The Man or The Clothes

Throughout the many conversations I’ve had with different men, I’ve noticed two statements that seem to contradict each other. The first is that your clothing should act like a picture frame – it compliments the man wearing it but doesn’t draw attention to itself. The other is that clothing is one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd.

It would be easy to say that different men have different philosophies in regards to the proper function of a man’s wardrobe, but I’ve made both of these statements myself and have heard plenty of other men do the same. What, on the surface, may seem like cognitive dissonance could actually be a consistent philosophy, it just needs to be applied in the appropriate environment.

For example, there’s a big difference between, “Hey that’s a great shirt” and “Hey you look great today.” Both can be desirable reactions but, in the wrong setting, hearing one or the other can be a negative instead of a positive.

Hey you look great today

This summarizes the ideal appearance when a man’s clothing enhances and communicates who he is, as opposed to drawing attention to itself. These are the kinds of compliments you receive when you make a subtle change and no one can pinpoint what it is – a clean haircut, a suit that fits better, a subtle tan, or even an improvement after a few consistent weeks at the gym.

The ideal scenario for this approach is when you want your character, your ideas, or anything else that is more internal to take center stage. This is the ideal approach when you’re going to a job interview, a day at the office, a funeral, someone else’s wedding, a court hearing or trial, or a religious service.

All of the above are scenarios in which it is a social faux pas to draw too much attention to yourself through your clothing and/or grooming. There are things more important than you as an individual man to which people are paying attention and you do yourself more harm than good by taking attention away from the task or person at hand and drawing it to yourself.

For a visual representation of this approach, check out Don Draper.

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The style world references him a lot but that’s because he epitomizes a lot of the good and the bad of modern, urban masculinity. Draper has a uniform. 90% of the time he’s at work he’s in a white shirt, grey suit, and conservative tie. In fact, I’d have to rack my brain to really think of a specific tie the man has ever worn. While Draper’s uniform is a part of his overall presence and appearance, it falls into the background. Both the people around him and the audience pay much more attention to his facial expressions, the words coming out of his mouth, and his actions than they do to the details of his shoes or his pocket square.

So how do you accomplish this? It’s pretty basic and there are just a few things to keep in mind.

Wear solid colors or extremely minimal patterns. A bold, Gordon-Gekko-striped shirt is going to attract attention to itself, whereas a white button up won’t get a second thought. Same goes for suits, shoes, and ties. If at any time you find yourself thinking, “This ______ looks so cool” then it’s probably going to be too flashy to serve as a background piece. No one gets excited about buying solid white and blue shirts, but they serve a vital role in a man’s wardrobe.

Choose simple, complementary palettes. Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel provide a stronger contrast and, therefore, demand more attention from the person seeing them. Choose colors that are similar to each other. If you have a stronger contrast between your skin and hair tones remember that pairing white with dark shades (charcoal, navy, black) can provide adequate contrast while still avoiding anything that’s screaming for attention.

You will also want to choose colors that are more commonly seen on men in your environment. You may think you’re playing it safe by wearing a red shirt, with a burgundy suit, and brown tie simply because the colors are similar. However, in no time in recent history has red been considered a conservative color. Stick with grey, navy, and charcoal for starters. If you want to expand you can move to black and brown but that’s it.

Wear minimal or no accessories. A wedding ring (if that’s your flavor) and possibly a watch. When you start to move into flashy cuff links, lapel pins, tie bars, additional finger rings, or other accoutrements, you’ll begin to draw attention towards those items and away from yourself. Keep it simple and minimal.

Lastly, you’ll want to dress appropriately for the occasion. If you dress either too far down or too far up, people start to pay attention to you. A simple, every day example of this is a job interview. There’s a reason no one recommends you wear jeans and a T or a tuxedo when you’re trying to get hired – both may get you remembered more than the sea of applicants in simple suits, but they’ll also peg you as an attention seeker who has no grasp of subtlety or nuance.

Part 2 covers the fundamentals of when and how you should dress in a way that your clothing calls attention to itself.