Thursday, April 10, 2008

Style Spy's Least-Favorite Oxymoron

Oh, it does Style Spy's heart a world of good when she discovers that the XY-Chromosomers are paying attention to their duds. A reader writes:

I have to give a presentation to some customers next week, so I need to dress business casual. Do you have any suggestions for business casual clothes that aren't nerdy? Something other than khakis and a button-down or polo shirt.

Oh, you men. On one hand, you have it so easy. There's really only a few variations on a few themes to play with. The uniform comes easy -- shirt, slacks, jacket. Maybe a tie. Maybe some cuff links. A sweater or cardigan for layering. Shoes. Voila, you're done. You never have to worry about hemlines rising and falling, whether your pantyhose have a run in them, or if your bra is visible underneath your blouse. Men don't have different kinds of support garments depending on what skirt they're wearing (or how fat they're feeling). Pull on those Jockeys and you're ready to go!

On the other hand... yawn. Honestly, I'm glad to the skies (for numerous reasons) that I'm not a man. Women's clothes are much more fun than men's. There is no Christian Lacroix Haute Couture Homme. And men's shoes, while usually less precarious and blister-inducing -- nowhere near as exciting.

The fine line that a well-dressed man has to walk is how to work the formula without lapsing into fashion turpitude. Throw into the mix that a guy probably has a job he goes to five days a week where he would like to not be mocked by his fellow employees, and I can see why it's so easy to slide down the slippery slope of sartorial laziness until he is trapped at the bottom of the deep, dark, Canyon of the Pleated Khakis and Polo Shirt.

Gentlemen, try not to wear polo shirts (unless you're golfing). Especially the piqué kind that have a design of some sort (leaves, for example, or some sort of plaid) printed on them. You know, like this:


Oh, this just makes me cringe...

This is the male version of the woman's I've Given Up Outfit (brightly-colored sleeveless knit top or t-shirt, baggy cropped pant, brightly patterned floral- or novelty-print short-sleeved shirt, and probably embellished low-heeled slides or -- worst of all -- flip-flops. You know, like this:


Even the model looks embarrassed and she was paid to wear this!

Are you wearing this outfit? Take it off and burn it. RIGHT THIS INSTANT.)

But back to "business casual," a phrase that grates on Style Spy's nerves like nails on a chalkboard...

As with women's clothing, the key to looking good in men's clothing is in the fit. American men's clothing tends to be cut enormously wide. The shirts are huge and billowing from shoulder to hem, and the pants are baggy and double-pleated. If you are a guy who's on the trim side, especially, try to avoid any labels by American designers that feature flags of any sort in their logos or advertising iconography (you know which ones I mean). The clothing will envelop you and make you look like you're a twelve year-old wearing your big brother's hand-me-downs. I repeat: wearing clothes that are too big for you has the effect of making you look younger, less pulled-together, less authoritative. This is not the look anyone is going for, especially in the workplace.

Also, gentlemen, please hem your pants. If you are lucky enough to find a pair of pants that fit you and are also the right length, take 'em right on home. But nothing looks more slovenly than pants that are too long and puddle up around your shoes. Here are a pair of properly hemmed pants

(click on all photos for links)

Nice-looking, flat-front, great all-purpose pants. These are by Hugo Boss, which is a label that tends to be cut slim. They break once right at the shoe and notice the lack of pleats. The most common... um, shall we say figure flaw that men worry about is extra weight in the misdsection. Gentlemen, wearing great big pleated pants will not camouflage a beer belly. It's just extra bulk and volume around an area that already has extra bulk and volume.

I really like this great casual cotton jacket. It pulls together a look without being as formal as a wool suit jacket or sports coat.

Here's a basic shirt with a sharp cut

In general I disapprove of clothing made in sizes S-M-L (except for t-shirts and sweatshirts) because the sizing is never precise enough and therefore the fit can be sloppy, but more and more manufacturers are utilizing this cost-cutting strategy. So try everything on.

Good shirt with a nice stripe, if you want something with a little more oomph. Calvin Klein is another line that tends to be good for the narrower guy. Another clue can be found in the models wearing any given product. Note the "edgy" haircut here. If you're looking for something on the hip side, stay away from the products modeled by square-jawed lumberjacks with crew cuts.

Another huge nerd signifier is the rubber-soled shoe. You know, the big chunky kind whose laces are always coming untied. Invest in a good pair of hard-soled shoes.

Yes, it's more money than a pair of Chuck Taylors (and I have nothing against Chucks per se, just not at work), but men's shoes are far less subject to the whims of fashion than women's are and even if you spend $300 on them, you're going to wear them for the next ten years. You won't get nearly as good a return on that 400" big-screen plasma high-def stereophonic space-age polymer television you've been drooling over in the electronics store.

Perfect, plain, classic, and you could wear these with a pair of dark-washed jeans and a good shirt on a date and not look like a slob.

More good slacks

and some excellent shoes

A good slip-on can be hard to find. You want to find something sleek and sharp without veering into Guido the Killer Pimp territory. The way to do that is to look for a slip-on with a high vamp, one that comes up high on your instep. These are fantastic. You cannot go wrong with Cole Haan shoes. They are a little more expensive than most department store shoes, but they are extremely high quality and will last you for years. Again, these could be worn with a nice pair of jeans to dress them up.

This has a very subtle floral pattern in it. I like a guy confident enough to wear posies. (And, Kenneth Cole tends to cut narrow.) Also note all the shirts I'm showing are long-sleeved. I have a thing a against short-sleeved shirts. (And heaven forbid you should wear a short-sleeved shirt with a tie -- anathema!) Short-sleeved shirts are for weekends. Long-sleeved shirts are for work. "But I work in a super-casual enviiiiiiiiironment," I hear you whining. Honestly? I don't care. You're an adult homo sapiens. You have opposable thumbs and a checking account. You control your environment.

Of course, when you're really ready to step up, you can explore the world of bespoke tailoring. I have a dear XY friend who is and always has been an exceedingly trim guy. He has a naturally narrow build with not a superfluous ounce and is one of those rare individuals who actually has to work to put mass on his body. This is great in many ways, but means that buying clothing off the rack is a constant challenge -- he's absolutely drowned by most men's clothes. This past year he was treated to some custom-made clothing -- a suit, some shirts, some slacks. I think it is safe to say the clouds parted and the angels sang when he put those clothes on for the first time. Not only does he look fantastic in them, they feel better. He's not always futzing with them, hoiking them up or searching for a way to re-distribute the extra bunched-up fabric that doesn't make him look like he has some weird growth somewhere on his body. Bespoke is expensive and not available to everyone, but even things you buy in a department store can usually be altered in ways that will make them fit better.

And lastly, before you get all up my nose about how you don't have the time to worry about all this, let me just nip that in the bud. Trust me, it takes no longer to put on a pair of well-fitted pants than it does to get into those khaki trash bags you've been schlumping around in. Pants is pants and you put them on one leg at a time no matter what size they are.

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Susan B said...

[standing ovation] BRAVA!!! BRAVA!!!

(and an LOL at the "I've given up" outfit.)

CarInUtah said...

THANK YOU Style Spy. Now if I could just get my husband to read this post. And yet not read the "comments" section 'cause I'm getting ready to rip on him.

My husband works in the high tech industry and whenever I visited his office it was a huge gathering of guys in T-shirts, gigantic baggy shorts and Teva's. All of them making 6-figure incomes.
My biggest pet peeve is "relaxed fit" Levi's. The thighs are so gigantic that you could easily fit an extra leg in there; I have actually seen them flap in a breeze. We've been married almost 12 years, I'd always been silent about his dressing habits, and then a few weeks ago I held an intervention of sorts. I had him stand in front of a mirror and I pulled the excess fabric away from his legs and asked him if M.C. Hammer came to mind. I could see the lightbulb go on over his head. Well and then a look of shame came over him--but you've gotta be cruel to be kind, right? I also softened the blow by telling him he is a lot trimmer than he thinks & his clothes were making him look bigger than he really is. And nobody could appreciate what a handsome guy he really is (I learned that bit of manipulation from Stacy & Clinton.)

Today he is accepting a new job that will require him to wear actual business attire! I've got to quickly confiscate the triple-pleated trousers and a boatload of Dockers and replace them. So thanks for all the visuals and the fashion pep talk in your post, Style Spy. You rock!!!
Carolyn in Salt Lake City

StyleSpy said...

So. I'm not the only one who's noticing these things, I see...

Carolyn, I hear ya. I live in Austin, which is a very tech-oriented economy and I am constantly appalled by the things I see very successful men wearing to work. Tevas are great -- IF YOU ARE PORTAGING A CANOE. Congrats on your intervention, it sounds like you handled it perfectly. Good luck with the re-garbing of your DH and remember -- heap him with praise when he gets it right. Men are like golden retrievers - lots of petting & treats are required to reinforce positive behaviors.

Always In Style said...

Excellent post, good info very well put! :-)

Robo said...

I third deja pseu and carinutah's comments. Brilliant post on everything I learned whilst working in the men's department at Banana Republic what I've been trying to tell guy friends for ages. Pleated pants just need to go. Seriously. For both genders. WHY do clothing companies insist on continuing to manufacture them?? And I don't understand the return of the pleat in high fashion, but I digress...

The real reason I'm posting a comment is to say that I LOVE your blog and I've linked it on mine =]

Clare Wuellner said...

Okay, now my feelings are hurt. Perhaps a little awareness-raising is in order. Here's what it's like to dress when you're a stay-at-home mom. The "I've given up" outfit you showed is the sort of outfit I see other moms wear and I *admire* their bold expenditure. Sure, I have the stuff in my closet to look like a million bucks (yes, a Style Spy million bucks), but I have kids to chase after. I must be able to bend over and even roll around on the floor without wondering if I'm either going to blow out a seam or give someone a little TMI. I can't wear anything that requires dry cleaning---I am never on top of normal laundry, let alone dropping off and picking up dry cleaning. No ironing---see previous sentence. I can't wear anything that stains easily or shows dirt, chalk, urp, or greasy hand-prints. We won't even talk about the requirements clothes must meet in order to nurse, which I am thankfully past. The clothes must be exceptionally durable. Just recently, I treated myself to two silk t-shirts, $34 each from Macy's. (I also got the jeans that you recommended, and wow, do I love them.) The first day I wore each shirt, my son jumped on my back, grabbed the yoke and hung from it, tearing the seams in such a way that I can't wear either shirt again. 70 bucks, down the drain. Say what you want about teaching my son to NOT use my clothes for bungie jumping (oh and after the second one, he won't do it again: "See. See Mom. See Mom pissed."), but if it hadn't been the bungie-jump, it would have been something else. Anything I wear one time with my kids will be "mommed" by the end of the day.

So, when you see me wrangling my 3- and 5-year old, and I'm in my Levi jeans, nice shirt, and running shoes (because I don't get to sit unless I'm driving a car), you'll be looking at someone who thinks she looks pretty damned hot for what her life is right now. I totally rock that outfit for a stay-at-home mom, thank you.

I guess I just wanted to defend myself and other mamas who are trying very hard to make themselves presentable, and maybe give a different perspective on the "I've given up" outfit.

Karen said...

Oh, well done, Style Spy. WELL DONE.

In Adam Gopnik's magnificent and funny book, Paris to the Moon, about his five years living in France with his family, he makes an observation that I have quoted a million times: "You can always recognize Americans in Europe. They're the ones dressed like seven-year-olds."

I walk around my city (NYC) and look at grown men dressed like the Little Rascals, in baggy mid-calf shorts and untucked shirts (when it's not a sports-team jersey). It's a mystery to me. When my parents were young, it was a rite of passage to go from short pants to long. Now, men seem all too eager to stay in short pants forever.

The whole concept of business casual confuses me, personally. In films and photos from the first half of the 20th century--and I'm not talking Hollywood films, but verité--you see men doing hard labor, farming, you name it, in pleasted trousers and what we would consider dress shirts. Now, men can't even seem to go into an office 5 days in a row wearing the like.

Oh, and to Clare W.: Levis, a nice short, and running shoes don't look ANYTHING like that dreadful "I've given up" outfit that the Spy showed us. So no need to defend yourself.

StyleSpy said...

Oh, Clare, I certainly didn't intend to hurt any feelings. I've nothing but respect and admiration for those of you raising families, I know it's unbelievably hard work. And remember -- a lot of what you read here gets said for comic effect or to make a point. Take me and my ramblings with a grain of salt.

Glad you got the curvy jeans and love them -- they are great, aren't they? I've accumulated about 7 pairs at this point -- any time I go anywhere near a Macy's I run in & buy another pair because I'm terrified they'll stop making them!

Robo -- I guess the simple answer to why do they keep making them is that people keep buying them. Sad but true. And I can't say that I always loathe pleated pants across the board -- in the right hands they can be great. They just so very infrequently find their way into the right hands...

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with clare w, in that when I put on my capri pants, my cute t-shirt, and my fancier shoes--I AM being stylish. It's a definite step up from where I was before. And in fact, the cute t-shirt I'm wearing now is one that I picked out with you, Style Spy, in mind... it's got some of the design features I first noticed in your review of fashion week/s. So, yeah, I'm a fan, AND I think a little perspective on the "I've given up outfit" is useful here--everything is relative.