Dressing in the full traditions of men’s clothing can make one a caricature. It must be combined with a touch of originality.

There are blogs on men’s style that are fascinating for the depth of knowledge they demonstrate – over the role of a split yoke on a man’s shirt, over the line of a shoe’s waist. They inform many things about what I buy and what I wear. But I am often a little disappointed when I see images of the authors.

This is because they seem to want to be an embodiment of what is – necessarily – historical dress, and become an illustration from an old copy of Esquire. They take every aspect of, for example, early twentieth century English country wear, and they copy it. They wear the cord trousers, the tweed jacket, the checked shirt and the wool tie. They add the flat cap, the brogues and the bright socks. They may add a hunting jacket with leather padding on the shoulder to protect from the impact of a gun’s recoil, or a waxed Barbour jacket with bellow pockets to accommodate shells.

These items are all correct, historically. And the chances are they will be of the highest quality, complement the wearer’s skin tones and fit him perfectly – as he takes great care over these elements as well. But it is just mimicry. He is in costume.

Even Prince Charles, on a hunt around Balmoral, doesn’t follow the traditions of hunt clothing this fastidiously. And he has an excuse for wearing something similar – he is actually hunting, he is actually English and all his forbears wore similar pieces throughout their history.

The style aficionado who copies it is just dressing up. He has none of the creative element that can make dressing so enjoyable, and so personal.

Let me give an officewear example. I like wearing pinstripe suits. I’m a fan of red socks, as well as double-breasted jackets and patterned handkerchiefs. But I know that if I wore all of these pieces in one combination I would look like a caricature. I might as well top it off with a bowler hat, grow a moustache and wander down Fleet Street twirling my umbrella.

So I wear red socks with more understated suits. Perhaps a plain grey flannel and open-necked white shirt. I rarely wear a handkerchief and a tie at the same time, as for me it is probably a little too much. And my double-breasted suits are not navy-blue pinstripe.

It is also fun to add touches of individuality – to experiment with odd waistcoats in formal suits, though there is no tradition of this that I am aware of; to combine smart clean Converse with wool suits, as I like the contrast of smart and casual; to wear darker coloured, wool handkerchiefs in odd jackets when worn casually. This is individuality and creativity. It is what makes dressing fun, rather than study.

I think that men who are very interested in their clothes are part geeky, petty academic and part creative, artistic aesthete. Everyone needs the former to drive them into reading and investigation, to be interested by the history and traditions of men’s attire. But everyone also needs the latter, to have the kind of mind that created these traditions in the first place. (Beau Brummel and the Duke of Windsor are heroes for being precisely the opposite of these geeky facsimiles.)

Unfortunately, when men have too much of the first influence and not enough of the second, they end up looking like an extra in a costume drama.

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ethandesu

I hear where you are coming from in looking like costume, often if you don’t work in the industry it’s hard to wear the things we see Florentine tailors wear, but coming from Sydney where tradtion in clothing is largely ignored, the whole converse with a suit look is even more costume, only this costume is hip teenager in Hollywood. If I could choose between looking like Cary Grant or Gianni Agnelli, or being hiip and different like every other young guy, I’d go classic. That way when my kids look at pics of me in my twenties, I will look like someone classically well presented, not in 2000’s costume.
Great blog! I’m enjoying the read!

Levi

To paraphrase Robert Ludlum’s “The Ambler Warning”:

“Judhing from his pinstriped navy suit, boldly striped shirt and deep red tie, the man was obviously an Englishman, or at least aspired to look like he was.”

Made me think back fondly of this post.

Michael

So am I wrong to wear a bowler hat, is that ‘costume’?

Michael

Thank you for the clarification, I should have read it more thoroughly; I abhor standing out unecessarily, but do have a penchant for a decent hat.

Winny

Its funny though that the mix and match outfits you describe are as much a preset costume as those you decry, only a more contemporary one.

Style Arbiter

Costume wearer personified….

Eli Hardof

What’s so wrong with costume? I have several suits that have a distinctly “Golden Era” look to them and I love wearing them in the winter with my custom made felt fedora. If I look like I jumped out from a Bogey movie so be it..it’s a statement. When a man tries to be creative in his choice of clothing, either by mixing styles or adding that little unusual twist…if he managed to get people to take note of his look…then it’s costume in my book…and nothing wrong with that.

Roger

I like this article a lot, it expresses much of what I’ve considered incongruent about the online ‘men’s style’ movement.
Sometimes it looks as though people are thinking themselves into an era or social circle. Imagining themselves sipping tea in a Lyon’s Tea Shop (now defunct), or doing generic ‘gentlemanly pursuits.’ The problem is they confuse mores and manners, and other so-called gentlemanly things society feels it has lost, with the clothes people wore when such manners were considered still intact.

I listen to Handel and have an interest in 18thC cultural life, but I don’t dress like Handel. People do tend to wear costumes and the closer in time period (the 40s/50s) the less removed and thus less incongruent it appears.

As your article argues, engaging with style is not about resurrecting a ghost of style intact, but about preserving the timeless elements and allowing them to live alongside new and fitting additions that complement it. Style needs to be alive, not a museum piece being curated.

Alexander

The ‘problem’ is that, as men, we are inherently geeks in no matter what the subject matter is we take an interest in.

For some it’s football (those who know every game result, trophy history etc, obsess over fantasty football etc)

For others, it’s cars.

Some, bird-watching.

Some, train-spotting.

For others, it’s clothes… Look at any style website which is for menswear, be it denim forums like ‘Superfuture’ or Savile Row aficionado websites and the discourse becomes incredibly geeky and detailed (have partaken in these discussions sometimes myself!) and about getting every last detail ‘correct’. Unusually, and I think unlike women’s sites, they are not necessarily about how you look in the clothes, but about being ‘right’ in whatever chosen manner you of style you have chosen to adopt.

“Your jeans aren’t selvedge????”
“Your shoes aren’t benchmade in Northampton????”

I think it’s just how we are.

Silver Focks

I agree that much of the discussion on men’s style blogs is geeky in nature. It’s about being correct and about minutia that doesn’t interest most people. But that’s part of male nature.

Anonymous

Dear Simon,

I totally agree with your post.
I experienced recently in the Underground 2 schoolgirls whispering that I look like Charley Chaplin when I was wearing a Borsalino Fedora hat and a bespoke single breasted navi suit with a tie.
It was not even a bowler. Just a fedora hat. And the suit was something you could see on any businessman. But anyway – some things are so seldom nowadays that they do quite a statement and often look on the border between smart and silly.
Same is with bow ties. Some bow ties look great, but you can’t walk 100m without causing smile in people’s faces.

swerdlin

Yes I understand where you come from completely in this blogpost. I was recently reading another mens classic style blog which insisted on wearing suspenders!
It really put me off going further into that particular website. The line where nice style crosses into total anachronism is rather obvious in my opinion.

Incognito

most people who decry ‘suspenders’ or Braces are yet to try it! Like most, i was raised on the low-rise belted pair of trousers.

With my increasing sartorial education and chutzpah, i tried braces and i am now a life-long convert!
The aesthetic benefits outweigh any ill-educated sniggerings – just eschew those clip-on types; no matter how much the Italians champion them.

Anonymous

I don’t follow? Admittedly, i have very limited experience with Bespoke tailoring, but they don’t affix (or produce) your braces?

I understand the apprehension with braces (i blame Gordon Gekko) and i almost always wear them as underwear (as in they are not seen) but sized braces not the ‘one size fits all’ model serves my needs.

YMMV