Nuances of Formality in Professional Attire

I. Introduction

Most men live within the range of Professional and Private Clothes, with anything more formal being entirely ceremonial if not irrelevant.  If this is true for you, it is still important to correctly calibrate the formality of what you are wearing at these lower levels to avoid social awkwardness.  Here are some different factors that affect the formality of any outfit you put on.

II. Elements

More and Less Formal Wool
More and Less Formal Cotton
(left to right, top to bottom)
CLOTH.  At the bottom of Professional Clothes is cotton.  Up a bit from cotton is, for warm weather, linen.  Higher yet are wool and other animal fibers like cashmere and alpaca.  Then come silks, brocades and others that are rarely found in Professional Clothes (except for details like ties and pocket squares).  Cotton and wool are the two dominant natural fibers in American men's clothing, and not all cotton is the same, nor is all wool.  A weave is generally more formal than a knit.  Also, the finer and smoother the weave or knit, the more formal it is.  The rougher, courser or more textured, the more casual.  This textural principle of smoother being more formal holds true for all elements of an ensemble.

More and Less formal
COATS.  Structured ones, those with lining and padding, are more formal than unstructured coats.  Peak lapels are more formal than notch lapels.  Following the textural principle, cleaner construction is more formal than more obvious construction, i.e., patch pockets, conspicuous stitching, back detailing (like a self-belt or pleats) etc. make a coat less formal.

SHIRTS.  One with a collar is more formal than one without.  One with a placket and buttons is more formal than one without.  One that requires ironing is more formal than one that does not.  A point or spread collar is more formal than a button-down.  French cuffs are more formal than barrel, and cuff links are more formal than knots.  Solid white is most formal.  Long sleeves are more formal than short.

TIES.  The smoother and more lustrous the fabric the more formal, while matte textures are less formal.  Knit ties are more casual than woven ties.   Cotton and linen are more casual than silk as is wool.  Bow ties are less expected and thus generally less formal in Professional Clothes, though they are obviously the traditional and correct choice for Formal Evening Clothes.

TROUSERS.  Those cut like jeans are more casual than those cut like suit pants.  Being well-pressed or ironed with a sharp crease makes a pair of trousers more formal.  Cuffs or turn-ups do not necessarily make trousers more casual within the Professional tier, though they should be avoided with both Day and Evening Formal Clothes.  Obviously, long pants are more formal than shorts.

SOCKS.  As with everything else, the finer the fabric and more conservative the color and pattern, the more formal.  The more sheer, the more formal, though you really do not want anything too sheer within the Professional tier.

SHOES.  Black is the most formal color, with colors getting more casual the lighter or more unnatural they get.  As with coats, the cleaner the construction, the more formal a shoe is (though wholecut shoes violate the 9/10ths principle described below).  Thus, simple cap-toes are more formal than fully brogued wingtips.  Closed-throat construction (as on Oxfords, photo to the left) is more formal than open-throat (as on Derbies, photo to the right).  Leather soles are more formal than rubber.  Leather uppers are more formal than whatever other shoes are made of.  Calfskin is more formal than suede.  Laced shoes are more formal than slip-ons, with monks somewhere in between, and bar lacing is more formal than crossed.

COLOR IN GENERAL.  The more conservative (muted and traditional for the occasion) a color is, the more formal, with darker being more formal than lighter (except with dress shirts).  The fewer the colors in the overall ensemble the more conservative.  For example, a navy suit with navy socks, black shoes and belt, a white shirt and pocket square, and a burgundy tie is more formal than a loden green sports coat, tan trousers, light blue shirt, yellow socks, brown shoes and belt, rust tie, and yellow pocket square.

PATTERN IN GENERAL.  Just as with color, the more conservative (small scale involving a minimum number of colors) the more formal, with no pattern, or solid, being the most formal of all.  If you take the navy suit described above for colors, a windowpaned version would be more casual than a solid.  In the case of the other outfit described above (with the loden coat), the more pattern you add into it, and the louder those patterns, the more casual it would become.  An outfit where every element is patterned should only be attempted by the most skillful dressers.  On a related note, any writing, images, or logos automatically drop a garment significantly in formality.  Logoed and legible clothes should only be worn as Private Clothes (i.e., for sports and play), if at all.

III. Other Considerations

THE 9/10ths PRINCIPLE.  Because professional clothes are actually lower down on the traditional ladder of formality, the most conservative professional standards generally follow what I call the 9/10ths Principle.  This means that these items take any of the above principles almost all of the way, but then pull back a little.  For example, according to the principles given above, the most formal suit is solid and black.  But this very high formality is only appropriate for evening wear or funerals.  A professional suit works better with just the slightest bit of color – charcoal or navy – and the slightest bit of pattern, like a very light stripe or sharkskin.  Thus it goes almost to the extreme end of the scale of formality, but then is pulled back just a bit.

OVERALL PRESENTATION.  A buttoned suit or sports coat is more formal than an unbuttoned one.  A tucked in shirt is more formal than one that is not.  A well knotted tie cinched up in place is more formal than a loosened one.  Rolled or pushed up sleeves or pant legs are more casual than not.  Layers add formality as do ties.  An outfit you wear to work can be instantly made more casual by removing your coat and tie and rolling up your sleeves.  Similarly, a conservatively colored, solid coat and tie kept at work will help in a pinch to dress up any outfit that already features real shoes and a reasonably dressy shirt and trousers.

SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS.  In general, looks trendier or more out-of-style than the average of everyone around you are less formal to the degree that they are unusual, even if they are otherwise quite formal.  Formality is best satisfied by shocking no one and meeting everyone's expectations, by presenting the form expected for the occasion, whether that is a suit or a t-shirt.  Thus, even though elements like cuff links, good watches, double-breasted coats, waistcoats, and other elements raise the formality in many contexts, in those where they are unexpected and unusual, they can take you right past formal and into showy - something you generally want to avoid unless peacocking is a conscious element of your life strategy.  If you wear a dinner jacket to a dinner where no one else does, you will clash with the occasion just as much as you would if you did not wear black tie to a dinner where the other men are.  As always, knowing the culture of your context and working respectfully within it is your best guide.

When formality is looked at on this more nuanced level of detail, it is not simply a linear hierarchy, but a complex network.  With a given outfit, you could amp up the color or pattern in one element to make it more casual.  You could counter-balance this by making a different aspect or two more formal by playing with texture and material.  If calibrated correctly, the tension between more formal and more casual items is exciting and a source of interest in an outfit.  Sometimes it is too much and destroys the look: like sneakers (I do not care how expensive) with a dinner jacket.  This helpful thread by the man who provides us with Voxsartoria offers important guidelines on the coordination of formality across elements.

Publications to Read


Conservative Primers with Many Pictures:

These will help you understand the most stable conventions and traditions in menswear with plentiful pictures to help you instantly visualize what is discussed.

Dressing the Man, Alan Flusser
Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion, Bernhard Roetzel

Trendier Publications:
On newsstands twice a year (fall and spring), these will help you know what is in style for the current season, knowledge you should combine with the information from the more conservative books.

Esquire: Big Black Book

GQ Style: What to Wear Now


Conservative Books with Few or No Pictures:
Though very informative, these are best read once you are very familiar with the names of the various garments of men's style - or with the internet in front of you to search for images - as there are not enough pictures to help you visualize what is being discussed. They will help you understand further traditional guidelines, standards of taste, and origins of conventions in men's style.

Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear, G. Bruce Boyer
The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style, Nicholas Antongiavanni

Though including many helpful images, the first is very text heavy, giving a wealth of detail on historical development. The second book is mostly just images.

American Menswear: From the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century, Daniel Delis Hill
One Hundred Years of Menswear, Cally Blackman

For further suggestions, consult Gentleman's Gazette's list of 100 Books.

Comments and Questions Welcome