Beyond Trad

Over the past few years, my personal style has shifted a bit. I've occasionally been asked why I've shifted away from "traditional American".

Simply put, it didn't feel natural.

I was wearing a costume instead of expressing my true personality...

A beautiful suit-in-progress from the folks at Chittleborough & Morgan.
When I first started studying menswear back 13 odd years ago, I was drawn by the structured silhouettes of Savile Row. The nipped waist and shaped chest, the padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads, and a broader lapel width. Around 2004-2005, styles were still generally middle of the road but there was a push towards flat front trousers instead of pleated. Menswear hadn't yet gone full throttle into the slim fit, low rise, narrow lapel look. But my ideas started to shift the more I participated in clothing forums. I got into wearing chinos, madras, button-down collar shirts with suits, sack jackets, and other hallmarks of Trad/Ivy League/preppy. Not everything I owned was like this, obviously. But it did provide a fun way to dress for a while. After a bit though, feelings of self-consciousness and like I didn't belong manifested themselves. Like I was wearing a costume instead of expressing my true personality when I went full Trad. Here I'll attempt to explain why.

A youthful but well executed take on "Trad".
Button-down collars are, in my opinion, still a good wardrobe staple and I will obsess over every little detail of the roll now that I know what to look for. I mostly wear them with casual clothing now, including jeans, chinos, sport coats, and sweaters. Some have made the claim that button-downs should not be worn with a tie. I think this is utter nonsense. (With apologies to my friend Matt over at The Suits of James Bond.) Sometimes an "OCBD" and cardigan is just the thing you need to look more polished, but not overdressed for certain occasions. Still, there are other collars out there and it seems silly to limit oneself to just that style. The medium/semi-spread collar goes with just about any face or head shape and won't look out of place with more casual ensembles and blazers. I used to complain when Brooks Brothers modeled their three button sack blazers with non-button-down collar shirts, but in hindsight they had the right idea this whole time. The medium spread is also the best collar to wear casually without a tie besides the button-down and can be made with soft, non-fused lining. Most often I tend to wear an "English" spread collar with longer points and taller band, as it suits my face and looks good with pretty much any clothing I own -- short of jeans, of course! A collar with stiffer interfacing isn't much of a bother so long as the fabric is soft enough. Overall it looks crisp and put together, something a button-down collar can never achieve however much clothiers have tried adding fused construction or altering the spread width over the decades. In other words, I don't wear it with business suits anymore. But if you must wear a button-down collar with them, I'd at least try broadcloth, fine twill, or some other refined fabric since regular oxford (not royal) looks a little coarse and out of place next to pinstripes.

Personally, I like letting people know that I actually have a body under there somewhere.

Little to no waist suppression at all.
One thing I've gotten over completely is the sack jacket. I think some people have summarized it best by saying it's "sexless" and depending on your viewpoint this is either good or bad. Personally, I like letting people know that I actually have a body under there somewhere. (Broad shoulders and toned legs are my best features after all.) There isn't much shape thanks to the lack of darts at the waist and an unpadded shoulder with natural sleeveheads. While that may be the point and some people can look good in them, my body is done the most justice when the chest and waist are shaped and the shoulders emphasized with some padding and/or roping at the sleevehead. I'm in decent shape, but hardly have the same 8" drop as in my teenage years and my shoulders, though broad, slope downward and need some help. The structured look gives off a stronger and more masculine appearance. This is also something that would be of help to trans men who are trying to make their bodies appear less feminine. While I have not yet made use of a bespoke tailor, those on Savile Row who make a firmer coat, such as Huntsman, would be my ideal rather than Anderson & Sheppard or their disciples who make a softer, more draped coat. I even find myself questioning the purpose and aesthetic of the hook vent. Surely vents are meant to open up with movement and people expect them to. So why do I need the wider overlap with a distracting off-center placement to prevent that from happening? The double vent is the way to go if that's a concern, as it will "C.Y.A." and allow one to better access their trouser pockets on top of it. I like the single vent for sporty suits and coats though.

Darted front as seen on English Cut MTM trousers.
Flat front trousers with trim straight legs are one thing the Trads and I agree on, though I've become a fan of darted front trousers for the ease they give in front while still having a trimmer appearance. They're difficult to obtain without commissioning though. Forward pleats, which have a bit of traction in the Trad community, are a solid choice too. I think part of that has to do with the fact that Brooks Brothers used to make forward pleated trousers until the last couple decades. 1.75" cuffs -- the J. Press default -- are my preference for finishing trousers, but it's not a total deal breaker if I cannot get them. I'm content with 1.5" cuffs since they work on the average body.

A tastefully patterned tie from Tom Ford.
Regimental stripe ties are cool, though I wear them less than I used to and perhaps with a half-Windsor knot here and there. Sorry, four-in-hand purists! Simple ties such as solid textures, basket weaves incorporating two or three colours, or pindots reflect my personality the best. Then there are of course silk knitted ties which I continue to find quite versatile, wearing them with sweaters and tweed sport coats to business suits. Along with my newfound preference for wider lapels, I also prefer wide ties to go with them. 3.5" to 3.75" for either, a full half inch more than the Trad ideal, suits my body proportions. However, it's difficult to even find a 3" knit tie now even when they were common just a decade ago. The domain of 3.75" ties also seems to be luxury brands rather than anything that can be found affordably. I hold out hope that this will swing back soon enough.

I own these and absolutely adore them. They really feek like "me".
Even shoes are an area I'm better served by sleeker options. My feet are large so it's best to downplay them with a narrower profile. Far from the doubled soled, long wingtip, blucher laced, brogued "gunboats". I have an old pair in a walnut colour from Dexter, but upon trying to wear them recently, they felt out of place with my rakish navy and charcoal suits. Even Allen Edmonds' standby Park Avenue looks a touch clunky to me now, though nowhere near as some #menswear followers claim they are. Still, I've been happier since getting a couple pairs of shoes in their modern "8" last, namely the Mora 2.0 double monk strap cap toe and Carlyle plain toe balmoral. It's a last that fits well, visually reduces my foot size, and looks terrific with Italian or British influenced suits. I'll need to try some non-American brands soon and expand my options.

But let's talk about casual wear for a moment, the area where I think Trad is most appropriate. There's nothing wrong with a 3/2 blazer with swelled edges, but same as a tweed sport coat I'll take mine with darts now thankyouverymuch. Chinos are still cool but they look best ironed with a crease, especially when wearing sport coats. As one reader so aptly suggested to me a few years ago, "Try a f***ing iron." Boat shoes aren't much of a draw anymore, as I struggle to find occasions to wear them outside of casting off at sea. Which I can't really do in New Mexico, so obviously you see my conundrum. I still own and wear a pair of older, Eastland blucher mocs as they seem to go with almost anything from jeans to the most casual outfits that don't involve a sport coat. Loafers are fine too, but I no longer see the appeal of wearing them sockless with shorts. Or sockless at all. My Bean Boots with ragg socks still get plenty of mileage in the winter, however. Especially when visiting my birth country of Canada last winter. Plenty of people who don't know about Trad wear them regularly. They're well-made cold weather boots, plain and simple.

What I'm saying, more or less, is don't tie yourself down to one particular style and think you have to follow it to every last detail. Certainly, don't do it just to feel like part of a group. There's more flexibility and fun in changing things up a little and exploring what you like. Wear a spread collar with a sack jacket. Try a pair of sleek English wingtips with those cuffed, flat front flannels. It doesn't have to be one way or the other, black or white. I felt inadequate trying and not quite living up to the standards and groupthink set forth by an internet sub-community. Going beyond the sack suit has been liberating, as has leaving menswear forums entirely two years ago.

Have you had a personal style shift at some point in your life? When and why? Please share in the comments below, I'd love to hear your story.

Comments

  1. My change in personal style came when I was very young, in elementary school. I went from wanting to dress like Mister Rogers (somewhat trad, though he liked pinned collars rather than button-down collars) to using James Bond as my idol for how to dress. Then it took me the next 20 years to figure out what made James Bond's clothing really was about and to narrow down what my style truly was.

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    1. Although we may not agree on button-downs and ties, we can agree on that! Barring the occasional pinned or tab collar, I follow James Bond's emphasis on simple, English-inspired elegance. It took me a while to nail it down as well, but your blog helped me figure it out sooner than 20 years.

      I have a Ralph Lauren Rugby brand shawl cardigan that I can't let go of. It's a little Mister Rogers... okay, it's "old man"-looking. But it's cozy, warm as heck, and pretty durable to boot. Then again, even Daniel Craig's Bond has indulged in tab/pinned collars and shawl cardigans...

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  2. I think it always comes back to the mirror: you have to take a good look, and figure if THAT is the way that YOU want to go out amongst 'em. I, too, don't believe in just following a "trad", or other, checklist.

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    1. Exactly. You get it! I mean no disrespect to those who find the Trad style feels like them and wear it will. It should be noted that even some of the style icons in their community don't dress exclusively within the prescribed parameters though. Miles Davis wore some one button suits in the '60s before undergoing his own style makeover. Tucker Carlson wears point collar shirts despite getting them from Mercer & Sons, a shirtmaker best known for their old fashioned, long roll button-down collar. He's otherwise as Tradly as it gets.

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  3. I'll be honest Jovan, your knowledge of trad (and menswear just in general) is pretty extensive but I could always tell you weren't totally feeling it. New clothes, new haircut seems to have done you a world of good even though I liked the pomaded sidepart you had going for a while. I'm glad you've finally found something a little more "hip" for your personality. There's a good medium between being current and appreciating the classics and I think you hit it. The appreciation I've seen you have for bespoke clothing over the years is also a good thing to see in a young man like yourself, even though as you said you haven't taken the plunge yet. Passions like yours will help the industry survive. You'd make a great salesman/fitter for a Savile Row tailor if you lived there! But I'm not sure what the rules are or if you'd have to complete an education first. Chittlebrough and Morgan look pretty good from what I see on their website. Very "you". I'll stop rattling off since it starts to look insincere, but be well my friend. :)

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    1. Thanks for your support, you've obviously been here a while! You are too kind.

      Much as I would love to work on Savile Row, the people fitting are generally the ones making your clothes, be it cutter or tailor. One significant advantage over MTM is that they know how all of the measurements will be used to make the garment. We used iDesign at Suits Unlimited and I learned a lot about fitting different body types, but the customer is ultimately at the mercy of the salesperson's skill.

      Chittleborough & Morgan is a tailoring house I'd really like to try... if I ever make bespoke wages. They seem like great folks and their cutter Michael Browne is one talented individual. Edward Sexton makes suits in a similar mould, perhaps even flashier, since both worked for Tommy Nutter. Their house styles are pretty bold now, but you should see the crazy creations they made decades ago for "Nutters".

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