This is Part II of my new series “How to Think About Style”, a weekly serial written with the purpose of helping you develop an authentic personal style. My goal: supply you with the framework necessary to express your personality through fashion.
In the last installment of this series, we discussed clothing fit, the single most fundamental element of building personal style. This week, we’ll unpack a concept that isn’t foundational to developing your style framework. Well, unless you’d like the end result to be taken seriously.
“Context” describes the way your fashion choices interact with – and are amplified by - both your environment and the rest of your outfit. In the same way that understanding fit helps you internally develop your personal style, understanding context will help develop how others perceive that style. It’s the classic “office email” paradox: how do you authentically express yourself if you’re acting for the benefit of other people? Turns out, it’s pretty easy. It just takes thought.
At its root, context is consideration. The target of your consideration is twofold: what your peers expect, and what they’d actively reject. These upper/lower bounds set the dimensions for one specific opportunity to express your personal style. Every individual clothing choice you make (from your shoes to your tie to your python-skin snapback) will have to play within these boundaries, or the effect is lost.
My favorite example of context in action is the fall college recruiting season. For many, this is their big shot at the dream internship that will likely translate to a full-time offer. With the stakes this high, the bell-curve of what hundreds of undergrads think constitutes “business casual” is worryingly broad. A single career fair line will range from polo shirts (gasp!) to three-piece suits (groan).
Here’s the fun part: the examples above are viable given the right environmental context.
If you’re applying for product dev at a tech startup, showing up in a suit would likely be rejected by your peers. However, something that recognizes you put effort forwards in a non-traditional way makes you just “one of the guys.” By the same notion, Goldman would laugh you out of line if you even wore short sleeves. And as long as that clothing itself fits, your effort to make it fit a certain context will be rewarded with a positive reaction from the intended party. Remember: it's harder to change your environment than your trousers.
For a vast, vast majority, a simple knowledge of environmental context will satisfy their “consideration” process and deliver a desired productive result. That vast majority also never develops a personal style. The truth is, there’s a wealth of contextual consideration that lies within your outfit – and it is this second sort that allows your personal style to show in even the most rigid environmental contexts.
That is why I consider both aspects of context crucially important to building a personal style. Empathy without personality turns you into a mouthpiece of others rather than a self-reliant individual. In other words: a parrot.
Context considerations within outfits are a function of dozens of different variables, each more dizzyingly arcane than the last. However, these added dimensions only further refine the style you present. Of course, there are diminishing returns: by considering enough intraoutfit factors, you could theoretically nitpick any outfit back onto the hanger. For simplicity, I tend to cut it off at the following five:
1. Material. Whether it’s historical familiarity or objective aesthetic qualities (ex. drape, sheen, etc.) playing a determining role, certain material combinations just work better than others. To paint in broad strokes: think organic vs. synthetic. If you’re wearing all cotton, a high-tech nylon sneaker tends to look out of place whereas a traditional suede runner looks right at home. Ditto goes for spandex yoga pants and leather tennis shoes. This is #1 for a reason: it is both the most commonly-flouted fashion advice and also the easiest to adapt. Extreme examples include your cousin who wore running shoes and a dress shirt to graduation.
2. Gauge. The finer a fabric, the more formal it is perceived. The opposite is true with thicker weaves. This is as close as the fashion world gets to a universal principle: across material, fabric, and environment, higher thread count implies formality. Just think about the sort of sweater you’d wear to a Christmas party vs. a gallery opening. If you’re dressing casually, stick to broader weaves like oxford cloth and cotton jersey. They make you look more nonchalant and less fussy, even if you just read a whole paragraph learning about fabric gauge.
3. Detailing. On casual clothes, detailing can take an infinite number of forms. As a general rule, details are like colors: unless you’re Alessandro Michele of Gucci, quality over quantity. Make sure a motif introduced through a clothing detail is reflected in the rest of the outfit, or you’ll lose the effect and just look sloppy (ex. distressed denim with a spotless fine-weave dress shirt, a single zipper that for some reason is now cool to include on shirt hems with literally no other zippers anywhere else). Use them scarcely and intentionally or else you’ll muddle the effect. Perhaps worse: you’ll be forced to buy a motorcycle to vindicate your moto denim. If done right, however, the effect is immaculate.
On formal clothing, however, the details are more environmentally-dependent and should be tailored to an event’s dress code. For example, on a scale from officewear to black tie, button-down collars are considered more casual than spread collars than classic collars than wing/tuxedo collars. The same principle applies to button cuffs vs. French cuffs.
4. Lines. Lay a garment down and look at the arrangement of seams, lines, and details. You’ll likely notice a number of aligned features – a pocket parallel to a seam here, a placket with exposed stitching on both sides there. Each alignment creates what’s called an “implied line.” There’s nothing physically drawn to connect the two, but your mind sees them as related since they’re neatly in line.
Returning to my broad strokes to extend this art/drawing metaphor: the more implied lines a garment has, the more busy (and therefore more casual) it appears. Extreme examples include Biggie’s notorious Coogi sweater and Junya Watanabe’s famous patchwork denim. If you crave minimalist clothing with few implied lines, look up Scandinavian fashion brands like Norse Projects, Eytys, CMMN SWDN, and L’Homme Rouge. Northern Europe is allergic to excess.
5. Brand. As much as the Soc 102 student in all of us desperately grovels that “brands don’t matter,” they simply do. It’s not a specifically-modern condition, either – the world’s first true “brands” date as far back as 1 A.D. In the two millennia since, visual markings used to imbue a product with storytelling (then charge a premium for it) have only become more widespread. That storytelling bit is important: in many ways, what you’re doing through developing a personal style is finding a way to authentically express yourself to the world. And if you're going to tell the world a story about yourself, it goes without saying that you probably want that story to make sense.
That doesn’t mean you have to leave the house a walking billboard – more that you should try to keep multiple visibly-branded pieces in the same outfit remotely related. Brands alone won't carry the day, but if you heed the above advice, this is a final cherry on top.
In layman's terms: if you’re going to rock a Swoosh logo crewneck, it’d be wise to build the effect by choosing shoes from another design-driven performance brand. Sperry and Adidas have as much in common as, well… Y-3 and boat shoes. (Note: this only applies to visibly-branded pieces. If the garment is unbranded, just think about the other context lessons and go from there. Ex. one of my favorite techwear fits of all times pulls in a Gap hoodie.)
We’ll cover color palettes and variations in a future post, so for now, just focus on the structural variations above. Keeping these 5 considerations in mind as you assemble outfits will only make the final product that much stronger. While these may seem unnecessary and esoteric, just remember the words of your elementary English teacher: in real life, spelling counts. Details matter; ergo, do the details. Only then will you truly reap the rewards.
Hopefully this post has left you with a more thorough understanding of outfit context, both environmental and internal alike. As opposed to last time’s discussion of fit, this article tended to lean towards the relative while still emphasizing some supposedly-objective rules, especially in the last section. While it may seem contradictory to build a case against hard-coded contexts in one breath only to give you definite rules in the next, I’ll leave you with the following guidance:
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Fashion rules aren’t Newtonian physics – more like generally-accepted suggestions that dictate most behavior surrounding contexts. If you didn’t first learn about material combinations and dress codes, your modifications to these rules would push the envelope too far and face rejection. Instead, armed with knowledge, you’re now able to riff on – rather than shatter - established fashion choices. In other words, tastefully and authentically display your personal style without being dismissed by your peers for doing so. How many parrots can do that?
As always, thank you for reading. If you have comments or feedback, feel free to leave them below or on my Facebook page here. Next time, we'll cover color palettes, and why playing with matches may still burn you. Of course, if you'd like a refresher on the series so far, click here to check out Part I: How Clothing Fits.