Q:I seem to be in a rut. I wear the same combinations for my casual clothing that I have been wearing forever. What's new that wouldn't make my friends think I've gone fashion crazy?
A: More than lapel style or tie width, when it comes to men's fashion, you always hear "this year's color." Color can always be new. And if it's not a shade you often wear, it will be new for you.
Recently, I observed a series of interesting color combinations in the windows of The Gap. They mixed jackets in vivid teal (greenish/blue) with soft faded blue denim. In one window a shirt in Granny Smith apple green was added to the blend. These made for a surprisingly appealing mix of unexpected colors -- soft and subtle, but unique.
Color has tremendous impact and it costs nothing. Yet, it is certainly not easy to come up with innovative combinations.
Wearing clothes well can be a source of pride, personal expression, and pleasure. But, as with anything else, it is not a skill that comes naturally. You must train your eye to observe others on the street, what you see in shop windows, clothing catalogs, even clues from the men's fashion magazines you glance through while getting your hair cut. The professionals are paid handsomely to put together terrific combinations. Steal their ideas. Benefit from their free advice. One of the easiest areas to copy is color.
Less subtle and a strong entry in the bold big-bang department is the new combo of screaming oranges mixed with reds and bright yellows. Jackets in such intense colors call for quiet pants: khakis, white or dark jeans . . . and a good build. Overly bright colors are not for oversized bodies.
If off-beat colors are not to your liking, consider a new pattern. Substitute a fun shirt -- perhaps a patchwork pattern or a whimsical blue-and-white nautical print -- for the solid navy knit polo shirt that's been the basis for your casual wardrobe since college days.
Q: I have recently upgraded to a few fine-quality suits. But they still don't make great looks with my best shirts and ties. How can I put together a perfect combination of suit, shirt, and tie?
A: I know that buying a new suit can be a traumatic enough shopping experience for one day and what you most want to do is just go home and rest up after the experience. But fight the urge. Instead, complete the package. Before the tailor marches off to his little hidden room with your suit in hand, take the jacket and carry it to the shirt and tie counters.
When I consult with individual clients, this is the process that we use to create a consistent well-put-together look. You can do it on your own.
Suppose you find a shirt with muted burgundy stripes on a white background. It works with your new gray suit. Now choose the tie that will add color and authority to the combination -- perhaps a charcoal-gray-and-burgundy with small medallions or a heavy burgundy silk with tiny black dots.
Whatever your first tie selection, immediately select a second one. It could be less conservative than the charcoal silk, such as an out-sized print or a bold stripe in burgundy, gold, and black. Now you can satisfy either of two contradictory moods.
With those two ties in hand, go back to the shirt counter. If you see another shirt -- say, a blue pinpoint Oxford cloth with a tab collar -- that's just right for the suit, buy it. Either of your two new ties might work well with it. But might isn't good enough. When you're out to choose clothes that call out perfection, select another tie or two right at that moment, specifically for your new blue shirt. Time spent now in careful selection is time well spent, and minutes saved on a busy and hurried late morning when dressing time -- and clear thinking -- may be at a premium.
Send your questions or comments to Lois Fenton, The Evening 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.