A collaboration between Street Etiquette and Unabashedly Prep has been making waves in the style blogosphere over the past week. The project, entitled "The Black Ivy," is a set of photos depicting several  preppy black students going about their daily lives around the campus of the City College of New York. The slideshow concludes with a different series of photos, shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt at Howard University (one of America's historic black colleges) in 1946. Rather than any racial implications of either photoset, their juxtaposition got me thinking about the interrelationship between style and fashion, and particularly how fashion trends tend to date clothes.

Let's take a look first at these two photos from 1946. You'll notice many ways in which the suits of that era differ from the suits of today: higher-waisted trousers with wider legs, plus longer jackets that had wider lapels, longer sleeves, and higher button placements. And of course, hats were fairly common for everyday wear in 1946, whereas now they're exclusively reserved for the realm of fashion statement.

What we're seeing here is representative of the very particular way that men's fashion tends to change over time. That is to say: Men's fashion is a series of deviations away from one universal reference point. This reference point (or, for the Aristotelians in the room, the "Golden Mean") is a particular point in time, usually around the origination of the garment in question, which sets the standard for all subsequent iterations of that garment. In the case of suits, the reference point is the classic British/Savile Row cut of the 1930s (see photo at right). And the reason why I call it the "Golden Mean" is that the reference point is usually perfectly in balance with the proportions of its wearer, because (in the realm of suiting at least) the garment would have originally been custom-made to fit its particular wearer's body. No aspect of the garment is exaggerated or out of proportion; everything is perfectly suited to the particular individual. The width of the trouser leg is in proportion to the wearer's shoe size; the width of the lapel is in proportion to the breadth of the wearer's shoulders; the placement of the jacket's buttons and the height of the waist of the trousers are in proportion to the wearer's overall height. And, when you have a suit that conforms to the Golden Mean, it becomes nearly impossible to date. It is timeless. That's the reason why the evil EPA agent in Ghostbusters would still look perfectly well-dressed if he brought his suit from 1984 to today: because it is, essentially, outside of fashion.

Bearing that in mind, let's now consider one of the modern-day Black Ivy photos.

What we see here is a deviation in the opposite direction from the 1946 photos. In 1946, it was all about more and bigger: longer jackets, wider lapels, wider pant legs, longer hems. In 2010 (and for pretty much the last decade), it's all about less and smaller: shorter jackets, narrower lapels, skinnier pant legs, shorter hems. Note the fellow in the middle, wearing the light grey sport jacket with jeans: the width of his pant leg is ludicrously narrow relative to his shoe size. The chap with the tan striped sport coat? It's so short that it's barely covering his ass. Also note the two guys with their skinny pant legs cuffed or rolled a few inches above their shoes. Sure, this looks spiffy now, because it's 100% on-trend in the minds of those who follow fashion. But ten or twenty or sixty years down the road, these sticklike pants will look just as ridiculous in retrospect as those tentlike '40s pants do to us now.

Contrast those outfits with the one at left. Admittedly, the shawl-collar cardigan with toggle closure is a bit of a trendy style. But it references classics from the past history of menswear; shawl collars and toggle closures are both authentic details, though not necessarily on the same garment. And more importantly, the fit of what he's wearing is relatively timeless. The khakis are neither tight nor loose, long nor short, skinny nor wide; they're perfectly proportionate in every way. Likewise, the fit of the sweater is close, but not tight. In short, everything balances. No one aspect of the ensemble stands out as being exaggerated in any direction.
The lesson here: When you're putting together an outfit, avoid trendy extremes to avoid dating yourself. Don't go for the jacket with the 1.5-inch lapels or the pants with the 7-inch leg opening. Think first and foremost about what suits you: your body, your personality. Wearing things just because they're fashionable (hello, square-toed loafers and multicolor-striped shirts) is the surest way to look back ten years from now and regret every photo ever taken of you. Instead, dress to suit yourself. That way, you'll avoid becoming a fashion victim, and instead grow further towards your own personal style.


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