Casual Elegance

Spring 2006

Standing idly at the gas station waiting for my roadster to slake its thirst, I was unprepared for the kind words of a stranger- especially about my appearance. Yet the compliment cut through the petrol fumes like a cool, refreshing breeze: “You look nice,” said the young lady. “Very clean and crisp.”

What was I wearing? I was on the way to my badminton club, and was clad in white canvas Jack Purcells, white sweatpants, white fitted polo shirt, and navy fitted v-neck sweater.

Not exactly boulevardier style.

Sophisticated dressers know that “nice suit” is a backhanded compliment. What you really want to hear is “You look great.” If a suit — or a fuschia tie, for that matter — draws attention to itself, then your outfit has failed. Your clothes should make you look good, and not vice versa.

Compliments come easier when you’re in a suit and tie. After all, you’re dressed up. But to repeat: One shouldn’t depend on a suit for style and grace. The true man of style should hear “You look great” (not that he needs to) no matter what he’s wearing.

Ceasing all pretense to modesty, I’d like to declare that I am a better-dressed man than at any other point in my life. And yet I live in Los Angeles, whose warm climate is hardly conducive to complex feats of layering. What’s more, I work at home, so I don’t wear a suit and tie every day as I did previously.
LA’s warm weather and my office-liberated lifestyle have forced me to think creatively about how to be elegant without relying on the traditional components of “dressing up.” As Brioni president Umberto Angeloni has said, “The most challenging part to dressing well is knowing how to be elegant while being casual.” Suffice it to say casual elegance isn’t achieved with a humdrum arsenal of pleated khakis and oversized, mercerized golf shirts. One has to be a bit more daring, bearing in mind the maxim “None but the brave deserve the fair.”

In other words, look to the Golden Age of Menswear for inspiration
Images from the 1930s – what many consider the apex of masculine style – reveal that men were masters of cultivating a sophisticated elegance sans cravatte. Laurence Fellows’ celebrated illustrations for Esquire and Apparel Arts in the ’30s (reproduced in Alan Flusser’s books, among other places) reveal men at the pinnacle of stylishness – even without socks. These Riviera-crawling beaux combined archetypal color combos such as white and navy (all but impossible to top) in fitted silhouettes that make them look well tailored even in sportswear.

Cinematic recreations of this look can be seen in “The Great Gatsby,” when Robert Redford dons a blue striped shirt with contrasting white collar and no tie. What would be a faux pas for most men is superbly pulled off by Redford’s confident nonchalance and the cashmere sweater draped around his shoulders. In the film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Evil Under the Sun,” the male cast lounges about in such Deco-era resort wear as French cuffed shirts, ribbon belts, ascots, spectator shoes and taped-edge blazers.

The Riviera tends to bring out the best in a man. Picture Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief.” In the opening, we meet him in simple but bold striped pullover, gray flannels and espadrilles. With his perfect grooming and ample aplomb, he manages to look, as only he can, equally nonchalant and impeccable. Later, while out for a drive with Grace Kelly, he dons a plaid sportcoat with solid shirt and trousers and an ascot.

Grant looks far more debonair than in the celebrated gray suit and satin tie of “North By Northwest” because men this stylish always look better when dressed for pleasure than when dressed for business, the opposite of most men.

On the Italian side of the Riviera, Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” shows that warm-weather wear can look great when worn in bold, simple colors and fitted shapes. And note that when he dons a navy blazer, white French-cuffed shirt and striped tie, he looks as comfortable as he did riding his Vespa in shorts and canvas sneakers.

Max Azria, head of the BCBG fashion empire, once told me that male elegance for the 21st century comes down to attitude. The reason why these men look sharp is because they’re wearing clothes with a kind of panache that emphasizes their personality, not overpowers it.

Last summer I visited an old friend I’ve known since our gangly adolescence. I was wearing a slim-fit pink polo, white linen slacks, white Jack Purcells with no socks, striped ribbon belt, pocket watch with fob hooked to belt loop, and navy cashmere blazer. My friend said I looked Gatsbyesque.

Then he corrected himself: “Actually, you’ve finally mastered the art of looking like yourself.”

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