The phrase “dressing for the occasion” sounds a bit starchy these days, conjuring the sartorial arms race initiated by Victorian aristocrats to distinguish themselves from the merely wealthy. For all their fascinating and telegenic detail, those talcum-grained distinctions of appropriate dress are now, of course, totally ridiculous. While I’ve probably done a bit of “Half Mourning” myself, its formal sartorial distinction from “Ordinary Mourning” is well off the crazy cliff, and may it rest in peace. Nor should we embrace somewhat less hoary anachronisms like “no brown in town” and “no white before Memorial Day.” Such dictates are fun to know and observe within reason, but their real utility lies not in avoiding archaic faux paux, but in understanding the aesthetic principles behind them (e.g. earth tones are inherently less formal than the charcoals and navies which traditionally constitute business attire, and white looks less brazen on bright sunny days).
The aforementioned distinctions are all examples of etiquette, and etiquette observes rules. Occasion, on the other hand, observes people. Who will you be with? Where? What will you be doing? From award ceremonies to job interviews to first dates, there are no fewer occasions than there ever were -- the difference is that far fewer men today bother modulating their attire for them.
To be dressed for anything in general, in more or less utilitarian clothes which lack context and variety, is to be dressed for nothing in particular. This may be pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but if there’s anything those Victorians understood, it’s that the good life is in the details.
Although often intimidating to the uninitiated, more formal occasions are easily enough negotiated (presuming the hosts understand dress code terminology themselves); absolutist esoterica on the subject abounds -- black and white in black and white, if you will. The more nuanced challenges are found in dressing well for the more mundane moments which truly constitute lives well-lived: backyard barbecues, bike rides in the park, museum visits, dinner parties -- the occasions that shouldn’t be defined by your clothes, but can still be refined by them.
Recent sartorial history is, of course, littered with unsuccessful attempts to elegantly dress down, from the polyester perversion of double-knit leisure suits to the Dockered banality of Business Casual. In navigating such hazards, it’s helpful to consult the traditions they broke with; the Apparel Arts pantheon is full of sophisticated casual looks that once more seem fresh and modern. Here again, it’s all a matter of observing the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Having separate tailored wardrobes for town and country, for instance, might seem rather grand, but tweak the term to “work and leisure” and you have a classic sartorial dichotomy potentially relevant to anyone. A man made aware of tweed and flannel’s roots as sportswear -- the track suits of their day -- may just be encouraged to play with a much wider palette of colors, patterns, and textures than he previously found in the canyons of funereal worsteds at Men’s Wearhouse. Once he’s pulled off a bright and bold tweed jacket on a crisp Saturday morning walk to his local greenmarket, he probably won’t go back to his hoodie.
I myself recently skied Breckenridge in a bi-swing tweed coat and breeches and received nothing but compliments. Haters may have hated, but snowbunnies loved it. Clothes create context. Make your own occasions.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]