Friday, June 1, 2012

Menswear Basics with Gail Carriger

In honor of Father's Day, Fashionable Reader, I bring you a brief sally into menswear.

In my experience, men can be very difficult to dress. The ones who have an interest in fashion can often be the worst to deal with. For they know that there is a code to be hacked in manipulating others through image, so they are extra paranoid about it.

My approach it to show them images and ask for imput. Which one do you like? How do you want to dress? What kind of impression do you want to give? I've got some tips inherent in my Dressing for Conventions rant as well.

I advise trying to focus attention in on the clothing itself, rather than the man who wears it. Ask a man who he wants to look like and he'll say "Brad Pitt" or "George Clooney" of "James Bond." That's hopeless. Better to ask what he wants to look like. What kind of impression does he want to give? Start directing his attention to the clothing rather than the man underneath it.

 For example, very few body types can carry of this look:

 But a great many out there can do this one, and look marvelous.

Suits 101

 I think that every man should own at least two suits ~ one grey and one black. These will hit pretty much every necessary event from weddings to funerals, and you can mix and match for casual occasions, like so:

This is a very modern look with the skinny trousers and mix of brown elements, but you get the idea. He's taken the black trousers from one suit and put them with the grey blazer of the other. How come he gets away with mixing chocolate brown, tobacco brown, grey, black, and a patterned tie? He kept all his lines clean and stuck with neutral colors.

 A brown vintage version.

To experiment with color, the base components should be more matched, like so:

He's done all black with grey trousers and then two pops of matched red. Remember, the color will draw attention instantly, so if you want to rock the yellow socks, make certain your shoes are polished to a mirror shine because people will be looking at them!

But I am getting a little advanced here, shall we go back to the basics?

Those two suits?

Here's a break down of the necessary elements.

1. Choose an English or an Italian cut.

2. In both black and grey.
Because of intended use, I always suggest the grey be of a lighter fabric than the black. Also, while cool, I am against linen, it wrinkles too easily.

A black suit is for: weddings that are formal, evening, autumn and winter, and/or inside that don't specify white tie, evening dinners and events, funerals, first time meetings with executives from foreign countries, any afternoon event that might lead into evening. Because this will serve your black tie needs the trousers should not be cuffed. Tuxes, for the modern man, are usually so infrequently worn that it's OK to rent. So long as when you rent you make certain to get the right size.

A grey suit is for: weddings that are informal, morning or afternoon, spring and summer, and/or outside that don't specify black tie, outdoor formal events that do not specify mourning jackets, christenings, lunchtime appointments, morning occasions. Try to go for slightly lighter greys rather than charcoal,. Silvers, steels, blue tinged, or even dove tones. Think about eye color and complexion when selecting the tone of grey.

What about brown? Serves the same as grey but for formal occasions will require all new accessories, so I'd opt for grey if you can.

Blue? Has a nice vintage feel and I actually like a blue suit a lot. In lighter hues it could serve instead of the grey but is a daring choice. Navy has similar problems to brown.

3. Single breasted jacket. 
Looks best on most body types. Double breasted adds width and bulk. Yes. It. Does. I know, honey, you love it. It makes you feel a tough and all mafia-ish. Well, it also makes you look fat. Nash. If you're rail thin and you want to rock the vintage look, than why are you reading this blog? We are talking basics here, not advanced costuming. I also suggest a notched narrower collar, but do experimented with various different style jackets. Remember the jacket MUST fit you in the shoulder, and around the back and middle, hems and cuffs can be taken up.

Jacket button rule?

From the top down . . .


Only two buttons?

From the top down . . .
Sometimes but mostly never

Remember, however, to unbutton all of them when sitting.

1964  The Victoria & Albert Museum

4. Flat front trousers.
For the effing love boys! FLAT FRONT. Never ever pleated. Do you like the crotch poof? Argh. I don't know why they even manufacture pleated anymore. Always bring the shoes you intend to wear with with you to try on suits, so you can check the length of the trouser. Easier to shorten than the lengthen.

For more on the silhouette of a suit try Put This On.

5. Crisp white skirt.
With standard cuffs and collars. Leave the fancy ones for costumes. Again, this should fit the shoulder and neck and I suggest trying a "slim" or "modern" cut even if you are on the larger side. These terms really meant that the shirts are made to fit closer to the body and can be more flattering as a result, adding less volume. They often wear better under a jacket because they have less bulk. They also look better tucked in and don't poof as much.

6. A relatively skinny black tie.
Black will serve for both suits and most needs so if you only want to buy one tie. If there are formal occasions in your future you might need a black bow tie as well. Yes, ready-tied is fine.

7. Trouser (or Dress) Socks.
"When wearing dress pants or casual pants, apart from jeans, the color of your socks should be dictated by the color of your pants and not by the shade of your shoes." From Ask Men

8. Black formal shoes.
I leave the style up to you. I dislike a square toe, and kind of like a pointy modern look, but if you're struggling I'd opt for something simple. Oxfords are a great choice, wingtips if you want a little flash, spectators if you want a lot.

That is really all you need. Amazing.

 1960s  The Victoria & Albert Museum

Packing for a trip?

Mix up your suits for other events. Use the grey trousers where you might wear jeans for a more formal daytime look. Invest in some nice colored fitted t-shirts (blue, green, graphic black & white) for less formal occasions for under the jacket. Add a great pair of dark wash boot-cut non-distressed jeans, and one or two fancy patterned shirts, a good trench or warm overcoat or a black leather blazer (depending on the weather) and you have the perfect wardrobe suited to almost any occasion.

Suit Samples

 Right is Lounge Suit  1911  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Modern and vintage takes on the grey suit. Note that the modern one is generally a slimmer cut and has been paired with a faint check shirt and brown accessorizes for a very contemporary twist? The vintage look paired grey with blue, a classic combination that never gets old (joke intended).

 Right is 1961  The Victoria & Albert Museum

Black formal suits modern and vintage. Again, note the looser cut in the vintage look? But otherwise little has changed. Although both vintage examples are three piece suits, which brings us to . . .

Addendum . . . Going Retro

So you have your two classic suits, what next?

The 3 Piece Suit.
I always suggest if a matched vest is offered for your suit that you spring for it. Why? Because it adds an instant vintage component to your look.

 James Bond in a grey 3 piece, the vest has a small shawl collar.

 Modern takes on the vest are both collarless. In the first we see a casual grey version without a tie and with brown shoes, and the second is a formal take with all the trimmings.

Jean Patou in that late 1920s wearing with a double breasted cross over vest with a shawl collar under a single buttoned jacket.

Shawl collars are difficult to find now, but very vintage looking, so if you think you are only going to use the vest for costume and retro events than go for it.

As with jackets I strongly suggest single breasted vests.

Also, its a good idea to pay close attention to where the top button of the vest sits (the neckline's stance). Not only does this dictate how much of the tie is seen but it should be dependent on the stance of the jacket. If the jacked buttons higher, the vest should go higher up, as seen in the very first look. When jacket is buttoned you should see the top button of the vest, sometimes the second to the top.

There are some fun ways to pars out a 3 piece. For example:

Jean Patou 1924

The check suit.
Madmen has much to answer for, this is one of them. I suggest making certain you have the bases covered. Then, if you are ready, go vintage shopping and find some kind of outrageous check suit or sport coat. Why not? Break all the rules, rock a wide tie too!

A pull-over v-neck sweater is a good addition to a man's wardrobe. It adds that vintage feel when worn with the white shirt, suit trousers, and a tie. Good for sporting events, added warmth, or the very casual meet-up. I'd go for a nice neutral soft blue, grey, or taupe/mushroom.

The turtleneck.
The turtleneck with a suit is an . . . option. Be careful tough. It can look a bit pretentious.

"Happily, Woman is much more susceptible to external polish than Man is."
~ Etiquette for Ladies, c. 1850

Retro Rack is also on facebook where I post additional images and fashion thoughts.


  1. Great advice as always!

    I think this might be a regional thing, but in the UK, a black tie (at least with a dark coloured suit) is only really suitable for funerals. A dark coloured or grey patterned tie is a much safer choice for formal occasions and the office. Or a lighter/brighter colour in the same colour group as your shirt, if you're choosing a coloured shirt (which a lot of young men do, as white shirts tend to make youthful men look like overgrown public schoolboys!)

  2. so, where are good places to get not horribly expensive suits for tall men? My dear is 6'6", and thin and it's very hard to find good stuff to fit him. I love the brown examples for parsing out a 3 piece...

  3. That, i don't know. My ex was a big n'tall but not just tall. I'd try the more fashion trendy places, just to see. H&M and Banana Republic.


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