Theories of Dress
Continuing to off-road away from current events here’s some sartorial opinioneering. I’ve been writing about how men dress for years now. Generally, I encourage men to try harder and care more, then we move forward with general principles and a few specifics. It’s a pretty big tent. Well here are some more advanced thoughts, more theoretical, even more demanding. I think you can handle it.
The most important thing in dressing is expressing who you are. That has to do with your worldview and how you think you fit into the world. It also has to do with who you physically are—your build, your coloration, the shape of your face. These things do not have to do with trends or marketing campaigns or what a celebrity is wearing on the cover of a magazine. They have everything to do with self-knowledge. That’s a good thing to have. That’s why a well-dressed man knows who he is. And that’s also why clothes matter.
The rules we talk about are important because they put everything into a framework. The same way it’s good to know basic principles when you’re cooking it’s good to know them when you dress. Certain things have worked well for a long time for logical reasons—they flatter men or they’re easy or they communicate respect.
When people ask me questions about rules of dress I’m happy to answer. Sometimes it’s about whether they can get away with a daring decision. Other times it’s about what’s appropriate. But, ultimately behind these questions is a bigger question: “What kind of man am I?” There’s only one person who can answer that for you.
I think it’s helpful for young men to see older men show them examples of how to live. A dad or granddad is a good start. Sometimes they’re too close or too far for that to work. Then we look to other men. I was lucky to be close to my father (and still am). I was also lucky to have men like Glenn O’Brien and Duncan Hannah as mentors. I could see how they conducted themselves, how they designed their homes, the books they read, the art they bought, the references they made, and, yes, how they dressed. These men showed me what was possible.
There’s no shortcut to anything worth doing. Coming to terms with that can intimidate you or liberate you. For me, it’s always been liberating. When a world opens up—visiting Japan for the first time, discovering an author, admitting you’re obsessed with fly fishing—that’s part of a continuing education. People ask what books to read. Well, you can start in one place (“In Patagonia” by Bruce Chatwin) but it’s going to take you somewhere else. Then you start discovering more of what’s out there. Then you start becoming more yourself.
So, yes, I think most collars are too small. I think you probably shouldn’t wear jeans more than once a week and t-shirts less than that. I think you should only wear sneakers when you’re playing in Madison Square Garden. In almost every case formality is better than informality. Formality, at its best, conveys confidence and authority, a sense of graciousness and intent. That’s why serious dressing is a realm for adults. The rest is for boys. There’s a time for that, but for most of us, that time has past.
I still ask questions, I’m still learning. Getting answers helps define our world. And I’m happy to help men any way I can (stationery and beeswax candles make good presents). But I’m always excited when I see somebody and the arc has bent toward their personality, who live and dress their own way. I’m on the lookout for men who take their passions and their pleasure seriously.
My grandfather wore a Silverbelly Stratoliner Stetson business hat during the day. At 6'1" in 1950's New Orleans, he seemed so tall to me as a boy. I always admired how powerful and handsome he looked in his daily attire. My brother and I used to go with him to the French Market to buy wholesale produce for his business and have coffee together at the Morning Call, letting the tourists have the Cafe du Monde to themselves. The photo of Robert Mitchum and your article immediately illicited those memories of my childhood 55 years in the rearview mirror. For me, my older mentors were my Grandfather and Father, I feel very fortunate to have had such men in my life. I learned how to dress, be around other men, conduct myself in public and private, many many life lessons, and how to wear a hat. I am grateful to this day. Thank you David.
I needed this article this morning. Thank you! I won’t bore you with why, but just know your words helped clarify some internal thoughts and inspire someone today. Cheers!