Contemporary Style: Bending The Rules

“By 1930 to ’36 a handful of basic shapes were created that still prevail today as a sort of scale of expression, with which every man can project his own personality and style.”

— Yves St. Laurent[1]

  “If a person turns to observe your dress, you are not well-dressed; instead, your clothes are either too new, too tight, or too fashionable.”

— Beau Brummell[2]

[caption id="attachment_291" align="aligncenter" width="268"]Beau Beau Brummell[/caption] If you’ve ever seen an awards show, you might’ve noticed that today’s black tie events look, well, quite a bit different than those of the Victorian era—even though the basic ingredients haven’t changed much! There are lots of explanations for this phenomenon provided by various experts: Alan Flusser credits the dissolution of classic formal wear to a loss of knowledge, a lack of caring, a failure to pass on both knowledge and caring from father to son, generation to generation. Alternatively (or in addition), fashion designers simply provide us with too many options year after year; we blindly follow along in order to stay on trend rather than remembering the importance of permanent style.[3] GQ’s Dylan Jones, on the other hand, speaks out against the centuries-old concept that identically-dressed men in black are merely meant to be a backdrop against which women could shine: “isn’t it time we started getting our own back?”[4] he asks. Men can now seek individuality even in clothes as regimented as formal attire. On the other hand, the “Hollywood crowd” and “rock stars, meanwhile, can not only wear what they like, we expect them to.”[5] So maybe it’s not that men don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to formal wear; maybe some of them just don’t care, intentionally make a spectacle, or both—and maybe this is our new expectation. Regardless of the reason—or, most likely, combination of reasons—behind this phenomenon, it’s clear that modern men are looking to “project [their] own individuality and style,” as St. Laurent puts it, into clothes even as codified as formal wear. Just look at Ralph Lauren’s personal style (a tuxedo jacket paired with oxford button-down shirts, Levi jeans, and cowboy boots or even sandals!), or Woody Allen’s classic black-tie attire from head to ankle—then Converse hightops.[6] These men can (arguably!) get away with such looks not because of the clothes themselves, but because the men inside those clothes are knowledgeable enough to bend the rules and wear the result with confidence and ease. As Lauren himself puts it: “‘The well-dressed man knows who he is and dresses to express what he stands for. When he gets up in the morning, a guy thinks he’s an Ivy Leaguer, a Western Cowboy, a Rock Star, whatever, and then he fills himself into that image at that particular time.’”[7] So, two elements are required to successfully pull off individuality in formal wear: confidence and knowledge—knowledge of the rules and classic formal wear styles, as well as knowledge of your personal style and what looks good on you. This guide can teach you about the rules, about classic styles, even about how to determine the fit that works best for you. It’s up to you, however, to develop your own personal style and to develop confidence in the identity that style portrays—or the image you want to fill yourself into, as Ralph Lauren puts it. [caption id="attachment_292" align="aligncenter" width="396"]RalphLauren Ralph Lauren shows true confidence in his personal fashion identity.[/caption]   (Unless, of course, you happen to be Ralph Lauren, or Woody Allen, or “The World’s Most Extraordinary Living Rock Star” plus “underappreciated natty dresser” Ozzy Osbourne[8]—in which case, well, you can probably do absolutely whatever you want!) Caveat above notwithstanding: in this section, we’ll demonstrate ways in which you can alter your formal wear “uniform” to fit you, and we’ll provide contemporary (mostly red carpet) examples of these styles worn successfully and… well… less successfully. Now, the styles discussed here aren’t exhaustive—they can’t be!—but we do our best to cover as many elements and style choices as possible. In addition, this section of our formal wear guide isn’t meant to be a list of hard and fast rules. After all, just because a certain pattern-matching choice worked well for someone at the Oscars doesn’t mean it will work for you; nor does the fact that a particular dinner jacket cut turned into a red-carpet train wreck doesn’t mean a similar style won’t work for you. We merely hope that, paired with your now sizable knowledge of classic styles, this section will serve as a set of loose guidelines for defining and owning your personal style—from your neckwear down to your shoes. In this section, we’ll discuss everything from color choice (is black really required all the time?), patterns and matching, elements of dress that tend to work better than others in non-traditional colors, etc.; to non-traditional styles and cuts (from Mandarin collared dinner jackets to patterned hosiery), how to wear them, how not to wear them, etc.; to unusual combinations of elements and/or accessories… and more. First, though: in addition to your necessary confidence and knowledge, there are several issues that you should keep in mind when working to portray your personality through formal attire—and these are issues that we’ll probably reiterate throughout this section.
  1. Never try to force a personal style. If you’re new to formal wear or just not completely comfortable in it, it’s perfectly fine to wear a classic style for some time. Once you grow more comfortable, you can begin branching out in minute ways and gradually developing a stronger idea of you: what fits your personality, what makes you feel best, etc. You can never go wrong with the classics, but you can go wrong—horribly wrong!—by trying too hard to be unique and different for unique and different’s sake.
  1. Johnson Gross puts this second point best, I think:
“Waistcoats, shoes, and other accessories can be varied to give your basic black tie a distinctive personality. It is up to you, the individual, to exercise some restraint. At most formal affairs it is preferable to be quietly chic rather than stridently fashionable.[9] What does this mean? Well, the takeaway is similar to the first point: don’t try so hard to be different just for the sake of it. The reasoning here is slightly different, though: unless you’re a movie star or similar, your formal wear appearance likely isn’t going to be on a red carpet. Instead, you’ll have a host or hosts, expectations, issues of politeness, etc. Never forget that restraint can be just as powerfully individuating as, say, novelty bowties and socks! All that said, we hope you find the following sections helpful as you begin to develop—or add the finishing touches to—an individual formal style! [1] Quoted in Flusser (1985), 6. [2] Quoted in Flusser (1985), 157. [3] Flusser (1996), 70-1; (2002). [4] Jones, 198. [5] Ibid., 199. [6] Gross, 180. [7] Quoted in Hix, Charles (1978). Dressing Right: A Guide for Men. New York: St. Martin’s Press. p. 24 [8] Jones, 198. [9] 180 (emphasis mine).