You can spot a truly excellent suit at a hundred paces. There’s something in the quicksilver silhouette of good cloth, well-cut and shaped over a shifting body, nowhere tight or loose, that’s unmistakable even at range. It’s all the more apparent without the distraction of superficial embellishments, which are always seeking to draw attention to themselves, however discreetly: handsewn buttonholes, surgeon’s cuffs, pickstitching. Good clothes are never really about these details. As with a fine watch, the real art of classical dressing lies not in individual elements, but in their movement -- their integration of complex elements to produce a single, simple effect: time and timelessness, respectively.
Assuming a basic competence in the sartorial arts, what really snaps any tailored ensemble into high style is the kind of fluid precision that suggests action even when standing still: a tight and subtly arched tie knot, flaring into a voluptuous dimple; a firm collar, supplely gripping the neck; lively sleeveheads, tapering to trim cuffs; sinuous shaping across the shoulders, down into the small of the back; full trousers, draping cleanly to a shivering break; the careless flop of a carefully stuffed hank; the fleet smallness of fine shoes; the tilt of a good hat. These aren’t individual signifiers of style so much as gestures of an articulate whole -- collectively, they make the clothes that make the man.
It’s apparent from the great promenade and piazza that is #menswear that recreational dressers exhibit a tribal tendency to miss the forest for the trees. When lacking a more holistic sartorial joie de vivre, we can focus too shallowly on precious elements: the luster of fine materials, the particulars of artisanal construction, the frisson of fashionable features, the comforting cachet of brands. It’s not hard to see why. As socially mediated online, clothes tend to be static, statistical, even something of a spectator sport, replete with in-depth color commentary by armchair aesthetes comparing freeze-framed selfies and fantasy-league wardrobes. This may be fun, but it is not the stuff of real style.
Not for nothing is the mustachioed archvillain of classic menswear the infamously meticulous clotheshorse Adolph Menjou, once lauded as the best-dressed man in America, now (barely) remembered as the default cautionary example for fastidiously-inclined dressers. Who among us doesn’t fall that way? Poor Menjou is the devil we know all too well, too proud of his clothes, too careful in them; all pose, and no repose; a stiff, brittle, two-dimensional simulacrum of elegance. He is the anti-Astaire.
If there is indeed an essential art to wearing good clothes well, it might somehow lie in simply letting them conjure all four dimensions, breaking and folding as we live, taking and making our shape over decades and at any given moment, energizing and ennobling every easy movement. It surely doesn’t take nine tailors.
Bend it like Niven.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]