Most style rules aren’t really rules at all. Most are simply judgements steered by the most recent thing to come down a runway. Some arise then evaporate in weeks. Others have more sticking power. Only one or two have been around for centuries.
Take slim silhouettes, the default for a decade, now challenged by wider legs and loose fits. Even long-banished bastions of bad style are largely subjective calls. Square-toed shoes, bootcut jeans, mullets – they aren’t objectively wrong, just unfashionable. Toe-curlingly unfashionable, yes. But time and enterprising designers might still bring about their rehabilitation. (Good luck.)
In such a fluid world, only a handful of commandments are carved in rock. These are menswear’s lores, the keystones of getting dressed in the morning. They’re not subject to trend or taste. They’re dictated by the makers – this is how your clothes were made to be worn. To do so in any other way is, well, wrong.
It’s understandable that, when presented with buttons, men do them up. However, the modern suit jacket is designed to flare out at the hips to create the appearance of a slimmer waist. Button every fastener and the fabric pulls and puckers, disrupting the silhouette and destroying the seams.
You run the same risk if you stay buttoned up when sat down. A suit should fit close to your upright body. When you sit, your posture shifts and puts tension on the fastening, which tests your tailor’s stitching.
Only the paddock jacket flouts the rule, says Christopher Modoo, a tailoring expert who cut his teeth at Savile Row firm Chester Barrie. “It’s designed to have both done up, or even just the bottom button. But it’s archaic.”
If in doubt, learn your sartorial ABCs, or rather your SANs: sometimes, always, never – starting with the top button on a three-button jacket and working your way down. For a two-button, it’s even easier: always, never. For a one-button, it’s simpler still: always.
It’s a misconception that clothes need washing after every wear. Underwear aside, unless you’ve got the table manners of a farm animal, most pieces can stand up to a few outings.
This is especially true of tailoring. The chemicals used when dry cleaning a suit damage the fabric and weaken the stitching. If possible, only subject them to it twice a year. Instead, Savile Row Company managing director Jeffrey Doltis advises brushing away dirt after every wear and giving them at least a day to air out. Then just try to keep your red wine hand steady.
Denim should be washed even less frequently, according to Nudie Jeans denim specialist Chris Bloxham. “Normal jeans should be washed every few months, whereas dry denim you ideally wouldn’t wash at all,” he says. That’s because the indigo dye rubs off naturally with wear to produce denim’s signature fades. Toss them in the machine, and the dye disappears uniformly, and your jeans have no personality.
“We recommend at least six months before the first wash, but the longer you leave them, the better your jeans will look – and the more character they will have,” says Bloxham. “And never wash with heat or tumble-dry – it’s kinder to the environment, anyway.”
We have mums to blame for thinking that tucked-in shirts are a prerequisite for looking smart. But this isn’t always the case – it all depends on the style of shirt and, most importantly, the hem.
“Dress shirts and tailed shirts are designed to be tucked in, as they’re worn in a more formal context,” says Paul Higgins, a stylist who has worked for the likes of Aquascutum, Diesel and Reiss. “They have a longer hem at the back, which gets pinched between your body and trousers when you sit down, so the shirt doesn’t ride up or wrinkle.”
Try the same with a shirt designed to be worn untucked (particularly anything made from a thick denim or flannel), and you’ll spend all day stuffing it back into your trousers.
If you’re the kind of guy that favours a tucked T-shirt or polo, prioritise longer-line styles and wear with a belt if possible – it will keep the look sharp, negate the need to keep re-tucking throughout the day and ensure you don’t inadvertently flash strangers whenever you crouch down.
Good shoes are an investment. But you can’t pass them to your kids if you don’t treat them right. Drill sergeants aren’t obsessed with shiny shoes because they’re psychopaths (well, not just because they’re psychopaths), it’s because polish stops leather falling apart.
“A good polish is leather food,” says Tim Little, owner of heritage footwear firm Grenson. “It soaks into the pores and keeps it supple.” A biweekly feed is enough to keep any shoes soft, keep water out, and keep you off potato peeling duty.
Before you start dousing your footwear in the shiny stuff, you’ll need to make sure any unwanted passengers have been unceremoniously ejected. Get rid of unsightly muck by using a clean shoe brush to buff off dirt and apply a small amount of water to the brush to shift more persistent stains.
When your shoes are clean and dry, apply a generous amount of polish to your shoe brush and buff your shoes thoroughly until only a thin film of polish is visible on each shoe. For the heels you’ll need to recruit a slightly damp cotton wool pad with polish on it and then use circular motions to get rid of dirt that’s outstayed its welcome.
Not only will your shoes shine so bright they’ll practically be their own light source, the leather uppers will feel quenched and pesky grime will find it harder to gain a foothold.
Rucksacks aren’t just for playgrounds anymore. With countless designers fully on the backpack bandwagon, the back-to-school look is now prevalent on every street.
But no matter how luxe your bag, it doesn’t accessorise with your suit. Not because you’re coupling formal and casual – high-low dressing is trending as hard as ever – but because it wrecks your tailoring.
“Never put a shoulder strap with a tailored garment,” says Modoo. “Pressure and friction damage the fabric and can leave your shoulders shiny or frayed.”
If a briefcase is a touch too civil service, decant your work kit into a high-quality tote instead. Then use those things on the end of your arms to carry it.
Tailoring has undergone more reinventions than David Beckham’s hair. But while the latest menswear diktat may say that wide’s a winner, when shopping for a suit always follow the same rules.
“On blazers, make sure the shoulders feel comfortable and finish in line with your actual shoulders,” says Higgins. Any bigger and they’ll give you a winged edge, which always looks messy. “The sleeves should fall where the base of your thumb meets your wrist, and it also helps to try it on with a shirt to make sure a few centimetres of cuff is visible.”
Regardless of whether MC Hammer or Johnny Borrell is tailoring’s present muse, the rules of good suit etiquette don’t change down south either.
“A good fit on the waist of your trousers is important to maintain a smart and clean silhouette,” adds Higgins. “Don’t go too skinny, but do go slim enough to preserve the cut of the suit overall. If you tend to fluctuate in size choose a waist adjuster – the aim is always for comfort in the leg.”
This one goes as much for the Canadian Prime Minister’s ‘fun’ socks as it does for middle managers everywhere attempting to conceal the lack of a funny bone with a novelty tie.
Whether it’s neckwear, socks or a set of clip-on braces (shudder), there are no redeeming qualities here. “Just say no,” says Sarah Gillifan, founder of men’s personal shopping and styling service Sartoria Lab. “It won’t mark you out as being witty or hilarious, just deeply uncool.”
Except perhaps under the cover of darkness, there’s no situation in which novelty clothing won’t do your reputation severe damage. “If you’re wearing novelty items of clothing for work, people will think you’re not serious about your job. If you’re wearing on a night out, you run the risk of looking immature.”
There are plenty of ways to add personality to your outfit, but this isn’t one of them. A printed shirt worn under a blazer is a better option, as is statement sneakers with a neutral look. Or, for an advanced move, play around with pattern mixing.
It says a great deal about this rule that, even in an age when juxtaposing suits and sneakers is encouraged, it remains an unforgivably amateur mistake.
There’s no ifs and no buts: the same tones of leather should always stick together. The problem isn’t so much the colours (after all, black and camel make for a killer combination) but the material. “Because of leather’s slightly shiny texture, mixing different colours just causes each piece to fight for attention,” says Rebecca Langrish-Smith, from the River Island Style Studio.
“Whether it’s a wedding or an everyday office look, you can’t invest in a suit without teaming it with perfectly matched leather accessories,” she adds. That means getting precise with your belt, your watch and any bag you might be carrying.
The rule extends beyond accessories. Every bit of leather that you’re wearing should be in complete tonal harmony. So keep that in mind next time you want to throw on a pair of brown loafers or a black leather biker.
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