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Reader question: Office casual, part 1

16 August 2008

dress down jackets

Ed, London: Office attire where I work is very casual – a lot of jeans and t-shirts, with only very senior people wearing suits. I’d like to incorporate some more formal or dressy items into my work attire but don’t want to stand out too much. What would you suggest?

I’d start with ties and shoes. Retain the casual benchmark that is a pair of jeans, and try adding smarter shoes and/or knitted ties.

Leather shoes are a whole world of joy, as I’m sure you’ll have realised if you’ve read this blog for very long. Many collectors of upmarket shoes wear them as much with jeans as suits, and doing so gives you a greater range of choices. If you’re going to opt for leather shoes with jeans, bear the following things in mind:

  1. Shoes with greater bulk or pattern are more casual. So go for brogues or wing-tips. The heavier look of patterned and layered leather shoes makes them sit more comfortably with heavy materials like flannel and denim.
  2. Suede is a lovely casual option but can be hard to maintain. Make your second or third pair of smart shoes a brown or ginger leather. That way you always have an alternative if it looks a bit wet out (don’t wear suede in the rain if you can help it).
  3. Go for brown. Whether chocolate, tan or blond, brown shoes will go best with jeans. Black makes you look like a schoolboy and other colours can be hard to wear effectively. (My only exception is red leather, which I think can look great with indigo denim.) Broadly speaking, the darker the brown the darker the jeans should be. But there is much greater flexibility here than with suits.
  4. Get a good-quality leather belt in a similar hue to wear with your shoes. Again, there is greater flexibility than with suits as to matching the shoes to the belt. But try and find something similar (two browns should be sufficient for all shades of shoe).

Next, ties. Wear a well-fitting shirt with the jeans (all important considering that there will likely be no jacket to cover the shirt). It should fit well both at the waist and at the neck – nothing would remove this outfit’s crispness more than an undone shirt collar.

For ties, anything is good apart from regular silk. Wool works well, as the duller texture suits the trousers and shoes more than silk – which complements polished shoes and worsted wool far better. Particularly good are the narrower, square-ended wool ties.

In that same vein, knitted silk can also work well. It has a shinier hue but the texture makes it inherently more casual. Also cottons or cotton/silk mixes.

This gives you two fantastic areas of menswear to plunder. It should go without saying that the jeans should be traditional and straight cut. No drainpipes or flares please.

(I’m warming to this subject. The next post will explain why textures are the key to getting Ed’s combinations right when he wants to add a jacket or vary the trousers.)