Way back in the ‘80s getting dressed for the office, assuming you worked at an office, was fairly easy. It was a suit. Not a good suit mind you, but a suit. Boring shirt, forgettable tie and cap toe shoes.
More often than not the whole outfit was forgettable because so little personality was evident. Even the leading men’s fashion book of the time, the landmark “Dress For Success” essentially encouraged its readers to dress like everyone else, but perhaps in a finer cut of suit.
It was a stifling period of time that helped lend fuel to the dot-com boom of the 1990s which, among other things, turned the world of work clothing on its head. At its apex, the rules that governed the very concept of business attire and professional decorum were being tossed out the window wholesale. In formally formal workplaces casual Fridays were adopted and the predictable erosion of style ensued.
The work world devolved into a sea of pleated khakis and denim shirts.
Fast forward to today. Men’s clothing is back with a vengeance. There are many factors that went into this sea change – much of a backlash against the hyper casual-cum-sloppy look which had become annoyingly prevalent by the early ‘90s. After the economic collapse of 2008, many companies began reinstating some form of dress code and all this coincided with a resurgence of interest in men’s fashion. What’s different now is that personal style is the rule rather than the exception.
THE NEW COOL
Men are finally taking back what they gave up decades ago – good taste, style, and a sense of swagger. If the “Decade of Gap” gave us anything sartorially useful, it is the realization that guys do, in fact, have a real desire to feel good about how they look. It also gave the menswear industry the chance to essentially reinvent itself.
Dressing well is the new cool and a key aspect to the new cool is taking classics and reinterpreting them. Designers like Michael Bastian, Zanone (part of Slowear) and Billy Reid are injecting new life and a fresh perspective into classic menswear and making it feel new again.
And it’s definitely not all about suit anymore. In fact, for a lot of men a suit is simply another option in the wardrobe; not a sacred stand-alone piece reserved for special occasions. The middle ground of of dressy casual, or business casual in office speak, is where many guys live Monday through Friday and much of the growth in the menswear market is geared for just that.
Some companies like J. Crew are being called out (by some OTC readers to be sure) for overdoing it and making the classics look more like caricature. I don’t disagree that for some brands the “new preppy” is being beaten into formulaic iteration.
But not to worry, dressing well – and on your own terms – is fairly simple if you remember a couple of rules.
DON’T BE A “LOOK”
First and foremost, be true to yourself. Know what kinds of clothes you like and what looks good on you. Always pay attention to style, fit, balance and purpose. The clothes you wear should match your style and personality, they need to fit you well, they need to work with each other, and they need to make sense.
A SUIT STILL MAKES ANY GUY LOOK GOOD
Wearing a suit every day makes life relatively easy – just find a shirt and tie that match.
Even if you aren’t leading a board meeting, you can still suit up in a dressed down way. Skip the tie altogether and toss on a patterned shirt with a shorter spread collar and high second button.
President Obama popularized this look on the campaign trail while sporting mainly solid white or blue shirts. George Clooney also makes this work; but then again he’s George Clooney.
The main point is that you don’t want to look like you forgot your tie – you want to look like you don’t need one. To inject a little color into the outfit, pocket squares are a simple option.
When it comes to the suit, classic really is best: single breasted, notch lapel, two-button. If you want to personalize a little bit, try peaked lapels instead of notched and double vents instead of the standard American single vent.
If you really want the three-button jacket go for a “3/2 roll” which just means that the top button rolls with the lapel and gives the overall appearance of a two-button jacket. Try and avoid ventless jackets, they can seem dated and are frankly uncomfortable to wear.
If this is your first “good” suit classic grey or blue will be most versatile. Take some time and pick a shade that best suits your complexion and personality. You can always add patterns and striped later.
Always keep in mind that depending where you are in the country, or world for that matter, regional traditions will always dictate what is appropriate. A sport coat and nice pants may be considered dressy in Las Vegas, but if you’re meeting in New York it should probably be coat and tie.
SANS THE SUIT
While dressing well doesn’t necessarily mean dressing up, that is no excuse to look like you’re taking out the trash.
Even when you’re not obligated to, try and go for a more polished look when heading off to the office. That means tailored clothing – stuff that both fits your style but also your body. Properly fitted clothes makes you look better, thinner and smart. The look below, from Hermes, is an excellent example of a casually stylish outfit that would look great on almost anyone.
A classic blue blazer, with or without brass buttons, is an exceedingly useful article of clothing. It’s the workhorse of your wardrobe and can cover you in most any situation. Pair it with dress pants and a cashmere sweater, beat up khakis and polo shirt, or your favorite jeans and Turnbull & Asser shirt; it works with everything.
Well fitting, classic separates
So, don’t be afraid to try something new and bring your work wardrobe into the 21st century. By updating classic cornerstones – the suit, the blazer, the dress shirt and the pocket square – you can give your own sense of style a grown up look without looking dated.