Relax! The Casual Injunction

We often hear that menswear is headed towards casualisation. It may be so, but such casualisation is simultaneously paralleled with sartorialisation—men wearing suits not because it is the default template of social expectations, but because they like it. Tailoring has stepped down from normality only to climb onto a higher pedestal. That’s one of my pet theories—The Great Sartorialisation. 

As casual becomes not a departure from formal wear or business wear but the actual standard, even in most professional contexts, the sartorial tradition lives on but with a different systemic value. Tailored suits and jackets, pocket squares, and ties acquired a different meaning: instead of expressing conventional formality, they have become personal statements expressing a variety of sentiments such as aesthetic concerns, taste for crafts, a sense of refinement, and social status or self-promotion.

Of course, this is only a general trend and these ideas need to take into account the various social and professional environments—such as banking, politics, or law, where suits are still very much the norm. However, it’s safe to say that for the majority of men classic tailoring is no longer a social requirement but a personal choice.
‘Dressing the man’ used to be a matter of conforming to established standards; now those standards are an old story. Aesthetics have replaced obligations. [picture @quenteu]

And yet. New obligations may be sneaking in. 

I recently came across an ad of a famous entry-level sartorial brand suggesting that I should “relax my dress code”; this idea was oddly represented by a model awkwardly balancing on a tree-root wearing a suit as well as shades and sneakers.
Sneakers with a suit? While climbing a tree?
While I failed to see what’s relaxed about such a visual arrangement, I did pick up an aura of affectation: suits express formal tailoring, while sneakers scream mass-produced sportswear. One would think we are past the time when such a mix was considered “stylish”. It would simply be too easy if style was simply about mixing things up.

The injunction was quickly followed a few days later by another one— “Go Shirtless. Three ways to dress down your suit”.
Call me old-fashioned, but why dress down something whose purpose is to dress up? Don’t wear a suit, then. What’s wrong with being casual? And, conversely, what’s wrong with being sharp? After all, it’s a well-known fact that ‘relaxing’ can be achieved even with a tie and a three-piece suit. 

The “casual” versus “sharp” philosophy is not actually based on a social or generational, or even a contextual clash. It’s really a question of harmony. If one had to draw a line, it would probably not be based on convention or propriety (we dress the way we want, remember?) but rather on the aesthetic convergence of items speaking the same language. When tailored items meet shapeless ones, dialogue can rarely emerge. Tailored clothes have a cut and a fit. On the opposite side, ‘casual’ clothes are precisely liked for their looseness. Tailoring implies craft and quality fabrics; casual garments are mostly mass-produced and easy to wear because a bit of wear and tear doesn’t scare them. The detailed sharpness of a suit is meant to enhance the shape of the body while casual clothes have no other purpose than be comfortable to wear. Symmetry on the one side and bagginess on the other hardly entail the same approach. In their make, material, design, or function those clothes imply a different language altogether.

Few encounters between the two have been successful—the turtleneck with a jacket being a classic winner. Of course, there’s room for graduality, the in-between of casual elegance being a well-trodden path. You could think of jeans or chinos paired with a jacket, the sockless loafers with cotton trousers, the wool jumper with a tweed jacket, and dozens of other combinations sitting on the fence of sophistication and laid-back nonchalance. But they also risk looking “overdone”, trying too hard to look casual.

In this respect, T-shirts or sneakers with suits simply look too facile, with no clear aesthetic in mind except mixing two obviously contrasting styles. Putting together things that do not belong together is probably the most unimaginative way to be creative and ‘break codes’. It’s like a dish featuring garlic shrimp and strawberries: apart from the shock effect, there’s nothing to be gained from such a mix.
Still, mass-marketing makes it a thing, at least for a while, which is the definition of fleeting fashion—and that’s how the great casualisation is creeping up into the great sartorialisation. Let the paradox sort itself out.

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John Slamson

JS is a writer and translator based in Paris. He loves a generous lapel. He’s also a jazz producer and critic who believes we should let the good times roll.

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6 thoughts on “Relax! The Casual Injunction

  1. GREAT! article John, quite comprehensive…I also believe the pairing of certain casual items with a tailored suit appears somewhat tacky, however, that trend is not unique, but a redo of the 1960’s. The difference being, the t-shirts in the 60’s were nylon not cotton, but called (silks) and the sneakers were “Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars”, not the chunky, brogue style sneakers worn today.

    Nevertheless, the young men that wore that combination in the 60’s probably did it for shock value and subsequently achieved their purpose. The older men appeared to despised the suit adulteration and cast an evil eye on the perpetrators, at least in the presence of their wives. LOL

  2. I would love to comment. However..Many of us are sick to death of “casualization”. and this interminable topic. Hey, guys…learn to dress as gentlemen….suits and ties !!!! Don’t lower yourselves to the slob standards of others, make THEM RAISE their standards to yours !!

  3. Finally some pushback against even the idea of sneakers with a suit. Ten years ago, maybe less, that combination was considered an abomination. In my view, it still is. What happened?

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