Q: Do we really have to follow style changes or risk looking as if we are so out of it that the world has passed us by?
A: As with any style selection, the decision depends upon the person and the situation. Casual clothing is by definition less rigid than formal styles. In the business world, strict adherence to current fashion may or may not be necessary, depending on the industry. In some fields a suit and tie are not essential. But if a suit is required, it generally means the current traditional cut, fabric, etc., are expected.
Men protest that they will not be coerced into following the herd in the sheep-like manner that women change their hemlines with fashion's decree. Still, they are unwittingly and subtly manipulated into similar changes. For instance, recently men have been buying wider ties. The reason: Manufacturers have oh-so-cleverly been increasing tie widths by small increments -- about an eighth of an inch each season. Thus, the new wider ties we see in stores did not just suddenly materialize out of whole cloth. Rather, the process crept up, and before you knew it all of your newer ties were wider than your old ones.
One fashion-aware man said to me: "Today I look at a 3 1/2 -inch tie in my closet, and it looks wrong." On the other hand, my brother (a more typical male, who doesn't notice fashion changes until they are almost past) told me that he has reached his limit. He absolutely refuses to buy a tie any wider than the current 3 3/4 inches. Isn't it interesting that clothing designers seem to have a sixth sense about this sort of rebellion? Throughout the vagaries of widening and narrowing, ties have almost never gotten beyond 4 inches. Men will just be pushed so far . . . and no more. Women may buy skirts that are 4 inches above the knee one season and then yearn for the newest ankle-grazing style the following year. But if men allowed designers to push them to extremes, they could not phase out items gradually; they would be forced to throw out, give away, or, at the least, hide a large portion of their wardrobes in the back of the closet to wait for a future fashion revival.
There are millions of ways that men try to conform to society's standards. Clothes are just the most visible of these. And it may very well be one of the easiest areas for revolt.
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.