In Fashion, There Are No Rules, Just Influences

I’ve now worked at a luxury menswear boutique for over a year. It’s been a wild ride as I handle some of the most coveted products in the world, selling them to production geeks who lose their minds over things that are handmade with old-school methods. From boots to denim to parkas, I’ve seen a lot of product and have slowly assembled an appreciation for the brands and their mission.

I never considered myself a fashionable person. In high school, I’d often have my sister check to see if I was wearing anything particularly egregious before heading out the door. My parents were frugal, and spending more than $20 on any article of clothing was out of the question. Clothing was for function, not for fashion, so I put the idea of “looking good” out of my mind.

This forced me to focus on academics, which in turn allowed me to go to college in New York, where I wore the same clothes I wore in high school because I was broke. This carried on for six more years, after dropping out, after moving to the Pacific Northwest. Then, by a stroke of luck, I landed my current job at an independent heritage fashion retailer. They hired me because they wanted to train me “their way”, because in the world of fashion there was a swath of misinformation and ill-advised practices, according to my boss. He handed me a trash bag filled with several thousand dollars worth of hand-me down clothes. “This should get you up to standards,” he said.

Our shop functions in the niche of heritage goods, which means tried-and-true classics of traditional menswear. Button ups, khakis, mac coats, jeans, and boots make up the language of our outfits. Our target audience is seemingly the “urban woodsman”, with an emphasis on “urban”. When folks come to the shop and ask me what we specialize in, my go-to line is “We focus on workwear durability with a more refined aesthetic.”

Some folks come in and will ask if it is necessary to match belts with your shoes, how to mix up a primarily black and blue wardrobe, and similar specific questions about the rules of style. In our niche, yes, there are some general rules, but as you (the reader) may have noticed, some of the most fashionable people you know may completely reject these rules. By no means are any methods of coordination universal. All that truly matters are influences.

For example, let’s look at the “urban woodsman” aesthetic. This look is influenced by lifestyle brands like L.L. Bean, but re-imagined as more formal fashion piece as opposed to practical outdoor wear. In Seattle, the proximity to skiing and hiking opportunities draws folks from around the world to the area, which further influences this metropolis-meets-forest style sense. Americana-inspired indie rock fuels the movement as well, resulting in a fully realized wardrobe arrangement that has come to be known as, well, “lumbersexual”.

At the shop, we do a themed release of clothing every year. The designers do research, some of it from personal experience, some of it from reading, in order to put together a particular look. “It’s all about the reference points,” my boss tells me. According to him, having the right reference points in terms of movies, musics, and celebrities, gives him the ability to piece together a pattern language (see Christopher Alexander) for an completely new look. In layman’s terms, know your history to shape your present and future.

In the book “Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion” by Greg Foley and Andrew Luecke, the authors point out that fashion is intimately tied to music. For each decade of style, they make playlists and identify songs that capture the spirit of the particular look. Grunge Rap fashion is different from Rockabilly fashion, Goth is different from Urban Woodsman, because these looks are drawing from their own spheres of reference.

This means, for us (aspiring fashionistas), learning what to wear is less about knowing what colors go with what, or if you’re allowed to wear one garment with another. The best way to assemble a new wardrobe is to clearly identify your reference points. Whether it is a stack of magazines, a Pinterest page, or a collection of photos from Instagram, the looks you collect give you the opportunity to dive deep and ask: I like this look, where did it come from?

Lucky for us, assembling an understanding of why we like what we like means that we go thrifting with a more focused approach. The likelihood of us buying things we will actually wear increases since we have narrowed our search down to garments that fit into our curated assortment of looks. Whether you are steampunk, minimalist, or normcore, knowing where you’re coming from will even help you create new outfits. And it is this innovation, this mixing and matching, that makes fashion fun.


More Reading:

  • Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. (1979). Book.
  • Foley, Greg & Luecke, Andrew. Cool: Style, Sound, & Subversion. (2017). Book.

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