Tug of war in menswear led to new look

(Part two of a four-part series.)

A silent tug of war has been raging in menswear between mature, polished elegance and the casual, oversized sportiness that has dominated for the better part of a decade and has ceded little sartorial ground to opposing looks.


Unlike in womenswear—and despite the obvious need for a wardrobe that suits varying occasions and settings—accommodating the two disparate aesthetics is too complicated for most American men. Decisions about how to dress must be clear-cut and fairly free of nuance.

And so what appears to be emerging as the sartorial dust settles is a new creature that combines European styling and American sensibility, urban edginess and down-home conservatism—a look that is at once classic and familiar yet contemporary and fresh.

Fashion designers rarely speak in unison, but the fall 2010 menswear collections unveiled at the recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City were a clear clarion call for American fellows to grow up and put away childish clothes.


Next fall may go down in fashion history as a major transition, when sloppiness characterized by oversized, graffiti-inspired gear gives way to duds with more structure and sophistication. Debonair dressing has been gaining momentum over the last several years, and while there will still be clothes for sale that channel skateboard champions and Peewee Herman, those looks will take a back seat to the sort of adult, handsome, creatively designed men’s clothes that don’t take their cues from teenage boys or well-heeled women.

It’s fitting that black is the new black in fashion for fall. Black is the second-biggest go-to color for men—only blue is more popular—and there was plenty of noir on the runways. Labels from Perry Ellis to William Rast know that whether a guy gives much or little thought to fashion, he’s never uncomfortable in black.

Almost any garment looks good in black, especially the unapologetically masculine styles that New York menswear designers stitched up for fall. From motorcycle jackets and toggle coats to fitted trousers and tailored vests, black pieces can be layered for a striking monochromatic look or worn with pops of color to dress up or down.

Even the collegiate look is more sartorial, with neckties, collared shirts and structured knits in prints and patterns that transform them into wearable conversation pieces. Nouveau preppy garments such as tweed pants and velvet blazers were mixed with giant scarves and tech-fabric coats for a futuristic look with an air of polite rebellion.

In fact, the slew of large knit scarves and sweaters that came down many runways were not volume without structure and intent. These wovens were warm and comfortable, simple but interesting in flecked solids and classic menswear pattern such as argyle.


Plaid was another major trend, from down-on-the-farm flannel throwbacks to more fashion-forward interpretations in unconventional colors and luxurious fabrics. The plaid shirt was an easy offering for many designers, and some pushed the envelope with plaid coats, blazers and pants that incorporated atypical colors ranging from teal to seafoam.

Outerwear continued the new-millennium, he-man-meets-urban-warrior story. Topcoats appeared to be designed to fend off Arctic winds, a quality that men might welcome after this winter’s severe conditions in many regions. Men tend to privilege function over form, and water-repellent styles from long quilted parkas to streamlined trenches offered it.

Not surprisingly, such aggressive clothes demanded strong footwear. Overwhelmingly for designers, the shoe of choice was the boot. Most favored lug-sole, lace-up styles that balanced the proportion of a look. They were practical enough to slog through inches of mud and slush, yet fashionable enough to complement the suave combination of a double-vent blazer with corduroy trousers or some other dressier ensemble.

British author Anthony Burgess once remarked that “Women thrive on novelty and are easy meat for the commerce of fashion. Men prefer old pipes and torn jackets.” Times and men have changed, and American menswear designers have responded with a new look for a new era.


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