WSJ On The Tyranny Of #Menswear

monkThe concept of rules, which we’ve been exploring lately, is related to other approaches to dressing that certain men gravitate to.

Some become obsessed with formulas for how items are coordinated. These formulas could be timeless or  they could be trendy.

Last month Alexander Aciman wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal called “Succumbing To The Tyranny Of #Menswear.” I’ve only just gotten around to reading it, and since some of you might not have seen it, here are some excerpts.

Aciman makes many of the same points recently offered by comment-leaver AEV, who said that fashion-statement clichés disseminated on the Internet are a far cry from true individual style.

Aciman writes:

One of the greatest culprits is the fetishization of what the online world calls “individual style”: the purposeful unbuckling of monkstrap shoes, mismatched cufflinks, button-down shirts with only one collar point fastened and, perhaps most absurd, the unbuttoning of jacket cuff buttons (a practice intended only for showing off one’s functioning cuff buttons). These idiosyncrasies are so wildly circulated that they’ve become standard issue: No cuff button is left fastened, no monkstrap is buckled. Individuality has become a uniform.

He continues:

The second force behind the flattening of men’s style is the notion of “style rules.” Magazines command that a man’s shirt cuff must not extend more than a quarter-inch from his jacket, so I regularly see New Yorkers on crowded trains reach into the sweaty armpits of their blazers to pull their sleeves back—never mind that every James Bond from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig managed not to fret over an inch or more of visible shirt cuff. Men are told to cuff their selvedge jeans to show off the hemmed internal fabric, as though, like some freemason clan, having the right jeans will get you into a secret men’s club.

There are so many photos of men saddling one arm of their sunglasses over the breast pocket of their blazers that Ray-Bans seem as common an ornament as pocket squares.

And perhaps the most laughable of these style rules is the notion that men must match the color of their belts to that of their shoes to Pantone precision. Men seem to equate going out without matching belt and shoes to leaving the house without underwear.

The hunger for belt-matching and the pandemic of cuff-unbuttoning has not only left every man in New York City looking like a salesperson at J. Crew, but it has also prevented men from knowing or learning what they actually want. The “well-dressed” urban man does not have desires or tastes. He rolls up his jeans without knowing why. He does not belong to a club, and yet he wears club ties with fake crests.

The unimaginative paint-by-numbers formula follower and fashion-trend lemming are equally guilty of lacking the individuality that has always marked history’s most stylish dressers. — CC

54 Comments on "WSJ On The Tyranny Of #Menswear"

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Christian.
    And the tricky part happens when you like one of these styles. For example, if you like double monk shoes, but choose not wear them so as not to be labelled a follower of #menswear.

  2. An interesting and dead on accurate piece. Ironically, I find that this sort of affectation copy-catting is often paired with baseless bravado and an actual belief that somehow mimicking a catalog, large format book, or retail mannequin is an expression of well-honed, unique creativity. The nerve is something else.

    Though it overstates his influence, it is in many ways the Castleberriazation of menswear.

  3. Menswear is being Castle-buried!

    I’ve seen buttondowns unbuttoned and pinned, but has anyone actually seen just one button fastened on a collar?

    And I’m forgetting who coined the term “sprezzatorture”….

  4. Everybody is always selling something and that “thing” is usually polarizing. I used to not believe that ignorance was bliss, but the older I get the more I do. Articles like this make me glad that I live in Small Town, USA. The internet is my only exposure to #menswear and my desire to visit it dwindles every day.

  5. @CC – yes, Fred wears the one buttoned collar at times. This instance, paired with a purposely mistied tie, Obama jeans, a bracelet, and a belt tail left purposely unsecured, is a classic. Show of hands, who’s heard of ‘Jack Robie’?

    {If you Google his name and look through the images, you’ll see all sorts of gems: flipped blazer collars (indoors), purposely mistied neck ties, blazer cuffs unbuttoned, collars half and fully unbuttoned, jeans cuffs half flipped, painted clothes (my personal favorite), manufactured fading, rips and tears, the unbuckled monk strap (sigh), the pinned button down collar, sneakers with a blazer and tie, no socks with layers of outerwear in the middle of a NY winter, no socks with a suit, and some amazing circa 2007-8 ones when he was still wearing Abercrombie, Oakley-ish sunglasses, graphic T’s, board shorts, and flip flops.}

  6. The Internet will leave us no shortage of clowns.

    Actually, we need another Fred—Astaire, though, not Dinglebery. Uh, I mean, Castleberry.

  7. The Internet is to current mens fashion as the printing press was to protestantism! Menswear has fragmented into so many sects, one longs for the days of His Holiness Cary Grant, when men’s style had an infallible Magisterium…

  8. My older sons are fond of a song called ‘Being a Dickhead’s cool’ (google it) which I think is relevant to this discussion. @Henry, in particular, might enjoy it in view of his comment above.

  9. Fred Astaire on “Ivy”:

    Astaire often returns to his outspoken dislike of the present rage for “Ivy League” tailoring. “The unpadded shoulders, the three-buttoned long and boxy coat, the too-short, thin pants, and the thin ties with striped buttoned shirts in dark colors—well, I suppose this may go very well with some personalities but it’s not for me. To me, all such look like TV producers. Maybe they want to.” It seems amusing to Astaire to recall that when he was young such “outlandish” getups would have dubbed the wearers as “sissies”—but today the most extreme rigs of clothes are worn by the toughest gangs. [1957]

  10. I still say wearing a brown belt, with black shoes, and vice versa is a no no.

  11. I have a dark brown alligator belt with engine-turned buckle. Sometimes I wear it with burgundy penny loafers. Will I get ticketed?

  12. Richard Meyer | August 30, 2013 at 6:34 am |

    “GQ on style” is an oxymoron. Club ties should only be worn by members, preferebly within the club. Astaire and Grant knew the way. No one should be seen in public with “designer stubble” . The essence of dressing well is taste+ individualism. And I did read the Astaire late 50’s article-good stuff.

  13. I detest the practice of leaving the last button unbuttoned on surgeon’s cuffs because the only reason to do so is to show the world your functioning buttons. It’s such a vulgar, “look at me!” habit. I once asked Castleberry in his comments section if this was his practice and predictably he answered, “of course.”

  14. I leave the last button on just one of the sleeves undone, otherwise what’s the fun in having them? I’m not a surgeon, and if I were, I wouldn’t operate with my jacket on.

  15. I must chuckle about this notion of individualism, make it your own, etc. There is very little one can do, or should do, to be original when
    it comes to conservative dressing. Once you have every piece of conservative type clothing, you then graduate (perhaps out of boredom) to leaving buttons unbuttoned, ties tied sloppily, buckles left unbuckled, etc. It is at this point that you believe you have style, a real risk taker.

    I got deep into the above addiction and recall being pretty well turned out for a meeting. The most conservative dresser, our CFO, leaned into me and said, “Hey Mike, just how long did it take you to get dressed this morning?” It was then that I realized I needed to rehab.

  16. Leaving the last button unbuttoned on surgeon’s cuffs is traditional. Prince Charles regularly unbuttons two and often rolls back the cuff. PoW/Edw8th/DoW notably and regularly did this. No more “vulgar” than not buttoning the last button on a vest, or not buttoning the bottom button on a 2 or 3-button jacket. In fact, to a stickler for “rules,” the latter two practices would be simply “unacceptable.”

    But, on the larger point, “sprezzatura” does not translate into English as “sloppy.”

  17. “Sprezzatura” might not translate as “sloppy,” but those afflicted with Sprezzatourette’s Syndrome certainly dress as though it did.

    Unbuttoning one’s surgeon’s cuffs is OK if you’re going to roll up your sleeves—but if yon need to roll up your sleeves, why are you still wearing your jacket?

  18. Let’s be honest about what the surgeon’s cuffs are all about these days. Today, people believe that having working button holes means that one is wearing a special, expensive, higher quality jacket. So, today, people unbutton them to show off – to get others to notice that they’re wearing something they believe is expensive/special/etc. The reality of course, is that there’s very little that’s special about this particular detail….and, many very inexpensive jackets now include it.

    So, it’s not about “sprezzatura” (or having fun, being creative, expressing individuality, etc.) at all. It’s about bragging and showing off….and it has nothing to do with style. It’s no different that wearing a polo shirt with a massive logo or a flashy watch. It’s gross, misguided, and – like most forced affectations – telegraphs a lack of self-awareness.

  19. Indeed how far we’ve fallen since Tom Wolfe wrote “The Secret Vice,” when working buttonholes were a subtle sign only spotted and appreciated by the sartorial cognoscenti!

  20. Yes, fallen is indeed the word Christian. Have you a hoodie I may borrow? I have a very important meeting to attend next week.

  21. Mitchell S. | August 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm |

    There seems to be a lot of denial about interest in men’s fashion these days. Most men lampoon the latest fads, news, and trends in men’s fashion but many are obsessed with the minutiae of men’s style as they relate to showboating. Suits made from Super 200’s wool, seven-fold ties, and bench-made shoes are examples of sartorial one-upmanship.

    No where is this arms race more heated than Wall Street. Patek-Philippe watches, shiny new Audis, and custom-made suits (with surgeon’s cuffs, of course!) are totems that separate the bulls from the bison.

  22. Orgastic future | August 31, 2013 at 4:54 am |

    What’s hilarious is the Ivy culture judging individualism LOL! That’s like Saudi Arabia judging democracy. Ivy is the height of style uniformity. I had more styling choices in the army than the 7 item closet pushers in Ivy couture. I love the “staple” pieces, but c’mon guys, the entire culture is based on uninspired traditions being passed down and regurgitated through different generations. There’s not a problem with wanting to dress like your grandfather or Fred Astaire, but if you do, you are the antithesis of individualism.

  23. Ironchefsakai | August 31, 2013 at 11:02 am |

    I largely agree that current “fashion” trends, like Ziggy Stardust, take it all too far. With that being said, let’s show some perspective.

    There’s an undeniable similarity between unbuckling a dub-monk buckle and (as Christian posted some time ago) leaving your OCBD collar buttoned in the wash such that it rides up on your neck–or, for that matter, walking around campus with your shirt unironed, the tails sticking out, and socks missing between your feet and your Weejuns (penny included).

    I think that the Ivy Style, too, spread nationally among non-Ivy individuals and became a broader trend. Now, decades later, we are lauding it. But most of the people who bought into the style were, in essence, wearing the crest of a club to which they did not belong.

  24. @Ironchef – I simply don’t agree that there is any similarity at all between purposely leaving a shoe buckle undone (done to draw attention to the shoe and to feign nonchalance) and wearing an unironed shirt. For me/many, oxford shirts are casual and, for that reason, don’t require ironing (lots of folks don’t iron their shirts because they’re lazy or can’t be bothered). I would also differentiate between purposeful, forced affectations (e.g. unbuckled shoe straps, purposely mistied neck ties, collars purposely left unbuttoned, splatter paint, etc.) and not wearing socks in warm weather. For me/many, not wearing socks is a matter of comfort and convenience – not some sort of signal or attempt to draw attention to oneself. I don’t see not ironing casual shirts or wearing shoes with comfort, practicality, and convenience in mind as ‘wearing a crest of a club’….

    The core differences, of course, are between practicality and personal style that naturally reflects one’s upbringing/life/lifestyle and the current #menswear/#neoprep charade which is all about pretending, copying, and peacocking.

  25. M Arthur,

    If you need a dress hoodie, I suggest the Walmart x F.E. Castleberry model. Made of organic, ethically-sourced, free-range Pima cotton, they are the world’s first hoodies to feature surgeon’s cuffs. Sprezzatura is built in to the faux drawstrings for the hood, which are of different lengths. Each one is unique, as they have been individually splattered with paint by Mr. Castleberry’s representatives in China.

    Available from $159 and up at better Walmarts.

  26. @Henry – Bravo. I would add that the Walmart x F. E. Castleberry hoodie has been partially curated by his 4-person, 2013 summer intern team, includes a torn locker loop on the back, red and green port and starboard colored cuffs, and an attachable Social Primer debutante ball silk sash. It’s part of his uniform this season and, with pink, striped cashmere lining in the hood, hints at the upcoming season.

  27. Making fun of someone says more about you than the person you’re making fun of- the comments about FE x wal mart and stuff like that- that’s pretty low and actually not clever at all.

  28. @Max – the fact you’re commenting/defending him lets me know just how clever you found it….and, more importantly, what a terrible dresser I’m guessing you must be. It’s also, of course, terribly ironic that you’d take the time to deride my comments as ‘low and not clever’ in an effort to stake out the moral high ground….

  29. @AEV- just saying why pick on someone who’s so positive- and at least i don’t think i’m a terrible dresser but who knows! I got a girl’s number in the elevator at the Ralph Lauren mansion in January- i think it was the ski tickets on the down vest that did it for her- such an easy in/conversation- so anyways if i am a terrible dresser to you i don’t care based on events.

  30. Opinions are fine but I find personal attacks to be unpleasant and quite booring.

  31. Personal attacks are fine, as long as they don’t entail boots on the ground, are narrow in scope and have clear objectives.

  32. Ironchefsakai | September 1, 2013 at 1:10 am |

    @AEV, how do you explain pennies in Weejuns, for instance? What’s the purpose of putting your school or club crest on your navy blazer’s brass buttons? “Forced affectations,” indeed–the so-called Ivy Leage Look was all about image and signaling, with a clear delineation between in- and out-groups known immediately to those on the inside who wore their affectations correctly. Those broadcasts demonstrated wealth and fashionability in, perhaps, a subtler way, but the message was not far off. If #menswear people have decided to wear their club insignia in unbuttoned dub-monks and jacket sleeves, then let ’em; the club isn’t for me anyway.

    I’m sorry, but I think you’re reifying Ivy fashions and the ethos behind them. I happen to like it, but all it is is a look to which people conformed. Only its displacement in time makes it seem more genuine than current #menswear trends.

  33. @Iron – perhaps I don’t disagree with your entire broader point, just the examples you highlighted. Again, I don’t equate a wrinkled casual shirt with custom school/crest blazer buttons – obviously most custom buttons are meant to signal and boast….that’s different than unironed casual wear or shoes without socks in warm weather. Pennies in Weejuns? I’m not sure about that one – I think that was more a stylistic quirk than an overt signal of status or wealth….Weejuns were never an expensive shoe and a penny has always been a penny….let’s not forget that a strong vein of humility, self-awareness, and a downplaying of one’s status and wealth runs through “prep” style….at least it used to.

    Time period and timeframes matter. “Prep” style, like many societal trends (fashion and otherwise), began with a healthy dose of practicality and many aspects were rooted in a natural nonchalance that had to do with setting, upbringing, lifestyle, and so on. Today, “prep”, “Ivy”, etc. style has morphed entirely and has almost nothing to do with any of that…..and in many ways signals the opposites of those things (today, it attempts to copy, boast about, and signal those things, not naturally reflect them or evolve with them…). Time – along with marketing (blogging included) – is partially the culprit.

  34. “Weejuns were never an expensive shoe and a penny has always been a penny.”

    Damn, this is just sooo good. Let’s end on it. So very good.

  35. Oh, wait. I just noticed This gem:

    “What’s hilarious is the Ivy culture judging individualism LOL! That’s like Saudi Arabia judging democracy. Ivy is the height of style uniformity. I had more styling choices in the army than the 7 item closet pushers in Ivy couture. I love the “staple” pieces, but c’mon guys, the entire culture is based on uninspired traditions being passed down and regurgitated through different generations. There’s not a problem with wanting to dress like your grandfather or Fred Astaire, but if you do, you are the antithesis of individualism.”

    “The height of style uniformity”? Indeed?

    In fact, Natural Shoulder style in the best sense of the phrase entails options that allow for a good bit of individualism. But, for better or worse, they’re for neither the poor nor the poor in spirit.

    Example: The Hunters of Brora Reay (it’s tweed) done up by a skilled tailor who knows how to cut and sew a soft, lightly padded, natural shoulder jacket. What say I then pick some good West of England flannel–Fox, the obvious choice amidst the lightweight flannels–and send it off to Hertling’s Brooklyn-based tailors?

    How many men will walk the streets of Manhattan this fall wearing anything as–what are the poster’s preferred terms? Right…–“inspired” and/or “individualistic”? Few.

    By this mean hardly any.

    “7 item closet pushers in Ivy Couture” ??..!? Now, not that that’s not super witty, but let’s posit that you haven’t been exposed to the good stuff. Which is a shame.

    “Antithesis of individualism”? Whoa, and what-what? Another whopper. And wrong. Point of fact: nothing is harder to make than natural shouldered, softly tailored clothing. And on most men, few if any styles are more flattering.

    Oh, may as well. A sneak peak at Hunter’s:

  36. Point one: Don’t confuse “Trad” with “Ivy.”

    Point two: Nothing “affected” about wearing patch/scarf/tie, etc. of school/club/organization of which you are a member. Just don’t wear them if you’re not. And don’t even consider wearing something like “RL Polo Club” or anything like. Simple.

  37. Good point, and no wearing of regimental “repp” ties if you didn’t serve in the regiment, and no wearing of button-down collars or camel “polo” coats unless you play polo, and no wearing penny loafers unless you’re a Norwegian fisherman, and no wearing monk straps unless you’re a monk, and no wearing of double monk straps unless you’re a conjoined twin who’s also a monk. What am I missing? Arbitrary rules on the interweb make me feel so superior!! You lot are onto something…

  38. If you are not Irish, you’ve got no business wearing Irish tweed. If you are not italian, you’ve got no business wearing ……..If you are not Scottish, you’ve got no business wearing…. 😉
    The truth is that the middle classes are what enables ivy style to exist over the last 50 years, the ivy league shit themselves in the late 60s and abandoned the look for the James Taylor look.

  39. Two quotes, seemingly mutually exclusive, came to mind when I read all the posts here:

    “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Robert Frost

    And to paraphrase an Old English proverb, “Rules, like pie crusts were made to be broken.”

  40. (that was more of a conversation killer than I had intended…)

  41. Orgastic future | September 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm |

    S.E. Gave me my comeuppance! Lol Good post though. I still stand by what I said. As you should too.

  42. hey, anybody watching the Bud Collins special on the Tennis Channel? Opened up with a shot of the Andover Shop. . . and now theyre showing your man Charlie, CC

  43. Oh yeah, he told me about that and that he enjoyed the filming experience. Hope it ends up somewhere on the web.

  44. All in good fun.

    A working hypothesis that rings true for me is that, while the notion of rules may be anathema to/for many, it’s obvious that certain parameters have been established–albeit over the course of decades. I am happy to take most of my cues from the Brooks or J. Press of, let’s say, the mid 1950s.

  45. My Robert Frost quote was about exactly that (“certain parameters have been established”). Frost didn’t want to write free verse (a form of poetry that does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any other musical pattern) because without rules he felt like the tension was gone from the creation of new work.

    People who like traditional, 20th century American menswear probably like the parameters, the rules, the principles – because the fun lies in playing within those boundaries.

  46. I believe the reason so many leave the top buckle of a double monk strap undone is that the vamp is too high. Look at the posted photo, must be painful when buckled. Discomfort, just another reason I won’t own a pair.

  47. What about personal style? I don’t button the top buckle of my monk straps. Personally I like the look and it’s more comfortable. I also sometimes put a slight roll in my jeans and chinos. I love many of my shoes and want them to stand out.

    I think what we should be celebrating is that people actually wearing monk straps, button down collars, and Repp stripe ties. I have seen far too many hoodies, heavy metal t-shirts, sneakers, and jogging pants over the past several decades. It’s a shame we just can’t all go back to the mid-50’s – early 60’s!

  48. If your shoes hurt when you wear them, they don’t fit properly. Get a different size or style, one that does suit your feet.

    It used to be only women would wear uncomfortable shoes for fashion’s sake. Have men become so sissified that they do it, too?

  49. Aciman takes spezzatura way too seriously. Can’t we have fun with our style?

  50. Re: Robt. Frost, Parameters, Rules, & Principles —

    “The Absence of Limitations is the Enemy of Art.” [Orson Welles]

  51. I can’t say I read a huge amount of ‘#menwear’-type blogs, but it does all seems like a bunch of guys looking to be individual yet in exactly the same way as eachother. Those without self-confidence seek to be part of a group, it’s just part of adolescence. I find it funny that so many people that seek to be individuals do so in such conventional ways…goths, mods, punks, no one likes to be out on a limb. I suppose you could add Ivy (or whatever you want to call it) to that list. I find it comforting because most of the clothes are things I’ve grown up with and worn most of my life (albeit with a slightly more English angle).

    Ivy/Preppy style should, in theory, be timeless. That’s not to say it can’t evolve but conventions that have developed over time help define a style. Move too far away and its essence is lost, stick too rigidly to so-called ‘rules’ and the casual charm is soon stifled.
    As someone far wiser than I once stated, “when you made it ‘classic with a twist’ it ceased to be classic.’

    I wrote an article on this topic just last week (it was designed to be slightly inflamatory to be honest) but I stick by my opinion that function for function’s sake is the way I like my clothing. So unbuttoning a buttondown and unbuckling monk straps etc just goes against function.

  52. Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere
    -GK Chesterton

  53. Isn’t their easier and less awful ways of making your style individual, that opening all buckles an button?…I enjoy dark purple sweaters, they’re not traditional ivy of course, but I quite like them, and I think think they go well with tweeds…Maybe not super daring but still, a touch of individuality. I mean all this…unbuttoning collar buttons, and what not, and paint stained khakis…Is nothing sacred? Why not add a bit of hip hop flare to khakis, and just walk around with them around your ankles? Or why not rep striped do-rags?…”this is mad dope trad”…

  54. Max/JWK,

    A personal attack on Mr. Castleberry would be something like calling him a bad person, accusing him of cheating on his taxes, or insinuating unsavory reasons for his divorce.

    What we do here is deride his style. The person is not the same as the clothes he wears. AEV & I might call him a buffoon, but that’s because we think he dresses, and acts, like a clown.

    It would be different if the FECkless one were just some random guy whose picture showed up on line. If that were the case, then dumping on him for being poorly dressed could easily slip into something inappropriate. However, Mr. Castleberry has pretensions to being a fashion icon, and shamelessly plugs himself at every opportunity. (That he enjoys any success at all is indicative of the times we live in.) Unlike, for example, Mr. Press, who earned his fame from his decades of work in the field, Mr. Castleberry is a newcomer—not a bad thing in and of itself—and a phony—which is part of what AEV & I are reacting to.

    I don’t begrudge FEC his success; in fact, I marvel at it. It doesn’t mean that I think he dresses well, and since he is out there, presenting himself to the public, we all have every right to criticize the face he shows the world.

    Also, lighten up! It’s just clothes. Some unknown guy on the Internet making fun of how someone else dresses is surely a far lesser concern than many others you have.

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