MANual of Style

Lesson 15: Putting Together an Outfit by Shreyas
16 February, 2010, 9:11 am
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , , ,

There are a few different ways you might approach putting together an outfit; I thought I’d sketch some situations out for you and show the thought process behind them. Some of these processes may look like they take a while, but you’ve only got to do them once. Once you know a particular outfit works, just remember it (put it down in your style journal if you want to), and you can go to it effortlessly. Say you’re getting dressed in the morning, and you say to yourself:

I want to wear my crazy hat today!

Okay, great. The first thing you do is get your hat and put it on your bed, or couch, or hat rack or whatever. All set? Good. This object is going to act as your valet. You lay out outfits on it like it’s a paper doll and imagine yourself wearing them. It’s a lot more efficient than actually trying on everything you might consider wearing like girls do on TV, and it gives you a good visual check against your gut feelings about how two or more items work together. (After you get some practice, you can do this in your head, but even when you get to that point, it’s useful to do the valet thing every now and then.)

What you’re trying to find is a dominant garment—the biggest thing you’re wearing, probably a top—with colors and textures that work harmoniously with your hat. Harmony doesn’t have to mean that they’re identical. Contrast can work just as well; just remember what we learned earlier about color, pattern, and texture. However, in this case you’re trying to showcase a particular item, so you don’t want to contrast too strongly. Your other pieces should complement and support your star item, rather than compete with it, so the supporting pieces should be less emphatic.

Once you have that dominant garment, you’ve got your palette of colors and textures. Assemble the rest of your pieces based on the two items you have in front of you. Keep in mind, the formality of your outfit emerges from the formality of the pieces. A nice sport jacket can elevate a tee and jeans to going-out wear; similarly, a cool pair of sneakers can make it okay to go to the grocery store in a three-piece suit.

I am sad today. I shall wear black.

I’m sorry to hear that! The thing about wearing black (or any other monochromatic outfit) is that it really shows if your clothes are faded; black dyes especially are usually made up of a mixture of several colors that fade at different rates, so after you wash your favorite black shirt a few times it might become green or grey or navy. If this is the case, you have two solutions: you can either dye your clothes (a messy and laborious option), or you can wear them so they don’t touch other, differently colored “black” things, such as by wearing a light-colored belt between your black jeans and your black tux shirt.

Instead of wearing just one color, you can showcase a color by pairing one key item with neutrals. That might turn out to be a little easier. Either way, be sure that your showcased color doesn’t overwhelm your face; some colors are easier to wear in larger amounts than others. You can always experiment and see what’s the ideal amount of lime green or royal blue for you.

Man, I feel fat today.

The best thing to do when you’re not feeling super great about your appearance is to dress up, not down, and pay attention to silhouette. Start by thinking about the cut of your clothes before texture and color, and choose the clothing which best creates the way you want to look. If you’re feeling weak, go for T-shirts that cut across the widest part of the bicept to look more muscular. If you’re feeling fat, go for slim-cut items and thinner layers. If you’re feeling too skinny, wear structured items that give your frame more power and substance. Only after you’ve got the silhouette worked out should you start worrying about whether the colors go. If something doesn’t work, then swap it out for a piece of clothing which does the same (or a similar) thing for your silhouette. And for extra self-esteem boost, include one accessory or item that makes you feel really good, that you’re proud of finding, and choose today to show it off.

Putting it together

When you get good at constructing outfits in these ways, you’ll be able to tell what type of outfit an item is good for when you purchase it (“I love this color!” versus “I love this cut!” versus “This is a work of art and I want to show it off”). You’ll also be able to create outfits which do more than one of these things— monochromatic slim-cut silhouettes and outfits that show off a single color as well as an amazing item, for example.

The power was inside you all along

Honestly, if you’ve been paying attention to all of the lessons here on MANual of Style and dutifully writing in your style journal, you already have all of the tools to put together a killer outfit. This is just an overview of the things we’ve already discussed. You have the power, now use it.


Finding Your Own Style: Your Fashion Rules by Shreyas
21 January, 2010, 9:34 am
Filed under: Special | Tags: , , , ,

In the past few weeks, you’ve put down some important stuff in your style journal: thoughts about your shape and what silhouettes work for it, colors that look good on you, maybe some observations about clothes you already own and like, stores in your price range where you can get that stuff. Maybe you’ve picked out some people whose style you admire and would like to emulate.

Let’s start putting that knowledge together.

First, deconstruct your style icons so you can decide which aspects of what they’re doing work for you and which aspects don’t. (If you don’t have any style icons, flip through a few magazines and find some pictures you like.) You’re not looking for particular pieces when you’re doing this; you’re looking for ideas about color, cut, detail, accessories, and so on. Check out the case studies in the last post to see what I mean.

Color Palette

Especially in TV and movies, costume directors tend to create a very tight color palette for each character. This can work to your advantage if you’re just starting to branch out from a mostly monochrome wardrobe or just building a wardrobe from scratch; by simply lifting a color scheme from a character you are sure that the colors work well together, and there won’t be too many of them to handle.

If that’s not how you’re going about this, go over your list of colors that look good on you, and pick a few you like to be key colors for your new style. You’re not confined to these colors; just keep them in mind when you shop so you can buy things that relate to them.

Pattern and Texture

Choosing your textures and patterns is a more freewheeling choice; you’re not really restricted by “what works.” Just decide whether you want to be a bold pattern kind of guy or not. That choice goes hand in hand with texture: apart from houndstooth, most textured fabrics are solid-colored (or speckled like tweed), so if you do want to be wearing a lot of patterns you’re going to be restricted in the kind of textures you can wear.

If you do want to be a bold pattern kind of guy, every time you buy something you’ll want to check the pattern and see where the lines are leading.

Cut and Construction

Look at your notes on silhouette. Do you have a feature you want to focus on, or one you want to deflect attention from? This may be a place where what works for you will diverge from what works for your style icons: Daniel Meade tends to wear slim-cut suits I’d love to wear, but I know I’ve got more workouts ahead of me before I can pull that off, so instead I opt for Ianto’s bolder lapel choices and stay away from double-breasted jackets. Fortunately, all my style icons prefer really heavily constructed clothing, even in their casualwear (check out Michael Weatherly’s fantastic ochre jacket in my last post), and my silhouette really benefits from heavy construction.

Writing your own rules

Once you’ve thought about this stuff critically, it should be easy to come up with a few simple guidelines for what to buy when you’re constructing your wardrobe. When I refer to “fashion rules” from now on, I won’t be talking about crap like how you shouldn’t wear white shoes after labor day; instead, I’ll be referring to the rules you’re going to write for yourself, right now. Open up your style journal and write down 3-5 guidelines that will inform your style choices from now on. (Things like “Leather is cruel” are not rules, per se; if you have strong ethical obligations that inform your style, they’re just that: obligations and considerations. Note these as well, but they don’t count towards your rules! You have to have a certain number of strong aesthetic guidelines in order to construct a coherent style.)

Here are my rules for me, if you’re curious:

  • No bold patterns. (This has been really hard for me, as I’m a recovering pattern addict. But the patterns I loved were graphical and of-the-moment, and I want clothing that stays in style longer.)
  • Wear strong colors: no beige, no khaki. My neutrals are grays and desaturated blue denim. I look best in warm jewel tones.
  • Constructed silhouettes with broad shoulders and straight legs work best for me. No shapeless sweatshirts or tapered jeans.
  • Accessories are where I don’t have to worry about staying classic: Shiny, big metal pieces, leather, and of-the-moment stuff is perfectly okay.

It helps to think about the style of the places you shop, by the way. You’re a lot more likely to find that awesome bomber jacket at Fossil, whose leather goods are of nice quality and range in style from classic to steampunk, than at American Eagle.

How This Works in Application

So, one day I decided, “I want to dress more like Daniel Meade.” I started watching him more carefully, noticing what he was wearing. Elizabeth helpfully found me an interview where Eric Mabius said he likes to wear suits by Ozwald Boateng, who’s a Savile Row tailor, which clearly I can’t afford, but looking at his website shed some light on the style I was looking for. (Apparently Mabius likes playing Meade because he gets to wear all his favorite clothes in character.)

Daniel’s jewel-tone palette works well for me, so I stuck with that, although in practice I lean more heavily on dark reds and yellowy greens, and less on the character’s deep blue and dark brown. At one point I also had about five shirts in some shade of violet, which just happened because I look great in violet and I kept buying shirts to go with the same tie (Hey, I love that tie, okay?). The constructed silhouette also works for me; a few months ago I saw Daniel in a structured hoodie made of t-shirt fabric, and recently managed to find one in a great shade of crimson.

Every now and then I wander into H&M and spot some slim buttondown in a big, high-contrast floral print (which is, bluntly, their answer to the Hawaiian shirt) and say, “Hey awesome! I should wear that!” Then my style rules kick in, and I ask myself what my icons would look like wearing that shirt (pretty silly.) It goes back on the shelf. What I’m drawn to, on the hanger, isn’t always what looks good on me.

That’s it for today. I’d love to hear about your style rules (or style problems)! Next week we’re going to get into the details of the specific garments that make up your wardrobe.

Lesson 8: Accessories by Shreyas
14 January, 2010, 10:44 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , ,

So let’s talk about accessories—all those things you wear without which you’d still be dressed, things such as watches, jewelry, gloves, scarves, and hats. (Not too long ago, a hat was an essential, not an accessory!)

Why Accessorize?

An accessory is a removable, repositionable detail. You use it the same way as any other detail—to draw the eye to a strong feature. You can also use it as a decoy. Since it draws attention to itself, you can deflect attention from a part you’re not so sanguine about. Until quite recently, I wore a pair of keys on different lengths of ball chain as a necklace; it’s a flashy, moving object that makes a clanking sound when I move, which makes it a nearly irresistible attention trap. I could tell it was working because lots of people made comments about it. At the time I was gaining some weight, and it helped keep eyes off my waistline.

That’s not a particularly subtle way to use an accessory, but I hope it makes it clear what you can do with them. One friend of mine always wears very fancy vintage belt buckles to draw attention to his package, but that’s not for everyone either. On the other hand, I have a lot of friends who spend hardly any money on their clothes, but invest hundreds of dollars and lots of man-hours finding just the right glasses to accentuate their faces. That’s a relatively low-risk thing to do; glasses have an inherent practical value, and if you don’t want people to look at anything you’re wearing, a great pair of glasses is a good way to accomplish that.

Path of the Eye

When you’re choosing accessories, think about where on the body you’ll wear them. Also think about the way the gaze has to travel to take them in. When people are casually looking at other people, their attention naturally falls on the face, and from there it travels to approximately the nearest visually interesting area; it generally gets to the hands at some point because hands are expressive and mobile. So, if you’re trying to keep eyes off your middle, you can wear a striking accessory on your wrist, or have a shirt with a bright sleeve detail, and the eye will travel from your face to your hands without ever going to your middle. Alternately, you could wear a long scarf hanging straight down, so when the eye moves off your face, it hits a straight line leading to the floor.

If you want to be checked out head-to-toe, be sure to wear an interesting belt and interesting shoes, and possibly jeans with an unusual back-pocket detail, to ensure that you get looked at all the way before the eyes go back to your face. It’s important to give people something to look at if you want them to look at you.

Accessories that Stand Out

Choosing a good accessory is a challenge. For starters, as usual I recommend a small selection of conservative items. It’s hard to go wrong with a nice analog watch on a dark leather band, a solid or striped scarf in a color that suits your skin, and a basic leather belt with an interesting buckle. Also consider a few pairs of shoes of varying levels of dressiness.

Forgive me, because I’m about to be judgemental: Most digital watches are only appropriate if you want to look like you’re from Back to the Future. If analog watches bother you, think of it as a mechanical bracelet and check the time on your cell. There are a few designers who make really cool digital watches (like Nooka), but they’re hard to find and often more expensive than comparable analogs.

But, back to the main point: Since the purpose of these things is to direct attention, you should feel free to splurge on really distinctive items, daring colors, investments, or conversation pieces. Accessories can add color to an outfit (I have a scarf with red and yellow stripes that I wear when I’m feeling down) or change your silhouette. They’re also a great opportunity to reference your interests; I knew a couple of Buddhists who always wore their prayer malas as bracelets, for instance. There is some great anime-inspired jewelry out there.

Less is More

While it’s important to have visual landmarks, you shouldn’t overdo it. Too many accessories cancel each other out and look cluttered. One or two is usually enough. Coco Chanel said you should always take off the last thing you put on; while you may not actually have to, it’s always a good idea to check yourself out as you’re walking out the door to be sure you don’t look like Mr. T.

That’s it for today. Check in with us on Saturday, when I’ll tell you about some accessories I like. Tell me about some of your interests or concerns, and I’ll recommend some stuff that you might like, too.

Spotlight: shopping online, silhouette examples by Elizabeth
9 January, 2010, 11:42 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , ,

Shopping online

Shopping online is a little tougher because you can’t try clothes on. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, though. You just have to do a little extra legwork.

If you’re just browsing, you need to pay attention to measurements to get your sizing right. Get yourself a tailor’s tape measure; they’re like a buck at a fabric shop. (It’s really hard to measure clothes accurately with rulers; clothing is neither rigid nor straight, after all.) Measure a piece you already own, that fits right, to figure out what size you’re looking for. Here is a little guide on how to measure a garment so you know you’re on the same page as the sellers. Armed with those numbers, you’re much more likely to end up buying clothes that fit the way you expect them to.

If you’re looking for a specific, hard-to-find item, think about setting up a Google alert for an appropriate search term, so you’ll be able to jump on it if it should turn up on eBay or something. Be as specific as you can! Include brand, size, and style in your terms; “46 double-breasted Armani suit brown” is going to pick up a lot fewer false positives than “suit”is.

A demonstration of silhouette
On Thursday, we talked a bit on price and how to shop. One of the inevitable questions that comes up during comparison-shopping is “Why would I buy [Garment X] when I can get a cheaper one somewhere else?” Sometimes the answer is that there’s no good reason to spend more. Sometimes, though, the answer is about small stylistic details that make a world of difference in how the garment is perceived when you wear it. Here are some examples.

Hanes Long-sleeve T-shirt: $7.99

Here we have your standard long-sleeved tee. On this model, the shirt looks pretty baggy; the shoulder seams are pretty far down his arms and you can see excess fabric at his back and wrists. It’s clearly cut for someone with wider shoulders and a little more mass in the torso and arms.

REI OXT Men’s Long-Sleeve T-shirt: $29.50

This one’s a little more slender in the arm and torso; the sleeves are also uncuffed and it’s shorter so it won’t bunch up around the waist as much. We can see that these models are similarly built if we look carefully, but the overall effect of this shirt is noticeably thinner and longer-looking, because it avoids the weighing down and shortening effects of excess fabric.

A|X Logo Panel Crew from Armani Exchange: $58.00

This one is cut similarly to the last, except that it has a lower neckline and still thinner sleeves, and it’s a little shorter. It also seems to be made of a slightly heavier fabric, which smooths out some of the wrinkles. The overall effect is longer and thinner again, with the low neckline adding apparent length to the neck (which makes you look taller). The colors work with this too, using bright contrasting elements at the sleeves and neckline to draw the eye, and dark panels to shave away the sides of the body, which taper toward the chest so they create a V-shape.

Since this shirt’s so closely cut, it’s going to be a lot less forgiving than the others of a few extra pounds, and if I’m right that it’s a heavier fabric, it’s less versatile to layer with. On the other hand, it’s a great silhouette.

So, when you’re looking at similar garments with very different price points, that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. Each cut will flatter a different kind of body. These particular examples are made of different fabrics, too; that’s another thing to keep in mind, since the weight of your clothes affects when you’ll be able to wear them comfortably and what you can wear them with.

Lesson 5: Silhouette by Shreyas
5 January, 2010, 3:55 am
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: ,

Happy new year, guys! I hope you all had a great holiday.

Today we’re going to talk about silhouette. Silhouette is about the outline of your body. As with all things in fashion, you can manipulate the way it’s perceived with the cut and color of your clothes.

The Ideal Silhouette

Our goal right now is to look healthy and strong. (We’ll get to tall and thin later in this post.) People read that from the proportions of landmark points on the body: the shoulders, waist, and hips. For men, it’s desirable to have wider shoulders than hips, and a waist only slightly narrower than the hips. If you’re already built like that, great! Having good proportions opens up a lot of options for you.

If you’re not built precisely like that, there are some things you can do.

If you’re of average or thin build and your hips are significantly narrower than your shoulders, you can look into trousers that are made of heavier fabrics, such as corduroy, winter-weight wool, the stiffer kinds of denim, and so on. It’s easier to add apparent mass than take it away, so that’s my first suggested line of defense. You could also explore styles of shirt that draw attention to your neck rather than your shoulders, like v-necks, polos, ringer tees, and collared shirts (wear the top button open). Here’s the thing to remember: Details add emphasis. Anything more visually complex—textured areas, contrasting colors, thing like collars and epaulets—will draw the eyes and make the adjacent features stand out more. By the same principle, if you’re trying to de-emphasize your shoulders you should avoid shoulder stripes, baseball tees and raglans. They’ll make you look even more top-heavy.

If you’re wide around the waist, wear straight-legged pants, not tapered ones, so the eye isn’t drawn to a bulge around your middle, and chunky shoes or boots may help to anchor the eye. Similarly, wear shirts that fit comfortably around your middle; stretching a garment across a feature makes it seem bigger than it is. (This is also the reason that athletic sorts of guys tend to wear shirts with tight arms.) You can also wear structured tops—jackets, military shirts, certain sweaters—to add presence to your shoulders. The object of the game is to emphasize your limbs so their mass appears proportionate to that of your torso, in order to end up looking like a brick rather than a couch potato.

In addition to this, you can try to make yourself look taller and longer. To make your legs look longer, wear pants without cuffs and be sure they’re the right length, so they don’t pool around your shoes. This creates a long, straight line which makes you appear taller. Similarly, short sleeves or long sleeves rolled up will visually shorten your arms. In general, you want to avoid cutting across the widest part of any part of your body: the upper arm, the thigh, the belly. When selecting shirts, be sure they’re long enough, so they go past that widest part.

If you have small shoulders, then do all that stuff I warned top-heavy guys not to do: wear structured tops with details around the shoulders. You could find one of those gradient-dyed tees that’s more saturated at the top and more muted at the bottom. Avoid things that draw attention to the center. Or you can do pushups. Shoulders are one of the easiest, fastest parts of the body to build muscle on, and it hardly takes any time at all.

A Quick Understanding of Emphasis

Just to underline the logic behind all those tips above, here’s the things that create emphasis:

  • Saturated color. Whenever two colors are adjacent, the one that’s more vibrant draws more attention.
  • Lines of contrast (differently colored features, such as ringers on tees, and large-scale patterns as well). Less contrast means less emphasis.
  • More fabric—layers, pleats, pockets, seams, etc.
  • Other details—reflective fabric, graphics, patches, etc.
  • Pattern—this operates on the same principle as larger contrasty areas. As the scale of the pattern decreases, the degree of emphasis does too.
  • Texture—Similarly, a fabric with more texture is more salient. Velvet, corduroy, and satin are a lot flashier than jersey.

By avoiding these things—using simply structured garments without a lot of decoration or strong coloring—you can de-emphasize an area.

That’s all for today. See you Thursday for an intro to shopping.