Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Adventures in menswear, part 1

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm currently reading a style guide for men, Bernhard Roetzel's Gentleman - A Timeless Guide to Fashion. I decided to embark on a trip to men's fashion for two reasons. First, I watched some movies with interesting menswear. Second, I read an article in the New York Times after the Academy Awards. The article discussed men's red carpet disasters; that despite men "having it easy" (all they have to do is follow the dress code - the concept is actually quite interesting), a lot of men get it wrong. At this year's Oscars, for example, George Clooney's suit jacket was too small, and his trousers too long. I would have never noticed that, because to be honest, I don't know much about men's clothes.


I've mentioned before that I'm not a huge fan of style guides or clothing rules in general, but I figured that some general information regarding men's clothing couldn't hurt. For a while I've been considering that perhaps menswear is simply onto something. Perhaps there is a reason why what-is-considered-a-stylish-man has worn a simple dark suit for decades on end. Yes, ties and collars have been a little narrower here and a lot wider there, but broadly speaking, a suit is a suit.  The same might be true of women's suits... but a lot of the times the details, colours, jewellery, hairstyles and make-up trends get in the way. There is often just too much of something that distracts the eye. Maybe there is a different type of simplicity, or something time-defying about menswear. Or maybe it's not the clothes at all - maybe it's the way menswear is worn. I got my hands on Roetzel's book because it is supposed to be the definitive guide of classic men's fashion.


So far I've learned all sorts of interesting things. Did you know that a button-down shirt is actually a shirt whose collar is, literally, buttoned down to the shirt? I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea. I've seen "button-down" used to mean a shirt, you know, a shirt, with buttons in the front. Now in hindsight I feel a little silly, because of course, almost by definition, all shirts have a multiple-button closure in the front, but not all collars are buttoned down. It makes sense to have the distinction. What's really interesting is that these types of distinctions are everywhere in menswear, and they actually serve practical purposes. A certain type of collar requires a certain type of tie in order to fit well, and vice versa. A shirt must be long enough - front and back of the shirt should be able to touch in the crotch area - so that one doesn't have to re-tuck the shirt after bending over. Men's trousers should only have pleats if the man's size calls for it - otherwise the fabric doesn't fall right. Or that's what Roetzel says, anyway. And I have to admit that some of this stuff just makes sense.

I wonder if the problem I have with womenswear is that it seems to have entered anarchy: that our preoccupation with our body shapes and identities has removed a lot of the common sense out of the equation of women getting dressed. We spend a lot of time wondering how to channel and express our identities through our clothes, and what others think of the clothes we wear. As consumers, we are told to buy outfits that channel a message rather than clothes that might let our personalities shine. We no longer care as much about practicality, good materials, or the right fit. These days when we encounter a blazer with sleeves that are too short, we roll them up rather than demand a sleeve that's right. And when we try on a blazer that's too big on the shoulders, womenswear sales assistants will regurgitate sales pitches on menswear-inspired trends. At what point did we stop demanding more? Why do the men's t-shirts in my closet last dozens of laundry cycles, but the seams in my women's tees start twisting and turning after a couple of wears? Do men just ask for more?  


I was fitted for a suit a few weeks ago, at a menswear store. It was an eye-opening experience. The sales assistant didn't ask me what type of style I was looking for, which seemed astonishing to me. She took a look at me from head to toe, measured me, and started pulling slim-cut, two-button-closure suits off the racks. After the sales assistant had shown me a suit I liked, minutes later I stood there wearing it. It was big everywhere. Before I had even said anything, I stepped into a little space with huge mirrors. A lady came in with a bunch of pins and tailor's chalk. She worked her magic on the suit, and told me to pick up the suit in a few weeks. I left the store a little overwhelmed. I wasn't entirely sure what had just happened. It hadn't felt like shopping. It felt like someone had dressed me according to some mysterious standard, something bigger than me and my identity.    

Images from Elizabeth Walker: Style Book: Fashionable Inspirations


Anonymous said...

I always tagged along when DH was suit shopping, but it never occurred to me that I could be fitted for a suit. This is fascinating. Did you actually order one?

I had not known about the true meaning of button-down either and realize that I have mis-used the phrase for years.

Madeline Quaint said...

Wow, what an experience! I can't wait to see the result!

I've always wondered why menswear seems to be so much more constant than womenswear. One of the reasons I'm so glad to be a woman is because we can choose from so much more to wear!

Hehe, I've never used the word button-down as it always sounded odd to me. I just said "shirt". I mean they all have buttons right? :)

lin said...

I wonder if the rise of women's spending power has in a way led to the proliferation of crap being proffered every few weeks. Growing up, it seemed very empowering to me to be one of those glamorous high-achievers with fantastic walk-in wardrobes and 200 pairs of shoes. It didn't seem like a bad thing. It felt like a great response to rich men and their 50 vintage cars. And cheap clothing made this fantasy possible for women with average incomes. With such a seductive premise for women, it's not hard to see why manufacturers don't bother with good clothing anymore. Somewhere along to the way, people figured women wanted more, not better.

I personally like a functional approach to dressing, and I love that menswear is rooted in that, whereas womenswear seemed to start off on a decorative premise. But I think the happy spot is probably somewhere between the two. I like the diversity and variety you find in women's clothing and I like that it's a woman's freedom to dress however she likes.

coffeeaddict said...

so true! stores like Zara, H&M and similar fashion giants will offer menswear at a much higher quality than womens' swear at practically the same price.
Going to a tailor is always such a magical experience. Years ago I had a seamstress and it was so incredibly different being fitted for a new outfit, discussing fabrics, patterns, fit and style. It felt more like a project, a joint effort to create something wonderful. Going in for fittings, the first, the second and third felt more like going to see the contractor in charge of renovating your apartment than the excitement I experience when I go shopping and hope to find something new. Going to the seamstress I was always a bit nervous. Is it going to turn out right, did I choose the right fabric, will it drape as it is supposed to?
I'd love to see the finished suit you were fitted for too!

Men's Discount Fashion said...

This is a great article, although I think the subject of men’s fashion is a bit difficult to analyze and find any grounds for sensible reasoning.
There is a public misconception about male actors, that they are usually well-dressed and they can serve as models for other men, when it comes to good dressing tastes. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though actors and celebrities in general are influential fashion trend-setters. I don’t think, however, that it is because of the fine combination of the clothes they wear, but it is mostly due to mimicking human nature. As you very pointed out in your post, Academy Awards ceremonies prove this fact.

Eyeliah said...

I can't wait to see you suit! I'm picturing grey.... I don't think men demand more, it's just that they wear the clothes for much longer than women do. Lets face it, we buy low quality clothing, wear the pieces for one year and then we want something different. If we choose to buy only more expensive, quality items and commit to wear them year after year the low quality items will stop being produced. Before I buy ANYTHING I check the seams for strength and label for materials and washing instructions.