Russell Smith on the essentials of men's style

Developing a sense of personal style is tremendously important. How might one go about doing this? Russell Smith, author of

FLORIDA, September 6, 2012 — Developing and cultivating a sense of personal style is no small feat.

For some, such a thing comes naturally. Others, meanwhile, might find it to be the stuff of cruel and unusual punishment. Either way, it is a good idea to consider advice from those who know the subject best. 

Russell Smith is one of our time’s foremost fashion journalists. His 2007 book Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress was met with widespread acclaim. This is for good reason, considering that he went far beyond discussing trends. From the history of men’s apparel to the psychology of dressing well, nary a stone was left unturned.

Russell Smith, author

Russell Smith, author

In a detailed discussion with me, he explains about how men are surprisingly style conscious, why they should take pride in their apparel selections, and much more.  


Joseph F. Cotto: Women, generally speaking, are portrayed as caring more about their apparel choices than men do. Is this actually the case, judging from your experience? 

Russell Smith: Men are just as concerned about their clothes and appearance, but their concern takes a different form: it is a concern to not appear concerned. Most men are petrified of standing out in any way, or being thought superficial.

Cotto: Over the last several decades, our society has become considerably more informal. Why do you suppose this has happened?

Smith: The answer that’s generally given is that it is a result of democracy. But I don’t buy the idea that casual dressing perpetuates democratic attitudes: quite the opposite — in a largely slobbish world, the privileged stand out even more — if only to each other — by their dress.

Cotto: In your opinion, have casual dress codes gone too far? Might they become counterproductive, especially insofar as business climates are concerned? 

Smith: I am happy if people are comfortable at work. I think the Casual Fridays trend is finally over, and that’s a good thing.

What I don’t understand is why men have decided that they like wearing hats indoors. It makes no sense to me. 

Cotto: For most men, casual attire means dungarees and a T-shirt. Is there a more refined approach to dressing informally?

Dungarees! There’s a word I haven’t heard in a while. I’m guessing you mean jeans? Up here in Canada I think most people use dungarees to mean denim overalls with a bib front. I wonder if there is some regional variance here. I am fascinated by these linguistic questions (these days possibly even more than the sartorial ones).

I don’t mind jeans at all — especially with a crisp sport shirt and a blazer, and good shoes.

Cotto: The necktie has seen a drastic reduction in popularity as of late. Nonetheless, it is beginning to make a comeback of sorts. Do you think that the necktie will ever go out of style completely, or is it one of those things that will always stick around?

Smith: Men have been wearing some kind of knotted scarf as a shirt closure since at least the 1600s. I think ties will be with us in some form for another 100 years at least.

Cotto: Men’s clothing designer Alan Flusser has written much about “permanent fashionability”. Do you believe that many of today’s fashions will remain popular over the years ahead? What are some prime examples of apparel which has stood the test of time?

Smith: Sadly, I don’t really believe in the idea of timeless fashion. It’s an oxymoron. If “classic fashion” really never changed, we’d all still be wearing togas. Male uniforms evolve very slowly — over centuries rather than decades — but they do evolve. So it is unfortunately necessary for the stylish man to pay some attention to changing fashions.

Cotto: Men’s apparel writer Andy Gilchrist has said that when one goes out, it is best to dress as if he or she is headed to a job interview. Do you agree with this ethic?

Smith: I like to say that one should dress so that one is prepared for a countess to pull up in a convertible and ask you out for a martini.

Cotto: If you could give men one reason to take pride in their clothing selections, what would it be?

Smith: Both men and women take more seriously those who dress like grownups.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such an authority on men’s attire. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Smith: My father was a graduate student at Oxford in the early 1960s, where the conventions and etiquette of clothing were crucial to the pervasive class consciousness of the place and time. He taught me the most conservative and upper-class of British sartorial codes — these are the codes that influenced the rest of the Western world since the height of the Empire. My mother, a noted beauty, subscribed to fashion magazines since my earliest childhood. I started writing about clothes in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, in the early 1990s, and have published a book called Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress (St Martin’s Press).


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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