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Newbie Fashion Tips for Grown-Up Men

Newbie Fashion Tips for Grown-Up Men

Newbie Fashion Tips for Grown-Up Men

    Just over a month ago, I ran into a friend at a CES event. While I see this friend around town once in a while, this was the first time I’d seen him in a non-casual setting since Blogworld 4 months earlier. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he asked me an odd question: “Is this like your conference party outfit?”

    Indeed, I was wearing the exact same clothes I’d worn to the event four months earlier. Since he doesn’t usually see me dressed up, it stood out enough for him to remember. But that’s not the real point, here; the real point is that I have few clothes suitable for “adult” gatherings.

    I have a suit, of course, for weddings and funerals. (I haven’t had a job interview in 9 years, but if I did, it would be suitable for that, too.) And I have my day-to-day clothes, which aren’t awful but which aren’t anything to brag about, either. Functional casual, basically: jeans and khakis, an assortment of button-front shirts, some cotton sweaters.

    As a college professor, there’s not a lot of pressure on me to dress up. If anything, it’s just the opposite. For one thing, I interact regularly with younger people, mostly teenagers (I teach 100-level courses), and being too formal creates a barrier between my students and me. That might be ok in business or law (think John Houseman in Paper Chase) but for my classes and my teaching style, some level of rapport is crucial. For another thing, my fellow professors don’t exactly set the sartorial bar very high – and there’s a certain sense of bohemian “me-against-The-Machine” attitude expressed by violating “corporate” standards of dress.

    But mostly I dress the way I do because I’ve never really learned how to dress otherwise. Like a lot of my fellow geeks, fashion just wasn’t on the radar for me. Fortunately I have a brother who has always been very fashion-conscious, and he’d take me in hand every few years when my fashion sense got too out of touch with reason and social acceptability.

    Well, my friend’s off-hand comment was a wake-up call for me. I mean, I’m a grown man – I should have more than one pair of slacks and one shirt nice enough to wear to an industry event without embarrassing myself! So I set out to educate myself on some fashion basics – what shoes go with what kind of trousers, how to distinguish various sorts of dress shirts, and so on.

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    I did what any true-blooded geek does when he or she wants to find out about a new topic: I googled it. But what I found was scattered, often contradictory, and for a newbie like me, downright confusing. A lot of the information out there is tied to specific social contexts: the workplace, the nightclub, and dating, mainly. And a lot of it’s quite vague – the answer to most questions is “it depends on your personal style” which I’m sure it does, but what if you don’t know your personal style yet?!

    With some perseverance, a few trips to department stores, and the help of friends on Twitter, I managed to assemble the following rules. As with all rules, they’re meant to be broken – but only by people who know how to break them.  For the rest of us, this is a pretty good primer on basic men’s fashion.

    Dress Suits

    1. You eventually want to own three suits. Your first suit should be either navy blue or gray, possibly with a light chalk stripe (like a pinstripe, but softer), and in an all-season, medium weight.  Either of these colors will fit into most social settings. Your second suit should be the one you didn’t get the first time around. Your third should be black – not for funerals, but for black tie affairs. If you work in a field where suits are the norm, you’ll probably want more than three; once you’ve covered the basics, you can move on to more distinctive suits (pinstripes, different weights, unconventional colors, etc.).

    2. Suits are made of wool or cotton. Higher thread counts signify higher quality, but are ironically not as durable, so stick with something mid-range. Ask the salesperson to help you with this. (Yes, ask the salesperson. Suits are not self-serve.) Synthetic fibers need not apply.

    3. You never button the bottom button. Apparently, Edward VII got fat and couldn’t button his vest over his belly, so now nobody does. On a three-button jacket, you button the middle; the top button is optional. If you have a jacket with 4 or more button, you obviously know what you’re doing already.

    4. A gentleman carries a handkerchief in his front breast pocket. You don’t have to get fancy, just fold it square to fit and have 1/4” to 1/2” sticking out the top. Then proffer it as needed. And wash it after.

    Shirts

    1. Don’t wear your sleeves too short or too long. 1/4” to 1/2” of cuff should show beyond your jacket sleeve.

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    2. Shirts with button-down collars are not dress shirts. They’re sports shirts, so wear them with a sports coat. Polo players used to button their collars down so they wouldn’t flap up in their face while they played. (Are you beginning to sense a theme here? Fashion rules are largely dictated by what English gentleman and nobility did generations or even centuries ago. Sports coats? You wore them during sport, i.e. hunting. Regimental stripes on ties? They indicated your regiment in the British military. And so on.)

    3. If you unbutton your collar, remove your tie. You can wear a suit or sports coat without a tie – just ask Obama – but wearing a tie with an unbuttoned shirt looks sloppy.

    4. You can unbutton the top button always (provided you’re not wearing a tie), the second button usually, the third button only on disco night at the Rollerama.

    Trousers

    1. Wear your pants at your natural waist. Too high and you look like Grampa, too low and you look like a high school kid. Your waistband should sit 2-3 inches below your belly button.

    2. Pants should almost touch the ground without your shoes on. Jeans can be a little longer, since they shrink a bit when you wash them.

    3. One pleat, maximum. If you’re a big guy, like I am, you learned somewhere along the line that pleats are slimming. They’re not. At best, they look like you’re a big guy trying to look slimmer; at worst, they actually make you look heavier because they pull out across you, broadening your appearance. In any case, the job of a pleat is to maintain that crease sown the front of your pants. For pants without that crease (and many with it), pleats are unnecessary; for pants that need the pleat, they only need one.

    4. 1” to 1 1/2” cuffs. Or not. There’s nothing wrong with cuffs, there’s nothing wrong with no cuffs. They are understood, however, to be an older man’s style – not in a bad way, think sophisticated, experienced, distinguished, and conservative. For younger men, a cleaner line is generally preferred.

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    5. A useful piece of trivia for the American abroad: in British English, “pants” are underwear. So if, for instance, you are in London and get invited out and maybe your trousers are dirty from work, don’t say “I’d love to go out, I just need to go home and change my pants first.” And if someone should ask, “Why, are your pants dirty?”, don’t say, “Yeah, I always get my pants dirty at work.” You will be laughed at. Er, I assume.

    Shoes

    1. Pay attention to your shoes. Everyone else does. It’s hard for the non-fashion-maven to tell a more expensive suit from a less expensive one, a high-quality shirt from a medium-quality one, and so on. But everyone can tell cheap or poorly cared-for shoes. Buy the best ones you can afford, and take care of them. Polish them regularly (a few swipes with a wax-infused polishing cloth is often all it takes) and store them covered if you won’t be wearing them for a long time. Shoe trees, it turns out, are important: they not only hold the shape of the shoe but the cedar ones absorb moisture (and thus odors) which helps preserve the leather. (Aside: women tend to pay a lot of attention to men’s shoes. Keep that in mind when a) dating, and b) interviewing for a job.)

    2. Shoes are made of leather (besides sneakers). Anything not made of leather you can consider a non-shoe. Leather breathes and adapts to the shape of your foot. The soles don’t have to be leather, but the uppers do. (True story: as a young man, my brother was a car salesman here in Vegas. In the summer, the tarmac could get well over 150 degrees F. Standing out there with leather-soled shoes could give you second-degree burns! So they wore rubber soles, which melted after a month or two and had to be replaced.)

    3. You need more than one pair of shoes, but not too much more. Black oxfords (lace-up dress shoes), black loafers (slip-on shoes), brown oxfords or loafers, and you’re set (not counting your athletic shoes, of course). A pair of ankle-high boots in black or brown can substitute for the loafers. Ox-blood (burgundy) shoes are harder to find but in theory go with everything. You can pretty safely ignore white shoes.

    4. The shinier the shoe, the dressier. Matte-finish shoes – nubuck (that pebbly leather), suede, and distressed leather shoes are automatically compatible with jeans or khakis; shinier shoes might still go with jeans but it depends on the rest of your outfit, the dressier you are the shinier your shoes can be. If you can wear them with a suit, you probably can’t wear them with jeans, and vice versa.

    5. Shoes should be the same tone or darker than your pants. This is all the rule you need to know when trying to figure out what shoes to wear. This is why you never wear brown shoes with black trousers, but you can usually wear black shoes with brown trousers. When in doubt, wear black.

    Accessories

    1. Match your belt to your shoes. It doesn’t have to be a perfect match, as long as you wear a black belt with black shoes and a brown belt with brown shoes.

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    2. Match your socks to your pants. Again, it doesn’t have to be a perfect match – a little lighter or darker is fine. If you don’t have socks to match your pants, you can match your shoes, or just wear black socks.

    3. White socks are for sports. Only. Unless you are a) wearing sneakers, and b) doing something athletic in them, avoid white socks.

    4. Your tie should reach your belt. Anything short of your belt makes you look like a rube.

    5. Try a front-pocket wallet or money clip. This will save wear-and-tear on your back pocket (helping to avoid the heartbreak of “buttsquare”), help avoid pickpockets (a little – the good ones know…), and save your back. Plus: classy!

    6. You’re allowed one affectation. A fedora. A pocket watch. A bracelet or class ring. A vest (if you’re not wearing a three-piece suit). An expensive wristwatch. Pick one, but no more – give your whatever-it-is space to say whatever-it-says.

    If it feels like these rules are arbitrary and stifling, they are. Think of it like learning how to paint: first, you do a still-life (arbitrary) using just one color (stifling). Eventually you move up to two and three colors, then maybe a warm or cool palette, and your subjects might expand to include figures or landscapes. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can begin to press against the rules, juxtaposing non-complementary colors or painting unconventional subjects.

    In fashion as in art – style emerges not from a lack of rules but from a mastery of them, from making them serve you instead of the other way around. If you’re a geek like me, you need to dial a fresh start – clear your closets of all those conference freebie t-shirts, put a shine on your shoes, and burn your butt-crack pants. Ultimately, these rules are not at all about tamping down your personality but about learning how to express it. And unfair as it is, people will take you more seriously when you dress with a modicum of style.

    Anyone else have tips for the newcomer to the world of style? Give us your best advice in the comments.

    QUICK UPDATE: Comments are coming on this post faster than I can get them modded in. If your comment was sent but doesn’t show up, don’t send it again – it’s in my moderation queue and I’ll get to it as soon as I can. Thanks – loving all the great comments on this post!

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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