumerable attempts from all directions to defame it. For our purposes, clothing rules can be broadly cut up into sections: 1. Rules that are imposed on one by an employer or by their class/circle 2. Rules of propriety that include everyone 3. Aesthetic beauty and secondary sexual enhancement. 4. Rules of personal comfort and practicality 5. Rules of tailoring construction and practicality Rules 1 and 2 no longer apply I think it is the first two which are no longer with us. The age when an employer could really lean on a man to wear certain clothing is pretty much done for. I think this might have been what caused resentment for the suit and tie as an obligation to wear in all its badly fitting, Dacron polyester glory. Clothes were also once used as a signaler that you belonged to a group and while this has not completely disappeared, the touchstones are different. Casual business dress and the competition for intellectual capital created this lapse in expectations that if you wanted to get on, you had to put on. At first blush perhaps the thought of men no longer having to wear suits to the office is a worrisome one. However, it may not be so. It could be that now that the suit isn’t a “school uniform” to wear with resentment; it is now a locus for personal adornment and expression. Certain circles appreciated different clothing choices for men. The more affluent and enlightened of the Eastern seaboard have always had a predilection towards English styles for men. It is one of the rare places where a pink shirt is acceptable. Rules of propriety were/are those times when no matter who you are or what you do, you are expected to dress in a certain manner. Thus even if your day job involves overalls, you are expected to wear a suit for whatever restaurant you go to. These rules have been virtually nonexistent for a long time. The only time you see them is as a request on an invitation to a specific social gathering. Rules 3 and 4 are still with us but are currently in a state of flux and experimentation. Then there are visual rules which are not only objective but somewhat universal. A given profession, industry, city or culture likes to look at and judges as masculine certain color and texture combinations even if they cannot always be expressed or are rarely worn by the observers. Many of them seem to be set in stone until they are challenged or cast down. More often in America and to a certain degree England the desire to be an individual plays havoc with standard colors or pattern choices. Taking shirts as an example, in America it is more often color and in England more often pattern that gets challenged. Although this mostly applies to shirts and depending on the item these national approaches can easily be switched and sometimes are in accord. The color, pattern and texture rules tie in somewhat with the idea of male secondary sexual characteristics which can either be concealed or enhanced. This ideal or rule cannot exist by itself but rather needs to be linked with comfort and practicality which in turn need to be legitimized through tailoring. Thus how a man should look is a function of his culture (whether that is a national one, a social or sub-set one or an industrial one) which is modified by the level of comfort he expects and how practical the design is for his every day expected level of convenience and can only be realized if the tailoring skills and science can produce the look to a logical degree. What does this mean? Take the soft, natural shoulder of the traditional American suit. It fits in with our way of life. A man is self sufficient, in need of no propping up. He is unaffected, approachable, casual and effortlessly powerful. In some ways it makes the same point as the very different English suit but through different means. It happens to fit in well with the slouchy way American men stand and sit. Perfect for collapsing into a leather armchair with a scotch, thus it meets the comfort test. The next test is the practicality and well padded shoulders get caught getting out of taxis and such. Last, can the state of tailoring art produce such a shoulder on a scale large enough to maintain a cultural impact at an affordable price? Rule 5 is very much alive Although it may be dwindling from a lack of skilled craftsman, the concept of tailoring is alive as a necessity and due to demand. The amount of men who want custom or well made suits is dwarfing the possible output. In any case, the principles of Western tailoring that a man’s body should be basically outlined and neither too fitted nor too fully tailored is a concept that does not change that much because it reflects the manly sobriety and modest vision of power of our democratic traditions. No well adjusted man wants to be anything but the image of an Anglo-American gentleman. No superfluous adornment, no gaudiness, no radical cuts, styles or details. Really except for quality of cloth and construction which is an ideal all its own for this sort of fellow, the difference between the most inexpensive suit and the best designed and tailored is minute enough that one has to have a somewhat critical eye to appreciate it. It would be a mistake to assume that because the rules no longer apply that they have been cast down or completely discarded. Chunks that make sense are still employed and indeed rediscovered. It would be fairer to say that the people most bound by the old rules will continue to be those who make the clothes. A lot of new innovations will take place too but the classical frame work of the suit, shirt tie and shoes will be both maintained and refined. The experimenting continues but I think the Anglo-American drive to be individual, respected, and admired. Thus, the old gravitas-authoritas-dignitas principle will continue to keep men in the suit, shirt and tie. I also think we will gravitate in America back to clothes more suitable for our physiques and lifestyles which will mean the true natural shoulder will prevail, that unassuming all-American jacket silhouette. I think it will remain more grown up with pleated pants and finer cloths and that it will be adorned with richer more luxurious accessories picked up from the Italians, French and English but it will be an updated version of our heritage.