We Should Be Clear…
It’s not as if men never put on a suit and tie. It’s not as if many men don’t wear a suit and tie to work. It’s not as if men don’t care about their appearance at all…most men.
But many men are afraid to show that they care too much about their appearance which results in the dominant casual-ness to the point of near-slovenliness that pervades men’s dress in America.
Most men have a tie (maybe two), possibly a blue blazer or an off-the-rack court-appearance meets job-interview suit, but they wear them with the same grimace of duty that a broccoli-loathing tot feels as he chews through a meal.
What are they afraid of?
Stepping Into the Ring
Is it a fear of getting it wrong? Is it better not to fight than to fight and lose? Most men would call that a cowardly position. But that’s exactly the position taken by many men who refuse to attempt to be well-dressed and well-groomed, refuse to consider what it would take to be well dressed, or who play dumb. What happened to dashing young man who dressed to take on the world?
Partly it’s a fear of appearing unmasculine. We’ve lost the notion of the rakish, masculine, gentleman. We’ve lost our models for strong men who are stylish, who have manners (and who have also taken the time to iron and clean their nails). Models like Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, like Frank Sinatra.
And recently while the subject of style for men, of good grooming and attention to dress has resurfaced in the mainstream media, the majority of men still comport themselves more for the little league field (with baseball caps, jerseys, and cud-chewing) than for the big wide world.
Too frequently it’s the I-yam-what-I-am-ism or a faux belief that they’re a nonconformist rebel—but truly, in the sea of baggy jeans, track suits, untucked (albeit pressed) shirts, and I-didn’t-try-too-hard-but-gee-I-used-a-lot-of-Bumble-&-Bumble bed-heads, who’s the sheep and who’s the shepherd?
Why it Matters
A man puts on a suit to be taken seriously. If he wears shorts in a t-shirt into a fine restaurant, do we wonder whether he will be treated differently than if he turns up in a well-fit sportcoat and slacks? There is the anecdote about the man who got the job (when you didn’t) simply because he looked as if he cared: he sat tall in the interview chair in a pressed shirt and suit that looked like he meant business.
James Bond, in his many incarnations, is one suave SOB. Who wouldn’t want to look like that, get the job done, and get the ladies on the way?
Beats, Hippies and the end of Dressing
Counterculture ruined any expectation of or joy in dressing well. Women can surely relate to this, but they climbed back out of the hole faster than men did. Most of them put their bras back on, but most men never went back to suits. Those who did, did it grudgingly or with ironic unzeal. Who gets the blame? One could lob sartorial grenades in the direction of the canonization of denim in the late 1950s, ’60s dishevelment, ’70s disco laissez-Flares, ass-dragging gangsta-chic, or dude-where’s-my-career jockwear. One thing’s certain, there’s a trajectory—from the entertainment industry’s realization that there was gold in them thar 18-25-year-olds to the chasm that developed from a post-JFK/early-Vietnam civil war between generations—that can explain why young people didn’t want to emulate the tastes of their parents. Dressing well became one more thing to rebel against.
Then marketing-engineered fascination with youth culture meant that even the adults started dressing younger and younger, ending in today’s day-off norm of grown men dressing like your toddler in half-pants, shirts you bought large because he’d grow into them, and Lil’ Slugger baseball caps.
Clothes Make the Man
Men’s style was once something to aspire to. When there was a baseline—when even a man who was down on his luck owned and wore one suit and one hat—there was nowhere to go but up. The wherewithal meant investment in the clothes that made the man. There was an interest in and a value attached to great style for men. And it wasn’t about being a dandy. It was about being responsible, about showing respect for the woman you loved, for the company you represented, for yourself. American men have a long history of looking sharp and Dressing (that’s with a capital-D). There was no question that a blue-collar worker would wear his work clothes to town when work was over. The man with the gray flannel suit could leave the office, meet a pal for a drink, catch up with his wife for dinner and make it to an Uptown show—with genuine ease and savoir-faire—never the dandy, but always an arbiter of taste, cognac-like calm, and convention.
Where it comes right again
The pendulum always swings back. That Vogue has recently introduced a male counterpart to its flagship women’s fashion magazine indicates that those who run the numbers for such ventures see enough of an interest in enough men to warrant the launch. And this is in addition to existing mags like GQ, Details, Esquire, and VMAN.
That young Hollywood (Ewan McGregor, Brad Pitt, and Jude Law) dons Thom Browne suits; that George Clooney receives as much attention for his sharp dressing and je ne sais quoi as he does his work; that entertainment mogul Sean Coombs shows how it’s done, albeit with a heavier-than-conventional dose of flash, that there are articles and entire magazines (UK’s The Chap) dedicated to outlining for an eager male readership the finer things in life (shoes-to-hat) indicate that the Barbarians may have left the building. The classic American male role model may just be ready for his comeback.