Clothes maketh the man
FOR many professional men, Saturday mornings have become a living hell. This is when, for the first time in a week, these seasoned suit-wearers are forced to dress down in casual clothes.
Their Armani suits, their cream silk shirts and their 300 black Oxfords are all consigned to the back of the wardrobe for the weekend, and in their stead comes out an assortment of sportswear, ‘gangsta’ clothes, and too-tight trousers that, while vaguely acceptable on a teenager, appear positively indecent on a man in his mid-30s.
One of the worst offenders is Tony Blair, who looks forceful and dynamic in his dark suits, but who always has a touch of the nervous schoolboy when forced to dress down in mufti. Our Tony has never yet successfully managed the transition to casual clothes. Sometimes he is wearing an open-necked shirt, occasionally a winter woollen jumper, but always he has about him the furtive expression of a man on his way to a fancy dress party. Every time Blair tries to dress down, one almost winces with pain for the man, the consummate politician, who has allowed himself to be brought so low by a pair of trainers and a blue bomber jacket.
For the prime minister, there have been many sartorial lows, but the nadir was probably the plum-coloured Nehru jacket, that can only - one hopes - have been sported at the suggestion of his wife. Along with this jacket, he wore the kind of fixed grin that comes during a tough grilling at the despatch box, when his only wish is to be back at Number Ten and playing with little Leo’s train set.
But the prime minister’s perpetual problem over casual-wear is one that is faced by millions of men all over Britain. Men have become so conditioned to pulling on their work armour of suits and power ties that it is as if they have lost any capability to dress for themselves.
Learning to dress down, and to feel at ease in casual clothes, takes practice. So why on earth should we expect a man to know anything about casual-wear if he spends his entire week living in a suit? Ask him if brown brogues go with a blue pinstripe, and he’ll have the answer quick as you like; or quiz him about the merits of a green shirt on a brown suit, and he will have a most firm and decisive opinion on the matter. But ask him whether he should be tucking his blue short-sleeved shirt into his Levi jeans, or whether he should leave the tails of the shirt flapping in the wind, and you might as well have asked him for a quick critique of the differences between Stella McCartney’s fashion line and Phoebe Philo’s.
So it is that many men, completely robbed of any capability to choose their own casuals, fall back on that old fail-safe, and let their wives be the arbiters - and not only of the purchases down at Harvey Nichols, but also of the actual selection of clothes to wear on a Saturday morning.
These poor men have given up the fight, run up the white flag, and given their spouses carte blanche, telling them, "I haven’t got a clue, darling. Why don’t you just tell me what to wear?" The technical term for such men is ‘dressed by’, and it is almost as if they’re back in the nursery, where mummy will decide exactly what they’ll be wearing for the day. He may not like what he’s going to wear - he may, in fact, look like a total prat - but that is all irrelevant, because at least the number one person in his life thinks he looks great.
That should, at least, be the theory, if the woman has picked out all her man’s clothes, right down to the Calvin Klein Y-fronts. But the reality is that when she looks at her ungainly husband, she is often more reminded of a rogue chimpanzee that has been let loose in Topshop. The clothes themselves look good, and the chimpanzee, for his part, can also look spectacular swinging through the jungle. But it does not follow that the two will look good together.
‘Dressed by’ usually wears more expensive clothes than ‘dressed myself’ - but the fundamental problem remains the same. ‘Dressed by’ inevitably feels uncomfortable in his 100 Paul Smith shirts and his snug Italian cords, and if he feels ill at ease then it is assured that he will look just as much of a berk as David Beckham in his sarong or Alice band.
That’s the great beauty of men’s casual clothes; they are a wonderful leveller. It doesn’t matter if a man has thousands - even tens of thousands - to spend on fashion, he can still look just as much of an idiot as the man who has run amok in Debenhams.
In the workplace, money helps. It is much easier for a man to look the part if he is wearing a 2,000 Savile Row suit and a 100 Herms tie. But spending a fortune on casual clothes almost always ends in disaster, because how can a guy be dressed ‘casually’ for a Sunday barbecue if he has a month’s salary buttoned up around his chest?
It is these extraordinary millionaires, who can afford anything that takes their fancy but who lack even an iota of taste and style, who have become such a great asset to the nation’s mirth. Singer Rod Stewart has the millions, the girlfriends and the sort of jet-set lifestyle that many people can only dream of. But, even with all that money - and style advice from lover Penny Lancaster - he has never once made the transition to casual clothes. He is a man who is still wearing the seersucker suits that went out of fashion 20 years ago; whose swimming trunks always leave far too little to the imagination; and whose trousers are so tight that it’s a wonder he hasn’t become an alto-tenor.
Simon Cowell has made millions from the music industry and, it is said, has become the stuff of women’s fantasies. But while these women may drool over the man and his money, his taste in casual clothes - particularly the crotch-splitting trousers pulled up so tight that his belt is actually above his nipples - leave much to be desired.
Avoiding similar sartorial faux pas is no mean feat, with both designer labels and high-street stores vying for the well-dressed chap’s attention. But adhering to a few failsafe casualwear rules should ensure that the sighs of relief breathed at slipping back into sharp suits and pressed shirts on Monday morning become a thing of the past.
Confidence is key to carrying off casual style. An attribute shared by Tom Ford, Jude Law, Pierce Brosnan, and any number of other stylish casually dressed men, a relaxed air is far preferable to a Blair-esque rictus grin. Choosing civies that feel comfortable should go some way to achieving this laid-back cool, so start with a pair of well-fitting - never tight-fitting - jeans or chinos. Pairing these with a cotton Oxford or classic cut linen shirt should be a fairly untraumatic transitional phase for the comfirmed office-wear addict, while brave souls who have been pumping iron in the gym might venture into a white T-shirt.
Come Friday, weekday jackets should definitely be jettisoned, unless the ocassion is particularly smart. For most summer social events, a cashmere sweater is a good casual alternative. Sticking to neutral shades such as camel, add one or two of these to a weekend wardrobe for an easy step in the right direction.
It’s difficult to carry off the casual look in lace-up shoes, so don’t be tempted by the siren call of formal footwear until Monday rolls around again. Try loafers, leather deck shoes, or brown suede boots as a casual alternative. But absolutely no socks with sandals - and no sandals at all, unless you’re within a mile of the beach.
Adopting a classic casual style should take the stress out of the dreaded dress-down weekend. So when dithering over what to wear for the next lunchtime barbie, by all means ask the opinion of the woman in your life. Just maintain a safe ‘dressed myself’ objectivity about her advice - particularly if it begins to lead in the direction of expensive sprayed-on-tight Italian cords.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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