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Wear style lightly

22 November 2010

What observers think of as style in a man is often as much the way he carries himself. Ease creates grace, grace begets elegance. To be stylish you have to be at ease in your clothes and comfortable with what you are wearing.

This is what people mean when they ask whether someone can ‘carry off’ an item of clothing. It is also why the Italian tradition considers it more stylish to have some part of the outfit slightly wrong, or imperfect: one side of the collar poking out of a sweater, or the rear tie blade sitting in front of the front. Seeming at ease – not preening, not pretending – is at the root of so many of our ideas of style.

Fred Astaire is a great example. As Bruce Boyer puts it: “I’m sure I’m not the first to conclude that the reason Astaire looked so marvellous in tails is that he played against that stuffed-sausage look that predominates when one wears a formal getup. In all of those wonderful films he always looks so much at ease, so comfortable and so casual; more as though he were wearing terribly elegant pyjamas.”

A similar observation can be made about the evolution of men’s style in Hollywood. The 1920s set the foundation with the put-together style of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert; the 1930s relished its clothing, personified by Clark Gable; but it was the 1940s with the peaking of Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant that men were shown entirely at ease with their dress.

Men dressed to starched, crisp perfection rarely look elegant. Perhaps momentarily stylish, as they drift into the room, but no more than a mannequin would be. They are too often characterless.

This is all very well, but achieving stylish nonchalence can be very hard for a young man discovering clothes, and thus experimenting with new things every week. Who feels instantly comfortable wearing something his peers do not? Like a proper hat, a blazer with gilt buttons or a silk handkerchief? It is hard not to be self-aware, and self adjust. Never self adjust; that’s what bathrooms are for.

To those men I say this: Be patient, enjoy what you’re wearing and whatever you do, don’t take yourself too seriously. Nothing is less elegant than that.