Q: About odd jackets, gray flannel slacks, and button-down oxford-cloth shirts worn without a tie -- is this still a preferred mode of dress? I've always thought it is a classic.
A: I agree. The combination you described is a widely accepted way of dressing; it is one outfit every man looks good in. For casual occasions that do not require a tie, this weekend wardrobe staple is almost never wrong. Yet, even within these limits, a great many variations present themselves as options.
Jacket possibilities include: a single-breasted blue blazer or a more formal double-breasted navy wool; a camel's hair jacket; a gray houndstooth or tan tweed sports coat; a beige raw silk; a white wool-and-linen blend resort look; one of the fashion-forward draped rayon-and-wool jackets for spring; summer pastel cotton or linen blazers; narrow-striped seersuckers. These all qualify as casual jackets and are welcome additions to a too-staid wardrobe. Any one of them is suitable to wear with or without a necktie.
Though gray flannel slacks are the most common duo with a blazer, there are plenty of alternatives starting with tan gabardines or cotton khakis. A favorite of mine is olive or khaki-colored wool cavalry twill. An elegant Palm Beach look -- suitable for sipping champagne and nibbling pate -- pairs winter white wool flannel trousers (or heavy white cotton ducks) with a navy blazer. In spring and summer, additional choices crop up from awning-striped blue and white cottons through narrow ticking stripes, to easily wrinkled and stylish linens and the new, quiet, windowpane plaids. Colors range from black pants under white jackets to dark jackets over white pants, plus the many tones in between.
An oxford-cloth button-down shirt worn unbuttoned at the neck is part of this Establishment Sunday afternoon "uniform." It need not be white or blue. These days pink, aqua, yellow, even lavender shirts are seen. Instead of button-downs, some men substitute a colorful print shirt or even a patterned T-shirt.
Who says the jacket must be navy, the shirt must be button-down, and the tie must be absent?
Q: When I'm looking for a new suit, I never know whether to buy one that needs alterations. Is the salesman pushing something on me that is not for me? How much is too much?
A: The main problem men have with tailoring is that they don't realize it is a requirement of quality dressing. Most men find a suit at a price they are willing to pay and shrink at the thought of paying 5 to 10 percent more to make it fit. It's a similar feeling to buying a car and realizing that basics like air conditioning and automatic transmission cost extra.
All men -- and in particular those who have specific clothing requirements -- must get over the notion that they ought to be able to buy clothes that will automatically fit perfectly. Even though a cursory glance in the mirror is enough to reveal that a man does not have a perfect model's body, still he wants to buy a suit and do nothing more than shorten the sleeves and cuffs. If alterations are required, he feels the suit is not for him. Unfortunately, as we mature, our bodies develop certain little quirks:
* One shoulder is a fraction higher than the other and requires a hint more padding.
* Workout-developed shoulders have expanded out of proportion a small waistline, so buying a suit becomes a problem.
* Or the reverse, an expanded waistline necessitates "letting out" the pants.
* Some men wear their trousers lower or higher than their actual waistline which must be compensated for.
* Some full-chested men need the jacket's back center seam adjusted.
* The collar might need lowering or raising.
None of these reasons should dissuade you from buying the suit; they are not complicated adjustments. But, if a jacket is tight across the shoulders and pulls in the upper arms, then it is too small. This is an alteration that should not be attempted, because it is never successful.
Alterations should not be a dirty word; it is a way to come close to perfection.
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.