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Spectrum-spanning combinations

29 September 2008

At a certain point, dressing with a fondness and knowledge of traditional men’s clothing can become staid. I have referred to this previously as the point at which style becomes costume. The instant you start wearing a bowtie with your tweed jacket and flannels. The moment when you add a tie pin to your three-piece, double-breasted suit. At this point you are merely aping the dress of a certain period, and dressing up for pantomime.

The traditional must be balanced with the quirky, the modern and, most importantly, the personal. Wear beaten-up converse under your flannels. Add a lurid handkerchief to your suit’s breast pocket. The true enthusiast of style is constantly striving to update these traditions and add a twist. This does not mean having a buttonhole stitched in a contrast colour, or going for a bright jacket lining, a la Paul Smith. It has to be your own. It has to be personal.

Here are a couple of recent inspirations of my own. They both balance ties, either necktie or bowtie, with more casual pieces of clothing. As the tie is towards the formal extreme of a formality spectrum, it should be balanced with something from towards the other end of the spectrum, the informal.

Two provisos. One, this assumes that the look you want is somewhere in between: a weekend or casual Friday look with a formal edge to it. Two, these suggestions are obviously not that personal, given that I am suggesting them to you. But they’re perhaps a good place to start.

My first combination comprises Oxford button-down shirt, bowtie, jeans and hooded sweatshirt. I have no opinion on the shoes – perhaps brogues or trainers, depending on your mood. In fact, the shoes are probably the tipping point of formality: formal with an informal twist, or the other way around. The bowtie at one end of the spectrum is balanced by the hoodie at the other end. The Oxford-weave shirt, similarly, makes an effective background to the bowtie.

The second combination is another version of the same idea. Necktie with Windsor-collar shirt, jeans and rugby shirt. In this instance, the necktie is balanced by the rugby shirt. The tie should be a casual fabric if possible – cotton, linen, wool. Something matte. The rugby shirt is something of a British institution but is also fairly widely available in the US. An equivalent is the long-sleeved version of the polo shirt.

Preppy combinations, perhaps. But pulling them off well, personally, is your job.