By Alan Neff
When I was 14 and even tinier than I am today, my dad took me to Barney’s in New York. Then, Barney’s was a “men’s store” - not a clothier. Barney’s had salesmen as impatient and gruff as waiters at the Second Avenue Deli.
My father bought me a tweed suit with a herringbone pattern. Green with a darker green. It had narrow lapels and no trouser-cuffs – an era-appropriate “Mad Men” model. It didn’t make me look like Jon Hamm – nothing could – but it was sturdy and warm.
A bit too warm. When I clerked in New York in the summers between law school years, it wore like a mobile sweat lodge.
Decades later, the pants from that suit still hung in my closet, a link to my childhood and my dad. I went looking for them yesterday, but couldn’t find them. The pants are here somewhere, but I wish I knew what happened to the jacket, which went missing several years ago.
For a long time, about a decade, that armor-grade tweed was the only suit I owned. In the early days of my checkered professional career, I didn’t need another. I didn’t dress up enough.
The next suit I owned – the first lawyer suit that I bought – was a three-piece glen plaid with a red thread, medium lapels, and no cuffs. Unmemorable, but functional in all respects. For a reason I can’t quite grasp, I think it would have looked right with cowboy boots.
My second lawyer suit was, as my high-school chemistry teacher said, “a horse of a different garage”: a late-1970s, Bill Blass three-piece with no cuffs and lapels as wide as the Little Missouri River. It was approximately the same color as that watercourse, too – a light muddy brown.
I think it even had Blass’s logo “BB” on the buttons.
In its time, I could have worn it with platform shoes, with goldfish swimming in the lucite heels, and not many people would have raised an eyebrow. The fabric might have been a natural fiber blended with one or more synthetics; it got pilly late in its life.
My threshold point is not an original one: men’s workplace fashions change from era to era – perhaps not as much as women’s clothes, but they do change.
In traditional workplaces, men still wear suits and ties and lace-up shoes, sport jackets/blazers, slacks, and loafers, alternating that footwear with ankle-high hiking boots and overpriced athletic shoes in earth colors.
But - but – these clothes change: the lapels and ties widen and narrow, the trouser cuffs appear and disappear, the shirts brighten and darken, and the shoes go from brown to black to brown again. The fabrics and weaves change.
This secondary point about mutation leads to my primary one: wear what you enjoy, within the limits of what your office allows. If you wear what you like, you’ll feel comfortable in it. The more comfortable you feel, the more you’ll be able to relax and focus on the tasks at hand.
You don’t even have to pick a period and bind yourself to it. Because men’s traditional dress clothes seem to vary moderately from period to period, you can dress like Don Draper one day and Gordon Gekko the next, though I recommend going easy on the hair gel from either the 60s or 80s. Mind, I wouldn’t switch from Don to Gordon, but you can.
And, in case you’re curious – if I had to pick a period, it’s an easy choice. I’d kit myself out in men’s suits from the 1930s: wool three-piece suits with cuffed trousers and vests that button nearly to the neck. And, happily for me, it appears men wore button-down shirts. You can get a sense of men’s work-clothes here.