Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Brief Guide: A Suit That Fits

Tasha comments on the number of men in this city wearing ill-fitting suits.  She is a smart lady, and she is on to something.  You should listen.

I've written before about how to pick out a suit that is the right size, but that's only the first step.  You must get the suit tailored.  Gentlemen: You need to find a tailor (not the one who works at Jos. A. Bank) and build a working relationship with him or her.  I cannot over-stress this, particularly if you own more than one suit and wear them with any frequency.

When you take the suit to the tailor, be sure to wear dress shoes, dress socks, and a dress shirt to accurately simulate actual wear.  Once you get up on the box, there are several things you need to think about.  I will treat each of them in loving detail at some point in the future, but here's the nut graf for each.

Put on the pants.  Situate the waist where you like your pants to sit.  I like them a little bit low, that is, resting just above my hip bones.
  1. Break: How much distance between your sole and the bottom edge of your slacks?  This is personal preference.  Every tailor has a different definition of "full break" and "no break", so have him/her fiddle with the length until it's where you like.  I prefer the lower edge to firmly brush the laces of my shoes.
  2. Cuff: Or no cuff?  Generally, cuff for pleated slacks, no cuff for flat-front.  No cuff means you can get away with a higher break, if you are so inclined.
  3. Taper: How baggy are the legs?  Material can be taken out of the vertical seam running down the pants' outside edge.  I prefer a slimmer silhouette.  See what works for you.
  4. Seat: Does it look like you are wearing an adult diaper?  Have the tailor take in some fabric at the vertical seam running between your legs at the crotch.  Sometimes, taking some out of the seat resolves a taper problem, so you may be able to save money by trying to fix the seat first.
Put on the jacket.  Move your shoulders a bit until it drapes them properly.
  1. Sleeve: Between 1/4 and 1/2 inch of shirtsleeve should show when you stand naturally.  Move the jacket sleeve ends up a little bit to produce this effect.
  2. Waist: Jackets tend to fit baggy on me, so I have material taken out of the waist (a visual element known in the industry as "waist suppression").  But if you remove too much, the bottom button and its buttonhole will be too far apart and look funny when the other buttons are buttoned.
  3. Neck roll: On the back, below the collar, there may be excess material that bunches up.  Have it removed.
  4. Button placement: Now try to button the coat.  Sometimes, you'll need to move the buttons up or down to align with their buttonholes.
Finally: Expect your tailor to fight you on some and/or all of these points.  Tailors do this.  I do not know why, but it is a crucial and enjoyable component of the tailor-customer relationship.  (I once suggested a ticket pocket for a new suit; my tailor's head nearly exploded.)  Tailors especially resist shortening a suit jacket's sleeves.  Maybe they lose money on this alteration--but I doubt it.

At first, you should listen to your tailor to some extent.  They have enough experience to know what they are doing.  As you gain experience, you can be more insistent.  You will have enough experience to know what you want from the suit's fit.

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Reader Query:

    In response to "Ignore Your Detractors", Rabbit asks,

    "How do you deal with an audience uninterested in fashion? I find it difficult sometimes to explore the outfits and styles which challenge and intrigue me without leaving a gap betwee my look and my fellows'. Balancing fashion to the occasion is important, but should I just let go and accept that I will dress differently than my crew? This seems like it might be even more common in male friend circles."

    Rabbit, I think it becomes a matter of degrees.  I like the Texas-flag cufflinks I wrote about as an example.  I wear them with a suit and tie and cap-toes, but they are cheeky and colorful and a little flashy, and they still fit the scene I'm in.  Wearing a bolo tie, while cheeky, probably would not fit.

    Within that thought, I think you just have to go with your instincts on how much you can push in a given situation.  Fashion and style are socially mediated. Thus, the presence of one stylish person in a crew will encourage the others to take small risks. The small risks succeed and incrementally increase the crew's confidence, which in turn fosters more risk-taking and success (with the occasional failure).

    Likewise, the presence of a vast majority of people who do not wear acid-washed jeans with little mirrors embroidered onto them, and have not since the '80s, will encourage the handful of people who have such jeans not to wear such jeans.

    I think runway shows are a pain in the ass because they set up this "high culture/low culture" dichotomy that just doesn't exist in real life.  Wear what gives voice to yourself, and if you can wear it with confidence, the confidence will carry just about anything you can buy in a store--in part because your confidence is by definition a product of your environment, and in part because personal charisma can sell a look that would otherwise be outre.

    Monday, February 22, 2010

    In Praise Of: Tie Dimple as Force Multiplier

    This is a four-in-hand with a dimple on a straight collar:

    Note that the straight collar's vertical length means that even the four-in-hand (the longest of the major tie knots) itself can't reach the collar's tips.  I think this would look unbalanced.  The dimple allows you to vertically extend the knot component of the collar-knot visual unit such that the knot seems to be a natural growth downward from the collar rather than a little lump visually dwarfed by the collar.

    I disfavor the dimple on larger knots (like the Windsor) for the similar reasons. The Windsor, with a spread collar, is big and broad enough to carry the collar-knot zone.  A dimple almost looks busy.

    To form the dimple, tie and tighten as usual, but right before the last two or three tugs on the front blade finalize the knot, make The Trident (TM) with your dominant hand--

    --and insert the index finger under the top layer of fabric on the knot, then pinch the outer edges of the front blade with your thumb and middle finger, then pull.  Repeat until the knot is as tight as you want it.

    Bonus: Valet Magazine has a photo spread of all the men's fashion shows from NYC this week.  You can click on each designer's name to see more photos.  Scan through it to see if anything catches your eye, and then work that into your wardrobe.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Ignore Your Detractors

    When you dress well with a little flourish and take pleasure in it, most others will pick up on both and take pleasure themselves.  This, for me, is part of the pleasure of dressing well.  Its positive spirit is infectious.

    Unfortunately, the occasional grouch will needle you.  There are any number of reasons that some people behave like this, but these reasons have a common theme: they let you know that said grouch's opinions are irrelevant and held only by him or her.

    I have never been able to draw, or to paint, or even to sketch.  A blank canvas is, to me, an invitation for disaster.  But I can, and choose to, make my clothing a visual, rhetorical, communicative statement when I leave for work, or for happy hour, or for a house party.  (Sure, it's pastiche, but we live in postmodern times.)  A perfectly coordinated and assembled suit is my stab at a personal Mondrian.  (Boots with a suit is a velvet Elvis.)

    Expand your comfort zone.  Dressing well--whether at work or at play--will be its own reward.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Dapper Distillations: Calvin Klein's Runway Show

    Haute couture doesn't do much for the average Joe in the United States, particularly in D.C., adopted home of the power suit.  Hell, it doesn't do much for the average Giuseppe in the relatively fashion-forward Italy.  Calvin Klein's New York Fashion Week runway show was a standard demonstration of this high-culture-versus-everyday-wear gap.

    However, I think you can divine a couple of good ideas from the show.

    First, look for classic shapes and patterns made out of unexpected materials.  (One exception: leather.)  Most of us downtown, myself included, have a basic single-breasted overcoat with smooth wool in black or gray.  Nothing fancy, but functional.  One of Mr. Klein's offerings was a coat matching just that silhouette and color but in a quilted and ribbed sort of material.  In 20 years, at a distance, that coat will still look classic, and up close, it will be full of character.

    Second, off-center zippers, on a sweater, for example.  I like the asymmetrical look because it lets us stick with classic silhouettes (are you sensing a pattern?) but play with the up-close perspective.  It's also a real-life application of photography's Rule of Threes for guiding your viewer's attention.

    Third, interesting collars.  Again, as regards the plain overcoat, if you've ever been tempted to flip up the collar for looks and/or warmth, what's stopping you from a slightly more warm/peacockish coat?  A little exposed fastening hardware at the throat can make for a dashing bit of shiny without changing the fact that it is obvious that you are wearing an otherwise-standard overcoat.

    In short, take a classic look and change a few of the components' materials, and see what happens.

    The video is here if you want to review the source material yourself.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Wycked Sale: Jos. A. Bank

    This one is worth noting: Jos. A. Bank has 70% off a lot of stuff today and 50% off any clearance prices.  This means you can get a Signature Gold suit for $250.  It doesn't get much better than that.

    Good hunting.

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Destination Shopping: Syms at Seven Corners

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    I go on and on about Filene's Basement because it's walking distance to my office and I've had such excellent luck there for ties, cufflinks, and shoes.  But if I'm going to be honest with myself, I have to say this for Arlington County: the Syms store on the back side of the Seven Corners shopping center, next to the Shoppers Food Warehouse, has apparently identical prices but perhaps twice or thrice the sheer volume of material.

    It's a cavernous, almost intimidating space, and you certainly won't see many sales associates, so you need to come in either wanting to browse or knowing what you want.  But their vast suit selection runs the gamut in price and quality, and their rack of 40 Regular sportcoats alone was perhaps 35 feet long.  The men's shoes are arranged by size, perhaps out of necessity due to their disparate shipments and inventory.  They also have a good-sized selection of casual clothes.

    There's always ample parking.  I have no idea how to get there by bus, but I know that buses frequently service the shopping center.

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    Color Is Hard: Photo-Recycling Edition

    Remember this photo from the other day?  If you zoom in on the pinstripe, you'll see it's French blue (the term for the blue of the shirt shown--i.e., the blue of the French flag) alternating with a yellowish cream.

    When I build a suit-shirt-tie ensemble, I work in that order.  Start with this suit, for example.  The pinstripe lets me know which shirt color would be ideal.  Here, I could pick blue or cream.  I don't have a cream-colored shirt, but I do have a French blue one.  That was easy. 

    Next, I went to Filene's and hunted up and down for a tie which had cream as a dominant color and blue and gray (the suit's dominant color) as secondary colors.  Found it.

    If I were going to throw a pocket square into this particular mix, I would go with a cream color because the blue and gray are already well-represented.

    It's not adventurous, but this method is 100% guaranteed to make you look put together. 

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    Reader Query: How Long Should a Tied Tie Be?

    Short answer: when you stand normally, the tip should rest somewhere between the top and bottom of your belt.

    After I drape a tie over my shoulders but before I make the knot, I make a mental note of which shirt button the tie's shorter blade reaches.  This makes the second attempt easier to triangulate.

    Under no circumstances should the tip of your tie not reach your belt.  This will make you look short and portly.  Don't worry about how long the shorter blade is once the knot is tied--sometimes, particularly with a full Windsor, it doesn't even reach the handy loop on the back of the tie.

    Of course, there will be some natural variation throughout the day as either (1) the crushing weight of your awful job forces you into a permanent slouch over the course of several hours, or (2) the invigorating challenge presented by your excellent job raises your shoulders into perfect posture over the course of the day.  But if you stand up straight when you tie your tie and aim for the point brushing the top of your belt, you should be fine.

    N.B. There is no rule against re-tying your tie in the men's room if the length migrates overmuch during the day.  Any initial-knot-induced wrinkles will either be a part of the new knot and thus invisible, or blend into the naturally messy area just below the tie knot.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010

    Winter Essential: The Pea Coat

    "Pea coat" refers to any number of coats, but they are all generally double-breasted (as shown), have a skirt that falls about as low as the sleeves, and sport the lapel style you see here.  Navy and gray are popular colors. I obtained this specimen, a Kenneth Cole Reaction, on sale at Filene's for $100.  The wool isn't exactly luxurious, but it's certainly warm.  Perfect for the snowy days we're seeing in D.C.

    The pea coat's design originated with the U.S. Navy.  This might explain why the design is so functional. 

    The right-hand column of buttons all operate to secure the jacket snugly across the chest.  There is a button on the coat's inside which fastens to the right-hand lapel's buttonhole when the fold is laid flat across the chest.  There is another button beneath the right-hand collar which fastens to the left lapel's buttonhole.  These features allow for four rows of buttons protecting the chest and collarbone.  Flipping up the collar in this configuration lets it serve as a pseudo-scarf for keeping the neck warm.

    The pea coat is versatile enough to wear with jeans and a polo shirt (as I am today) all the way up to anything short of a suit.  It's a popular choice for the necktie-but-no-suit-required office worker. 

    Leave the top two buttons undone and flip the collar for a contemporary look.  The lapels will fall halfway and end up looking jaunty.

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    Intangibles: Owning the Look

    I saw a girl this morning, hipster-type, getting out of her car.  She was very put together with an outfit in earth tones--browns, reds, a stylish cap.  And she was wearing orange lace-up cloth boots that came to her lower shins.  Her pants were sort of askew and half tucked in to the boots.

    It worked.  It was obvious that the boots, and the pants' arrangement, were deliberate.  I think a few things factored into this obviousness:

    1. The rest of her outfit was obviously well thought out.
    2. She carried herself with confidence.
    3. The contrast between the boots and the rest of the look was so substantial that it almost had to be deliberate.

    What can we learn from this?

    1. When you deliberately break a rule of normal dress, you have to believe in your ability to look good while breaking the rule.  If you don't carry yourself with confidence--and you won't unless you believe you can pull the rule-break off--it's more likely to look like you failed.
    2. Keep the rule-break simple.  Otherwise, you run the risk of looking like you deliberately picked random stuff to mix together.

    Decide how hard you want to push, and then push harder.  And then own it.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010

    Warren Buffett on little indulgences, via The Onion

    Warren Buffett appreciates the small extravagances (h/t Matt for the link).  When you see a shirt you really like, just buy it.  You're worth it.  And you'll regret it if you don't.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    Pants: Cuffs or No Cuffs?

    When you buy a suit or a pair of slacks with unfinished legs, they need tailoring (astonishingly enough, I saw a pair of suit pants on a fellow the other day, downtown, which had not been hemmed at all).  You can either get a cuff, like this:

    or no cuff.  My rule of thumb is this:

    If the pants are pleated, get a cuff.  If they're flat-front, don't get a cuff. 

    I think it is slightly safer to have flat-front pants with a cuff than to have pleated pants without.  That said, none of these options is outlandish, so if you have vivid fantasies of your new flat-fronts with a cuff, go for it.  That feeling of confidence and style goes a long way in making sure the feeling is infectious.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010

    Casual: Badass Boots

    Cowboy boots aren't (ain't?) for everyone.  (Ladies: Cowboy boots are for you.  Rocky Mountain Jeans, maybe not.)  But a good pair of boots can get you around in style, comfort, and safety.  D.C.'s unusually snowy winter has been an excellent reminder of this.

    Friend and polymath Bryan runs, among other things:
    Celebrating Sagan, a site dedicated to remembering Carl Sagan's outsized contributions to scientific literacy and wonder in the United States; and
    Knock Twice, which must be seen/read/heard to be believed.

    Bryan also has a great--how to describe it?--Urban Western?--style; think city jeans but country shirts, irony-free (or else I'm missing the irony).  These are his new Red Wing Iron Rangers, acquired from

    The top three lace-holders are hooks rather than grommets, which keep the upper bights from slipping once you tie them down.  And these boots are cap-toes, which makes them look a little more dressy, but make no mistake--they mean business.