Q: I've never had a problem deciding what "style" suit I wore. When I shopped for a new suit, I just picked the weight and color I wanted. Now that shoulders are varying I'm not sure what to tell the salesman I want. I spend several hundred dollars on a suit, and I sure don't want to buy anything trendy. What is happening with suits these days?
A: You are certainly correct that men's suit designers have begun to add to our shopping dilemma by injecting confusing options. In the past, a man merely went to the local Brooks Brothers or the equivalent -- the store that carried "Ivy League" natural-shoulder suits -- and bought an all-American three-button model to add to his wardrobe.
When John F. Kennedy was in office, styles changed slightly. Because of a back injury, he was forced to wear a support that added bulk to the waistline. His tailors compensated with a new cut -- a two-button jacket with a somewhat lower opening and a bit of padding in the shoulders -- a slenderizing silhouette. The style caught on and crept into the closets of most American men -- it came to be known as the "updated American cut." It is still current today.
When Giorgio Armani designed the sexy, innovative clothes Richard Gere wore in "American Gigolo," even those who hated the film loved the clothes. His European jackets had more pronounced shoulder padding, double-breasted styling, and no vents in the back. These three styles remained popular throughout the '80s.
Lately designers seem to be floundering, trying to make changes for change's sake: First huge pumped-up shoulders, then a return to three-button "sack suits," but with oversized, slouchy shoulders -- innovations that may be as fleeting as they are unflattering. The rise and fall of men's shoulders can be viewed as the equivalent of women's dipping and soaring hemlines.
My advice: Shop in stores that carry the kind of suits you have worn for years. Buy single-breasted models for work plus perhaps a not-too-exaggerated double-breasted. Allow your -- to come in the shirts and ties you select and in your casual weekend wear.
Q: I feel obliged to respond to your column about the value of color analysis for men. Your answer indicates an incomplete, if not incorrect, view of color analysis and wardrobing.
As to your statement that color advice can lead to serious mistakes: I'm sure mistakes have been made; we are no more infallible than doctors and lawyers. But you imply that color consultants don't know what is appropriate, and that we would risk our reputations by putting a corporate executive into the wrong colors. Colors like green or shocking pink, or others that are obviously wrong in men's suits, can be used effectively as accent colors, in tie patterns and pocket squares.
Since men do not have the advantage of smoothing out skin tones or adding color to a pale face with cosmetics (as women are generally expected to do), wearing the right colors is even more crucial in creating a successful image. The whole point of understanding your best colors and building a wardrobe around them is to look your best and be appropriate. What could be more "serious and top drawer" than looking -- and therefore feeling -- your best?
A: Some of your points are excellent, especially the ones about men not being able to take advantage of cosmetics to improve their appearance, and that looking your best leads to feeling your best.
No one would argue the point that most people look better in some colors than others. Color analysis, the latest growth industry, categorizes people into different systems, and tells them which colors they should wear. But there is no scientific basis for the categories and no uniformity in how they are interpreted. Color analysis now has about 10,000 practitioners on every conceivable level of taste and competency, many without even a passing acquaintance with the world of business.
Because women have so few restrictions on what they wear, they often find color charting helpful. Certainly, color awareness can help men choose flattering clothes for their leisure hours, and maybe even direct some of their business selections.
Nevertheless, in our society men wear "uniforms." Certain colors are just not accepted and others are expected. Until corporate reality changes, there are occasions when good judgment directs a man to wear a navy blue suit and crisp white shirt despite some color consultant's advice to the contrary.
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.