Real People: Reconsidering Black Shoes

Although black shoes have always been considered de rigueur for traditional men’s suiting, they haven’t always been well loved. It might be because black doesn’t take on the same rich, deep patina that browns can develop – with those multiple layers of polish and well-worn creases – or because of the influence of Southern Italian style in the last decade or two, where many men favor more casual colors. Or maybe, as Pete suggested last year, it’s because the passing from black to brown has become something like a rite of passage for style conscious men, as they ditch their duck billed black shoes for sleeker shaped brown ones.

Whatever the reason, sometimes I think we’re missing out on something truly good by neglecting all black footwear. Particularly black oxfords, which seemingly everyone has at least one pair in the closet, but never actually wears. 

Check out Paul from Luxembourg above, for example. With a mid-grey suit such as this one, you can wear either dark brown or black shoes (check out Jesse’s review of suits and footwear at the end of our Milan episode). With brown footwear, particularly in the suede double monks you see here, the suit feels a little more casual. With black footwear, it suddenly transforms to something more modern, sleek, and even authoritative. You can also get a sense of different “temperatures” from the two ensembles. The brown suede shoes give a warmer vibe to the suit, while the black shoes make the suit feel colder.

Neither are better or worse, and certainly Paul looks great in both, but I particularly like the black oxfords in this case. Perhaps more British in style than Italian, but it’s been a popular choice there for good reason.  

Spring’s Blues

Charcoal grays, deep navys, and dark browns work well in the fall and winter months, but spring and summer provide an excellent opportunity to wear lighter colors. My favorites include the various shades of mid-blues you see above. These include French blue (which used to be common in men’s dress shirts), slate blue (a powdery color), and Air Force blue (a pure blue that’s similar to the color of the sky on a clear day). With a tailored jacket in one of these colors, you can have a great sport coat to wear with cream or tan trousers. With a suit, you have something smart for social occasions. 

The only trick here is to wear the right shirt. With certain shades, you can wear a light blue shirt, but once the jacket’s color is light enough, you’ll want to use a white or ecru shirt in order to ensure there’s enough contrast. 

Unfortunately, sport coats and suits in these colors aren’t easy to find. The most affordable ones might be at J. Crew and Suit Supply. The styling on Suit Supply’s website is really fashion forward, but the garments themselves are often much more classic looking than their site suggests. There’s also this really nice Camoshita suit at No Man Walks Alone. The price is expensive, but the store is having a sale this week on all their Japanese brands (which includes Camoshita). You can take 20% off with the code BLOSSOM and see how Camoshita’s jackets fit here, as they’re modeled on Kyle (a No Man Walks Alone employee).

Of course, the color works just as well in non-tailored clothing. If you’d like something more casual, try knitwear. Inis Meain has a fantastic (albeit expensive) one made from linen. Their linen yarns are unique in that they have a subtle “bounce back” quality to them. Like wool, this helps their sweaters retain their original shapes, and makes the fabrics feel like they have a bit more “life” to them (as they’re not just hanging limply on your body). More affordably, Brooks Brothers has a Saxxon wool sweater in deep teal, while Howard Yount has some lambswool sweaters in brighter blues.  

(Photos via Milstil, The Sartorialist, and Tommy Ton)

Real People: Dressing Down a Suit

Open any men’s fashion magazine nowadays and you can read about the 101 ways to dress down a suit. The problem is, the suit is more often than not a sober looking garment, so when you try to “dress it down,” it can be like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. A safer way to dress down a suit is to simply get a more casual suit. Instead of one made from a smooth, worsted wool, try something in cotton, linen, corduroy, or even tweed. That way, your suit is inherently more casual, and you won’t have to awkwardly try to pull back its formality with some unusual accessory.

That does require buying a separate suit for casual occasions, however, which can get expensive (especially once you factor in seasonal fabrics). If you want to try to dress down a standard business suit, try pairing one with a softly colored pastel shirt, perhaps something in pink, lavender, or sea green. Any of those will be more casual than your standard solid whites or light blues, and can help both soften the edge of a suit while also enlivening its look. If need be, you can dress it down further with some casual footwear, such as tassel loafers or something made from suede. Our friend Niyi in New York City shows how well can look above.

You can get pastel colored shirts at any number of places these days. Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers are good starts, so long as you stay away from the ones with embroidered logos. Our advertiser Ledbury has a lime green one in their “short run shirts” section until the end of today. If you want something custom made, I can recommend Ascot Chang. They have offices in New York City and Los Angeles, although they also tour throughout the United States to meet clients (I meet them in San Francisco twice a year). They do great work, but being bespoke, they are a bit pricey. For something more affordable, but custom, there’s Cottonwork and our advertiser Proper Cloth. For something affordable, but ready to wear, there’s TM Lewin and Thin Red Line.

A Shade Lighter

I’m a big believer in dressing seasonally. Consider a simple, basic pairing: a blue oxford cloth button down shirt with a mid-weight navy wool blazer. It’s a classic combination that can be relied on year-round. But in the fall and winter months, this can be switched into a cotton/wool blend flannel shirt and tweed jacket, and then in the spring and summer, changed into a madras shirt and linen sport coat. The OCBD and navy blazer can be always worn (well, depending on the harshness of your climate), but the other pairings will better reflect the moods of their respective seasons.

Dressing seasonally can also mean adjusting your color palettes. For spring and summer, this can be as simple as wearing things just one shade lighter. So instead of a navy sport coat, consider Royal Air Force blue or French blue. Instead of dark brown shoes, consider chestnut or tan. Instead of dark grey suits, consider a more summery dove grey. These can all be the same exact garments, but in being one shade lighter, they’ll automatically feel more in harmony with the season.

Mauve, Flannel, and Tweed

Last fall, I wrote a post about other shirts readers might want to consider after they’ve built a solid foundation of light blues and whites. The softer shades of pink and lilac, for example, can be easily worn underneath navy or grey jackets for a livelier look, and ecru adds something interesting without straying too far from white. I also like striped shirts in brown, grey, or green, so long as the shirts aren’t dominated by those colors, and not combined with similar trousers (e.g. no mid-grey striped shirts with mid-grey wool trousers).

Well, add mauve to that list. I recently found the two photos you see above – the first from Heavy Tweed Jacket and the second from Luciano Barbera’s blog. A warm tweed sport coat combined with a comfortable pair of grey flannel trousers is nothing new, but when you swap out the standard light blue shirt for a striped mauve, I think it becomes a slightly more interesting look. These can be worn with your standard fall and winter ties, such as the ancient madders and woolens you see above, and the warm tones all around can be brought out through a pair of shell cordovan shoes made from Horween’s #8 leather.

Since seeing the two photos, I’ve been looking for a nice, striped mauve shirt for myself, but not with much luck. Light pinks and lilacs are easy, but this very specific shade of mauve seems elusive. The one place I found was Cottonwork, who has a version of it here. Cottonwork tells me that there’s a very subtle weaving pattern to the material, which is only visible on close inspection. Alternatively, they have this plain weave, but it’s in a slightly cooler shade of purple. I’m thinking about getting the first material made into a semi-spread collar shirt with a French placket and no pocket, precisely to wear with things such as tweed jackets and grey flannel trousers.

Note, Cottonwork is an advertiser of ours, but before becoming so, I was a customer (and fan) of theirs for a quite a while. Of the five online made-to-measure shirt operations I’ve tried, I found theirs to be the best. Their shirts fit me better and were more nicely constructed (e.g. higher stitch count, straighter seams, nicer interlinings, etc). You can create a custom shirt through them by submitting your measurement online, or by sending them your best fitting shirt and asking for it to be copied. To read about how to take advantage of custom shirt programs, you can read my series on the topic here.  

The Silver Necktie
Commonly recommended colors for neckties include the darker shades of blue, brown, green, and red, but rarely do you see mentions of silver or grey. Silver or grey, however, are some of the best colors you can wear with navy suits. And while fewer and fewer men have the occasion to wear suits these days, when they do, navy is a good stand-by, so having a few silver or grey neckties on hand is a good idea.
For formal occasions, such as weddings, one can wear silver silk herringbones, grey grenadines, or something that looks close enough to grey from a distance, such as black and white Shepherd’s checks or glen plaids. To take the level down a notch, try a softer, less shiny material, such as the cashmere or wool varieties you see above. These can be worn with worsted suits in the fall to give your look a more autumnal touch. A step further down still would be something like the silver tie here with off-white and red repp stripes. Again, I find stripes to generally be less dressy than silk ties with small, repeating geometrics, and the one you see above can be worn with either navy suits or grey trousers with navy sport coats. The key is to make sure the grey of your tie doesn’t match too closely to the grey of your trousers.
Of all my grey ties, the one I find most useful – though not always the most worn (that would go to all the others featured here) – is the silver grenadine. It’s really the perfect tie for formal occasions, leaving you with one less thing to worry about when you have to get dressed for a wedding or fancy evening out. A navy suit worn with a crisp, semi-spread collar shirt; pair of freshly polished black oxford shoes; and silver grenadine is as foolproof of a combination as you can get. 

The Silver Necktie

Commonly recommended colors for neckties include the darker shades of blue, brown, green, and red, but rarely do you see mentions of silver or grey. Silver or grey, however, are some of the best colors you can wear with navy suits. And while fewer and fewer men have the occasion to wear suits these days, when they do, navy is a good stand-by, so having a few silver or grey neckties on hand is a good idea.

For formal occasions, such as weddings, one can wear silver silk herringbones, grey grenadines, or something that looks close enough to grey from a distance, such as black and white Shepherd’s checks or glen plaids. To take the level down a notch, try a softer, less shiny material, such as the cashmere or wool varieties you see above. These can be worn with worsted suits in the fall to give your look a more autumnal touch. A step further down still would be something like the silver tie here with off-white and red repp stripes. Again, I find stripes to generally be less dressy than silk ties with small, repeating geometrics, and the one you see above can be worn with either navy suits or grey trousers with navy sport coats. The key is to make sure the grey of your tie doesn’t match too closely to the grey of your trousers.

Of all my grey ties, the one I find most useful – though not always the most worn (that would go to all the others featured here) – is the silver grenadine. It’s really the perfect tie for formal occasions, leaving you with one less thing to worry about when you have to get dressed for a wedding or fancy evening out. A navy suit worn with a crisp, semi-spread collar shirt; pair of freshly polished black oxford shoes; and silver grenadine is as foolproof of a combination as you can get. 

Beyond Blue and White
It’s been said often enough here and elsewhere that men should buy most of their dress shirts in either light blue or white. Both colors are easy to wear and generally make men look their most elegant. White shirts are particularly good for more “formal” ensembles, such as under navy or dark grey suits, and light blues are good for most everything else. If a man has the time, I also think changing from blue in the afternoon to white in the evening can be very smart. The first is less harsh under bright sunlight, and the second works better in artificial lighting. Given how often these tend to be worn, I think a basic dress shirt wardrobe should contain at least twelve to fourteen light blues and whites. The blues can come in a mix of stripes and textures to keep things interesting.
Once a man has these basics, it can’t hurt to have a few other colors thrown in. The most obvious ones include those certain soft shades of pink and lilac. While some might fear these two’s effeminate connotations, others know they can be used to make a boring, business grey suit into something instantly more stylish. They can also be worn in the summer with cheerful things such as khaki cotton suits and bold, colorful neckties. For something more suitable year-round, try a solid ecru, which is a slightly livelier alternative to white, or a mid-grey striped shirt, such as the one you see worn above by Mr. Fan.
There are also slightly more unusual colors, such as dark brown, sage green, and maroon. I find these generally work better in stripes. For example, I have a white shirt with dark brown pin stripes, and the thin, slightly spaced out lines help keep the shirt from looking too “dark brown.” If it were a solid color, it would be too dark to wear with a necktie, and might be relegated to only extremely casual weekend wear, thus limiting its versatility.
So, while I still think your dress shirts should mostly consist of light blues and whites, it doesn’t hurt to have a little variety. Consider throwing a few other colors into the mix. Whatever you do, just don’t choose black. Wearing black dress shirts should be against the law. 
(Photo by mafoofan)

Beyond Blue and White

It’s been said often enough here and elsewhere that men should buy most of their dress shirts in either light blue or white. Both colors are easy to wear and generally make men look their most elegant. White shirts are particularly good for more “formal” ensembles, such as under navy or dark grey suits, and light blues are good for most everything else. If a man has the time, I also think changing from blue in the afternoon to white in the evening can be very smart. The first is less harsh under bright sunlight, and the second works better in artificial lighting. Given how often these tend to be worn, I think a basic dress shirt wardrobe should contain at least twelve to fourteen light blues and whites. The blues can come in a mix of stripes and textures to keep things interesting.

Once a man has these basics, it can’t hurt to have a few other colors thrown in. The most obvious ones include those certain soft shades of pink and lilac. While some might fear these two’s effeminate connotations, others know they can be used to make a boring, business grey suit into something instantly more stylish. They can also be worn in the summer with cheerful things such as khaki cotton suits and bold, colorful neckties. For something more suitable year-round, try a solid ecru, which is a slightly livelier alternative to white, or a mid-grey striped shirt, such as the one you see worn above by Mr. Fan.

There are also slightly more unusual colors, such as dark brown, sage green, and maroon. I find these generally work better in stripes. For example, I have a white shirt with dark brown pin stripes, and the thin, slightly spaced out lines help keep the shirt from looking too “dark brown.” If it were a solid color, it would be too dark to wear with a necktie, and might be relegated to only extremely casual weekend wear, thus limiting its versatility.

So, while I still think your dress shirts should mostly consist of light blues and whites, it doesn’t hurt to have a little variety. Consider throwing a few other colors into the mix. Whatever you do, just don’t choose black. Wearing black dress shirts should be against the law. 

(Photo by mafoofan)

Second Time a Brown

Whether worn casually with beat-up chinos and a pair of brown loafers, or more formally with grey flannel pants and freshly polished derbys, a navy sport coat is one of the most versatile items a man can own. Its strength is in its color. A navy jacket can be successfully paired with almost any button-up shirt or pair of trousers, and its rich tone is formal enough for many events, but not so formal that it’s limited. If a man could only own one sport coat, it should be a navy single-breasted.

But you likely already knew that and perhaps already own a navy sport coat. If so, what should you do for your second acquisition?

The obvious choice is something in either grey or brown, and between the two, I recommend the latter. The problem with grey sport coats is that with few exceptions, they’re more likely to be mistaken for suit jackets. That means when you wear them with odd trousers (trousers that aren’t part of a suit), you’ll look like you accidentally spilt something on your pants and had to change out of them.

The other problem is that grey jackets shift the burden of color to your trousers. To be sure, you can wear grey jackets with grey pants, but the two must have very contrasting shades. Even then, when done successfully, you’ll look very … grey. Plus, accessories then have to be a bit muted, lest they look too conspicuous against an otherwise all grey ensemble, which makes this combination even more limiting.

So if you’re not going to wear grey sport coats with grey trousers, you’ll have to build a wardrobe of workable trousers for your one jacket. That’s much more difficult than the norm, which is to rely on a basic collection of grey trousers and wear them with various sport coats. Navy or brown jackets with grey pants is a classic look, and either can be accessorized in an infinite number of ways.

Furthermore, I think brown is just a more interesting color (taking aside the fact that grey is technically not even a color). It can be deep, rich, and warm, whereas grey can’t. Colors such as blue, ecru, and burgundy can also be mixed in through checks and speckles for added visual interest. Just browse a rack full of tweeds to see what I mean.

Of course, as I said, there are exceptions. A grey herringbone or speckled Donegal tweed jacket can be incredibly beautiful and versatile, but before getting one of those, I think you should acquire something in brown. You can more easily wear it with the pants you probably already own – grey dress trousers, dark blue jeans, and khaki chinos. This allows you to not have to go out and buy a collection of pants just to wear with your one jacket, which when you’re on a budget, can be very valuable. The difference between brown and grey for your second sport coat is likely to be the difference between building a wardrobe and building outfits. Do the first. 

(Photo credits: Ethan Desu, The Sartorialist, Michael Alden, Napoli Su Misura, M. Fan, and others)

Grey and Tan

Some colors will always look good together - a rich navy with mid-grey; a chocolate brown with racing green; or a mid-grey with tan, as show above. On the left is an illustration from a 1937 edition of Esquire. One of the men here is shown combining a grey single breasted suit, most likely constructed from flannel or a tropical worsted, with an ivory shirt, a brown and tan checked foulard tie, and brown shoes. A cream Panama hat up top could finish the look. On the right, Mark Cho of The Armoury is wearing a lightly checked grey double breasted suit with a tan shantung silk tie. The white pocket square underscores his white shirt nicely. 

Whether it’s in the 1930s or today, grey suitings and tan fittings will always look right together. 

(Above photo by Mark Cho. Which, as my friend would put it, makes this Mark by Mark Cho)

Coordinating Colors

Deciding on whether any particular combination of colors in an ensemble works or not is probably best left to on-the-spot judgment. Style is, after all, still more of an art than a science, despite all of its rules and regulations. Nonetheless, I use a few rules of thumb myself and I thought I’d share them here.

First, you can always rely on the color wheel. A safe approach is to combine colors that sit next to each other. For example, two tones of blue can easily be paired with a navy suit, and a dark brown jacket can be worn with khaki chinos. These should be done with some care, however, as you also want to strike some level of contrast. Colors too close in tone can look odd when placed next to each other.

A more daring approach is to team up colors on opposite sides of the color wheel. Blue and orange, for example, are quite good so long as you keep the orange to a minimum, as are green and red. In this way, you can balance the warmth and coolness of your colors as well.

Second, you can rely on the classic combinations. Blues, greys, and browns will always look good together. I also find grey and green to be nice, but for some reason not navy and green. (As the saying goes: “blue and green should never be seen without a color in between.”). Some may find these combinations to be a bit too unimaginative, but you can always make them more interesting by finding more unique values or saturations. For example, as I wrote in this post, something such as a slate blue sweater can work very well with dove grey chinos. Blue and grey don’t have to be boring.

Third, you may want to think about colors as groups. These groups can be seasonal (e.g. wearing burgundies, rusts, and browns in autumn) or associated with certain “looks.” A more country ensemble, for example, should rely on earthy or plant-based colors, such as moss green or lilac purple. Business attire should draw on traditional shades of navy, brown, and grey, while a more casual, preppy ensemble may have muted shades of khaki and light blue with spots of bright colors.

Of course, in the end, you should just judge these things based on your own eye. To me, the easiest is usually finding some contrast between pieces and balancing your warm and cool colors. If you can express the time of day, season, or weather through your palette, all the better.  

(Photos from The Sartorialist)