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There comes a time in every man’s life when he looks into his closet and doesn’t like what he sees. Staring back at him is a bombastic tie, an overly daring shirt or, lord have mercy, a pair of leather pants. There might be something he vaguely remembers buying that shimmers or flares, something recommended by a persuasive sales associate. These clothes seem to have been acquired by some other human with demonstrably worse taste than oneself (isn’t that always the way?).

Yes, we’ve all made these mistakes. How do they happen? Well, often a mistake starts from a place of experimentation, of confidence and, dangerously, of sartorial zeal. This is why you should never buy a hat while on holiday. When you return home, your beret suddenly makes less sense when you’re no longer enjoying a glass of Sancerre at the Café de Flore (I’m not sure how hot it looked even while you were in Paris). There might be a pinstripe suit that seems a little too graphic once you’ve stepped away from Savile Row that’s now relegated to a John Dillinger–esque Halloween costume.

Artful Living | David Coggins Sartorial Missteps

Illustration by Hilbrand Bos

The intention might have been good, but context, fit and trend conspired to leave you humbled. If you’re lucky, you didn’t make this error while attending the Academy Awards. The rest of us can pray the offending image is buried deep in the minds of friends and family (and the Google archives). In short, we’ve all aimed too close to the sartorial sun.

Over the course of this column, I’ve advocated for men to take a few chances; we want to expand our horizons, after all. But that doesn’t mean we don’t err from time to time. For instance, you might find a pair of jeans deep in a drawer that seems to have become stonewashed over time (I’d get those out of the house before any witnesses get hurt). Here are some tips for avoiding common sartorial mistakes men make — let us learn from them and carry on to a better dressed place.

Avoid pattern problems.

You get bored with solids? I hear you. Maybe a loved one pushed you into something a little more interesting. What you’re often left with is something far too graphic. This happened to me when I had a windowpane jacket made by a Neapolitan tailor. The fabric swatch was a lovely oatmeal brown with a nice blue windowpane. But when it was made up, the contrast was too loud. A friend said I looked like a backup dancer in one of Fred Astaire’s later color films. That stung; you want to be compared to Fred himself — and in black and white.

Beware bold colors. 

It’s good to get tonal. It’s also good to branch out. But it’s dangerous to go all the way. Clothing brands and fashion magazines try to sell you on a look for the season, with a color that “pops.” This shows up well in catalogs and store windows. But we don’t live in ad campaigns (thank goodness). So bright red pants are probably best left for models or Italian men who own yachts named Spritz.

Don’t get too tight. 

Nothing that promises to make you look thinner ends up making you look thinner. Slim-fit is not helping you if it’s tight; it merely makes you look uncomfortable. I have a pair of trousers that I pray won’t split when I sit down (this is not a good thing!). I should probably retire them from the rotation or cut down on beer when I’m fishing. Overly small clothes don’t make you look small; they make you look big.

Dress your age. 

Trying to dress like a teenager never works out well (not even for teenagers!). New rinse for jeans? Sneakers named for a basketball player who’s your son’s age? Let’s pass on those.

Keep your hobbies secret. 

You like to golf or fly-fish? Fine, but your clothing doesn’t have to telegraph these interests with novelty ties adorned with golf balls (what I call the dreaded “Father’s Day tie”). This is also true of sports team (go Vikings!). We don’t need to be branded with a team unless we’re in the stands having our hearts broken (also: Vikings).

Take it easy on trends. 

Are you on the leading edge of the sartorial avant-garde? Do you buy your clothes in Tokyo? Then by all means dabble in the latest trends. The rest of us should let things settle down before embracing whatever is thin, wide, cropped or oversize.

There are many styles that take some getting used to: Fair Isle sweaters, tasseled loafers, herringbone jackets, white bucks, a velvet dinner jacket. The first time you wear these, you might feel a little self-conscious. But these clothes have all been worn successfully by generations of men. While you’re getting comfortable, you can rest assured that you have history on your side. Sometimes you never get comfortable and move on. Maybe you’ll realize, as I have, that white jeans will just never work for you. That’s alright; I’ll survive (and so will you). A little self-knowledge is always a good thing. 

A Minnesotan turned New Yorker, David Coggins is the author of the New York Times bestseller Men and Style and writes a style column for Artful Living.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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