8 Common Menswear Misconceptions

As general, public knowledge of menswear has increased a bit in the last decade, so have the number of myths about it. These have arisen, I believe, from menswear forum members who make their mere preferences into hard and fast rules, salespeople simply trying to make a sale, and downright ignorance or incorrect assumptions. A few years ago, I made a list of four myths that annoyed me no end. This time, I'm doubling the number and giving you eight commonly mistaken menswear beliefs that desperately need to be dispelled.

Working sleeve buttons are a sign of quality.

You may have seen some high-end clothing with this feature, the now ever-popular "surgeon's cuffs". (Despite that there is little to no evidence these were ever used as such.) Thom Browne does it standard. Even mid-to-low range brands may highlight this on their list of quality features when selling suits or sports coats. Some people mistakenly believe they need to have working buttons put into their non-working sleeve cuffs, lest they are mistaken for a prole!

Working buttons on my sleeve. They still look nice buttoned! 
But I'm here to tell you that this is utter nonsense. You may think Land's End has a hell of a deal offering working sleeve buttons on their inexpensive sports coats, but in reality, a real buttonhole takes no more time by machine than a sham buttonhole. The only reason clothiers started offering them was because people thought it was a quality feature and it cost no more time and money. It also isn't much effort to adjust coat patterns to have a vented sleeve.

The biggest problem with working sleeve buttons is that, unless the sleeve length is pretty darn close to or exactly what it needs to be, they will make alterations difficult, costly, or impossible in some cases. One can shorten or lengthen the sleeve from the end maybe 1/4" to 3/8" before it starts looking a little bit off. So if you do purchase clothing with working sleeves, try it on with your best fitting shirt or make sure any online purchases come with a good return policy should it not work out.

In my opinion, the best sleeve option off the rack is unfinished. That is, there is a vented sleeve ready to be altered and have buttons put in. This lets a tailor not only adjust the sleeve length precisely to the wearer, but then put in no, sham, or real buttonholes according to preference. One can even specify the number of buttons they want. Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren all the way up to Tom Ford use this method. Putting all that aside, even some high-end clothing doesn't come with sleeves ready for working buttonholes. Canali, who merely has sham buttonholes on the sleeves, is a good example.

Even though I do it occasionally, it is by no means mandatory to unbutton the end of your sleeve in order to show that you're wearing a nice suit. That should come through in the superior fit, fabric, and construction. Many menswear purists understandably frown upon this practice, finding it showy or gaudy, and it should not be done during job interviews or with conservative dress codes.

Coats with pick-stitched lapels indicate better construction.

Ah, yes, pick-stitching. A classic detail for sure. The problem is, like the aforementioned working sleeve buttons, it is often used as a substitute for true quality.

Let's be clear here, pick-stitching in and of itself is not a bad thing. But more often than not it's done by machine these days, which is why even suits that cost $200 can have it. It used to be that the average suit would have a straight, unbroken machine stitch on the edges or 5/16" away from them if they had it at all. But with the advent of AMF Hand Stitching Machines, just about any clothier or tailor can add this detail cheaply and quickly. Some do it better than others, but a lot of lower priced or fashion brands will make it quite noticeable from a distance with wider stitches, contrasting colour, or larger thread, which is not preferable. Since the real purpose of pick-stitching is to keep the edge crisp, it should be as subtle as possible.

Nothing's going to replace handmade pick-stitching, however. Compare it on lower end clothing to those made by respected bespoke tailors or luxury clothiers like Brioni and one will notice the difference immediately. To be more accurate, you don't notice the stitching from a distance. It's worth noting that a regular topstitch is also perfectly acceptable.


High super numbers are always higher quality.

This is one that the clothing industry has got to stop confusing customers with. It leads to nothing but befuddlement and a false sense of value.

Roughly ten years ago, some people I knew would say things like, "Wool suit? Sounds hot and scratchy," upon learning the fabric content in my clothing. Some still associate "wool" with "itchy Christmas sweater". At some point, everyone became entranced by the high super numbers. By which I mean higher than Super 100's. It must be psychological.

The problem is, not all super wools are made equally. Super 140's fabric on a suit from Mantoni (a low priced brand) is not going to be equal to the Super 100's fabric on, say, a Zegna. All that the number refers to is how fine the wool fibres are. This does not account for other aspects that make a wool fabric good quality, such as wrinkle recovery. While Super 160's and 180's certainly won't tear like tissue paper as some have implied and will be super soft, they generally won't have the same wrinkle resistance or durability over time as a high quality 100's to 140's.

Long story short, do not confuse high super numbers with high quality, especially at lower prices. Be guided by the feel of the fabric, the reputation of the mill that makes it, and what you personally want from a suiting (such as for certain seasons or occasions) rather than an arbitrary grading process.

A pocket square should match the tie.

Brosnan's red square echoes the pink spots on the tie -- a subtle, stylish touch.
Wrong again, skipper! I am unsure as to the origins of this, but it may be due in part to the matching necktie and pocket square sets that were sold in many a department store throughout the latter half of the 20th century and are still sold to a smaller degree today. Sometimes they even include a shirt. It could also just be a mistaken notion that two fine silks in the outfit need to be the same cloth. In reality, having a pocket square precisely match the tie looks tacky, more often than not. Coordination is important in an outfit, but this is a case where too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing.

There are better ways to coordinate pocket squares to the rest of the outfit. For example, you could echo the light blue of your shirt with a royal blue square. Other methods include picking up colours from a patterned tie or merely "echoing" them. Matching the ground colour of a patterned tie is commonly done, but not very creative. Colourful, patterned pocket squares such as paisley need not have a match for every colour in them. Sometimes, just one or two is enough. In this case, it may be the tie that coordinates with a minor colour in the pattern instead of the other way around.

Of course, you can always resort to a white linen pocket square. It goes with almost anything (more on this below) and will be appropriate for most any occasion. Some believe they are only to be worn with white shirts, but unlike coloured pocket squares they're a neutral that can be worn with nearly any shirt or tie.

A pocket square makes an outfit more formal and needs to be worn with a tie.

It's easy to see where this bit of pocket square confusion comes from. After all, one most often sees them worn with black tie these days. It's not true, however. Pocket squares have been worn with sport coats and open necked shirts by well dressed people for a long, long time. The only caveat is that they should be chosen appropriately for the situation.

A puffed pocket square generally looks more relaxed and so it is a natural choice. The aforementioned white linen square is not completely infallible, especially when folded straight. It can look rather out of place on a tweed suit, for example, but a little more at home on a navy blazer with grey flannels. Pocket squares can make up for a lack of tie by adding a dash of colour or interest, so it's silly and limiting to think they must be worn with ties at all times. Patterned, multicolour pocket squares in particular can make a relaxed outfit look less drab. Silk is the obvious choice, but cotton or wool pocket squares should not be dismissed out of hand either.

Fused collars and cuffs on a shirt are a sign of poor quality.

Like many things, there is a good and a bad way to do it. Or, rather, there is a range of quality levels. I too used to think that fusing was automatically inferior. Not so. Just a matter of how it's used and the quality of the fusible interfacing.

While many shirts in the $300+ price range may use sewn interfacings instead of fused, this is merely a matter of choice on their part. It's what I personally prefer, given that they can be made as thick, stiff, or soft as desired, just like fusible. Fusible interfacing has perhaps gotten an unfair reputation given how unreliable it once was, plus its use in many inferior shirts where it comes unglued after a time. But the technology has gotten better over time and many bespoke shirtmakers have made use of it. A proper fusing machine and high quality fusible should ensure it does not come unglued from the shirt no matter how much it is washed, pressed, and worn. For example, Luigi Borrelli shirts make use of fused interfacing.

Moreover, fusible is best used when it does not directly contact the skin. The best fused collars actually have the fused part facing on the outside of the collar band, ensuring the collar does not collapse in front (which many fused collar bands are prone to doing) and is not itchy for the wearer. Some shirtmakers even use sewn interfacing for the collar band but fusible for the actual collar leaves. Cuffs can be made from fusible as well, though as with sewn interfacings a thinner and softer type should be used for double cuffs so they are not overly stiff when folded back. Bespoke shirtmakers are generally of the mind that no fused fabric should touch the wrists at all, however, so they'll use sewn interfacings for the cuffs even if the collar is fused. Of course, since fused single cuffs will not have the affected fabric touching the skin, they are exempt from this guideline.

Naturally, one is free to prefer sewn interfacings if they wish. But fusing is not in itself a bad thing, nor the mark of poor shirt necessarily.

Black shoes are never to be worn with a blue suit.

I worked with somebody else in menswear sales who kept telling his customers that they should wear brown shoes with a blue suit and never black. Curious, I asked him where he learned this odd rule. He replied that at his previous job, working for Men's Wearhouse, they had taught him that black shoes are to never be worn with any shade of blue including navy. I must admit to being a little confused. "Why is that?" I asked. He couldn't really tell me! But Men's Wearhouse, or perhaps this particular store, is hardly the only source to give such advice.

I've heard it cropping up anywhere from basic interview attire primers to wedding forums. I believe, like so many of these mistaken rules, that it started with someone's mere preference but exploded into dogmatic principle before long. During my time on two prominent menswear forums, there were a number of members who criticized black shoes regardless of the suit colour or situation they were for. Part of it may be a push back against wearing suits for business alone, as an increasing number of people wear them because they want to. A rather convincing argument is that brown shoes look more interesting, especially with factory burnishing or the patina they build up over time. Perhaps it is felt they better complement a blue suit because of it.

But to say black shoes are incorrect with blue suits is a step too far. Black shoes are a classic wardrobe component that pair with blue and grey suits just as white shirts do. If one prefers brown -- or any other colour -- shoes with blue suits, they may wear them at their leisure. But it should not be confused with being a hard and fast rule. After all, there are occasions where the seriousness of black shoes yet the bolder look of a blue suit is more appropriate.

A bespoke tailor is capable of or willing to make a suit in any style.

The unique pocket flaps and tri-color lapel hole are unusual features for Savile Row.
Ah, if only that were so. The truth of the matter is that bespoke tailors are like painters. They may be able to do a variety of different subjects, but ultimately you commission them for their style. A few bespoke tailors will do almost anything you ask of them. But they are rare. Some tailors won't even make body coats! (That is, full evening dress, morning coats, frock coats, and some military uniforms.) This is usually a regional thing, though, as many tailors outside of England do not know how.

Details like the number of buttons, single or double breasted, lapels, or vent style are not going to be hard coded. It's more along the lines of overall house cut. You would not ask Anderson & Sheppard, whose speciality is soft tailoring, to replicated the structured look of Kilgour any more than you'd ask Kerry James Marshall to paint in the style of Jackson Pollock. This is not unusual and hardly makes these tailors bad people, they just want to stick with what they're comfortable with and skilled in doing. You're better off going to the tailor whose style you want to begin with or, if price is a factor, someone who can do something close to what you like. Maurice Sedwell and Cifonelli are exceptions as two of the most flexible tailoring houses, but I'm sure there are certain details you cannot micromanage there either.

Research is your best friend here. Look at their work online, ask anyone who has used their services what their experience was like, and contact the tailors you're interested in ahead of time to ask questions. Make your appointments as fruitful as possible.


Thanks to Matt Spaiser for his suggestions in making this article.

Comments

  1. "After all, there are occasions where the seriousness of black shoes yet the bolder look of a blue suit is more appropriate."

    Such as...?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interviews, weddings, jobs that call for conservative business dress, events at night that fall just short of needing a dinner suit.

      Delete

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