At its most basic level, taste in attire is often defined by its absence. Tastelessness is no more or less than a lack of respect or appreciation for context. It knows no material manifestation, only awkward occasions: T-shirts at the opera, oxfords at the beach. To have good taste in clothes is fundamentally to have sound, worldly, well-adjusted judgment -- happy, if not eager, to please. It signals belonging to something worth belonging to. (There is of course another definition of taste -- preference -- but that way lies relativism, “lifestyle,” and death; let’s presume that anyone reading this is already a stout advocate of tailored clothing, and focus on what really cuts the mustard in that department.)
Generally speaking, when a man is praised as a “tasteful” dresser, it’s because his dress exhibits a certain understated simplicity, avoiding ostentation or decoration in favor of clean lines and solid forms. Originally conceived in white lawn and navy broadcloth by Beau Brummel, this minimalist aesthetic found its classic paragon in Cary Grant, whose silver satins and grey worsteds continue to define tailored elegance in its most distilled form. Simplicity without refinement, however, tends to be simply dull, and this is the indifferent condition of millions of men today, attired beyond professional reproach and beneath sartorial notice in ill-fitting dark suits, plain shirts, and black shoes. One suspects that these clothes are often selected by wives or girlfriends who don’t see any need for their men to further concern themselves with clothes.
The next level of taste adds a dash of expert élan, and this is for men to explore on their own, aided and abetted by the books, blogs, and forums of #menswear. Here one finds the headless selfies of WAYWT woodshedding, where aspiring office dandies practice pattern, color, texture, and fit. Mastery of these principles confers entry into the renascent ranks of well-dressed men, recognizable less for any specific sartorial flourish than for the general deliberation of their attire, and their obvious pleasure in it. This was once simply a rite of passage into adulthood, and classic menswear still finds its best expression when it serves its original purpose: as neither office uniform nor fashion statement, but a discrete exercise of taste, bespeaking membership in the fraternity of gentlemen. The greatest dressers have aspired to nothing more, finding within the structures and strictures of tailored clothing a liberating discipline. Think sonnets or sushi.
Lapses of learned taste are usually sins of maximalist overdeliberation -- too precious, too period, matchy-matchy, overly-sprezzed. Brummel’s old chestnut about not being well dressed if John Bull turns to look at you isn’t true anymore if it ever was -- good dressing these days is going to be conspicuous by simple virtue of rarity -- but it is useful to bear in mind. Dressing to purposely distinguish oneself is not necessarily the opposite of dressing tastefully, but it generally works at cross purposes with the latter, forgoing the abstract eloquence of elegance for the crude semiology of specific “pops” and “twists.” This is perhaps the most common pitfalls of hardcore dandyism: when it comes to clothes, the expressive self is the excessive self.
Classic male dress isn’t high art; it’s artisanal craft. Make an understatement.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]