When style becomes costume
Dressing in the full traditions of men’s clothing can make one a caricature. It must be combined with a touch of originality.
There are blogs on men’s style that are fascinating for the depth of knowledge they demonstrate – over the role of a split yoke on a man’s shirt, over the line of a shoe’s waist. They inform many things about what I buy and what I wear. But I am often a little disappointed when I see images of the authors.
This is because they seem to want to be an embodiment of what is – necessarily – historical dress, and become an illustration from an old copy of Esquire. They take every aspect of, for example, early twentieth century English country wear, and they copy it. They wear the cord trousers, the tweed jacket, the checked shirt and the wool tie. They add the flat cap, the brogues and the bright socks. They may add a hunting jacket with leather padding on the shoulder to protect from the impact of a gun’s recoil, or a waxed Barbour jacket with bellow pockets to accommodate shells.
These items are all correct, historically. And the chances are they will be of the highest quality, complement the wearer’s skin tones and fit him perfectly – as he takes great care over these elements as well. But it is just mimicry. He is in costume.
Even Prince Charles, on a hunt around Balmoral, doesn’t follow the traditions of hunt clothing this fastidiously. And he has an excuse for wearing something similar – he is actually hunting, he is actually English and all his forbears wore similar pieces throughout their history.
The style aficionado who copies it is just dressing up. He has none of the creative element that can make dressing so enjoyable, and so personal.
Let me give an officewear example. I like wearing pinstripe suits. I’m a fan of red socks, as well as double-breasted jackets and patterned handkerchiefs. But I know that if I wore all of these pieces in one combination I would look like a caricature. I might as well top it off with a bowler hat, grow a moustache and wander down Fleet Street twirling my umbrella.
So I wear red socks with more understated suits. Perhaps a plain grey flannel and open-necked white shirt. I rarely wear a handkerchief and a tie at the same time, as for me it is probably a little too much. And my double-breasted suits are not navy-blue pinstripe.
It is also fun to add touches of individuality – to experiment with odd waistcoats in formal suits, though there is no tradition of this that I am aware of; to combine smart clean Converse with wool suits, as I like the contrast of smart and casual; to wear darker coloured, wool handkerchiefs in odd jackets when worn casually. This is individuality and creativity. It is what makes dressing fun, rather than study.
I think that men who are very interested in their clothes are part geeky, petty academic and part creative, artistic aesthete. Everyone needs the former to drive them into reading and investigation, to be interested by the history and traditions of men’s attire. But everyone also needs the latter, to have the kind of mind that created these traditions in the first place. (Beau Brummel and the Duke of Windsor are heroes for being precisely the opposite of these geeky facsimiles.)
Unfortunately, when men have too much of the first influence and not enough of the second, they end up looking like an extra in a costume drama.