Nothing fundamentally rational about this post, but it is instrumental. It will be useful to those that want to dress better. It's already been discussed that dressing well improved one's social life; I wanted to put it in one place how to reach that.
- The point of dressing well is to look cool
- It gets you out of the badly-dressed hole but doesn’t make you a cool God. Work on yourself.
- Less is more, don’t trust your “I like this funky thing”.
- Buy to compose outfits, ie to match what you already own, instead of random pieces you see in a shop and like
- Wear what follows the shape of your body.
- Go for dark blue tones, light grey to black, and sand to kaki.
- Go for plain over pattern
- Go for smooth over texture
- Prefer symmetry
- Have no logo/visible branding/message/image on your clothes.
- Fashionable people break the rules all the time. But they have integrated style to their thinking. To get that going, follow the rules.
My post will have two parts.
In the first (the one you're reading) I’ll detail the rules that are commonly used to dress well. Those rules will optimize the social aspect of clothing, not what the fabric offers technically: how cool you look, not what interesting properties you get out of your clothes. In a later article, I will explore ‘techwear’, aka clothing with technical properties (thermoregulation, impermeability, not retaining smells…), as the logical direction to fully optimize one’s fashion. Because I don’t want to write the second part now, this first half is totally self sufficient, and I’ll write about many other things than clothing before I write on techwear.
Dressing well is an art not a science, and an art that changes with trends, social classes, tribes, generations. I am well aware that each rule in this article is broken everyday by extremely well-dressed people; nevertheless those rules are very useful, and a great one in clothing is to start with the basics for which rules apply, and then to explore.
A good sense of fashion is both extremely important, and not important at all.
People do judge based on looks. If you are visibly ‘out’, you will suffer social consequences such as people avoiding your company. By dressing well, you avoid being rejected from the get-go. But don’t expect to be loved for it. Being fashionable will save you from the hole and give you a bit of a wind up, but it won’t catapult how cool you are like some movies make believe. If there is something you want that requires being cool, you will still need to work on yourself for it.
Optimizing Style, aka: The Rules
I’ll start with the two principles that guide my buying and dressing behaviours and how I apply the rules.
Less Is More
The One principle to rule them all. To dress well during the first months/years of your learning curve, less is more should be your motto. This is true for shapes - go for simple; for textures - go for plain; for colors - go for the less colored. In clothing, as far as items are concerned more complex almost always hurts in the beginning, whereas more simple almost never does. For example the “Italian” shirts with three buttons near the collar; shirts with collars of a different color; shirt buttons of an unusual color; jeans with seams crossing all over, a jacket overloaded with zippers, wearing a striped instead of a plain shirt, t-shirts with logos on them.... You’ve heard it and it’s true: in clothing, less is more. This doesn’t mean to be monochromatic or to never have pockets or zippers on a coat. It means that when you think ‘oh, I like this funky little detail, it looks cool…’, you don’t trust yourself. I have noticed that generally, as a beginner, every time you go more original, more complex, you go worse. This is actually a mistake that even men who dress well do. They’re ‘bored’ of the basics, try to spice it up, and worsen instead of improving. Don’t let that be you.
Dressing Well is Composing Outfits
The second principle is to think, buy and dress in terms outfits rather than individual pieces. When you buy something, unless you have nothing good in your closet, it has to be bought in order to be worn with something you already have, instead of because you like it there and then. Go out shopping with what’s already owned in mind. One resistance people have is that your available styles expand less rapidly (because you’re improving outfit n instead of buying what will be outfit n+). Sure, not composing outfits and just buying individual pieces will result in more potential combinations because you’ll buy more; but in terms of combinations that look good, it will be less. You’ll end up opening your wardrobe, your brain filtering out the unmatchable clothes, and in despair you will cry : “I have nothing to weaaaaar!”. This is real if you don’t buy to compose outfits.
Read the rules bellow, and the next time you go shopping, it has to be with a purpose of the like: I want item X for reason Y (ie. a woolen sweater because of the cold); it must be Z to go with V (grey to match my black overcoat / thin to be worn under a jacket).
If you fall in love with some item you think you need to buy, ask yourself : what can I wear it with? If the answer is nothing, let it go. Your ability to let go, to realize that you don’t need something both before and after buying it, is very important when it comes to predicting how well you will dress. Just like how well you update your beliefs when faced with additional evidence is an indicator of how good a rationalist you are.
Off to the actual rules.
The most important thing in clothing is fit. Your clothes must follow the natural shape of your body. To the recurrent objection that a given cloth makes you look bad because it shows how fat, or how skinny you are, the answer is that not following your natural shape looks even worse. The only case when not fitting to your natural shape can be good is if you’re big and wear something bigger, because it’ll marginally "float" around you and thus makes you look slimmer inside. Wearing too skinny is never a good idea because it calls the attention to your body parts, not to you or your style. A nice cloth follows; it doesn’t stick. Even if you’re muscular, it’s too try-hard. Again, for a man: show your style, not your body. If you’re naturally skinny, the best is to go with your natural shape. Wider and you’ll look like a flag pole, tighter and your bones will show.
Fit is basically two things: wearing your correct size, and wearing clothes which cut follows the natural shape of your body.
A simple way to find what your size is: Find where you’re a little too tight, and go +1. Don’t go further up unless you already dress well. For jeans, because they stretch as you wear them, you can stick to those in which you are a little tight. In doubt, ask a salesperson.
I couldn’t give a universal advice, but for the engineering type, especially Americans, your jeans and chinos should be tighter than they are now. To know what the right fit is for you, don’t ask ‘is it comfortable?’ because to you, used to large jeans and trousers (relative to what is considered well fitted), the right size will feel uncomfortable. The right question is ‘Am I actually paralyzed?’ (Because that’s what your brain will say.) Undoubtedly though, there will be some marginal loss of ease in movement.
How do you know if an item of clothing is well cut / makes you look good in them?
In addition to the item being of your size ; ie not too long nor too short, not too wide nor too tight, its cut should follow your body’s shape. If you are a V, but the shirt is an O or a , even your correct size won’t fit well. This is the kind of thing experience will teach you, ie wearing things that don’t fit you and learning which brands and/or designs do.
Pants’ quick win: Most men will look well in slim or semi-slim pants. Try not to go skin-tight to avoid clown feet. If your thighs to calf ratio is bigger than the average man’s however, you should try the ‘carrot’ cut that has more space around the thighs and a lower meeting point for the legs, yet a slimming cut down the leg so that the overall look is still fitted.
The second most important thing in clothing is colors: which to use and how to combine them. The two go hand-in-hand: you use the colors which, were you to combine them, would look harmonious still. Those colors are :
° Tones from medium to dark blue (preferably not light blue, with the exception of shirts and jeans);
° Tones from light grey to black;
° Tones from light sand to kaki (goes through dark beige but excludes brown).
A note on brown. Although it is a shade of beige, I think that brown should be avoided. This could be due to an association with old people, who tend to wear it more. (Again, no judgement, but the point of clothing is to look cool; even at 50, cool men are too young for brown). Very rarely will you see well-dressed men wearing brown. You can wear brown leather in jackets or shoes, especially if it is suede leather and doesn’t look like orange, but aside from that you should avoid it. I will not advise you to wear brown suits, but some men wear them well.
A note on black. I decided to add black to the color list because you see it so much in perfectly dressed people that it’d be senseless not to. However, for several social groups, black, except for business/gala shoes, is absolutely forbidden. If you socialize with those and are tempted to go black, go for dark blue instead (to know, just look at the coolest / most group-representative people, and check whether they wear black).
Within those circles although a black t-shirt or jean will be frowned upon, it should still be tolerated (unless worn together). A black suit however, worn anywhere else than at events where tuxedos are expected, is horrific. It goes without saying that black shirts are equally (if not more) criminal.
In society at large, black suits are somewhat more accepted, despite their association with valets, taxi drivers, servicing personnel in general. And because some people will think extremely lowly of you for wearing one outside of tuxedos events, I suggest always going for a dark blue suit. You’ll still be elegant to everyone that doesn’t know about the no-black rule, and will not be put in a hole by those who do. Added cost: 0; avoided value loss: potentially a lot.
A note on shirts’ colors. The color of your business shirt complies to an even stricter array of colors than mentioned (and complying to it for your casual shirts will not hurt either). Your shirt must be light, and mostly will only be blue and white (you have choice! the shirts can have invisible stripes patterns...). Light blue and white only. Never kaki or beige, never grey (ah!), black (brr!), and of course none of the excluded colors (yellow! oh! brown! No.). Those are absolutely forbidden and, by the way, one of the reason well-dressed Europeans look at Americans in their shiny-fabric (!) oversized (!) suits and think Aaaaahhhhhh. In this area, the reason for strictness is very likely more social norm than combinability, which makes it all the more important not to violate. If you do (in the company of well-dressed people, or others “in the know”), people will not only think you dress poorly, they’ll will also not want to be around you, because their status will decrease from contamination. Trust me, I’ve been on the judging end of that norm.
It’s just like in high school. Can the coolest kid hang out with whoever they want and despise the rule without being contaminated by the violators? Of course they can. Are most kids the nice coolest kid? Of course they aren’t. They will comply and avoid the badly dressed like they do the uncool.
How to match colors.
The great thing with the colors above is that if you stick to them and combine two or three when choosing your clothes, you can’t lose. Little need for detail here: if you stick to two or three of these colors, you will not lose.
Two additional, less strict rules that will make things even simpler for you :
A. for the layers worn on your upper body, go from lighter (close to the body, ie your shirt/t-shirt) to darker (further from the body, ie mid-layers, coats etc). This is why good colors for t-shirts are white, light grey and khaki; and why you should start with a dark blue, not a beige coat. But this is no absolute rule.
B. Your lower body should be darker than your upper body. This is probably because dark colors make one look slimmer, and most men’s body type is legs bigger than upper body whereas the athletic stereotype is legs thinner than upper body. For that reason, give priority to jeans and chinos that are navy/dark blue, black and dark grey.
Your shoes can be the exception: plain white sneakers are fantastic to boost an outfit (avoiding logos, stripes etc). Ever wondered why French people look amazingly well dressed? Fit x color understanding x white shoes = (well dressed) French person.
When you get more advanced with your clothing, from matching two or three colors, try to match two or three tones of colors. Ie, wear light grey tones + navy tones + black.
Or beige/khaki tones + white + navy tones.
Find colors that suit you: like women do, bring the cloth near your face and look in the mirror how your tone goes with the color.
There is a theory out there that the contrast between your clothes should match the contrast between your face and hair: every time I see it described, I can’t tell which of the pictures I’m shown as good vs bad examples is the better. The theory sounds true to me; it’s very logical and some color-theory things are definitely true (black makes your face look paler in contrast; the more contrast with skin and clothes the more your face will stand out); but the overall doesn’t convince me.
Symmetry is beautiful to us. On humans, we like vertical symmetry: the right and left sides mirror each other. It seems to me that there are two types of symmetry: simple and complex. Simple is a jacket where the right and left sides of the zipper are plain and the same; complex is when they both have ten buttons placed at the exact same place, mirroring each other. The first is the one we want. When we learn to dress well, we don’t just want to avoid asymmetry (like a zipper diagonally crossing a sweater or a fold coming on top of the other); we also want to avoid complex symmetry.
This is one of the less strict rules, as we’ve seen James Bonds and Kingsmen rock the double-breasted suit; but given that you’re likely to fail them, play it safe and look awesome in that classic navy suit.
The second part of this article will go into more detail on the properties of the fabrics you wear. Yet, you should still know a few things about fabrics now, for reasons of basic comfort.
With t-shirts and shirts, don’t go for less than 100% cotton, and try to go for higher-end kinds of cotton for comfort and durability, like Egyptian cotton, Long Island cotton, Supima cotton (there are more).
For woolen sweaters and for coats, unless you have an absolute crush on an item you can’t find elsewhere, don’t go for an item with over 20% of synthetic fabrics — polyamide, polyester, and the likes. 80% wool 20% synthetic is tolerable, especially if you can’t invest much. For some items, synthetic fabrics are actually added to increase resistance (rarely above 20% though), as natural fabrics like merino wool or cashmere can be more fragile. But synthetic fabrics retain smells, don’t evacuate sweat and heat, creating a sauna effect, and don’t protect against the cold like wool does.
If you want a winter sweater or coat, you will need to look at the fabric tag.
Remember with synthetics: sauna in the summer, veil in the winter.
This is a very important rule, always within Less is More: avoid showy brands. No logo. No message/text/image/comic either. This is first as a social understanding that bragging is low-value because you don’t want to seem like you’re trying to look rich or cool. The other side of logos is signaling your personality through a message or image that you think is cool or funny. It will probably not be understood by most around you, and they’ll think you’re unfunny/uncool/immature. Even counter-signaling often backfires, given that those who you want to think you’re dressed well aren’t those who already think you’re cool, and who’ll get the joke or message.
Price/positioning (and which are the good brands)
Except for some rare high-street shops like Uniqlo, the brands that you want to buy from are the ones that don’t come to you.
The good heuristic for this is precisely your anti-intuition: if you can name them, they’re probably terrible and their money is spent on advertising rather than making good clothes. Advertising is totally logical for a brand that wants to sell its product instead of waiting to be discovered. But it does take money out of the cloth. For we who want to optimize dressing, cutting the advertising costs by finding and sharing those brands that have little or no advertising is the win. Because I know many of those brands, voila a list of those you wish you knew, from least to most expensive (* are my personal favorites (the French names will still deliver worldwide, and are very good)):
Uniqlo, Cos, Everlane (United States), Paris-Yorker, Le Pantalon, Hast (shirts), Asphalte-paris, SuitSupply, Asket, Spoke London, Seagale* (techwear), Drapeau Noir, Hircus, BonneGueule*, Harmony Paris, Norse Projects*, SEH Kelly, Howards (shirts), Merz B. Schwanen, APC, Norwegian Rain, Officine Générale*, Editions MR, De Bonne Facture.
The Wardrobe Basics
The items that you must have, for which there is no need to wait, and they go with everything (no need to worry about what to wear them with). You will have no trouble whatsoever finding them.
For each category, I give a list of brands that go from cheap to more expensive. It is heavily French -- that is most I know.
° Pants: dark navy chino, black jeans, dark blue jeans. Opt: beige chino, bleached blue jeans, grey jeans. Best brands: [Uniqlo, Asket, Le Pantalon, Spoke, Nudie, Bonnegueule]
° T-shirts (always plain): white, light grey, dark grey, dark blue, khaki [Uniqlo for cheap Supima cotton, Asket, Seagale, BonneGueule, Norse Projects, Merz B Schwannen].
° Sweaters: dark blue, light grey, dark grey [Uniqlo, Asket, Seagale, Merz B. Shwannen, Officine Generale].
° Business shirts: white, light blue — avoid oxford pattern, go for popeline [Hast, BonneGueule, Howards].
° Casual shirts: the fabric is a more robust cotton (like Oxford or cotton flannel) or it’s made with wool - white, light blue, can go for dark blue, khaki, light grey [Uniqlo, Asket, Drapeau Noir, Norse Projects, BonneGueule, Officine Generale].
° Parka/Overcoats: dark blue and/or dark grey. Beige and khaki also work. Black also works. [SuitSupply, Seagale, Drapeau Noir, Harmony Paris, BonneGueule, SEH Kelly, Officine Generale]. This is a piece for which you should be ready to invest over 350 euros if you need it against the cold.
° Shoes: a pair of minimalist white sneakers (here the Adidas logo or Nike swoosh are tolerated, but if you can avoid them do so). [Cos, Adidas, Nike, NewBalance, Asphalte-Paris, BonneGueule, Axel Arigato (lower quality for the price but look good), National Standard (expensive but long-lasting)]. A pair of minimalist black leather business shoes. Optionnal: minimalist blue leather white sole sneakers [Asphalte-Paris, Axel Arigato, BonneGueule, National Standard] / beige suede or black leather Chelsea or boots [Asphalte-paris, Orbans, BonneGueule, Septieme Largeur, Cobbler Union (United States), Paraboot].
You’ll notice there are no polo shirts mentioned. They can be worn well, but because they need to be well ironed and fitted to not give that American dad look, I’d rather just not recommend them. They also have a good-boy image and, as previously mentioned, the point of dressing well is to avoid those negative associations. A good alternative is to wear long-sleeved (merino) wool polo sweaters: more elegant, easier to take care of, and with no negative associations.
More Practical Advice and Things I Wish I Learned Earlier
° Don’t be an overmatcher: using the same fabric from top to bottom; matching two colors perfectly (eg burgundy shoes burgundy sweater with white pants white jacket white hat; this gives you away as try-hard). This is worse than wearing one color, which can be done well (as always, the soberer the color the easier). The best strategy, whether wearing one or several colors: is a camaïeu: for a given color, each additional piece must be of a different tone.
° For some reason (possibly to look more manly/different to women’s coats), long coats should not follow your body like your clothes do. They shouldn’t be larger, but they shouldn’t be too tight. In fact, straight from the shoulder works wonders...
° Never wear white socks (this is just a class thing, but very useful to know)
-Washing. I don’t know how anecdotal my evidence is, but there may be a tendency in people to overwash. The only things that should be washed after every wear are underwear, cotton shirts, polos and t-shirts. Sweaters need to be washed way less frequently, especially woolen ones. At most once a month. The more you have, the less often you wear them, the more rarely the wash.
For everything that is woolen or higher quality cotton (and that isn’t stained): wash at 30°C and do not dry. Hang if it’s light, lay down on a dry surface or towel if heavy.
Pants should be washed every six months, because they shrink ever so slightly after every wash (but then go back to normal after worn), and lose their dye very fast (it’s hard to fixate, and the cheaper the less fixated). It is part of a pant’s life to fade out, so don’t buy a new one every year; but don’t precipitate it either.
-Cool brands. You want to optimize clothing not by wearing just what good brands make, but by wearing what good brands make… that cool people wear. Good brands make some ugly things: from an economic perspective it makes sense: if someone will only buy from you if you make the ugly thing they want, just make it for them and cash in. Also, when you make one hundred pieces, some will be for older or younger generations, some will be too crazy for you, many will break the rules… So don’t buy just because it’s from a good brand. First, learn what is cool, then buy from the good brands.
Of course, if you have no idea what is cool and don’t even know where to look (give links), then just buying from a brand you know is cool with the rules in mind, even with your bad taste, is a massive head start.
-Consumerism. Sure, don’t be consumerist. Don’t buy and buy and buy. People overestimate how much pleasure goods will bring them. However, there is a very real phenomenon that just happens, and it only does after a nontrivial number of items of clothing bought and time, yet it is pretty sudden: at some point in your dressing ‘journey’, you’ll become well dressed. You’ll more or less always be fashionable, recognized for it, where you go people will assume you’ve always dressed well, and you’ll derive about as much pleasure from it as you derived displeasure from realizing that you still didn’t look good, when you had just bought and worn a new item you liked. That said, I still stand behind the well-hammered philosophy that consists in buying less but better.
Although I recommend BonneGueule for every clothing category, I am in no way related to them. It's a simple coincidence that they make such amazing clothes and as a blog give so much free value away. I guess this is where giving gets you. If you live outside of France, count 19% off their prices as they (unlike other brands) discount the value tax. If you aren’t in Europe, the price will raise in delivery.
If you live in London and want to pay to spend a day shopping with me; if you want to send me a message about anything; or if you just want to see my irrational lifestyle... head to ig @eaudadrien