A few weeks ago, I went to one of my local bars with my friend Youmna. We did a “work from cafe” together in order to take a break from our homes and since the cafe closed at 7, a bit of alc felt appropriate to close out the week; it was also a good excuse to use a $10 gift card we had won during a prior trivia night. We had a pleasant night that got even better when a few of our mutual friends asked us to get boba.
Before I go on, it’s important to note that I was in typical Ethan attire that day. You know, Esquire Man shit. This was when it was still cold, so it was a day where I took the opportunity to wear my brown flecked jacket from the 90s. Underneath was my yellow and blue checked spearpoint (my only checked spearpoint) and a dark repp stripe. My trousers were a dark charcoal grey. Shoes were my trusty Color 8 shell tassels. All of this is important for you to understand why I wrote this fun blog post.
While I was ordering some fries (I needed something in my stomach because I was tipsy), a fellow buzzed patron tapped me on the shoulder and said “my girlfriend was giving me shit for my outfit but I’m so glad that I wasn’t the only person wearing a suit here”. I turned to take in his fit: a slim fit grey business suit, a white poplin shirt worn open and sans tie, and black dress shoes. I shared in his laughter and shook his hand, forming a quick bond over being the only guys in the place wearing any semblance of tailoring. It was clear that we both wore this because we enjoyed it.
I’ve gotta hand it to him, it can take some confidence to wear a suit (or sportcoat) for fun! Not everyone is okay with Standing Out and we should celebrate the guys who decide to do so. I hope he felt emboldened to think of tailoring as clothes, something to wear for fun and when we make our own occasions. I definitely think a drink after work is something to look forward to.
Before he walked away I told him, “Don’t worry! At least you can tell your girlfriend that you didn’t wear a tie today. You’re more casual”. He laughed some more and pointed toward his partner, to whom I gave a quick smile and cheers with my next glass. But as I walked away, I was hit by an interesting thought: was my outfit actually more formal than his?
Let me be clear: trying to debate semantics on menswear formality levels is absurd. Why? Because those distinctions don’t mean anything anymore. Gone are the days when there was a distinction between business formal looks (a full suit) and business casual (separates). The act of wearing anything resembling tailoring is fancy, whether or not you wear a tie. No one will even think you’re “dressed down” compared to menswear tradition, simply because your blazer has patchpockets rather than jetted ones. Your blazer looks like a suit jacket and suits are formal, so you’re formal.
But despite being absurd, it still is a fun thought experiment, especially when you are aware of the old menswear formality traditions. I may not follow them to the letter (I make my own occasions), but I do reference it in my own ways, such as putting patch pockets on a suit to make it more casual. What a shocking move! /s
Anyway, according to the old Menswear Rules (from like the 1930s or so lol), my outfit is supposed to be read as casual, at least compared to traditional business wear. A brown flecked odd jacket, checked shirt, and striped ties are supposed to be on the casual spectrum of things; let’s not forget to mention the use of loafers over lace-ups. On the flip side, a grey worsted business suit is more formal than my attire. This is not just about color (though grey is pretty conservative compared to casual brown), but about a full suit is just more formal than separates, let alone separates that involve texture and a pattern. The guy was also in a poplin plain white shirt, which is also meant to be read as formal or at least business appropriate when compared to a checked shirt.
The clincher here might be the tie. Ties are decorative and most guys forgo them when given the chance, which is why we only see them at Traditional Occasions like job interviews, weddings, and funerals. When we see someone in a tie, we think formal; when we see someone without a tie, they’re at least a touch less formal. So what happens now when compare a guy in a solid grey suit, clean white shirt, and no tie to someone in textured and patterned brown separates who does have a tie? Who is more casual and who is more formal? Does a tie carry the formality?
Since I don’t have a photo of the friendly bar patron, I’m just going to use the following examples from Daniel Craig and Jake Grantham. Take a look at them and tell me what you think.
Now, I did share this story and the above examples with a few friends during a kickback and let me tell you, the debate that followed was quite interesting. For some context, here were the friends involved:
- Joseph: a childhood acquaintance turned close friends after seeing each other on a local discord after years of losing contact. He’s a crossfit guy who is not terribly into fashion and prefers basics and comfort.
- Jay: Spencer’s childhood friend whom you guys know was always a menswear enthusiast
- Youmna: Jay’s friend from university who has become one of my closest friends and who isn’t that interested in fashion (or so she says, she always looks good).
- Quinn: Jay’s friend from university who works in TV production. She also has good style despite not being too engrossed in the fashion world.
- Justin: Quinn’s boyfriend who dresses pretty functionally but has a sense of what he likes and what looks good on him.
- James: a reader of the blog who happened to be seeing one of my acquaintances. He’s now become a good friend!
- Isabel: My girlfriend who is pretty aware of the menswear tropes thanks to the unfortunate circumstance of dating me.
In short, this was not a debate on my patreon discord full of menswear obsessives. This was a just a group of pals who are marginally into fashion (except for Jay and James).
Overall, they agreed that the outfit worn by Daniel Craig was the more formal of the two. However, the necktie did cause quite a stir. A person said that if Craig had on a tie, he would immediately be seen as the most formal. The group seemed to agree that neckties are inherently formal garments due to their “special” use in the modern day. That being said, they seemed to gather that there was something about Grantham that made him seem more casual than Craig despite wearing a tie.
They went to explain that they read Craig as more formal than Grantham because Craig looks like how a typical, modern business guy would look. Sharp dark suit, crisp solid shirt, a little pocket square, and a shiny watch. He looks just like the plethora of corporate workers, relators, and entrepreneurs we see all over the place. Such people tend to have a serious, money-first mentality which contributes to a “formal vibe”. The lack of a tie wasn’t so much a casual move as it was an intentional affectation: this is a specific look that we recognize from other people out in the world.
My friends did say that Grantham wasn’t casual casual, but simply more casual when compared to Craig. They knew enough about menswear to know that a textured brown jacket isn’t considered as corporate as a solid navy or grey suit, but that was just one factor. One friend keenly noticed that the tie was tucked into the waistband and that his hands are in his pockets; such things are casual affectations, at least from a pose perspective. Someone told me that Grantham looks more like a professor, which again is a more “casual” station than a corporate guy.
As I pushed them to go deeper with their reasoning, it seemed that the distinction between the two outfits wasn’t just based on old-school formality levels (because most people don’t know the exact nuances anymore), but about the attitude and the Perception of Effort that the outfit has. It’s clear that we assign value (or status) to outfits based on vibes. Status is tied to formality, but at this point formality is a signifier of a lifestyle rather than occasion. It’s telling of where someone is in their life or what they aspire to be, which is why the conversation couldn’t just be about the formality of individual garments in a vacuum, but their combined properties as an outfit, the attitude of the wearer, and what we gather about both of those qualities.
In short, the way we think about outfits involves connotations that go beyond traditional menswear rules and instead use more of our cultural and emotional connections. I feel like I’ve been saying this!
After that discussion, my friends and I moved on to a related, but more fun topic: we started to discuss the formality of the outfits we were all wearing that evening. As you might have expected, I was wearing my new brown suit and paired it with a dark shirt and tie– I was immediately crowned “the most formal”, but what else is new. James was wearing a houndstooth jacket and OCBD, so he won second place. I agree with this because it was all a no-brainer. It was the other outfits that generated the most debate.
As luck would have it, three people were wearing a black crew neck top: Joseph, Jay, and Youmna. What would be the formality levels in this case? Joseph wore his with a pair of dark-wash jeans, so I think he’s the most casual. Youmna wore hers (a long sleeve crop top) with black cotton twill pants, which honestly were like a chino/jean due to the frog pockets (but the fabric wasn’t denim). Jay had dumpy WWII khakis, but he tucked his tee into them; he also had a lapeled-cardigan (as you could expect, a few friends assumed it was a blazer). If you’re concerned with shoes, get ready to get muddled. Jay had white leather sneakers while Youmna had black platforms sneaker/shoes.
The debate for Youmna and Jay seemed to take up the entire evening. Jay had a blazer and slick white sneakers, but aren’t big khakis casual? Youmna didn’t have a jacket on, but isn’t full black a formal look? But Jay’s look seems more “fashiony”, does that play into formality? Does “looking dressed up” mean that you are formal?
That final question is what revealed it all to us. We were focusing on what it meant to be “dressed up”, whatever the hell that menas. It was clear that this was no longer about the distinction of casual vs formal but about intention and the perception of effort. It seems that “casual and formal” wasn’t a spectrum to help quantify a person’s adherence to dress codes and traditions, but about describing their perceived attitude when they make and wear their outfit. Again, this utilizes our cultural and emotional connections to clothing, outfits, and demeanor.
And in the end, they also had to commend Jay that despite being slightly more formal than Youmna, he still retained an air of casual-ness. I mean at this point in the night, we were all pretty buzzed thanks to Joseph’s amazing cocktails. None of us were putting on airs, but then again, none of us ever are. We all agreed that if we may dress “formally”, none of us are formal people and that also factors into how we perceive an outfit.
Obviously this whole thing was quite silly, but it was such a fun conversation to have. None of this is important in the modern age, as wearing tailoring just reads as formal to people, but introspecting on these perceptions is important! This thought experiment is meant to reveal to ourselves how we think about vibes and how we intend to express ourselves based on our own cultural connotations. For some people, it is rooted in menswear history. For others, its about color or silhouette, or just how “bold” we think something is. In any case, we’re meant to develop deep preferences about the way we combine our garments together. I believe this also shows how important attitude is and how it plays into the wearing aspect of clothing; fashion doesn’t stop when we lay the garments together on our bed.
This whole fashion hobby thing is a holistic exercise in expression that isn’t based on the inclusion of singular garments. It’s about how we view aesthetics and what style moves make us feel most accurate to our intended expression.
I’m quite fine with the moniker of being a formal dresser, but it’s my hope that my attitude and general demeanor help show that I am not attempting to affect a formal mien. I don’t even think of things in terms of formality. I just want to dress slouchy, no matter if I’m wearing a tie or not. Some people may get it and others may not and that’s okay!
But perhaps in the future, someone in a business suit and no-tie will ask me (in a checked jacket, striped shirt, and patterned tie) why I’m so dressed up. And when that happens, I’ll just say “I’m actually more casual than you”.
And then he’ll probably punch me for such a cheeky and absurd answer.
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