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Breaking the Rules

To shake up your wardrobe we suggest bending some laws of fashion. Please do try this at home
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

"Wear a navy suit, a plain white shirt and a striped tie (mostly red please)\. Accessorize with black shoes, socks and belt."

Sometime early in life you probably received this simple, sage advice aimed at job interviewees and new entrants into the workforce. If someone had bothered to package it that way, it might have been the first and shortest of those ubiquitous guides for idiots that are somehow meant to make us feel better about ourselves. As far as it went, it was excellent counsel. Colors were sturdy, pants matched jackets and patterns were minimal. If followed to the letter, it virtually insured you against ludicrous wardrobe choices.

But then you got the job and found that unless you were in politics or an idiot (but I repeat myself), a blue suit did not a wardrobe make. Sooner or later you were going to have to step off base and try to match clothes on your own. But they don't give lessons for that in business school.

Furthermore, times changed and many men stopped wearing suits and ties to work altogether. In many offices, such an ensemble as the one described above was likely to elicit the question: "Do you have a job interview?" So many of us started to dress for work as if we were going to the golf course (or worse).

But now the economy is changing and the nose-thumbing insouciance of the dot-com crowd doesn't seem like such a great message for your attire to be making on the job. So you're faced with the question of how to engineer a return to office decorum without coming off like an entry-level schnook intent on dressing safely and nothing else. The answer is to learn to match elements of clothing in creative, yet elegant, ways.

The problem is that several factors dictate what looks good on us at any given time. The foremost of these is aesthetics, a quality that has eluded description by philosophers since the days of the ancient Greeks, but which nevertheless has certain precepts -- such as balance -- that seem to be timelessly recognizable. The problem is that attire can become so balanced that it edges on booooooooooorrrrrrrrrrredom.

That's why we also have fashion. In its best incarnation, fashion breathes fresh air into stale styles of dress. But fashion is also, by definition, defective. Inevitably, new fashion dooms old fashion to obsolescence, even absurdity. Our hunger for new looks creates such inexplicable fashions as bell-bottom trousers, which once seemed like such a sharp look only to appear ridiculous in the cold light of retrospect. That Aristotle, who wrote at length about aesthetics, never even tried to tackle fashion would seem to indicate how utterly elusive the concept is.

Ari left fashion to more capable arbiters, such as the editors of Women's Wear Daily, who have the ability and the inclination to make pronouncements about whether taffeta or chintz is in at any given time. But as it says in the Bible, which is the Women's Wear Daily of religious texts, "Pride goeth before a fall." And even learned professionals can find themselves fashion victims. Suffice it to say that you may know it when you see it, you may even worship it, but you should always be ready for fashion to turn on you.

So we give you Cigar Aficionado's first fashion primer: the finer points of matching clothing.

 

Sublime Contrasts

The first lesson is that matching is a misnomer. You're not really trying to match items so much as contrast them in interesting ways. Matching trousers to jacket, for instance, in color or pattern would be about the gravest error you could make (unless, of course, the items were part of a suit that matched exactly). The slightest difference in hue or texture is much more glaring than the widest contrast. What you want to achieve are contrasts that create interesting focal points. The easiest (read: most fail-safe) contrast to make is pattern to solid. Plaid or herringbone jackets, for instance, cry out for solid pants to offset the riot of lines they create. The bonus to such a pairing is that color coordination is a snap. All you have to do is pick up one of the colors from the pattern and you have an instant match. It is when we try to pair solids that most of us get into trouble. Some no-brainers exist, however, such as khaki paints with blue blazers.

Right about now you may be thinking that one of the most outspoken fashion statements in recent years is all about no contrasts: the patternless, monochrome look popularized by Regis Philbin. Well, this is the exception that proves the rule. First, it's a fashion, and as discussed above has a limited life span, which has just about run its course. Second, it is a look designed to make a talk-show host blend into the electric-blue glow of greed on a quiz show set. This may not be an image you want to put forth at work.

 

Ties That Bind

The supposed demise of the necktie has been the biggest fashion news of the last decade. It's superfluous. It's restrictive. It's purely decorative. Why not get rid of it? Because a tie is the easiest, least expensive way to instantaneously spruce up a wardrobe. Hanging so close to the face as it does, it is one of the most noticeable pieces of attire you own. You could wear the same jacket all week and with a new tie completely modify your outfit every day. Odd-colored or patterned suits get a lot of scrutiny, but people are much more lenient about eccentric ties. Use them to live a little. Roam a little wider than striped, repp ties. We're guessing you're not a veteran of an English regiment anyway. But remember, this is one item of apparel to which the miracle-fabric revolution should not be extended. It is the nature, as it were, of polyester to resist elegant tying and draping. You want a crisp, long dimple under the knot to create a focal point. Polyester, even wool, fights this as it tries to retain its original shape. Silk ties are still the best choice. Seven-fold ties -- Robert Talbott makes fine examples -- are the most luxurious.

 

Breaking the Patterns

You may have been told that no two patterns should appear in any one outfit or at the very least that any two patterns should be separated by a solid. These are rules designed to protect the stylishly challenged from themselves. If taken to their logical conclusions, we would be living in a world of "Dragnet" clones looking for "just the facts, ma'am." Of course patterns can appear next to each other. Often they should. A simple pattern like a tattersall check can be death next to a solid tie. (Try paisley instead). However, matching checks with checks can be equally dodgy. Better to pair contrasting patterns. Certainly striped oxford shirts go well with all sorts of details, from dots to paisleys, even stripes if they're large enough. Another important idea is that patterns' weights should contrast. Juxtaposed patterns (especially heavy patterns) that are balanced tend to fight each other. If one pattern is more dominant in scale, the eye finds a focal point. Therefore, don't match a busy plaid shirt with a tie of large polka dots or long sinuous paisleys. But a tie with a tiny print may do just as well as that solid number you're wearing now.

 

Don't Be Color Obvious

One of the most pervasive errors in pairing colors is not the clashing (most of us have been conditioned to avoid that), but the matching of dominant colors. Perhaps it's because solid black has been popular for so long, the dominant tendency is to bludgeon an outfit to death with one color. Take, for instance, the navy-suit-blue-tie syndrome. The wearer thinks that because his suit is predominantly one color, it is safe to match the tie with it. It's not. It's horrible. Refer back to the first rule of fashion, stated at the top of this article. Even fashion for simpletons contrasts a blue suit with a red tie. Happily, because fabric and clothing designers are usually pretty good at color coordinating (it's their job), we amateurs don't have to determine for ourselves what tones contrast well. To pair items of apparel, pick up a subtle color in the pattern of one item and make it dominate the other -- or vice versa. If there is no pattern, look for color in the detailing. For example, the buttons of a solid jacket are often in a contrasting color. It's a fair guess that trousers done in the same tone will match the jacket pretty well.

Of course, harmonizing colors (choosing varying shades -- light and dark -- of the same color) is another option. But you are probably already doing that subconsciously when you wear a light blue shirt with a navy suit. The pitfall to watch out for is that the two shades can wander too close together and blend into one another (cue up the theme from The Godfather) or -- worse yet -- glaringly show off what otherwise would have been subtle variations in hues.

 

Bringing It Together

A stylish -- if dandified -- touch is to bring together disparate elements of a wardrobe with splashes of matching color. Socks, for instance, can match the jacket or shirt instead of slavishly mirroring the color of the trousers or shoes. Just remember that socks should be long enough that you're not showing skin. Any leather you wear -- belts and shoes -- should match. Pocket squares can also pick up remote color in the wardrobe. Don't worry about matching color of jewelry; just make sure it matches what you're wearing in level of elegance. (Hence, no sports watches with tuxedos.)

That same concept applies to pairing fabrics. Forget T-shirts with suits unless you're remaking "Miami Vice." If you're dead set on wearing a polo under a jacket made of fine material, choose a merino wool or cashmere shirt, not some rough cotton number.

 

Stretching the Material

A big bonus that has come out of the business-casual revolution has been the willingness to mix and match different elements of a wardrobe. The right suit jacket can be easily paired with a pair of trousers or a vest or sweater to create an outfit that appears completely separate. This is of particular advantage when attempting to travel light. One thing to avoid like foot-and-mouth disease is detaching articles that have obviously come from a suit, such as pinstripe jackets or pants.

 

Get Professional Help

The final rule should be the most obvious. Yet there is plenty of top-notch fashion advice for the taking that few people seem to make use of. Every designer's magazine ad is meant to show his clothes off to its best advantage. If you like his clothing, why not just copy his take on how to match it. Furthermore, any high-quality haberdasher worth his salt lives to give away advice on what goes with what. Well, it's not completely free, because he's probably trying to sell you more clothes. But so what? Why not walk out of the store with several ways to wear your new suit for just a few dollars more.

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