One of the key tenets of classic style is to always dress appropriately for the occasion, which is most often stipulated by the required level of formality. But which articles of clothing are appropriate to different levels of formality, and how do they rank in comparison to one another?
For an event hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, you’d select different items than you would for office work or for a weekend brunch with friends. In this article, we present some general principles to determine the formality of nearly any menswear item and provide you with a list of clues to recognize where they fall on the scale of casual to formal.
The General Rules of Formality
Every item of clothing and every accessory falls somewhere on the continuum of formality, and there are some broader principles you can use to see at a glance where that is.
1. Casual vs. Formal Colors
As a rule, brighter colors are more casual than somber ones. A mid-blue suit, for example, is less formal than one in navy blue or charcoal gray.
A useful technique to sort this out is to think of colors one could typically wear in the summer as casual, no matter what the season–beige, white, or light blue, for example. Although not really a bright color, brown is also more casual than navy or grey. A lot of this is owed to the long-established British distinction between city and country wear. Browns were not supposed to be worn in town, which immediately associates the color with a more casual rural setting than the charcoal grey or navy one would wear when doing business in London.
2. Casual vs. Formal Texture
The smoother and often the shinier the fabric, the more formal it generally is. A textured basketweave fabric would be more likely to appear on a sports coat than a classic suit, and corduroy would make for casual trousers, not dress pants. As a general guideline, if there’s strong visual evidence of the weave or texture, it’s more casual.
3. Patterns and Formality
Similarly to texture, patterns also play a role in assessing formality. Articles of clothing with patterns tend to be less formal than those that are plain. Indeed, in British tailoring, many of the most popular and classic menswear patterns, particularly any plaid–from houndstooth to glen check, to Prince of Wales–were originally reserved for less formal country wear. A possible exception could be ties and pocket squares, as all sorts of patterns are acceptable on silk business ties (the printed silk it’s made of supersedes any informality of pattern).
Even formal morning wear allows ties with patterns on them, whether geometric or stripes; however, a solid color tie would still be considered more conservative. Among patterns, those that are smaller and therefore less forceful are more formal than those that are large or loud. A mistake commonly made by beginners looking to “dress up” is buying designer or fashion items that usually have a lot of ornamentation, for instance, a gold and black jacket, when the exact opposite–a lack of pattern–would actually be more refined.
4. Structure and Formality
Another rule in classic menswear is that the more something is structured the more formal it is. In the realm of suit jackets and sports coats, those with canvas, lining, and padding have greater formality than those that are unlined or partially lined with unpadded shoulders.
5. Purpose and Formality
Knowing the origins and historic uses of the article of clothing, which you can learn from The Gentleman’s Gazette, can also be a way of judging it. If you have something that was originally intended to be worn in the country, for sport, or for utilitarian purposes, like a flat cap or a polo shirt, it would more casual than something intended as business attire.
Now, having provided the clues that enable you to assess the formality of clothing in general, we can turn our attention to the earmarks of specific wardrobe items.
Continuing the discussion above, when dealing with suit jackets or sports coats, quite simply, more structure means a greater degree of formality. It is therefore not surprising that men who are accustomed to wearing highly structured suits every day for work turn to unstructured jackets in the Neapolitan style when they’re not on the job precisely because they are more relaxed.
The broader rules about materials and patterns also apply, with coarse or patterned jackets tending toward the casual end of the spectrum contrasted with smooth, solid ones. We can easily rank the most common materials used for tailored jackets in order of casualness based on their general “roughness”: linen, then cotton, then wool–with raw or rough wools (tweed and flannel) being a rung below worsted, and, lastly, cashmere.
Unique among menswear items, pocket style on a jacket serves as a strong indicator of how casual or formal it is. Patch pockets, which are formed from material sewn onto the surface of the jacket’s lower front quarters, are the most casual; they are common on sports coats and casual suits. If there is a patch breast pocket as well, the jacket becomes even more relaxed.
Next up are flap pockets. Usually, with flap pockets, no additional material is used on the surface of the jacket; the pockets are hidden beneath the surface of the jacket with only the flap visible. Flap pockets were originally associated with country wear in British tailoring but are now most common on business suits, though they may also feature in sports coats.
Lastly, lapels are an easy way to assess a jacket’s formality.
In a nutshell, a notched lapel is less formal than a peaked lapel, which is the most formal kind, appearing on power suits and formal wear. On a tuxedo or dinner jacket, you may also see a shawl collar; this is limited to formal jackets, so it remains more elevated than a notch lapel but is still more relaxed than a peak lapel. Thus, for example, a white dinner jacket that would be worn on a summer cruise should technically have a shawl collar given the relatively relaxed nature of the garment compared to a black tuxedo.
As a visual cue to assess formality, if a pair of pants has a sharp crease down the center of the legs, it’s more formal than one with a smooth front. The former are “dress pants,” while the latter would also include chinos and jeans. The “crease” division not coincidentally conforms to the rule of materials as well because dress pants are mostly made of wool while chinos are made from cotton or linen. Frankly, wool holds a crease much better than cotton or linen.
What looks at first glance like the same plain white dress shirt can offer varying levels of formality depending on factors like the weave, the cuffs, and the collar. With its relative thickness, somewhat rough texture, and patch pocket, the Oxford cloth typical of the classic OCBD shirt is considered among the more casual dress shirting fabrics. For this reason, they add a casual touch to tailoring and may be more associated with sports coats than business suits, though the rule is flexible.
Dress shirt collars come in a variety of forms, and, once more, the button-down collar is the most casual, perhaps because of its association with the OCBD, or with the sport of polo, or because it shows visible buttons.
After this, the point, semi-spread, and spread are about equal in terms of formality, and all are appropriate for business settings. They can’t really be ordered in terms of formality, though arguably, because variants of the spread collar are de rigueur with tuxedos, it may be somewhat more elevated. Collars with vintage appeal, such as a tab collar, hearken back to a more formal time and are consequently seen as more formal especially when worn with a tie pin. The wing collar may be the most formal of all, as it is only worn with formal wear and has associations with vintage style.
This is an easy one since, unlike collars, there are only a few kinds of shirt cuffs. Basically, a standard button (or “barrel”) cuff is least formal, followed by French or double cuffs that require cufflinks, appropriate for more formal business shirts, black tie, and morning dress. Single cuffs with links, the most formal style, are reserved for white tie.
Where wool reigns supreme as the formal fabric for tailored jackets and dress pants, silk is the queen of tie fabrics. However, not all silks are equally formal. Ties made of raw (shantung) or wild (tussah) silk that shows a lot of texture or slubbiness and those that are knitted (as opposed to woven) silk are perfect to wear with casual tailoring. An interesting exception is grenadine, which is a popular choice for business wear even though the weave is quite an obvious feature. Perhaps this is owed to its shininess.
In order from least formal to most formal dress shoes (excluding boots), we have loafers, derbies, monk straps, and oxfords. The very name “loafer” implies casual relaxation as does its slipper-like form. Derby shoes were originally country wear though they are at home with sport coats and even suits these days; still their association with casual settings remains. Monk straps are sort of at the same formality levels as derbies, but they are perhaps more frequently worn with suits than a derby would be.
Lastly, we have oxfords, which are the most formal of shoes, equally useful for suits and formal wear. Color also matters, with black shoes considered more elevated than brown, again based on the old British “no brown in town” rule. Indeed, even now many men will only wear black shoes with navy or gray business suits though brown is worn for everything in Italy and has become more acceptable with suits in most settings. The principles of shine and texture also apply, with suede and nubuck shoes being more laid back than polished calf leather. Beyond these principles, two factors–ornamentation and structure–are also influential when determining the formality of shoes.
With shoes, less is more (formal, that is), in terms of broguing and other ornamental details like wingtips. Case in point: the black patent oxfords worn with evening attire are actually quite plain except for their high shine, and for everyday business wear, black oxfords with a plain cap toe are appropriate. In fact, these black oxfords are also the shoe to wear with a formal morning suit. However, those who are new to classic style may be drawn to the intricate perforations that form the broguing on a shoe. They assume because broguing is so ornate and requires extra leatherwork that more of it equals a fancier shoe. On the contrary, simple is more elegant, something we can remember when we keep in mind that brogue perforations were originally designed for drainage on country shoes.
Although all loafers can be called mocassini in Italian, even these can be sub-divided in terms of how much structure they have. A soft loafer is generally made of suede and is quite slipper-like, looking more like what one would consider a true moccasin. It’s an excellent shoe for summer weather as it is very lightweight and comfortable, which also makes it casual. Structured loafers can come in either suede or calf leather but are firmer and by virtue of this, more formal in appearance.
Knowing whether an item from your wardrobe is casual or formal, and to exactly what degree, can be important. It can help you decide whether what you are wearing is formal enough for an occasion or whether it’s too formal for everyday situations. It can also help you coordinate and pair aspects of what you wear because you’ll know, for example, that oxford shoes don’t usually work with jeans unless you’re trying to make a statement with the incongruity. Fortunately, there are certain qualities and earmarks that help you sort out where items reside on the scale of formality and thus which ones go together.