Q: What are some small touches that make a man stand out from the crowd?
A: Plenty of small points of difference present themselves as options: a hat; a collar bar; a white contrast-collar shirt with a colored body; a tab-collar shirt; a really good haircut (regularly maintained); fastidiously groomed hands with neat, short fingernails (without even a hint of polish!); a well-knotted tie (up close where it belongs, not loosened); a well-chosen tie pattern (something unusual, but tasteful); perfectly ironed shirt; quality leather shoes (frequently polished); pleated and cuffed trousers; colorful suspenders; a silk pocket square; perhaps a pair of subtly patterned socks.
Treat this formula like a recipe: All of the grooming ingredients should be included, but only a few of the special touches. Don't overdo.
For some men, dapper dressing is just what they don't want. The old-school, old-money type who cares about his appearance is always well tailored and well groomed. Yet, anything verging on dandyism is avoided like the plague. He doesn't need and doesn't want his clothes to make a "statement." James Baker comes to mind as an example.
But other men have strong anti-clone attitudes and are always on the lookout for something a shade special to set them apart. As G. Bruce Boyer says in his highly readable book, "Eminently Suitable," "Wearing clothes well is still something of an art. . . . Accessories are worn to enliven the basic business wardrobe." He points out that a man may tell you he quickly threw some wonderful shirt and tie combination together, but it is a deception. "It really is necessary for us to get over the belief that dressing well is something of a fortunate accident. It's no more an accident than a good recipe."
Q: In one of your past columns you showed a male model wearing a wrinkled, oversized-looking blazer, slacks, a shirt and no tie. The jacket cost $525, slacks around $100. With shoes, socks, etc., the whole outfit was around $1,000. Just to lounge around in and it looked awful.
What is in an off-the-rack $525 jacket that is not in a $200 jacket? It takes just so much cloth, so much thread, etc. It can't really be worth it.
A: A lot of the ads you see are not real people wearing "real" clothes. Maybe actors could dress that way. But nobody you or I know dresses like that to go to work. Some ads show stylistic exaggerations. Women are accustomed to seeing this sort of overstatement to make a point in fashion shows, so they tend to tTC take the ads with a huge grain of salt. They realize that some designs merely suggest a new fashion direction and are not meant to be followed exactly. A suit with a skirt six inches above the knee, they mentally translate to a slightly-above-the-knee look, suitable for work. In contrast, men are used to seeing businessmen dressed realistically. Quite logically, they tend to take fashion-forward photographs literally and find the fashion message confusing.
Certainly, it is not necessary to spend $500 on a blazer, but buying one that costs too little is not a good investment. The difference in the basic ingredients can be enormous. Wool fabrics range from $10 to over $80 per yard. Cashmere and silk cost more. But the big difference is in the cost of construction, the quality of the tailoring. Jackets are the most difficult items to make. Inexpensive jackets are constructed with fewer pieces of fabric, less labor in the construction, or both.
The very finest suits include what is almost unheard of in this age of mechanism and mass production: an enormous amount of handwork. The more handwork, the better the jacket . . . and the better you look when you wear it. How a garment drapes, how it feels on the wearer, and how its shape holds up over the years (after repeated dry cleanings) are locked into how much hand stitching goes into its construction. Such a labor-intensive process is bound to be expensive.
Send your questions or comments to Lois Fenton, 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.