There are three main elements that warrant close consideration in a gentleman’s or lady’s sartorial choices.
These are fit, fabric and style. Fit is overwhelmingly the most important. It actually deserves more attention than the other two combined. This is because fit has the most profound effect on our visual impression and our physical (and psychological) comfort.
Proper fit makes the most of a garment’s potential to feel good on, move well with us, draw a flattering line and enhance all other elements of a garment and an outfit.
Fit is ultimately a balance. Balance is a harmony of all the elements and fit is the foundation supporting the balanced whole of all the elements of cut, style, fabric, color pattern, touch and visual appeal.
As I have written in previous columns, it is wise to become familiar with brands, designers and their lines that tend to fit your body type best. This goes a long way in simplifying shopping and can help save money when you watch for sales of those labels that work best for you.
Several years and some fifty pounds ago, the BOSS line from Hugo Boss and the MANI line from Armani were perfect for me. They had great fabrics, designs and a silhouette that really worked for me. Fuller cut through the body with almost no waist suppression and lightly constructed shoulders, their jackets were virtually made for me. Minimum tailoring for sleeve length was occasionally needed, but that was it. I was a 44 regular, and I looked great. Now I am generally a 38 regular. The BOSS and MANI lines, even in 38 or 36 are still way too large in the upper chest and waist. They are just too full and cause me to look too thin and a bit frail. No amount of tailoring can help.
This brings up another point. If your body has significantly changed sizes up or down, wearing your old wardrobe is not going to work well.
In my case, too large shirt collars caused me to appear gaunt and sickly – not a great look for anyone, especially a graying and "mature" guy. Conversely, those that have gone up in size will be uncomfortable in tight, restrictive, too small garments, with tugging fabric seams, and the inability to button jackets. Plus, shirt collars and trousers that are so tight the pockets are useless - just makes you look " fat".
Here I can say I share a very similar sartorial challenge with my portly brothers in that off the rack clothes generally do not work well for me, at least, not with the ease of my old friends by Mssrs. Boss and Armani. I am virtually the same size I was in high school. The problem is that I look silly in the current styles made for 18-25 year old men.
I am searching for lines and designers that will work for my current shape and size. Canali is quite workable and the clothes are very nice, but far too pricey to be worth the cost because I still must have tailoring done. More than just sleeve adjustments are required on the Canali, Zegna and other of the better OTR (off-the-rack) labels.
So, what are we to do? Very tall, very short, very muscular, thin and portly gentleman are truly going to have to put in some extra effort to find clothes that have the useful basic architecture that can then be tailored to be comfortable and allow us to really look well in our clothes.
Here again, the services of a good tailor are required. First we must find the OTR garments that have the correct fit in the critical areas. I discussed these in a previous column at length. Basically in the upper body the shoulders and collar must fit well off the rack. Sleeves and torso can be altered (within reason) to give a comfortable and flattering line that is for your body.
Trousers must fit snugly, but comfortably at the waist, or where ever you will place the waist and the seat and crotch must be very close to correct. From there your tailor can adjust the thighs, length, seat and leg openings for comfort, freedom of movement and a very good looking line. I have to say, the first time I had a properly fitting pair of pants that absolutely required no belt, were comfortable walking and sitting and looked great through the thigh and seat was a revelation. BTW – if you need a belt to hold up your trousers with a wallet, car keys and your lighter in the pockets, they don’t fit!
Since using a tailor is virtually a given when purchasing OTR clothing, the cost of his/her services should be factored in to determine the overall cost of a new garment. This is a very important point. A lovely Canali suit on huge markdown at Nordstrum Rack or Saks Off 5th could become a poor bargain if it will require another $150 -$200 worth of tailoring to fit well. This goes for any garment. Thus, I tend to seek out good quality garments from less expensive labels and spend the difference on proper custom tailoring. The bottom line is this: a beautifully styled garment of fabulous fabric and color/pattern or weave from an elite fashion house, when not properly fitted, cannot ever look as well as a " lesser " label with a custom fitted silhouette and appropriate color/pattern for your body. This is the absolute: Fit trumps all.
Recently a reader Kevin Godbee encountered at the just past Chicago Pipe Expo requested information and advice on fitting a very tall man. Not knowing if he is a Dolph Lungren, NBA forward or a bean pole type, I decided to address the topic of body types and good choices and practices for the diverse range of fit challenges amongst our readership.
First of all, it is necessary to realistically assess our current body types and then learn what principles can apply to enable us to look our very best.
Here I will list a few general principles and then expand on them a bit as they apply to specific body types.
In general, fabrics with more weight, thickness or looser weave that drape well will improve the look and apparent fit of any garment. Wools that are finely woven, merinos and cashmere for example, can be cool enough for all but the hottest weather. Please don’t discount wool in warm weather. The right weight and weave can be very comfortable and have a nice drape that resists wrinkles and helps to define a good line in a well cut garment. Also in warm weather wool blended with silk, cotton or linen can look terrific and be quite comfortably breathable as well.
Coarsely woven linen jackets that are half-lined, or unlined, can be so light that you may actually get chilly as the sun goes down – especially at the beach. The marvelous new fabric Fresco is a wonderful choice for a summer suit if it’s rather dear cost doesn’t put you off.
Most folks opt for cotton or "performance" polyesters in very hot weather. Sometimes these can be a poor choice. Closely woven cotton, twills and even some light denims can be surprisingly hot in the summer. Here the weight and weave is crucial, though they are all prone to gain and hold wrinkles.
Light fabrics – poplin shirts and chinos, and seersucker are the way to go for the extra hot days and nights. And of course, linen and linen blends are the king of fabrics during the hot, humid dog days.
Performance polyesters can work very well, but styles are limited and stylish cuts are rare. Also, one tiny hot ash can destroy a shirt or pair of trousers in an instant, so if you are planning to have a pipe or fine cigar - and when are you not? – natural fabrics are a better choice and give you a fighting chance to save your investment and your dignity.
Ok, so allow me to list a few more specific principles and suggestions for some general body types.
For the tall folks:
1). Garments that are too tight tend to make you look too tall and like you are outgrowing your 8th grade wardrobe. Go too loose and you will appear skinnier than you already are – if you are slender.
2). Generally 3 button suits and jackets work best. A higher gorge is often good too, depending on the overall cut of the coat. Double breasted jackets can kick butt for you.
3). Broad or very pronounced vertical stripes are usually a poor choice for tops or bottoms. Horizontal stripes and patterns can help de-emphasize a very tall impression.
4). Hats with very broad brims or very "stingy" brims look awkward. A fuller brim on a really big man is ok- be he portly or buff.
5). Neckties, as well as all other garments, come in "Tall" lengths. Go a touch wider, but not too wide for the lapels of your jacket.
6). Vests with jackets and suits can look quite nice, again avoiding those pronounced stripes.
7). Trouser length is always critical. I would avoid the shorter lengths currently en vogue and perhaps go a touch longer with a bit more cuff.
8). Avoid short rain and overcoats also en vogue. If anything go a bit longer.
The above generally applies to taller men, regardless of girth.
For the average height/weight people:
1). Wear whatever the hell you want as long as it fits well.
2). Designers tend to create for you. Patterns and cut is not a major concern for you. And, by the way, we all hate you.
The shorter fellows:
1). One or two button jackets work best. Avoid three button suits unless you really look smashing in a particular find. Avoid wide lapels. Double breasted coats too, unless you happen upon a very sleek four button model.
2). Vertical stripes and patterns are for you guys. Avoid bold horizontal stripes as if they were a process server.
3). Bold patterns up top with subdued trousers can tend to pull an observers eye up to your face. This is good.
4). Avoid vests in general except the low cut "U" shaped gorge types. Here again, stripes are effective to lengthen your appearance.
5). The somewhat shorter pants length can work for you, just avoid looking like that they’ve shrunk in the dryer.
6). Do your best to match the color of your socks to your trousers. This will appear to lengthen your body. And wear above the calf socks with all long pants. This is universal regardless of body type.
7). Medium to moderately wide hat brims are great. Avoid pork pies with tiny brims. They can make you look like an off duty circus clown.
8). No wide ties.
9). Avoid long or tall shirt collars.
10). Avoid long over coats, rain coats and very bulky cable knit sweaters - unless your mom knitted it; and then you’re just screwed.
Let me say here that the following applies to the rotund gentleman and also to size/weight proportionate men that are just big guys.
Body builders, pro ball players and just plain king size guys can all employ these ideas. I will, however, skew these items toward what fine tailors refer to as the portly gentleman. And make no mistake, such men can, and do, cut a dashing figure when expertly fitted. To wit; Jackie Gleason, Winston Churchill and David Suchet as Hercule Poirot on the BBC are but a few of such sartorial titans.
Properly fitting garments always enhance the appearance, regardless of the body type. Well fitting clothes are also just more comfortable. Many overly rotund gentlemen make the mistake of assuming that donning garments one or two sizes too large will serve to obscure the appearance of being overweight. This is not only an error, it actually emphasizes elements that play into the heartlessly ignorant notion that large, portly folks are " lazy, fat slobs" that have "let themselves go".
Well, don’t play into that cruel ignorance. Oversized clothing hangs off the body and draws attention to one’s size and certainly, by being a very poor fit, tends to look careless and sloppy. Can you imagine Jackie Gleason, the Fred Astaire of the large, wearing a suit that was one or two sizes too large? It’s a ridiculous notion. Never was there a more elegant and graceful portly gentleman. Those of you under a certain age will not know Mr. Gleason - one of the greatest comedic actors of all time. So, to you I say Google "Poirot" on the BBC and see David Suchet dressed in his fabulous suits and traveling outfits. He is sublime beyond compare. Bear in mind his Hercule Poirot lives in the Art Deco period of the 1920’s and 30’s; a time of superb style.
For the large and portly gentleman:
These guidelines should be combined with a height appropriate approach employed in the previously presented sections.
1). Not too tight, nor too baggy. Again, fit, fit, fit.
2). Subdued, small figured patterns are for you. Narrow vertical stripes that are not too bold look very nice and slimming. (Looking slimmer, even if you have a bangin’ bods the way to elegance. Just look at Daniel Craig dressed as 007.)
3). Vests can be very useful, again well fitted and with the right pattern/colors. Avoid narrow ties, especially with wider lapels.
4). Wider lapels really work on a big man.
5). Shirt collar proportion is very important. Too tall can exacerbate the "no neck" look. Too short and too tight is uncomfortable for you and for others to see.
6). Always avoid overly large knots in your neckties.
7). Bowties only work if you have a longer neck and proper collar dimension. They can look great though.
8). Bulky knits are usually a poor choice.
9). Always try to get dual vented suit jackets and blazers. They give a smoother line.
10). Double breasted coats and jackets with peak lapels can be a good choice.
Here are some shirt examples that may help you cement your understanding of some of the above. The column on the right show poor choices for large guys. The left side offers better alternatives from the same label. All are available from PatrickJames.com.
Well, if I haven’t offended everyone yet, perhaps this next bit will be the coups de gras.
Fit Your Face
As noted in previous columns, fashion is so often a superficial affectation. Style is self-expression of substance and so choosing a pipe can definitely be an element of style.
Many pipe smokers never think a lot about how they look smoking a pipe, never mind considering how a particular pipe or pipe shape alters their appearance to others. And that is, of course, perfectly fine. Fine even for those of us concerned with our personal style and manner of dress. I never think of a pipe as a fashion accessory.
For many years I made a living analyzing faces in the viewfinder of my Nikons. Thus, I habitually notice details that most others ignore. I always considered it my obligation to make people look their best in a shot, especially if they were the client. And I made an even greater effort if they were trusting me as a photojournalist. (Unless such presentation would materially distort the facts of the situation.)
All this is to say I think about, among other things, how the shape of a pipe can effect one’s appearance.
I think everyone, if only subconsciously, takes note of pipe shapes, especially if one is clenching the pipe. As extreme example of this; when we see someone smoking an uncommon shape, like a large traditional calabash, a churchwarden or one of the new stubby dual chamber pipes, we notice they tend to impart a whimsical look, or at least seem conspicuous.
Further, particular pipes can enhance or make for a positive augmentation to one’s overall visual presentation. Actually, any pipe at all makes an impression these days.
Please allow me to make some admittedly personal and quite subjective observations on the subject of pipe shapes and our mugs.
Generally, I would say that those with large and/or mostly round and oval faces look best with medium to larger shapes, bent or straight. Billiards, brandys, apples or even blowfish and egg shapes all seem an agreeable fit. Such folks might avoid stubby nosewarmers and short or squat bulldogs and Rhodesians. In fact, any noticeably abbreviated shape seems a bit out of place with this facial type. If you are a big guy or lady, medium to larger pipes seem "right".
Very slender or diminutive sized folks look more balanced with smaller pipes. Picture a shorter and/or smaller person with a huge freehand. Now conjure the same smoker puffing on a medium to smaller apple or bent billiard. Would you agree? Just as a portly gentleman might wish to avoid large polka dot shirt patterns, so too can it be well to apply the same care in choosing a pipe shape when thinking about one’s overall visual impression. I have included a crude graphic to help illustrate these notions:
Ok, the above not withstanding, I would never choose to purchase or smoke a particular pipe solely on how I will appear smoking it. There is a long list of qualities that, to me, take much greater precedence. Still, in all, my old photographer’s eye does exert it’s influence. Cheers and happy smoking to all, whatever choice you make.
the Gentleman Smoker’s Tip:
It is still not too late to get some great deals on clearance items from the Fall and Winter of this past season. Look for staple items like solid color slacks and sweaters. Jeans, or denims, as they are now termed, are also marked to go out the door. If you don’t have a three month blue blazer, now is a good time to try and find one, though those and white dress shirts usually go pretty fast. Try the nicer departments stores and then plan to hit the T J Maxx, Marshalls and such in the same day as Nordstrum and Dillards, Bloomingdales, etc. will likely have moved their unsold stock to the outlets and discounters. Be patient and diligent and you may well be rewarded with some great finds. Happy hunting.
Steve Morrisette is an artisan pipe maker, relentlessly snappy dresser, and self-confessed Virginia gentleman. He makes artisan pipes for discerning collectors, and scours the internet and shops of all types seeking information and fine garments, hats, watches, shoes, and jewelry - anything related to the gentleman’s lifestyle. Steve also spent several decades as a working drummer and photographer/photojournalist. You can find his pipes at www.smpipes.com, and catch his style photos and latest pipes on Facebook and Instagram.