Mastering Modern Men's Fashion
Why Fashion Matters
especially for guys
For a long time, the most common trope about guys and fashion is that, with a few notable exceptions, men aren't expected to know much about fashion. Styling outfits, picking out clothes, and knowing what colors and patterns match have been largely omitted from the life lessons guys pick up on. Women and caricatures of gay men are shown to understand these concepts, but for the bumbling straight man, they're a mystery.
But that's not really the case any more. Nor should it be.
Now, we're seeing more and more that expectations are changing. While the realm of fashion still retains more of a feminine connotation, it's becoming clear that men of all walks of life are expected to at least be aware of the basics, and for good reason.
In an age of self-expression, fashion is taking on a new identity. For most of Western History, fashion has been a tool for distinguishing and preserving social status, but, while it is still an industry that's negatively influenced by racism and classism, we're starting to see consumers approach fashion from a new standpoint.
No longer is fashion a way to conform to the norm–– it's now a way to break away from the norm. While women's fashion still gets the most attention, men's fashion isn't an exception to being a prominent form of self-expression, a powerful medium for making political statements, and a weapon for dismantling archaic power structures.
Fashion is about more than making a good impression during a job interview or on a date (though it's important for those things too). It's as rebellious, impactful, influential, and exciting as any other medium of art.
Out With the Old
fashion's role in reinforcing white supremacy
As with any other cultural artifact, fashion changes and evolves over time. It's influenced by everything from politics to religion, available natural resources to the global economy. Textiles, colors, patterns, styles, and brands circulate in and out of popularity at rapid rates.
And yet, in spite of fashion's seemingly constant turbulence, one thing that has remained true about it is that it has consistently been used as a tool for social control. The set of expectations for how men and women should dress are typically rooted, in the United States at least, in the values of white, middle and upper-middle class communities.
Even as the twentieth century progressed and styles became more form fitting and colorful, the standards of men's fashion still perpetuated a core set of ideas about men and masculinity. Dressing according to the conventions of the time is one way to set oneself up as part of the in-crowd, and those who venture outside of those lines are easily identified as being part of the "other." Clothes, rather consistently throughout history, have been used as a way to assert one's dominance– sexually, financially, racially– over others, and the conventions of men's fashion in the United States are no exception.
While looking at a mustard turtleneck and high-waisted slacks from 1965 may not seem to be a weapon of dominance, looking at the ways in which the fashion standards compare to the exceptions of the time paints a clearer picture. For example, at the same time that the monochromatic mustard look worn by the model in the video was at its peak popularity, counter-culture fashion was also hitting a cultural peak in the form of hippies. One look, though a vast departure from the looks before it, became a sign of comfort and normalcy for the white middle class and became solidified in cultural history as the look of the time. The other, though vastly common, became a trope of about free-spirited do-nothings, too high and busy engaging in orgies to be a productive part of society, even though that was far from the case for most hippies.
The differences between being in fashion and being "other" get even more drastic as race and class are considered. This is still something we're seeing play out today. Schools and businesses alike are, somehow, still frequently vilifying ethnic hairstyles as being "unprofessional" or "distracting" simply because they do not conform to white, middle-class expectations. Similarly, men who can't afford a well-tailored, high-end suit and have to rely on second-hand clothing or hand-me-downs are more likely to be overlooked for employment and social opportunities than their expensively dressed counterparts. In situations like these, individual merit rarely plays as much of a factor as assumptions about class and race that are made based upon the way one dresses. While things may be improving somewhat as the next generation of managers is becoming more concerned about issues like cultural appropriation, racial inequality, and individuality, these expectations to conform to middle-class, white values are still quite strongly at play.
And yet, in spite of common expectations for minority and low income communities to conform to the fashions of the time, it was the refusal to do so that drove fashion and culture forward.
Breaking the Mold
how counter cultures, minorities, and rebels use fashion to change the world
While the push to conform to fashion standards is exceptionally strong, with the economy and social opportunities used as leverage to reinforce them, many either refused to accept these standards or actively worked to undermine them. For example, in the face of racial segregation, the African American community carved out its own unique cultural flair and styles of fashion that represented their experiences. As culture progressed and racial segregation became a weaker cultural institution, the African American community has retained its own sense of style, which is now one of the driving forces behind the evolution of fashion in the west. Prominent African American men– such as Idris Elba, Pharrell Williams, A$AP Rocky, and even President Barack Obama– are at the forefront of setting the standard for men's fashion. Elba and Obama present modern takes on classic looks while Williams and Rocky wear experimental and innovative outfits as casually as if they were just jeans and t-shirts.
And the African American community isn't alone in using their lived experiences to drive fashion forward. The queer community is also a great example of this, especially the ball scene of the 80s and the emergence of the Club Kids.
Shunned by much of society, and often by their own families, queer people found safety within their own community. Within their community, new traditions and practices arose, such as the underground balls in New York City, as featured in Paris is Burning. The birth place of vogueing, reading, and kiki-ing (among other traditions that are alive and well today), these balls were not only a safe form of entertainment for queer people, but they also served as the catalyst for exciting advancements in fashion. Ball-goers often sought to emulate the fashions and lifestyle of the wealthy elite, but did so in a way that was uniquely queer, blurring the lines of gender and class.
Out of this rich cultural environment came several of the most important shifts in queer culture and fashion including an embracing of androgyny and emphasis on glam. Fast forward to today, and while queer nightlife has become more mainstream amidst the growing public acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, it still maintains a reputation for pushing the boundaries of fashion and challenging common expectations of gender. It's also a key source of inspiration for many high end fashion brands and influencers alike, moving mens fashion as a whole away from classically masculine silhouettes.
From Prince to Kurt Cobain to Jaden Smith to Kanye, rebels and trendsetters have embraced alternative approaches to fashion and masculinity as a means of self-expression that ultimately became the way that they defined their brand.
The outliers– the groups not invited to the table with the "trends of the time"– drive the conversation around fashion forward by challenging conventions and demanding more out of the clothes on their backs than just to fit in. They use fashion as a way to carve out and declare their space in society.
The Future of Mens Fashion
It would be foolish to say that glancing at the outfits of today's fashion influencers is a good way to gauge the direction of men's fashion for the future. As personal as fashion is, it's also a highly reactive system. One thing comes into fashion as quickly as something else goes out of fashion, and public opinion can shift faster than a Lambo in a drag race. So, at BlakeWrites, we're not going to make guarantees about the outfits you can expect to see on models and shelves five years from now.
What we can do however is speculate at the general trends we're likely to see playing out soon.
Throughout the history of men's fashion, we see styles fluctuating from being form-fitting to being loose. The waist-defining high pants and tight shirts of the 1970s became looser and looser until the 1990s brought us a plethora of drop-crotched, billowing jeans and polyester shirts. Since then, clothes have rebounded a bit, trending toward tighter fits. Skinny jeans are having a heyday, and muscle shirts are a wardrobe must-have.
If the trend is to repeat itself, we're likely to see outfits getting a bit looser. While it's unlikely that we're going to get back to anything like the outfits of the 1990s (please, for all that is good and holy, do not try to resurrect 1990s style), it's safe to assume that outfits are going to be less form fitting.
In fact, we're already starting to see this trend play out in the rise of streetwear and certain trends in Northern European fashion.
The rise in popularity of pieces like drop crotch joggers and oversized shirts suggest that we're likely to see more outfits like these. Rather than letting go of tailored clothing completely for daily wear, as we did during the 1990s, it seems safe to say that we can more trends that mix and match loose cuts with tighter fits. Skinny jeans and oversized shirts, relaxed joggers with muscle tees, or prep shorts with chunky sweaters are all likely to become mainstays on the streets for a while.
Patterns and Accessories
In general, men's fashion tends to be dominated by solid colors, the vast majority of which are either blue, grey, black, or white. Thankfully, we can expect to see some more variation. Solid-colored button ups aren't going anywhere any time soon, nor should they, but stripes, paisley, florals, and color-blocked shirts are definitely on their way in.
Wearing a pattered shirt with bold colors can take some getting used to if you're a plain blue button up kind of guy. You've got to have confidence and be willing to be the center of attention to pull them off. But, once you get used to it, it's worth it. Colors and patters are a great way to stand out, which can open doors for you to network or make new connections.
Your outfits can then be further elevated by incorporating accessories, such as necklaces, collar tips, or piercings.
Perhaps the biggest trend still-to-come in fashion is the swing towards ethical consumption; mission-driven fashion is on the rise.
Consumers are beginning to shift their money toward the clothing companies that best align with their personal values. Conversations about slave labor in the fashion industry are becoming more and more common. Brands, such as Patagonia, are using their products and platforms to respond to issues like climate change. Similarly, Tom's Shoes built their platform on addressing global poverty. In response of race-based violence, designers like Kerby Jean-Raymond, of Pyer Moss, brought the message of Black Lives Matter to the runway during New York Fashion Week.
Clothes are a platform for promoting one's message, whether political or personal, and it's likely to continue.
Mastering the Basics of Fashion
Since fashion is ever-changing, it can be hard to keep track of what's in and what's out. Your go-to outfit one day may be cringe-worthy the next.
That's why we recommend that guys be aware of current fashion trends, but not obsessed with following them perfectly. No matter what drifts in and out of favor in the world of fashion, understanding the basics of silhouette, fit, and balance are going to allow you to put together great outfits each and every time you open your closet doors.
Silhouette refers to the overall shape of your outfit. Rather than looking at the specific styling of each piece individually, the silhouette is the combined look of everything together. Usually, you're silhouette is a very clear indicator of the type of outfit that you're wearing. For example, when you see a man wearing a suit, it's very clear that he is dressed formally. The top and bottom halves of the outfit flow together seamlessly, creating a specific impression of the outfit as a whole.
When you're planning an outfit, thinking about the silhouette is your way of figuring out what the big picture of your look is. Are you going for something classic and timeless? Or are you going for something a bit edgier and modern? From your hair to your shoes, you're constructing a specific silhouette.
You can think of your silhouette as sort of the theme of your outfit. If everything goes together and makes sense to be worn together, you're going to have a silhouette that works. If you have pieces that look great individually, but for some reason don't work well when put together, the issue you're most likely encountering is that the silhouette doesn't make sense. This happens all the time with guys, especially if there are certain jackets, shoes, belts, or other pieces that they love to wear a little too much. Things get mixed and matched until the outfit lacks harmony and creates a confusing silhouette.
Fit is the principle of fashion that guys tend to be most aware of. To put it simply, fit asks how well a piece of clothing fits to your body. Though it's the most familiar fashion principle for many, the difficult part of understanding fit is that it is the most variable depending upon fashion trends. As mentioned in our predictions for the future of men's fashion, clothing styles tend to follow a pattern of fluctuating between form-fitting styles and loose, baggy styles.
That being said, there are a few key aspects of fit that are always relevant: proportion and tailoring.
Proportion is tricky at first, but a must for enduring the wavering of fashion trends over time. Whether we're in an era of skinny jeans or shirts the shape of 30 gallon trash bags, there's a right way and a wrong way to wear each piece of clothing. For example, when you're wearing skinny jeans, it's important that the tapering of the calves is proportional to the tapering of the thighs, and that the rise of the waist makes sense. If one of these measures is off, you're going to look like you've been poured into your skinny jeans, but they were overfilled and had to flow over. Another example of common issues with proportion is in the trend of men wearing capris/ high-waters. A capri should intentionally taper to a hemmed end above the ankle. This is not the same look as "I bought regular jeans but they shrank in the wash." Full-length jeans lack the intentional proportions of capris, which is why they don't work as well for this particular look.
Tailoring gets a bad rap for many guys because of the implication that you're going to have to spend hundreds of dollars on clothing alterations. This isn't always the case.
Instead, we should think of tailoring more broadly, and as an extension of proper proportions. A piece of clothing that fits at each part of your body is one that is well-tailored. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to think of that shirt we've all had that just didn't fit quite right. Maybe it looked great around the waist, but was too narrow in the shoulders, making it difficult for us to extend our arms in front of us. Maybe you couldn't lift your arms without exposing your navel. Maybe it looked great in the shoulders and arms, but squeezed your stomach and made you self-conscious. In each of these situations, the tailoring of the piece is off.
If you're going to take your fashion skills to being truly next level, we recommend owning a cloth tape measure, and taking your measurements annually. Knowing how many inches you need for your neck, shoulders, chest, waist, and inseam is going to make your life a lot easier– especially if you've noticed that the same size clothes fit you differently across brands. If you have a little extra cash to spend, you can also have your measurements taken professionally, and can even commission custom clothing that's made to your body shape. But, remember: you don't have to spend major cash to look good. Ever. Whether you're shopping at a couture atelier or Goodwill, knowing your measurements will help you put together a better outfit.
Fashion, much like Buddhism, should seek to walk the middle path. Avant-garde runway looks are one thing, but for daily wear, it's important to keep your outfits balanced. This applies to color, shape, and even textures.
Balancing color is something that most people think of as simply matching. For example, it's a well-known fashion rule that one shouldn't wear plaid with stripes, or that green and red clash unless you're wearing a gimmicky Christmas outfit. But having balanced color in your outfit goes beyond that. It also includes knowing how and when to add a pop of color to accent an outfit, and how to match colors to your skin tone.
As I mentioned before, we're likely to see a lot more color and patterns in men's clothing in the near future. With those outfits, try to limit your bold patterns to one piece of clothing per outfit. For example, a paisley shirt is best paired with solid pants. In the same vein, a studded red leather jacket with fringe should be paired with solid, matching pants and shirt. On the flip side, if you're wearing a monochromatic look, try to integrate a pop of a complementary color with an accessory such as a tie, pocket square, scarf, or your shoes. Taking this kind of approach with your colors is going to keep your outfit from becoming too much of one specific thing.
Even the least fashion-conscious guys can match the colors in their outfit, but they may overlook matching clothes to their skin tone. Dark complected African American men, for example, can use the deep richness of their skin tones to make bright colors stand out vibrantly; especially blue jewel tones and white. On the flip side, those of us who are quite pale can achieve a similar effect with darker colors, such as navy blue or plum.
Balance also extends to the way that the shape of your body pairs with the silhouette of your outfit. If you have broad shoulders and a broad chest, and are generally heavier up top, then layering shirts with sweaters, jackets, and scarves is going to make you look like Johnny Bravo. Similarly, guys who carry their weight around their waist or hip area should add volume to their shoulders rather than their mid section.
Textures are also great to balance out when planning your outfit. Adding a splash of (p)leather paired with cotton can give a soft outfit a bit of an edgier look. Similarly, if you're wearing a silk shirt and don't want to look like you're wearing pajamas, cotton or poly blends will make the most sense for your bottoms. If you have something with fringe, studs, or shimmer, keep it to one or two pieces at a time, and make sure it's broken up with something solid and standard.
Our Fashion Philosophy
At BlakeWrites, we believe that fashion is a tool for expression, and that it shouldn't be something only enjoyed by the wealthy and physically fit. All bodies, skin tones, and ethnicities can use fashion to affirm their identity and live out their truth. It doesn't have to break the bank, and secondhand clothing is as fashionable as exclusive designers.
In short: guys are free to dress as they want, and can learn to use clothing to be happier people. And we want to help them do that.
Get to know the author.
He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.