I used to think middle of the road was never the most desirable option. Middle of the road says the Eagles’ Hotel California. It says easy-listening and inoffensive. It says Hollywood blockbusters. Ben Affleck. Gwyneth Paltrow. Offensive is usually the better option to look to for inspiration.
But recently I came across this quote from 50s Hollywood icon, Cary Grant. While much has been written about Cary Grant’s style, he only wrote once on the topic—a 1962 article published in “This Week”. Part of it was:
“I believe men’s clothes—like women’s—should attract attention to the best lines of a man’s figure and distract from the worst. In all cases, the most reliable style is in the middle of the road—a thoughtful sensible position in any human behavior. Except perhaps on the freeway—but, even then, the middle lane, providing of course, it’s on your side of the road, usually gets you where you’re going more easily, comfortably, and less disturbingly. And so it should be with clothes. They should be undisturbing, easy and comfortable.”
You can approach modern male fashion and style in one of two ways: follow fashion’s ever changing trends, or stick with classic men’s style. This is what Grant is referring to.
Let us consider for a moment, the great Cary Grant—quintessential gentleman, a charismatic icon of timeless elegance and grace. Born in England as Archibald Leach, his upbringing wasn’t exactly middle of the road—his mother suffered serious bouts of mental illness, and while the boy was at boarding school, his father had her committed to an institution—then told his son she had died while traveling. The father remarried, and largely abandoned his son. Grant would be in his thirties before he’d discover the truth.
You can only speculate and consider what effect these events had on the young budding actor, but he soon left England for the promise of America—and changed his name to the more debonair “Cary Grant”—determined to leave his past and Archibald Leach far behind.
Grant very methodically remade himself. Some might say that he became such a successful actor because he was well versed in pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Grant himself once wrote “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.”
As an integral part of that transformation he religious studied contemporary male style icons and learned about fashion. It was the 1940s and military uniforms were everywhere. Grant saw something special in the soldier’s appearance. Soldiers always looked sharp. Even disheveled in the field, they still had a raw masculinity—because of the uniform. Grant decided to treat his attire, not as clothing, but as a uniform. Many of the suits he wore were off the shelf from American retailers—the same as everyone else—middle of the road clothing—except his attitude to the suit wasn’t the same. First, he ensured that his clothing fit him flawlessly and was perfectly dry-cleaned, and crisply ironed. Nothing out of place. Whether it was a tuxedo or a pair of jeans with T-shirt, he knew that clothes maketh the man.
These golden years of Hollywood cemented the modern day image of the gentleman. It was a conservative era with a preoccupation for appearances, and this came together with a collection of clothing that would make up embryotic modern men’s classical style: suits with single or double-breasted lapels—the precursors to the modern-day business suit—the legacy of the depression era was muted colors; blacks, greys, and dark blues, Oxford University introduced navy blazers as popular summer-wear, two-toned brogue and loafers became go-to shoes and sunglasses first appeared as a fashion item.
The general principles of men’s classic style tend to work no matter what your occupation, income level or look (hipster. preppy, or corporate—it’s all pretty much the same). It is the antithesis of following fashion. It is about selectively choosing simple items which mix and match in a timeless way. If you take a look at Cary Grant’s attire, he’s not set in the 50s. There is a forever quality to his look, and by and large his clothes would fit equally well in a modern world.
If I can sum it up in a few words, it comes down to: don’t buy strange things, and be age appropriate. Some don’ts:
- Distressed, torn or unusual wash jeans make you look like you belong in 2007 or whenever it was these came and went. Rather, pick a solid dark or mid wash jean and you will fit in the 1850s California gold rush, 2017 Paris clubbing or anywhere in between.
- Similarly, jeans cut. Supper skinny jeans popular in 2016, were also “in fashion” as “stovepipes” in the 1950s. Regular cut jeans: “in” since 1853. You choose.
- The appeal of slogan tees is fleeting; what they actually say is: I have no interest in how I dress. Fine if you’re 15, which you’re probably not.
- Brand names and logos do not an outfit make. Wearing a long sleeve tee emblazoned with Dolce and Gabbana logos doesn’t mean you’re rich and super cool, it means you like looking like an advertising sandwich board.
- Finer points like socks matter. White socks look best with your squash outfit, not so much with your business suit or jeans. Likewise, business socks while jogging aren’t a winner. People notice the small details. You should too.
And some dos:
- Think classic versatility—one color denim, oxford shirt, solid color pants, plain O or V neck tees, blazers, and two-button suits.
- Fit is everything. Take care of it. Iron it.
- Black. Light Gray. Dark Gray. Navy. Browns. You can’t go wrong with earth tones. Feel like a change? Purple. Burgundy. Pink. Look for colors that will look pleasant and fit with any outfit.
- Avoid buying random strange items simply because you like them. Ties are a good example: you’re not going to be wearing the tie by itself—so does it go with items you already own? If not, move right on along…
- Don’t overlook shoes. Classic round toe oxfords in black. Brown brogues. Simple leather, vinyl or canvas sneakers. Wear running shoes only when you are actually running.
Men’s classic style as a jumping off point, allows you to advance and create your own flair with a rock solid foundation. Cary Grant saw clothing as well beyond a purely functional item. Clothing became an important aspect of transforming his life. If you’re unhappy with certain aspects of your own life, go to your wardrobe and take a good look. A gentleman like Cary Grant proves self-improvement is not only possible, it is desirable.