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In praise of male elegance

In beauty, behavior, business, culture, design, domestic life, Fashion, life, men, Style, urban life, US, work on November 25, 2012 at 12:12 am
English: Lithograph of Brooks Clothing Store, ...

English: Lithograph of Brooks Clothing Store, Catherine Street, New York City, in 1845 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Loved this recent story about how (some!) American men are dressing better, in The New York Times:

Men are notoriously averse to shopping…

So why do men appear to be shopping for themselves in record numbers?

Men’s wear sales are surging at double-digit rates. Suits, sports coats and outerwear, nearly all bought by men themselves, are leading the gains, according to Steve Pruitt, founder of the fashion and retail consulting firm Blacks Retail. Blacks projects that men’s suit sales will be up 10 percent this fall and holiday season, and sports jacket sales will be up 11 percent, while women’s ready-to-wear sales remain flat.

“Men are the new women,” Bret Pittman, director of J. Crew’s Ludlow Shop in TriBeCa in Manhattan, told me when I stopped in recently for a tour of the new store, the prototype for a line that will feature men’s suits and tailored clothing.

As I write this, two gift-wrapped boxes await Jose in my closet, from Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers, with more sartorial goodies en-route for Christmas. He went to the dry cleaner’s tailor today to get three pairs of corduroy trousers altered — after I insisted. (The tailor agreed.)

A well-dressed man is a rare and lovely sight. If this is becoming a trend, I’m all for it.

Madison in the mid-40s, in Manhattan, is where you’ll find Brooks Brothers on the south end of the block and Paul Stuart — a 74-year-old shop named for the founder’s son — at the north end…keep heading north and you’ll find 111-year-old J. Press, all shops with classic, elegant, well-made clothing.

Brooks has everything from a smart black umbrella with a real bamboo handle, (a reasonable $60), to suits, shoes, pajamas, cologne, hats and leather briefcases. Their small shoe department has wonderful things, from dressy to casual. Paul Stuart, whose styles and colors are far more European, is not for the faint-of-heart or thin-of-wallet — a pair of socks is $48 and their sweaters and jackets roam to the four figures. Their cheapest shoe, a stunning black suede Italian loafer, is $562.

But some things are affordable, and fun — silk pocket squares and their knotted fabric cuff-links for $12. I love the quiet, old-school atmosphere and the jewel tones, in virtually every item, that are their trademark.

Elegance is an acquired taste.

My father, at 83 exploring Hong Kong as I write this, still dresses with great style, as he always has, which gave me a decided interest in dating — certainly marrying — a man who appreciates it as well. I still remember exactly what Jose wore on our first date 13 years ago, very much enjoying that he had bothered to dress up for the occasion; when I see guys in their 30s or beyond still schlubbing around in sneakers and caps and hoodies, like a bunch of 12-year-olds with no dough and less imagination, I sigh.

Male elegance has a few basic, classic components:

Fit

American men seem to have no idea that tailors even exist, as so many wear trousers, (even on their wedding day!), that puddle hopelessly atop their shoes. Too many clothes, certainly the cheaper ones, are laser-cut in China, with little or no attention to proper fit. Read GQ or Details or The Sartorialist for examples of how do it right.

Material

Learn the difference between cotton, polyester, nylon, wool, cashmere and rayon, calf leather, cordovan, suede. Read labels and feel the materials under your hand. Once you can tell the difference between cashmere and merino, (and your budget has no room for new cashmere), hit consignment and vintage shops for affordable options.

Color

Many men have absolutely no idea what colors look well on them, or awful. The color of your hair, (or lack of same), eyes and skin tone should all affect your choices  — including hats, scarves and eyewear. If you’re very pale, a white shirt and light gray suit are probably not the most attractive choices. Jose, being Hispanic, has a skin tone that allows him to wear some fantastically bold color choices and look terrific in them. A decent salesman or woman in a better quality men’s store can help. Men whose wives or partners have a great eye could do worse than let us help you edit your choices.

Grooming

Huge. The nicest pair of leather shoes will look like hell if you let the heels wear down, (hence the expression, well-heeled), don’t polish them frequently and forget to use heavy, solid wooden shoe trees after each wearing. Regular haircuts — including nose, ear and eyebrow trim for the over-40s — make a serious difference. Keep nails short and clean, and hands moisturized. A subtle cologne is a wonderful lagniappe.

Footwear

Financial Times columnist Peter Aspden recently described the challenge of finding weekend shoes:

By far the trickiest part of weekend dressing is footwear. Look: there is no smart casual in footwear. Smart is what you wear to work. Casual is trainers: comfortable, fashionable. A chairman of the Royal Opera House once declared that he never wanted to sit next to anyone wearing trainers. He was ridiculed. It was a seminal cultural-podiatric moment. We are the generation that invented trainers, and now we had earned the right to wear them, whenever, wherever.

Joe Ottaway, personal shopping consultant at Selfridges, grimaces. “I’m not a great trainer [note: Britspeak for sneakers, running shoes] fan,” he says. He admits that weekend footwear can be a thorny problem. “What is important is to find something that is age-appropriate.” It seems, not for the first time, that I have missed a key trend in men’s fashion. “The age of the well-dressed, well-groomed man is coming back.” And it means, beyond a certain age, no trainers. What age might that be? “25,” says Ottaway.

Accessories

Have fun! These include gorgeous silk pocket squares, (this one is $8 in jewel tones), lovely knee-high colored socks, cuff-links, a sterling belt buckle, a slim (possibly vintage) watch, great eyewear, a well-made hat, a snazzy duffel or backpack or briefcase. Frenchmen almost always add a fab scarf or muffler to their outfits, and there are many options out there; I like this striped one from Barney’s, by Paul Smith.

Take time, if being stylish appeals to you, to browse a few high-end shops, on-line or in person, to see what’s available. The king of this is British designer Paul Smith; a visit to his Fifth Avenue shop is always fun and inspiring.

Ladies, does a well-dressed man catch your eye?

Do you — gentlemen — pay attention to such matters?

  1. Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat.Com™ and commented:
    Great post, and I wholeheartedly agree!!

  2. And at what age do you stop wearing t-shirts with writing on?

    Jim

      • I do think the brands have spotted this trend as a new market and are for the first time marketing directly at men, and also subtly telling women to expect more. Much the same as when advertising first started to sell to women and made them into objects of desire, controlling how we perceive each other. Just markets finding new sales opportunities.

        The real question is how long it will take us all, men and women to learn that we are who we are, not the ideal media would have us strive to be. And can modern man cope with the stress of expectations as they rise? I’m not sure. It could create pendulum problems because the male is an aggressive beast at the best of times.

        Jim

      • Great point. I agree with you in the larger sense that we are all being marketed to. But I do admit, even then, to always enjoying the company of people with style, no matter their income level. It’s not about Big Name Designers, (I loathe logos and am not sure I own any that are immediately obvious) but the wit and charm of it all.

        I think men and women, since time immemorial, have shaped their perceptions of one another through dress and accessories and jewelry, so there’s nothing new in that. It is also — I think — a reflection of the times, here anyway, of economic insecurity. I have certainly upped my game considerably (i.e. dressing better and more carefully) as I do public speaking and meet new people in professional settings who are making snap judgments about me within seconds. As a freelancer always seeking new clients, I need and want their impression to be positive — I am not yet retired! :-)

        I agree as well that we all, beneath our finery (or lack of same) are deeply (we hope) human and valued as such. I love Jose every bit as much in his weathered old sweatpants as in his gray flannels, as he does me.

        But most sane men can handle the enormity of wearing polished shoes and a clean shirt. No?

      • Ah there is the two parts of the journey, clean and tidy, there seems to be a lack of general tidiness spreading throughout the land. I was in the military so ironing, shoe polish etc come as second nature. It was me who taught the kids to iron. I’m not sure about the enormity of polishing shoes. I think it is a guide to the person, and many no longer bother. More so I find in the working environment. Strange as I find it. Maybe because working life has changed so much. I have usually been the engineer going in to a clients workspace, not employed by them direct, so how I look reflects on who I represent. Many places don’t instill that anymore. Both by a lack of respect to the staff and also by a lack of expectations.

        Can’t bear a dirty shirt myself – I used to keep a spare in the van for emergencies during the day. Too much?

  3. If it’s necessary, I might just.

  4. :-)

    Waiting for the photo of you in black tie!

  5. I really got a real kick out of this post.

    It’s like the gentleman’s guideline to fashionable dress. Are you ponying up to become a staff writer at GQ?

    I happen to agree and the status of men’s dress is at such a dismal state that I personally get complimented often that I dress exceptionally well. Some of what you mentioned here I have never employed (the pocket square, the scarf) but I do have an affinity to great ties (which you didn’t mention), colourful (tastefully matching) socks and always well polished, well kept shoes. If anything, a man’s shoes must never be in a state of disrepair. Never.

  6. I like the idea of writing for GQ! One of my fantasy jobs would be to work as a sales associate for a high end men’s store selling the most beautiful clothes.

    I didn’t mention ties because I figure they’re probably already part of most men’s arsenal. The pocket square is fun, and a nice way to add a flash of color and pattern. Scarves are great — and I know you could easily wear that look in Toronto, both for warmth and style. I bet Holt’s has some gorgeous ones. Not sure (?) if you read the Sunday NYT but today’s Style section has a bunch of well-dressed men featured today in Bill Cunningham’s pics, and many of them are sporting scarves or mufflers.

    Unkempt shoes are indeed a disaster, both as a waste of a good pair of costly shoes and a sign that the wearer is careless.

    I’m not surprised to hear you dress well — I would expect nothing less from someone working in the field of design! :-)

  7. Frankly these days J. seems better turned out that me (a shocking turn of events that must be rectified with cashmere, yes?). And I agree utterly – a well dressed man is a sight to lift your whole day.

  8. Curious about the cologne. Husband has put it on his Christmas wish list. I am concerned about the scent-sensitive population (although none in our social circle). He is too, as he is asking for lotion as opposed to cologne. Do you think I am being overly “‘Canadian”, worrying about offending people we don’t even know? Or is scent going to go the way of the 8-track?

  9. I will now have ZZ Top stuck in my head for the rest of the day. :P But of course, sharp dressed projects confidence, intelligence, and of course, elegance–all eye catching qualities.

  10. As a fellow New Yorker, you know how much that stuff matters here.

  11. i love baseball. i love watching films of old baseball games. i love seeing the men wearing suits and such in the stadiums way back when.

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