Clothing warms, protects, decorates and communicates (though almost never in that order). It performs these overt functions for both sexes in more or less equal measure. The covert functions — concealing, camouflaging, diverting — are more often discussed in the context of women’s clothes.
This is because we still live in a grinding patriarchy. Women’s worth, much more often than men’s, is associated with their bodies. Men’s bodies are usually thought of as (borrowing a line from David Sedaris) little more than machines that carry their brains around.
Still, one hears standard bits of clothing advice for men who wish to deal with one or another perceived physiological anomaly. Most of them have to do with making the body look longer or, occasionally, shorter. Straight cuts and stripes emphasise verticality, and so forth, we are told.
I have a slightly more complex problem. Though I am tall, I have what an uncharitable friend of mine calls Big Lady Hips. I wear size 38 trousers and a size 43 jacket, giving me a “drop” of a mere five inches. Any self-respecting Adonis would have an eight-inch difference. Off-the-peg trousers that fit my waist tend to be tight in the seat.
I asked several tailors about my BLH problem, and about dressing to conceal generally. Jonathan Sigmon, who took over New York’s Alan Flusser Custom when its namesake founder retired a few years ago, recommended I avoid patch pockets on my jackets: “You are adding material and visual bulk to the problem area.”
He also said that for a man with big hips, pleats might not be ideal. I was slightly downcast by this, as I like both patch pockets and (single!) pleats, and found the phrase “problem area” a bit clinical. More to my liking, he suggested a jacket with a little more structure in the chest and a hair wider in the shoulder.
The more important message I got from Sigmon, and indeed the other pros I talked to, was more simple and, happily, applies to much more than just tailored clothing: whatever your body type, wear clothes that actually fit. Clothing that is tight and short or baggy and long calls attention to the body, and not in a flattering way.
This is a lesson that should have been learnt from the Thom Browne revolution of a decade ago, which drove men of all shapes and sizes into tight suits with short sleeves and legs. “Browne gave me a lot of business, indirectly,” says Erlend Norby of Taliare in London (where, full disclosure, I have bought several suits). “He made big bodies look ridiculous.”
Every tailor I spoke to bemoaned the low trouser waist of the Browne years, which shortens the leg and emphasises the belly. “Pull the trouser up higher, and you look taller, thinner, healthier,” Paolo Martorano, who runs a bespoke atelier in New York, told me.
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Ten years on from Browne, everything is swinging in the direction of fullness, and the opposite mistakes are being made. “Find clothes that flatter before following the trend of the day,” Martorano says. This is more than sizing: everyone now wants jackets with little structure, especially in the shoulders. But this doesn’t flatter everyone: a little padding helps men with sloping shoulders.
What makes the whole issue trickier is a fact that every tailor and every good dresser knows: nothing is as flattering as feeling good. This is the key corollary to the point about wearing clothes that fit — they make you feel better, which in turn makes you look better.
What’s so tricky about that? Well, feeling good, especially feeling good about how we look, is a complicated business. We have recently had a multiyear global experiment to determine whether it was as simple as wearing our comfiest sweatpants. It’s not, as it turns out.
At the same time, feeling good — in spite of whatever physical shortcomings — is not about the exhausting effort of following a set of principles. Men who manage to look great, despite being built from the same crooked timbers as the rest of us, care about looking good, but not too much; work at it, but not too hard; and have fun at it, but without collapsing into dandyhood. And they do this whether they are fat or bird-chested or hunchbacked or whatever else.
Me and my big hips are not there yet, and may never get there. In the meantime, I’ll settle for flat-front trousers and a little structure in the jacket shoulders.