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.
|More and Less Formal Wool|
More and Less Formal Cotton
(left to right, top to bottom)
|More and Less formal|
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.