There is a menswear phenomenon that seems to be taking hold more and more over the last two decades or so. Something that seems to mirror a wider phenomenon in American society and, I would suspect, many other places around the world. That is, the lurch toward privileging personal preference and personal comfort over all else. Over and over again, on internet forums and advice columns, the driving force behind clothing decisions is often “What do I prefer?” and “Does it make me feel good?” Indeed, the refrain “The most important thing is that I feel good wearing it” is so common as to be almost a trope among menswear enthusiasts online and elsewhere.
How could this be a bad thing? Do we not all strive to develop a personal style that we feel comfortable and confident in? Sure, that’s true for many of us. And in fact, having a personal style that one feels good in is a meaningful and important thing. However, privileging those things over all else does ensure that we lose something very valuable in the menswear sphere. Two somethings in particular, actually.
We lose the ability to allow tailored clothing to be a corrective to our physical realities.
It prevents us from an objective appraisal of our own physique, and promotes an ignorance of what tailored clothing can do for us.
Objectivity is a controversial term in the 21st century. In an age of pluralism we are compelled to consider all aesthetic judgments as equally valid. “There is no truth, dear boy. Only a myriad of opinions.” This criticism is well taken. Certainly aesthetic ideals are highly subjective and, at least to some degree, culturally constructed. However, nothing we do is devoid of cultural context. Understanding that context, both in a particular and in a plural way, is as important to dressing well as anything else.
In the increasingly homogenizing world of menswear, where Japanese, American, Italian, and a slew of other aesthetics, come into contact and combine in interesting ways, the cultural context is more singular than ever. The funny thing about tolerance and pluralism is that it tends to assimilate us all to one another. Thus, multiculturalism actually serves to create one global culture rather than to foster an appreciation for disparate cultures.
All this is to say that, despite the cries of opposition to any claim of objectivity in aesthetics, we can still seem to realistically make judgments on what looks good on a particular kind of body. We can do this because we are all in communication with people from around the world, and we are making collective decisions about fashion together. But the trend toward personal preference short-circuits this.
A short man may have a preference for two-inch cuffs on all his trousers, a fat man may have a preference for bold checked suits, and a tall man can wear pinstripes all he wants. The justification being “It makes me feel good.”
Fine. But if we accept this argument we begin to lose an appreciation for one of the most amazing things tailored clothing can do for us. That is, to hide our deficiencies and accentuate our assets. Menswear legend Alan Flusser once opined that wearing clothes that “fit” is besides the point of tailored garments. Clothes shouldn’t mirror the shape of your body. Rather, they should make it appear is if you have a better body than you do. They should make you look more athletic (but not too athletic), taller (but not too tall), and slimmer (but not too slim).
True, all of those things are variables that have a certain subjectivity to them. How tall is too tall? But generally speaking we may talk about a moderate ideal of the male form that most people having these discussions would recognize. Call it the “Brumellian Ideal.” Indeed, men use this concept without even knowing it in many cases. Admonishing someone with a long neck for not wearing shirts with taller collars refers to this ideal. Recognizing when someone is wearing a jacket that is too long, or too short, refers to this ideal. An ideal rarely defined and often unspoken, to be sure.
And when we go too far in believing that it’s all about personal preference we miss an opportunity to really begin to look good. We lose the capability to make clothing decisions that account for our dropped shoulders, our rotund bellies, or our short statures.
We lose an understanding of clothing in context, and we lose respect.
One of the wonderful things about learning the history of menswear is that it provides the learner with an understanding of why certain clothes are worn in particular contexts. Understanding context allows the dresser to view his clothes as something far more meaningful than a banal exercise in self-love.
Through an understanding of context we begin to see clothing as a tool capable of expressing humility, grace, and respect for others. Why do men wear black tie in certain circumstances but not others? Why should we strive to fit in more than we stand out? Why should we have a sense of occasion? Because having an understanding of these things shifts the attention of others around us from ourselves to the things we actually dress for.
By going to a black-tie event accoutered in clothing that largely adheres to tradition, for instance, we are saying that we, ourselves, are not more important than the occasion we are dressing for. By attending a wedding as a guest, and not out-dressing the bride and groom, we are saying that “This is your event, and I find unadulterated joy in your happiness.”
On the other hand, the man who wears a suit and tie to a job where his fellows are dressed in denim and t-shirts brings attention to himself for all the wrong reasons. Rather than finding solidarity with his fellow workers, he seeks to stand out, to be the center of attention, and to demonstrate his wealth or his taste in non-subtle and offensive ways.
But why would any man want to do that? Wouldn’t peer pressure alone compel him to dress like those around him? Not so when adopting the mindset of “Whatever I do, it will be correct, as long as it makes me feel good.”
Honestly, for most of us this isn’t a major problem. Social expectations are a remarkably powerful force in most of our lives. But even if most of us don’t fit the model of someone who is selfish to the point that he wears a suit and tie to his job as a television repairman, it often creeps into our lives to some degree or another. For instance, a man who wears black-tie to an event where cocktail attire is more appropriate, demeans himself by emphasizing his own preferences over those of his host, or others around him.
This doesn’t mean that there is no room for personal expression in clothing. Quite the contrary. But it does require that we think harder and deeper about how we express ourselves. A pair of vintage cufflinks handed down from a grandfather, or a boutonnière given by a spouse, carries far more dignified meaning and expression than a pair of gold Gucci sneakers. Totems of love and respect, referential to others rather than to the self, allow us to dress well without seeming self serving.
No, young man, the most important thing is not whether you feel good. While feeling good is important, far more important is putting those around you at ease. Making them feel that your presence enriches their own lives, and that they can find in you a comrade rather than a better.
Where does this leave us?
Fear not, ye self-promoters, there is still plenty of room for personal preference in menswear. I prefer corduroy over flannel in cold weather. I enjoy Go To Hell clothing, too. But I do make an honest effort to wear these things when appropriate and without undue self referentialism. Life is lived in degrees, and clothing is worn in degrees. Thus, there will always be a place for what you, personally, think looks good.
But do yourself, and the world around you, a favor and step back every now and then. Temper your decisions with the understanding that you are not the center of the universe, and your own personal comfort is not the ultimate arbiter of taste. Think a little less of the self and a little more about the people you share this world with.
Dressing with taste and humility might not stop war, eliminate hunger, and prevent injustice, but thinking of others when choosing your clothes can foster empathy for those around you and put your fellows at ease in your presence. — PANI M.