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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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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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