Living in a time when travelers climb aboard jumbo jets in slouchy sweatsuits and gaudy sneakers without compunction, it's hard not to yearn for the elegance of the age of the great ocean liners. Once upon a time, well-heeled passengers scrupulously wore the right clothes for the right occasion.
Whether it was a breezy linen suit for deck strolling, jaunty white ducks and tennis sweater for shuffleboard, or impeccable evening clothes in which to go down with the ship, Titanic-era cruise goers could be counted on to be turned out right.
The trouble is such elegance entails steamer trunks full of garments, closet room enough in the cabin for whole wardrobes, and a valet to keep it all straight. Well, spare the icebergs and pass the tanning butter--refined dress is resurfacing on its own terms in cruise wear.
Today's poshest ocean liners may be scaled-down versions of their nineteenth-century cousins, but the desire to travel with decorum remains. What's different is ours is an age of ease and convenience. The challenge is to reconcile the two concepts while looking right for that cocktail party harborside, formal meal in the captain's dining room and casual dance topside.
During the steamer ship heyday, a man's valet packed him a formal suit (tuxedo or tails), a white linen or cotton vested suit (which tended to be quite crisp and rather uncomfortable during warm weather) and knee-length jersey swim shorts to be worn with a modest tank or T-shirt. As vacations and dress codes became less formal, the Palm Beach jacket, in vibrant pastel raw silk or linen, or the navy sailing blazer worn with white trousers, a polo shirt and perhaps an ascot became a more modern (and quite sensible) approach to cruise dressing. But that was before the erosion of formality became absurd.
In today's return to elegance, the goal is to travel light, but come prepared for all options, according to John Fowler, vice president men's/fashion director for Federated Department Stores. "There are basically three things to take with you to wear: something you can dress up in; something casual for beach cocktails and dinner; and something functional for active sports, whether it's snorkeling, golf, climbing or the gym."
Whether the destination is a European city after an Atlantic cruise or a series of Caribbean ports during an island-hopping jaunt, you'll need the clothes that make the man. Calvin Klein, noting that men today are traveling more than ever, points out that a pre-spring designer collection is "our chance to give them new options, a few great items they can take along." His crucial advice to buying? "Whatever it is, it has to travel well. It should be packable, light and versatile enough to be worn in different ways, like a cotton twill jacket that looks as great with jeans and a T-shirt as it does with matching pants. The point is, you can't bring everything with you, so it's really about choosing a few pieces that can adapt easily to different situations. These clothes become a preview of what will be happening for spring, so the pieces and the colors eventually ease right into the next season."
Helping meet that end are a slew of modern textiles that achieve the feel of natural fabrics without the attendant heaviness, while adding other travel-friendly qualities. Microfibers provide a subtle and soft hand and give the nomadic wearer the added benefit of a wrinkle-resistant garment that has a great deal of wickability. They also stand up to the weather well, as moisture beads up on the surface. Another direction is in natural fibers blended with Lycra to add stretch and make garments more practical for the active pursuits of vacationers. On a more elegant front, there are the Super fabrics, which afford softness and a weight that is almost seasonless, allowing the wearer to bridge the gap from the cruise to the office with ease.
Tom Julian, a trend analyst working within the world of men's and women's fashion, says, "I want to go with the right bag, the right clothes, but great, modern clothes that are in silk blends, or with stretch or in technologically advanced fabrics. And things that will become basics within the structure of the rest of my wardrobe." Dressing modern doesn't necessarily mean dressing down.
Formal attire is a highly recommended and even required part of today's cruise wear. Djordje Stefanovic, fashion director of Ermenegildo Zegna, reflects that "the elegant world of those who would be taking these cruises was the first world to get the freedom to dress down. Now that everyone else is [doing] that, in an almost snobbish way we're coming back to dressing up. It's the hedonistic side of looking into the mirror and seeing that you're dressed up and you look great."
Nautica chief executive officer and designer David Chu adds, "Cruise ships in particular have a dressier code for passengers to lend a more sophisticated tone to that special environment. Although it may seem like the American man is dressing down in some ways, I feel there is a resurgence of elegance and a more tasteful way of expressing one's personality through the clothing one wears," he says.
For the elegance of those really formal evenings, there's always the tuxedo, but an alternative lies in the new cruise black-tie dressing. Under this option, a dark or black suit does double duty: it can be worn with a formal shirt and tie or, in more casual situations, with a dressy knit shirt underneath. Look for suits in fabric blends, such as cotton and linen, as well as new, technologically advanced fabrics. To give an active attitude to suits today, many designers use fabrics with a bit of stretch. Be aware, too, that looking great during your resort getaway doesn't always entail putting linen with linen anymore. Look for rustic linen blazers to wear with the new paper-thin, paper touch shirts and trousers in high-tech fabrics, Stefanovic suggests.
Once you've got that dark suit, manipulate it. "Wear the pants with a linen shirt or a fancy printed sport shirt or a silk shirt for an alternative look," Fowler recommends. "And then the jacket is beautiful with a pair of white pants and a wonderful white casual shirt. Dressed like that, whether you're 100 or 15 years old, you can still look cool."
For designer Donna Karan, resort wear falls under her "system of dressing," where you can get anything from a bathing suit to a down parka and make it work almost anywhere, any time. "For the person traveling today, it's uncomplicated clothes that they can take with them anywhere at anytime. It's basically about the 'seven easy pieces:' the suit, broken up with the pant and jacket in wool or linen, the shirt, the leather jacket, the T-shirt in cashmere or cotton, the sweater in cashmere or silk and linen, and the coat. Go anywhere, any time."
The fact that whatever you buy for this new wardrobe will fit right into the one you have housed in your closet at home should be comforting. "What men want is what is easy," says Colleen Sosinsky of Callaway Golf Apparel by Nordstrom. "They are the elements they already have in their closet. Elements that offer them versatility--something they can wear to dinner with a jacket and then take the jacket off and have on a polo shirt that they can also play a round of golf in. They want to look appropriate for the occasion--never out of place."
Don't forget about footwear. As Federated's Fowler points out, you need functional athletic shoes for activities that will happen on and off shore: climbing, water skiing, snorkeling, parasailing and workouts at the gym. For dressy resort events, think sophisticated sandals, like slides or something more bare. Or go simply with a loafer shaped with the new oblique toe worn without a sock.
The one thing to remember about being away from the grind of the real world, whether free-sailing aboard a luxury ocean liner or landlocked sipping pina coladas on the beach, the very experience liberates you from everyday dressing as well. Man the helm, tack with the wind and just press cruise control.
Kimberly Cihlar is a freelance writer living in New York.