Dressing for a summer cocktail party, it would never occur to you to wear a harris tweed jacket with your cream linen trousers. But do you also know that tradition dictates that tuxedo jackets never sport notched lapels? Ah, but who cares about tradition, you cry. Answer: The best-dressed men in the world do, and their dinner jackets always have peaked or shawl lapels.
After four decades of a social zeitgeist whose defining tenet is the wanton celebration of individualism, the idea of invoking traditional customs of male dress – “rules,” if you will – surely strikes many as antiquated and elitist. Even worse, uncomfortable.
Nicholas Antongiavanni is a reluctant apologist for time-tested sartorial rules. He cringes at the idea of being thought of as the style gestapo, and he’s far more interested in individual expressions of panache than bland perfection. Still, his new book, cunningly titled “The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style,” is solidly based in sartorial customs and traditions crystallized in the 1930s and still with us – however diffuse their influence – to this day.
Antongiavanni, the pseudonym of a 36-year-old New York-based media consultant and former political speechwriter, is a clothes-wearing man, a dandy in the strictest sense of the word, devoted to an understated and dignified elegance. After the usual scraggily adolescence, he became inspired by the sartorial bravura in the movies “Wall Street” and “The Godfather,” and set about cultivating his education in style. He read the books of Alan Flusser and G. Bruce Boyer, and studied library copies of Apparel Arts, the celebrated Esquire-published menswear magazine from the Golden Age of menswear. The product of many years of research, “The Suit,” imperious without being dogmatic, uses the political philosopher Machiavelli’s celebrated “The Prince” as a blueprint for timeless, rules-based power dressing.
“If your aim is to learn how to dress acceptably in a business setting,” the author says, “the rules will serve you very well. And if your aim is have panache and style, the rules will also serve you very well.
“Certain traditions have held up over the years that tend to yield an aesthetically pleasing look,” he continues. “The better you know those traditions and the reasons behind them – to the extent that there are reasons behind them – the more easily you will find it is to bend them and still look good.”
The rules of men’s dress (the origins of which are often difficult to pinpoint, except apocryphally) generally fall into two categories: Those that govern how things are made (e.g. double-breasted jackets never feature notch lapels), and those that govern how things are worn. “The former are more fundamental, and thus harder to get away with breaking,” he says.
But the latter offers plenty of room for our cherished individualism. No suede shoes with suits, for example, was a tradition long ago shattered by the Duke of Windsor, widely considered the best-dressed man of the 20th century. And while we’re in the shoe department, most conservative business environs dictate black shoes only. “But I find that most well dressed men prefer brown in almost every circumstance.”
Another rule just asking to be broken is the one decreeing that socks should match trousers, not shoes. “But really well dressed guys,” says Antongiavanni, “their socks always make a reference to something above their waist – shirt, tie, hanky. Dark blue socks with dark blue trousers is just ponderously boring.”
How about this one? – shirt never darker than coat. “A pretty good rule for the most part,” he says. “It will save you from a lot of mistakes.” However, a cream or light khaki linen suit with a French blue shirt will look “absolutely stunning,” even though the shirt is a slight shade darker.
Antongiavanni also eschews calendar-based rules – the kind that pertain to Memorial Day, Labor Day and the wearing of white, for example – and advocates letting the weather be one’s guide.
Evening dress is perhaps the last bastion of rules-based dress followed by most men, and it is in a state of upheaval thanks to the increasingly popular “alternative black tie.” Antongiavanni is hardly condemnatory of the present evolution – even if he would never be caught dead in a lavender four-and-hand with a notch-lapelled dinner jacket and plain-front trousers. “Men are cutting loose, it’s a little bit of peacockery coming out.”
Yet with the decline of black-tie rules, the once anonymous tuxedo, which made all men look the same and therefore said nothing about them, is now fraught with meaning. Alternative black-tie suggests one is hip and forward thinking, while traditional might get one labeled Republican.
Though the traditional business dress on which “The Suit” is based has been partially restored after the debacle of New Economy casual, the khaki workplace may have been a foreshadowing that the suit’s demise is imminent. “With the suit, a hundred years is a long time for any garment to remain at the top of the heap,” says Antongiavanni.
But for now there remains a small but visible group of men who know the bottom button of a waistcoat should remain undone, and that button-down collar shouldn’t be worn with double-breasted suits. “There is a thriving subculture of youngish guys who work in professional jobs, and who put the suit on as more than just a uniform.”
And for them the rules ultimately service them, not govern them. Hence the real purpose of Antongiavanni’s Machiavellian teaching: “You’ve got to learn how to be stylish.”
Originally published in Forum magazine, fall 2006.