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 6: How to Shop by Shreyas
7 January, 2010, 9:26 pm
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , , ,

If you were like me, when you were a child clothes just magically appeared, and when you had the privilege and money to shop for yourself, you really didn’t know how to go about it, and you ended up with a good number of things in your closet that nobody has any use for. That happens because shopping effectively is a skill, and it isn’t one that most parents teach their children.

Luckily, you’ve got me.

Getting What You Want

The first thing to know about shopping is that it’s kind of like hunting: You’ll do better when you know what you’re after and you plan appropriately. Whenever I go shopping for clothes, I have a list in my head (much like a grocery list) of what I’m looking for. For instance, “Socks, t-shirt (maybe lime ? maybe blue graphic to go with that sweater), and my jeans have holes in them AGAIN, I guess I should get something a little more well-made this time.” You don’t even have to be that specific: “I’ve got a date on Thursday, and none of my cold-weather clothing looks good on me any more. I need something warm and slightly dressy—maybe a heavy button-down, or a nice sweater?”

You don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to this list when you’re actually making purchases; its purpose is to guide your attention and help you remember what you actually need.

The other thing about shopping is that sometimes you don’t end up finding what you want. Sometimes it just isn’t there! That’s okay, though. Think of it as recon; later you’ll have a better idea of what you can find where.

Speaking of recon, do this. You’ve probably picked out a few stores that generally carry clothes you like in your price range (if you haven’t, think about that, and list them in your style journal, or look at Getting Started farther down the page); try and hit every one when you go to the mall and see what’s new. You might find yourself saying, “Hey, I like that thing, maybe I’ll pick one up later,” or “Hm, this season’s clothes don’t really interest me,” either of which helps you plan future shopping trips. You’ll also find, if you look around, that different locations of the same chain may carry very different inventories: I find that the H&M in Holyoke is a lot more interested in weird, attention-grabby clothes than their location in Stamford, which is more focused on basics.

The knowledge you acquire from doing all this recon is to make the finding-and-purchasing part of your shopping trip faster and easier; you can head straight to the store that’s most likely to have what you’re looking for. Make sure to jot down where you like to shop for what in your journal, and the price ranges: for example, I like to buy jeans at Target, because color and cut change, and I’m hard on jeans; shirts at Express, because they have beautifully tailored button-downs that work for me when I’m in okay shape; accessories at Guess, because there’s a lot of leather and chrome, and although they’re pricey, I buy accessories rarely enough that I can afford the splurge; and ties from my favorite local men’s boutique, Jackson and Connor, because they’re astonishingly beautiful. I don’t buy shirts at Guess, because they’re too expensive and loud; I don’t buy pants at Jackson and Connor because I wear out jeans too quickly; and I don’t buy accessories at Target because they usually look like something I bought somewhere else a year earlier.

Once you’ve found the right garment, try it on to make sure the length and fit are right. There are no hard standards for mens’ clothing sizes, so they tend to vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Different stores also have different target customers, and the cut of their clothes reflects this: Abercrombie & Fitch makes clothes in a noticeably beefier cut than skinny Hollister, for instance, and more traditionalist department-store lines tend toward more conservative, roomier silhouettes. European lines are sometimes very skinny indeed. This means that you might be Medium at one store, Large at another, and XL at a third. Nothing is wrong! That’s just how the garment industry works. N.B.: Even if you know your size at a particular store, you should try on everything before you buy it anyway, because manufacturing isn’t perfect and occasionally stores modify their cuts, so clothes will vary slightly in size. No two shirts are perfectly identical.

Sometimes, if you look closely, you’ll notice the mannequins at various stores have different shapes to them. Some clothing stores have designed their own mannequins– not just for creepy ad campaigns like the one for Old Navy, but because their clothing is structured for a specific body type, and putting it on a mannequin with that body type improves the look of the clothes. I know I can’t shop at Hollister, for example, because one look at their slim-shouldered, skinny-armed mannequins tells me their clothing is not for me. The exception here is for stores which carry big and tall sizes; mannequins aren’t made for these, except maybe at some higher-end clothing stores which specialize in big and tall clothing. So if you’re outside of the averages, then mannequin-hunting won’t do you much good; if you’re pretty much an average dude, however, checking out the mannequin silhouettes couldn’t hurt.

Getting a good price

Much of getting a good price is timeliness and comparison shopping. If you’re looking for basics that you can get at any of several locations, like plain t-shirts or pants, check all those locations before you pick anything up and see if any of them are having a sale, or simply keep in mind who’s at what point on the price range. It’s probably possible to do this kind of research online, too, which saves you gas, time, and shoe leather.

For seasonal garments, the best prices happen just when they’re going out of season (when it starts getting warm, stores try to clear their racks of winter coats, etc.), but the tradeoff you make there is that their stock will be depleted, so the selection isn’t as good. The prices do tend to decline steadily as the season goes on, though, and they’re highest just when the weather changes and the new stock comes in, so you can balance those factors to your liking as long as you’ve got last season’s gear to keep you going until you decide it’s time to strike.

Besides the end-of-season sales, there are usually significant sales just after Christmas, and often just before it as well. Keep track of community events like sidewalk sales, too; any big promotional opportunity for a store will lead to a sale.

Finally, there’s always a sale or clearance rack somewhere in the store, which is a good place to check for things as long as you aren’t trying to get in on the latest five-minutes-old fad. They are usually in the back, or in a corner. Look for the least accessible, least trafficked place in the store. (Bafflingly, Express puts their sale racks front-and-center, which is really convenient for me; Elizabeth thinks the tactic they’re employing here is to trick guys into buying things while their better halves are poking around the womens’ section. It works for us because she doesn’t shop at Express.)

Getting good quality

For us, “good” quality means “sufficient for our needs.” I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy the very best stuff money can buy, made of only the best organic spider silk. Any ass could do that, and it’s not going to help you.

For clothes, quality is mostly a measure of durability and tailoring. Durability can be sacrificed for clothing that you don’t expect to keep for long (e.g. graphic shirts, trendy going-out clothes) or treat roughly (sneakers for gardening). Timeless staples that you treat gently should usually be more durable; you’ll pay a little more for them, but the difference between a $100 suit and a $300 suit or between a $15 sweater and a $50 sweater can be years of wear. It’s an investment.

You can check durability by looking at the seams of the article of clothing, and also assessing the strength and thickness of the fabric. If something is well-made, the seams will feel strong and look straight, and will not pucker; puckering happens when the seams are not ironed flat before sewing, and shortcuts tend to belie other workmanship issues. If there are loose buttons or hanging threads, that’s a dead giveaway that what you’re looking at isn’t made to last.

Tailoring is a different matter: sometimes the difference between an $8 and $80 white t-shirt is the tailoring. The difference is difficult to describe, but easy to pick out when you try a shirt on: two shirts that look nearly identical on the rack can create wildly different silhouettes. In the case of a designer t-shirt like this, the extra $72 is not for fancier fabric, but for a different, harder-to-find silhouette. Whether that silhouette works for you, and is worth the money to you, is entirely subjective. (I have a $60 T-shirt I bought from Jackson and Connor because it made me look 20 pounds thinner. The vanity was worth it to me, and the confidence I have wearing it is priceless.)

Getting Started

If you’re really not comfortable going out shopping by yourself, because you don’t really know where to go or what to look for, try out Elizabeth’s ‘rule of three’ technique: Go out shopping with a stylish girl who likes you and a guy friend whose judgement you trust. Your girl friend’s job is to find clothes for you to try on; your guy friend’s job is to tell you when those clothes make you look silly. This is time-consuming, and you’ll probably get dragged all over the mall because window shopping is a big-deal recreational activity for many American women, but you’ll end up with a few new clothes, and more importantly, an idea of where they came from. After one or two such trips you can start just going back to the places where you successfully found things you liked. Of course, many men simply hate shopping; in that case, inviting some friends along may make the ordeal much more palatable, and hopefully these tips should also help ease the pain.

Special considerations

7-10% of men are red-green colorblind, which makes choosing clothing which looks flattering difficult. If you’re colorblind, try to bring someone with you when you go shopping regardless (at least, when looking to buy non-monochromatic clothing. Red-green colorblindness can affect the perception of shades of colors too, so it’s not useful to only stay away from red and green clothing.) Of course, it’s a good excuse to strike up a conversation with an attractive salesperson, as well: “Excuse me, but I’m colorblind. Can you tell me how this shade works on my skin?”

Stay tuned for our special Saturday post.

Lesson Four: Shopping From Your Closet by Shreyas
17 December, 2009, 4:26 am
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , ,

Doing a serious style reboot will involve obtaining some amount of new clothes, but you don’t necessarily have to throw out your entire wardrobe. Everyone has some good items in their closet, and I’m going to show you how to find yours. Don’t worry if you don’t see us talking about your favorite items of clothing: this is only an exercise which allows you to identify what to throw away and what is a basic, timeless, go-to piece. If you don’t own the things we talk about, at some point you’re going to have to buy them; but the first and best way to dress better is to recognize and appreciate what you already have.

First Things First

What you’re looking for first are basics—good, simple items of clothing that you can wear in multiple different ways and situations. That means solid, unadorned things that fit well and are in good repair. So, take your clothes and put them where you can see all of them. We’re going to start looking for buried treasure. We’ll look at your accessories a little later.

Quickly glance over the pile of clothes spread in front of you and see what the dominant colors are. The bulk of your shirts are probably from one color family where you feel the most comfortable—black, grey, etc. Since pants don’t really come in very many colors, the same thing is probably true about your pants. Just take note of that for now. If you have any discolored shirts (really faded formerly-blacks are a big issue), that counts as irreparable damage and/or permanent staining.

First of all, separate items that stink. Wash those and reevaluate. If washing doesn’t take the smell out, scrap them.

Now look at every single item and sort out anything which looks extremely well-worn (in a bad way) with irreparable damage or permanent stains. These will be your “scrub” clothes. Only wear them when nobody will see you, or just get rid of them. Don’t give them to charity or anything like that—you should only donate clothes that are in good condition.

Now start looking for these things:

  • some jeans
  • some slacks
  • some socks
  • plain t-shirts in a couple of colors*
  • one or more white, long-sleeved, collared shirts
  • one or two solid-colored**, collared shirts
  • solid-colored sweater, preferably dark blue or a neutral
  • either a suit jacket that matches your pants or a simple blazer
  • an overcoat

All of them should fit properly. (If you’re not sure what that entails, that’s fine for now. We’ll talk about fitting next week.) If you’re missing anything, start a shopping list. (This is not a “go out and buy right away” list, this is a “when I have the money, I am going to invest in myself” list.) Put the missing items on it, and add one more white collared shirt. You can never have too many white collared shirts.

Once you find these basics, you’ve identified a minimal wardrobe that you can dress up or down, and you should be pretty comfortable in it.

*: This means “a solid color with no graphics or text.” Heather is okay. Ringers and baseball shirts are okay. Tie-dye isn’t.

**: This means “looks close to a solid color from the other side of the room.” Shirting fabric is often subtly textured, striped, or checked; if these patterns or textures are small enough they can act like solids. However, we’re talking about herringbone or pinstripe here, not Hawaiian shirts.

But I Like My Graphic Shirts!

So do I! Graphic shirts are good; they’re just not basics. Graphics and text degrade faster than fabric, so they look new for a shorter time, and trends in graphics move faster than trends in fit and color, so they date themselves more quickly. It’s a good idea to think of graphic shirts as seasonal items, because they’re so transient.

Pick out your three favorite graphical items. We’re going to take a look at them. Do they have anything in common? (Are they all black, for instance, or do they all have sports logos or chemistry jokes?) If so, great. Keep these qualities in mind when you’re purchasing new items. Think about what they say about you—even if you aren’t the kind of person that reads messages into clothing, many people you will encounter in daily life are, and being conscious of this will benefit you in the long run. If the shirts you love aren’t particularly attractive, but you like the message they communicate, then you can always find better-quality items that say the same thing. This isn’t about appearing to be someone you’re not: it’s about finding clothing that expresses who you are in the most attractive way possible.

I really urge you to think hard about what your favorite clothes imply, because that’s where you’re going to find your personal style. Personally, I wear a lot of fishes and birds and flowers on brightly-colored grounds because I find it interesting when those traditionally feminine icons are used in masculine ways, and I look good in strong colors because of my skin tone. (Also I’m a brown guy, and as a result I have pretty strong cultural coding that makes me think “fun clothes = bright clothes.”) Thinking critically about why you gravitate to certain themes and motifs is an excellent exercise; I know that it took me a while to figure out why my closet was full of flowers and fishes, and knowing the reasons I enjoy those things helped me find even more clothing and accessories that I enjoy. Likewise, there are a lot of dudes out there who would not be thrilled to wear feminine icons, and that’s fine. You don’t have to dress like me, and unless you’re a brown guy who enjoys challenging gender stereotypes, chances are good you wouldn’t be comfortable in my clothes anyway.

Now would be a good time to start a style journal. Get a small notebook that you enjoy the look of; I’m going to ask you to make notes in it from time to time, and it’d be great if you also felt like sharing your thoughts in the comments. Having a set of notes which speaks critically to why you like the clothing you have will help you identify purchasing and wearability patterns, and give you a profile of what you look best in and what you feel the most comfortable in. Start with the good qualities of your three favorite items of clothing— things you would save from a burning building, or feel really good in.

If your shirt says/implies/depicts something you wouldn’t be comfortable walking up to a stranger and reciting, you probably shouldn’t wear it. If you are comfortable saying things like this to strangers, well, this isn’t charm school, but I can assure you that said strangers aren’t comfortable hearing it.

Accessories In Your Closet

For accessories, your basics are:

  • a brown or black leather belt
  • a watch with metal or leather band (doesn’t have to be the same leather as your belt)
  • shoes the same color as your belt (they don’t have to match perfectly or be the same texture)
  • good, clean sneakers (they don’t have to be new, just well taken care of)
  • a tie that you really love

Once you have that stuff, you’re set. You can just grab a random assortment of basics and have an okay, if unremarkable, outfit.