11 November 2011

Reader Questions : On Ageing Gracefully

I may be blowing wind here, but I like to think that my little corner of the internet fills a gap. I began this blog years ago at the suggestion of some good friends who were pleased with the blossoming menswear style blog boom, but disappointed that nothing at the time addressed stylish men of meager means.  In time, I've come to realize through emails and meeting people that I also tend to appeal to younger men in need of basic and unpretentious help (yikes, that was probably pretentious) as well as older men looking to keep things fresh without dressing like kids.

Reader Mark writes:

You said in your post "I'm not 22 years old and rail thin". That brings up a question:

What are good looks for heavier guys in their late 40s-early 50s? I don't want to appear to "try" to be dressing too young, yet I'm not really antique in age either!

A good question, to be sure. Hope I'm up to the task. What follows may not be so much direct advice on "looks" as it is on knowing your history, knowing whats going on, knowing what suits you, keeping it classic and simple, and combining all that...I hope.

As our example of how to look good, age appropriate, and young at heart all at once, we'll use the extreme example of style icon Fred Astaire.  Plenty has been written about this man's level of style in his prime in the '30s, '40s and '50s, but very little mentions how well he carried himself into old age. Finding good pictures of Astaire in his youth is easy, but finding photos of the man in later life was surprisingly difficult. I suppose that speaks to the good old American youth obsession (the opposition to which this blog was founded, see profile). 

In the photo above, a 75 year old Astaire gives his relatively staid jacket and tie ensemble just the right pinch of insouciance in his choice of aviator sunglasses, a favorite of youth today. The lesson here is opt for items which will always be classic and also "cool", in this case the glasses. Military men wear them, bikers wear them, rock stars wear them, hipsters wear them, even a confident 75 year old wears them. In each case they are "cool". In the old guys case, they are a sign that he is cool, and has been for some time. And yet, they don't diminish the classic-ness of his overall look, and they are anything but inappropriate.

This photo, like the one above, is a still from 1974s The Towering Inferno. Sure, it's dated. The tie is huge, the lapels are too. But that's the point. Being older doesn't necessarily mean you have to avoid trends like the plague, you just have to play them carefully. Astaire's tux is very 1974, yet because it is also relatively classic, he manages to be of the moment without looking like he's dressing like a kid. Despite the wideness of the elements, there are no ruffles on the shirt front, not frilly cuffs, no extra velvet, and no silly colors. Similarly today an older man may opt to lean towards the currently trendy leaner cuts while keeping his  fabrics and patterns classic.
In this bad photo from the bad 1981 movie Ghost Story, an 82 year old Astaire wears his coat collar flipped youthfully up with a schoolboy scarf knotted in a particularly youthful way. Growing older doesn't mean you need to turn into a stiff, or even a dork. It just means that all the things you learned and saw, all the goofy stuff and good stuff you wore, all your sartorial mistakes and triumphs should begin to cook down to a refined essence that is uniquely yours and exists outside the realm of age and time. Am I getting too philosophical here? Certainly.  

The point I guess is to stick with classic pieces in classic cuts and always insist on quality. At the same time, keep an eye on trends and choose selectively those aspects which will keep you looking fresh without looking like a mid-life crisis. And never wear anything that doesn't fit well. Young skinny 22 year olds can wear all the short pants and too tight jackets they want. They'll still look foolish, but we'll collectively chalk that up to youth and gullibility and hope they grow out of it. Older (and heavier) men do not enjoy such leniency.
Of course, it helps to have been this cool in your youth:
In writing this little blip, I realize that in this one short question we have a loaded sartorial topic on our hands, one that deserves frequent revisiting. I've only just poked at it with a stick. So lets have this be a discussion. I'd like to see this topic grow alongside a discussion of learning the basics for younger men. As much as I enjoy handing down the law from high on my soap box, I enjoy learning from others as well.

Thank you Mark for opening this can of worms. I hope we catch some big fish.


Main Line Sportsman said...

Sound reasoning and advice Sir...

Mike R. said...

As a young man from the South that grew up with stylish grandparents, I believe I have a good understanding of classic and “long- wearing” sartorial options. At the same time, I am 28 and still finding my niche. That being said, having the knowledge (weather through tutelage or hit and miss) gives a younger man the ability to not only explore but dictate style at the given moment his age is relevant on the fashion/trend seen. What I'm saying is, I can almost guarantee men such as Fred Astir, Sammy Davis Jr, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, etc, were seen by their elders as boundary pushing (even line crossing) youths. But because who they were, the talents they possessed, and the way they carried themselves, they were applauded for their sartorial experiments (both positive and negative). Today, the divide between young and mature, Street and more traditional, as well as Ivy and Neapolitan fashions, seem to be too stark and stern.
I'd like to think, I embody all these aspects, along with my own personal flair. But in doing so, I know I will piss each 'style' off, while encouraging each in the same vain. I guess to make a long winded point an actual point. Men need not frown upon other taste or dismiss them as youth or mature or old, this or that, but instead as opportunity to explore ones personal unknowns and unfathomed. You may just niche out your own space in this sartorial convoluted menswear, bloggespher world.
Mike R.

LLP said...

Good stuff. Colors might need adjusting with age (e.g., from light grey to charcoal grey suit, for some the camel hair falls to "boyish"...). Overall, by 40 or 45 years of age you know your range (you'll either be lucky enough to wear that camel hair for another 20 years, or not); you know what is needed & what is not; your perseverance, investments & discipline begin to pay off (in career, physical condition, self knowledge, family, style...). A few acquisitions or changes just keep it all relevant or interesting, fun and creative...

Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up G.

FLW said...

Very sound advice!

I'd add two things:
1) If you are just starting to update or revamp your style as a mature man (insofar as such a thing exists), keep things elegant and understated. Peacocking without coming off as insecure is a challenge and takes time to perfect.

2) Remember that age hopefully brings wisdom. The older a man gets, the more gravitas he should have. Gun club checks, cable cardigans, and any non-baseball hats all work better on the 40-50 somethings because they convey a maturity.

There is a great British example of this in the movie Layer Cake. Sir Michael Gambon (of Dumbledore fame) plays this British godfather type who runs around in green velvet smoking jackets and Tommy Nutter suits with lapels so wide he could probably take flight. If costar Daniel Craig had worn such get-ups, we would have assumed it was an Austin Powers rip-off, but Gambon uses his age, and the wrinkles, waist, and gray hair that come with it, to play it off as "I've been around, I've made it, what makes you think you can question me?"

That's my .02, anyway

Jack P said...

As a 47 year old Englishman, I've seen a lot of fashions come and go. Growing up as a working class male in an industrial city, clothes were always important and quality was always the key. From the Mod movement through Skinhead, Suedehead, Soulboy, 2-Tone and Casual the looks were different, even if only slightly but the single thing that linked them all was the quality of clothing. Young working class men in England nearly always dressed up as opposed to the middle classes dressing down. The thing was, you wanted to be part of these things but you wanted to be different, even better, I suppose it's the 'oneupmanship' thing, some of us need to be noticed by our peers and respected, it's a pride thing. My background gave me a love of clothes from a very young age, I learned that only the best quality ones that I could afford or acquire would do and now I find myself in the late 40's nothing's changed except the style.
My only advice to any ageing man would be to buy the best you can afford, it's easier in this day and age than ever before to find them.
You'll know if and when you've got it right, people you pass in the street will SEE you.

Anonymous said...

G, you are not very old yourself. Early 30s?

Giuseppe said...

That's true, 35 in December. But that's old enough to have outgrown childish fashion trends, like skull and bones sweaters and the like.

Young Fogey said...

Fred Astaire. Pure style and class. There's always something to learn from him.

There is an interesting zone between 30 and going gray in which youthful fashions look silly or affected. However, once you start to go gray, when you have a few wrinkles, the gravitas of your age makes certain "young" fashions acceptable again.

As you noted, only thin young men can wear extreme styles without looking like complete tools. Even so, there's no guarantee that even they won't look like dorks, but an older guy absolutely will. However, once you've gotten that age under your belt, you can wear some things that just don't work on someone in his thirties.

Aging is nowhere near as bad as some people make it out to be.

Andy N said...

Is that the storied combo of "button down with DB jacket" on the young Astaire? Or is it just a pucker in the shirting below the collar point?

No matter. I'd kill for a fraction of his talent at any age.

Giuseppe said...

Andy N,

The very same. I know people like ot nay say this particular sartorila tactic, but I think it kills.

Young Fogey said...

Not everyone can pull off the rule bending and breaking of Astaire, but when it works--oh, man! What a look!

Another Astaire favorite was suede shoes with suits. His ability to mix the casual with the formal, and make it work, was incredible.