Q: I work in a conservative office where everyone wears traditional suits and button-down Oxford cloth shirts. I don't mind button-downs, but I like to dress with a bit of a difference. What shirts can I wear without coming off as too different?
A: The button-down shirt equals tradition -- almost religion -- for many men in the managerial elite. The word "button-down" is almost always followed by "Oxford cloth." But button-down shirts made of other fabrics interject a note of distinction -- without too much -- -- into a man's wardrobe.
Look for button-downs in broadcloth, pinpoint Oxford cloth, tattersall, and end-on-end weaves.
In conservative stores, you will find a limited assortment of these fabrics. The key word is "conservative." Button-down shirts in trendy stores have collar points that are too short for traditionally cut suits.
Cotton broadcloth (a smooth, untextured weave) comes in solid white, blue (avoid too-faded shades of blue broadcloth), pale pink, and creamy-ivory (not beige or ecru) plus some narrow, discreet stripes in blue, charcoal gray, or burgundy on white backgrounds. These elegant shirts are worth the investment.
Somewhat harder to find are button-downs in other fabrics:
* Pinpoint Oxford cloth -- a beautiful quality fabric that is smoother, a shade dressier, and more expensive than standard Oxford cloth. A favorite among well-dressed men.
* Tattersall -- a checked pattern of vertical and horizontal stripes in two colors on a light-colored background. Jaunty tattersalls are terrific with khaki suits, tweed jackets, and blazers.
* End-on-end weave -- a pastel fabric with colored threads (usually blue) interwoven with white ones. Less formal than broadcloth or pinpoint (but not as easygoing as chambray or denim), end-on-end is equally as dressy as standard Oxford cloth, but much more interesting.
Q: I used to think I was the only one with this problem, but now I know others have it, too. A foot doctor told me I should wear white cotton socks. I've noticed yuppies wearing white socks with loafers lately. But I'm not that young and I certainly can't wear white socks with laced shoes for work. I tried thin white socks under dark ones, but they were uncomfortable. Someone told me there is a dark sock made with a white foot. Is it true? Where can they be found? I've asked in stores and they look at me like I'm nuts.
A: Yes, there is such a sock. It is an extremely practical idea; Interwoven makes it.
For men with sensitive feet who feel that dark dyes are not ideal, the "Health-sock" is made with a 100 percent white cotton foot (low enough to be covered by the shoe) and a black top. Under a shoe, they look like all-black socks. Most socks these days are made in "one-size-fits all" (who says?). Wonder of wonders, these split socks come in actual sock sizes: 10 1/2 , 11, 11 1/2 , and 12. The price is approximately $4.25 per pair.
Unfortunately, they take a good bit of tracking down. You may be able to find them in "police uniform" supply stores, some PX's, and some Army and Navy stores. Chock Catalog discounts them for $3.25. The address is: 74 Orchard St., New York, N.Y. 10020, 1- (800) 222-0020, FAX number (212) 473-6273.
With regard to the up-to-the minute young men out there in white socks and stylish loafers (a fashion that actually originated with "rappers"): It says a lot about the distance fashion travels from the time when only nerds and Archie Bunker wore white socks with shoes. Still, fashionable is not always businesslike, and for now, this style is generally considered inappropriate in the office.
Send your questions or comments to Lois Fenton, Today in Style, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Ms. Fenton welcomes questions about men's dress or grooming for use in this column but regrets she cannot answer mail personally.
Ms. Fenton, the author of "Dress for Excellence" (Rawson Associates, $19.95), conducts wardrobe seminars for Fortune 500 companies around the country.