May 27, 2024

Column: “That Got Me to Thinkin’…?” Modern Dress


“That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” “Modern Dress” Chapter 45
By Bruce Williams

Bruce Williams

Unbeknownst to most of you, in my real life I’ve sold suits for a major luxury retailer known for its customer service for the past 25 years.  During that time I’ve realized that there are so many misconceptions about what constitutes proper attire and, frankly, it’s been a moving target a lot of the time—if you’d stopped in 18 years ago, you might’ve caught me in a four-button suit the length of an Ichabod Crane coat.  Let me start with the basics here though, so we can get those right out of the way, shall we?

Every man should know his dress shirt size—measure your neck and add a half inch, then have somebody else measure from the middle of your blades to your shoulder, down to your elbow, and then just past your wrist bone for sleeve length.  Your pant size is one up from your jean size, and your jacket size is your chest measured at its thickest part.  If you’re over 6’3” you’re a long—under 5’8” you’re a short (deal with it).  At a minimum, you should probably own a black suit (weddings/funerals) and/or a blue blazer/grey slacks combo (job interview/cocktail party), and at least one white and one blue dress shirt.  If you want to update your wardrobe, add an unconstructed sport coat (no shoulder pads or lining), drawstring dress pants or premium denim, and dress sneakers.  Clean, pressed and tailored are all good things.  And polish your shoes—women look at those first.  If you must wear cologne, do it conservatively.  These are all hard and fast rules but are open to interpretation and nuance.  

If you have a goatee and a ponytail, and are looking for a vest to go with a collarless shirt, I’m going to assume that you’re auditioning for the role of Phoebe’s boyfriend on Friends and it’s 1997.  The Matrix brought in a lot of new faces, all wan and pale and seeking a floor length leather top coat so they could be as brooding and mysterious as Neo.  And if you tell me your waist size is a 32 and you’re actually bigger than me, I’m going to abruptly whip the measuring tape out and get to the ugly truth right there in front of your wife or girlfriend.  I think back on all those requests for a white tie to go with a black shirt from the high school prom kids that want to look just like Scarface, and I can only but shake my head.

When I started back in ‘96 all I wore was double-breasted suits…now it’s all relaxed with soft shoulders and white-soled shoes.  I haven’t put a tie on since we came back from our three-month pandemic break.  Many of my cohorts wear pants that are so high and tight they have to plop onto their beds and point their toes out just to get into them—much like girls have done for years to get themselves into their jeans.  At a certain age I adopted a “If it’s silly it won’t last” attitude as I’ve witnessed the Lazy Susan of fashion come and go.  Now eschewing bright colors and garish patterns and any non-essential bits of “flair” so adoringly donned by my co-workers (jaunty pocket squares and themed socks; lapel pins and tie bars), opting generally for dark navies, blacks and greys, fresh white cotton shirts or dark polos…the simpler the better.  One exception might be the employment of a pair of retro sneakers—something from my youth like an adidas Superstar, or Nike Legends or Cortezes—so much more comfortable than the Allen Edmonds size 14s I wore for 20+ years on the hard aisle.

Sadly, fewer and fewer men dress up anymore.  It’s great when you see a rough-handed farmer or construction worker get cleaned up and present themselves bedecked in a suit for their daughter’s wedding or Sunday services.  I still wear a black suit to funerals…I attended one a few years ago and witnessed all manner of dress for those paying their respects—oddly though, the most eye-catching was the guy in a Russell Wilson jersey and cargo shorts.  We’ve lost a little bit of something when that’s the best we can do to mark Life’s monuments.  To me, manners and dress still matter, much like reading, grammar and morality…we don’t want to lose too many of the things that keep us civilized.

If you insist on wearing sleeveless plaid and a mullet, more power to you—you do you.  We need a sprinkling of non-convention in the societal rainbow.  Just consider picking up a tailored white shirt (with sleeves!)—you can even wear it with your clean jeans and you’ll be all set for your girlfriend’s best friend’s sister’s wedding.  And the drawstring dress pants mentioned above are a real thing (Google it), and a little bit of a revelation for those lower boys that’ve been cramped up and suffocating far too long in skinny jeans and modern cut dress pants…and that makes a whole lot of sense to this old suit guy.