Five paradigms of casual clothing: Which do you wear?
Although casual clothing is far more susceptible to fashions than tailored clothing, it is possible to organize it into certain groups, or paradigms.
These groups, such as preppy clothing or workwear, often have their roots in particular parts of the world or periods of history - but such is the variety of brands today that they are all effectively on offer.
I would suggest that it is worth the reader keeping these paradigms in mind when deciding what casual clothing to buy into.
Because while many of them overlap, each has its own aesthetic – in terms of cut, texture and colour – and this can make them hard to mix together.
An Italian lambskin-leather jacket may look too polished and smooth to mix with rough, broad-legged cargo pants - slim, sharp chinos might be better. And the cargo pants could better suit a battered old horsehide jacket.
Below I’ve suggested five rough paradigms of modern casual clothing.
They come with a lot of caveats. Each overlaps with the other to some extent. Each has splinter groups that could be subsumed or split off, depending on your definitions. Each has sub-groups that are often easier to define (polo, motorbikes, Mods).
They pretty much all derive from sport or war.
But I do think this division is a good starting point, as a way for men to start working out why that Canali blouson doesn’t work with those Cabourn jeans, or on the flip side, why a Shetland sweater is a natural match for corduroy trousers.
As ever, interested to hear everyone’s views.
Paradigm 1: British country
Images: Drake's, Cordings and Barbour
The style of the British landed gentry has arguably been the dominant force in western menswear since the ‘great renunciation’ of the late 18th century. And it's certainly influenced hundreds of brands and designers, particularly in the US.
This is elegant clothing, often tailored, but in cloths suited to country pursuits. Greens and browns with pops of bright colour; traditional waterproofing techniques and lots of emphasis on texture.
Primary clothing: Tweed, corduroy or moleskin trousers, waxed jackets, checked jackets and tattersall shirts, pops of colour, suede footwear, and decoration with pictures of animals.
Secondary clothing: Cardigans, fisherman’s sweaters, covert coats, wellingtons or riding boots, flat caps, quilted jackets, Shetland sweaters, and tweed suits or hunting jackets (bellows pockets, bi-swing back, poacher's pocket).
Sample brands: Drake’s, Cordings, Barbour
Paradigm 2: American prep
Images: Ralph Lauren, J Press and Tommy Hilfiger
In many ways, American preppy clothing is a re-working of English country clothing, with clothing such as bright trousers and tweed jackets in common.
But such has been the growth of American fashion over the past 50 years that brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have made some of these items their own. And the way they are worn (often involving more sports, and in a more urban context) is also quite distinct.
Primary clothing: Oxford button-down shirts, boat shoes, club ties, varsity jackets and polo shirts, cordovan and saddle shoes, and madras made into anything.
Secondary clothing: Seersucker, shorts with embroidered symbols, cable-knit jumpers, ropes or ties used as belts, the baseball cap and polo coat, white ducks, bow ties, boating blazers and horizontal-stripe knit ties, the navy blazer and go-to-hell brightly coloured trousers
Sample brands: Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, J Press
Paradigm 3: Italian smooth
Images: Zegna Couture, Corneliani, Ermenegildo Zegna
It’s often striking, given their number, how similar most Italian menswear brands are.
Without the label you’d be hard pressed to say whether a grey-cashmere sweater with brown-suede details was Brioni, Corneliani or Cucinelli.
They do vary, of course, but there is a definite Italian aesthetic in casual clothing. It can be characterized as simple pieces in muted colours (particularly navy and grey), in sharp, clean cuts and often soft, luxurious materials.
The simple, chic aesthetic is also to an extent Scandinavian and French; but the Italians dominate.
Primary clothing: Cashmere sweaters, loafers, white trousers, rollnecks, smooth leather jackets and brown suede.
Secondary clothing: Half-zip sweaters, perhaps worn over the shoulders, chinos, exotic leathers, micro-fibre waterproofs, shirts undone one button more than usual. And bare ankles
Sample brands: Zegna, Brunello Cucinelli, Canali
Paradigm 4: Workwear
Images: RRL, Nigel Cabourn, Filson
Functionality without those associations with the upper classes. Working the cattle and working the railroads. Tough, practical clothing where style is a coincidence.
A heavy influence from military clothing and from everyday pursuits: leather flight jackets to neckerchiefs to duck boots.
This is a broad category, but its materials and cuts are largely distinct. Lots more cotton (particularly denim and canvas) and leather; bigger, higher or shorter cuts to aid the practicalities of use.
Primary clothing: Jeans and denim jackets, khakis and leather jackets, checked shirts, waxed boots and T-shirts
Secondary clothing: Overalls and cargo pants, neckerchiefs and watch caps, elements of old sportswear like baseball caps and sweatshirts
Sample brands: Nigel Cabourn, Filson, Levi’s
Paradigm 5: Sportswear
This is clearly the fifth paradigm. It has probably had the biggest influence of all five over the past 50 years, from the dominance of the trainer/sneaker to modern athleisure.
However, it is not an area we cover much, so I’ll leave it without definition or explication.
There are many things these groups leave out and many they subsume.
All overlap: 1 and 2 share club ties and tweed; 2 and 3 share loafers and sweaters-over-the shoulders; 4 and 1 share quilted jackets and flat caps.
Brands overlap too. Although Drake’s is perhaps mostly defined by English country, it also indigo scarves and Italian polo shirts.
But separating them is useful. It’s the reason I usually wear my Chapal flight jacket with my Armoury chinos, but my Valstar suede jacket with Incotex chinos. Each pair is cut with the same look in mind.
So when a reader asks whether he should buy Chapal or Valstar, my response is not normally about quality or price – it’s about style.
They can all be mixed and mixed well; but as with any area of menswear, it’s best to master the classic, established combinations, before moving on.
Which do you wear most - and which do you mix?