“[T]hough clothes do not necessarily make the man, they do, if becoming, make him confident and content.” - George Frazier
There’s no shortage of sartorial advice out there, and much of it is useless. I, for one, couldn’t care less if narrow lapels are out this season or which tweed is poised for a comeback. As with most matters related to clothing, men can rarely go wrong by sticking with the classics. So it’s only fitting that, from where I sit, the last word on men’s attire was written over half a century ago.
I’m talking about George Frazier’s essay “The Art of Wearing Clothes” from the September 1960 issue of Esquire. It’s not the breeziest piece of prose (the opening sentence clocks in at over a hundred words), and there is a bit more hero-worship in it than I’m comfortable with. Nevertheless, Frazier does sketch out a philosophy of style that’s worth living by. He does this by looking at some of the best-dressed men in history, and riffing on what, exactly, made them that way.
For American general A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr., Frazier points out that “the width of his trousers and coat lapels,” isn’t determined “by the extreme narrowness that is something of a rage these days, but by, respectively, the length of his foot and the breadth of his shoulders. He selects, in short, clothes that become him.”
I think about this every time I see a heavy-set creative-type wearing a skinny tie because some fashion editor issued a ban on wide neckwear. It never occurred to this guy that, against his 48-inch chest, a narrow tie looks like a piece of baker’s twine. He would have done a lot better to find clothes that fit and leave it at that, instead of trying so hard to impress. As Frazier writes, the best-dressed men “feel no urgency, as do less secure men, to be either obvious or extravagant.”
Frazier’s piece also gathers together some choice quotations on men’s clothing by everyone from Charles Dickens to F. Scott Fitzgerald. For instance, he attributes the following piece of wisdom to writer Finis Farr: “Well-dressed men know that nothing worth-while is ever outmoded . . .”
That’s not to say that a finely attired gentleman should never stand out or experiment. As we learn in the article, Fred Astaire once revealed that “I . . . like to wear things that others don’t. I rather enjoy fooling around with a new note here and there to see how it comes off.”
The insight from Frazier’s piece that most hits home for me is that, when it comes to thinking about clothing, men and women speak different languages. Frazier quotes Finis Farr as insisting that no woman “really knows anything about men’s clothes. How could she? After all, she’s conditioned to obsolescence, to the principle that things go out of fashion.” This line might get you in trouble with your wife or girlfriend, but it also goes to the heart of how a man ought to think about clothes.
After all, for men, the best clothes only get better with age. As Frazier sees it, “it is a fact that old clothes — provided, of course, that they are of the highest quality — have become molded to one’s body, which is why no first-rate tailor considers his job completed until he has altered certain minor shortcomings that become apparent only after a customer has worn a suit a half-dozen-or-so times.”
There’s plenty of more in the piece, so I recommend reading it all the way through. But what I take away from it is this: a man’s clothes should be few, well-chosen, and, of course, well-made. They also need to fit -- in every sense of that word. It’s you whose wearing your clothes, remember, not the other way around.
If you’re looking for guidance that’s more specific, you’ve missed the point. To steal from Frazier’s title, wearing clothes is an art. And, as any musician or painter or writer can tell you, when it comes to art, there are no absolute rules.