Striking a Balance Between Style, Enjoyment, and Traditional Norms in Men’s Fashion

Striking a Balance Between Style, Enjoyment, and Traditional Norms in Men’s Fashion

Q. You recently wrote that men shouldn’t have to spend time and energy thinking about their clothing. Isn’t that exactly the point of your column? Telling us to dress up, combine colors well, and follow rules? 

A. I certainly believe men should think about what they wear. But I don’t want men to stress over their choices. Dressing well should be fun. There is also no need to have a degree in menswear. It is unrealistic to expect any man to be an expert in every field. No one expects Ralph Lauren to be a math or science pro; so why should a man whose field is finance be expected to design and color coordinate clothing like a pro? That’s why it’s helpful to know the traditionally-established and accepted men’s dress customs and “rules,” and to be able to follow them.  

Of course, I love clothes and feel they are an element of a person’s life that can bring a lot of pleasure. I know from the comments I receive that many of my readers feel the same way . . . as do their significant others. Partners seem happy to let me do the heavy lifting so that they don’t need to sound scolding.

A recent op-ed column in The Washington Post criticized the way that the U.S. Senator John Fetterman dresses in super-casual sweats while at work. It clearly coincided with many people’s feelings that “dressing down” so drastically demeans the office. I particularly agreed with the comment: “Clothes might not make the man or woman, but they do tell us a great deal about them. You don’t have to be rich to dress well. You just have to own a mirror and observe a few rules.” I have been preaching the same thing for years.   

I recently observed two men living in an upscale senior living facility. Each stood out in a different way. One man looked terrific; he used color beautifully and tastefully, plus his personal grooming was meticulous. When I noticed and asked about him, I learned that he had been a high-ranking officer in the military before retiring. The other man, had an enviable full head of silvery-gray hair and a full beard; he appeared wearing a rumpled T-shirt and an unmatched pair of shorts. Both his hair and his beard clearly needed trimming. The contrast was astonishing. I asked myself a question with a rather obvious answer, “Which one would a woman find to be more appealing?”    

Here’s a plus about learning how to dress well: Unlike other skills such as, say, learning to play golf well or to ski well, it does not take years of effort and great expense to master the key elements of looking good. Just a small extra bit of paying attention and a willingness to check oneself out in a mirror (ideally a full-length one) are two excellent ways to begin. 

It’s also nice to know that many of the “rules” of men’s dressing are flexible. No one expects you to accept all of them. But knowing that you are following the guidelines that have been accepted for decades allows you to relax and be selective. Remember, if following any of my suggestions might make you uncomfortable, you’re still in charge and can decide to ignore them. It is possible to look good while ignoring some of the rules, if one is actually an expert in men’s fashion. And if not, my advice: First know the rules; then you can break them. 

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