Style SOS: What does smart-casual actually mean?
Guys struggle with smart-casual because they think it means one look. It's better to think of it as an attitude.
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Until quite recently, it was generally agreed that the golden era of men’s style occurred somewhere between 1955 and 1959.
The post-war era had seen much of the starch and stuffiness knocked out of daily dressing – life ceased to start and end with the suit, and hats became, well, old hat – but things hadn’t yet wobbled off course into the faddishness of the 60s. Men at that point still knew how to dress ‘properly’ – that is to say, in accordance with established rules and principles – but with a touch less formality.
Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman were making a fine case for a new kind of off-duty style: crisp white Oxford shirts with the sleeves rolled up properly; chinos and jeans that fitted straight and true; battered cardigans draped over tanned shoulders. Throughout the decades that followed, these men and that style were held up as the platonic ideal, governed as they were by firm principles concerning shape, fit and colour.
But we live in disruptive times. Streetwear and sportswear have barged their way into boardrooms. Sneakers do the jobs traditionally reserved for polished leather shoes. Even the suit is now just something else to be broken up and played with – a hoodie here, a sweatpant there – rather than treated as sacrosanct. The idea of timeless 50s style – and the pernickety codes and conventions it was built on – is dating faster than your aunt’s latest Facebook meme. At a time when rules barely seem to apply to the global world order – let alone something as relatively inconsequential as how you get dressed in the morning – it feels like the idea of rigid dos and don’ts has become more harmful to the way we dress than helpful. So, do they still have a place?
The first time a ‘style rule’ was passed down to me was at a family wedding. I was 16 and feeling, for the first time, the awesome power of wearing a suit – the way it pulls you into the shape known universally as ‘capable, debonair man’. Or so I thought. Halfway through an evening of cockatoo-ing around the dancefloor, my brother-in-law, 10 years my senior, told me that I ought to undo the second button on my jacket. “That’s just how you wear a suit,” he said, as I looked in askance. I went to the bathroom and tried it out, and by God, he was right. What had seconds ago looked like the height of sophistication to me was now, very clearly, ridiculous. With the second button freed, the suit’s superpowers were restored, and I could get back to throwing shapes to S Club 7 like a sophisticated man of the world.
This is the thing about style rules – ignorance is a form of bliss. Once you’ve been told that double-buttoning a suit is wrong, it always looks wrong. As soon as it’s revealed to you why pointy shoes or bootcut jeans are so unflattering, it becomes almost impossible to see photos of yourself wearing them without a slight shudder of, if not embarrassment, then at least discomfort.
The buttoning of a suit jacket is almost certainly the first one of these peeks behind the ‘style rule’ curtain that you were given. So it’s an interesting case to dwell on as we consider the arguments for and against hard and fast fashion codes. When you dig into most style conventions there’s logic to unearth, and the fact of the matter is that single-breasted suits are cut in such a way that they’re meant to be buttoned only once, so that the line of the fabric falls more cleanly over your hips to create a flattering silhouette. This is something usually only ever ignored through ignorance (see a surprisingly high number of politicians and TV presenters) or in a deliberate act of style punking (see rebellious fashionistas, usually in their early twenties, wearing suit jackets with anything other than matching trousers and a shirt).
The flipside is that there are many other fashion rules that belong in the back of an old drawer somewhere being devoured by moths. Almost as famous as the suit jacket rule is the concept of ‘no brown in town’, the silly, snobbish idea that brown shoes are uncouth in polite (read: urban) society. No one has adhered to this dictum in about a hundred years, yet get your fashion advice from the wrong place and it still persists.
Other times, it’s a matter of interpretation. You might have heard that wearing navy and black together is a crime that can see you sent you to the fashion dungeon (it’s somewhere under Bond Street, and the guards all wear bootcut jeans), but really it’s just a note of caution. Black shoes with navy socks (or vice versa) looks jarring, and if you wear a very dark navy jacket with black trousers, you’re going to look like you’ve accidentally mixed your suits up. Many style rules were invented during a time when tailoring was the only option men had, and no longer make sense now we have so much more choice to play with. But black jeans and a navy sweater combo? Just fine.
In any case, getting too obsessed with rules – even the helpful ones – can lead to its own problems. In 1964, the designer and Esquire columnist Hardy Amies – a name more synonymous with style diktats than any other – brought out the book ABC of Men’s Fashion. It’s still in print and selling rather well. In it, Amies patiently combs through every aspect of traditional male clothing and lays down the law of how it should be approached (or witheringly ignored), including such wry but firm bon mots as:
You should endeavour to coordinate the various parts of your costume when you are buying them, but this thoughtfulness should not be over-apparent in wear.
Open-neck is particularly inelegant. The new young have discovered they can achieve an effect of casual elegance by merely omitting to wear a tie. But the shirt is always buttoned. We are, of course, discussing fashion, not comfort.
Sounds old-fashioned, huh? Nevertheless, it’s a book I became rather obsessed with in my mid-twenties – much to my own detriment. Every time I considered buying or wearing an outfit, I found myself frantically consulting its pages – or, worse, Google – for confirmation that I was correct. The idea you can acquire a sense of style simply by following a rigid set pattern – like building a David Gandy out of Meccano – is alluring if you find it all a bit of a struggle. But it’s a lie.
Style is, after all, more about attitude than anything else. Take our aforementioned suit. Getting your jacket buttons and the basic proportions of your fit correct is one thing. Start worrying about having the perfect fold in your pocket square and a tie pin that matches your socks, and suddenly you’ve gone through the looking glass into dress-up territory. And it shows. The man dressed stiffly and self-consciously, according to someone else’s rules, is never going to look as good as the next man in something somewhat mismatched, but who is utterly relaxed and happy about the whole thing.
Style rules, then – knowing which colours go well together and what shoes work best with what outfit – are best considered ‘rules of thumb’. It’s a bit like playing tennis. You have to know what the lines on the floor mean before you can start knocking the ball into the right spaces and winning games, otherwise you’re just a madman swinging your arms about. But Roger Federer’s way of doing it is just as valid as Rafael Nadal’s.
That menswear in 2019 feels more post-rules than ever and can be interpreted as both a challenge and an opportunity. With so much more on the table in terms of colours, patterns and styles, not to mention how it can all be worn together, much of the traditional guidance rooted in the so-called golden age of the 50s no longer feels fit for purpose. But it never hurts to understand history. Below, I have listed some style rules that I still adhere to. Feel free to follow to the letter, or ignore completely. As long as you’re having fun, you’re probably doing it right.
Leave the last button of your suit jacket undone
Whether it’s single or a double-breasted, whether you’re wearing it with a buttoned up shirt or a Palace hoodie, the point is to keep the overall shape of your suit intact. Look, your granddad got some things right.
Never wear square-toed shoes
They say the first thing anyone notices about a person is their shoes. I’d say it’s more like teeth – they’ll be the first thing anyone notices if you have a particularly bad set. The number one rule for footwear? Whether it’s leather monk-straps or box-fresh sneakers, the tip of your shoes should be round, never square.
Don’t cut corners on trousers
It’s easy to put all your money and effort into your upper half, because great shirts, jackets and jumpers are what make people touch your arm and go ‘ooh, this is nice’, which is why we’re bothering in the first place. But anything you achieve up top will be undermined, fatally, by terrible trousers. Consider your whole outfit, not just the glory half.
Only make one statement
There’s only a handful of people on earth who can get away with wearing several flashy items at once, and unless you have a new album out soon you’re almost definitely not one of them. A statement item – defined by a bold colour, jazzy pattern or some kind of fur lining – should always be worn with a nice, muted outfit. Think of bold items like voices in a room: people can only really concentrate on one at once without getting a headache.
If you’re not sure it looks good, it doesn’t
Less a rule than a philosophy – but something that actually is as true today as it was when Hardy Amies said it – is to trust your gut. If you feel like the dog’s bollocks, you probably are. If you’re trying to talk yourself into that fact you’re the dog’s bollocks, you’re probably something else.
"The word ‘rules’ is too prescriptive. It's helpful to have guidelines in anything that you’re dipping your toe into, but if you start thinking of them as hard barriers, it can be difficult to progress. That said, I think some of the rules around things like colours and contrasts are aesthetic principles that make sense.
Three of my personal rules are: get your basics right. Buying a flashy item does not a stylish man make. You need a foundation to build on, so while four white t-shirts is not an exciting purchase, it will help you get to that great look.
Next: pay more for your accessories than anything else. Shoes, belts and wallets are worth putting a premium on, as you'll use them more than any other item. And a great accessory can elevate almost any outfit.
Third: almost every great outfit is built on contrasts. Rough texture with smooth, a dull colour with a bold one, etc.
Rules we should forget? Most of the colour ones – ‘no brown in town’, ‘no white after Labor Day’ (in the States), ‘green and blue should never be worn together’ are all nonsense.
Maybe the best takeaway is that all rules can be successfully flouted if someone is confident enough. In the meantime, they are useful as training wheels. And there are many that are in fact blind alleys. Sometimes, you just have to try them out and see if they feel right.”
Words: Sam Parker
Illustration: Darren Shaddick
Guys struggle with smart-casual because they think it means one look. It's better to think of it as an attitude.
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