The Rules and How to Break Them. No.2

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Rule 2. Do not wear brown in town

It’s worth repeating my maxim from the first instalment in this series: “Rules are there for a reason, but there is nothing wrong with breaking them. These statements are not contradictory. Once you understand the rules, you can work out how to break them effectively.”

So, why does the rule ‘no brown in town’ exist? Because brown was the colour that a gentleman working in the city wore when he returned home, or on the weekend. During the week he wore black, blue or grey, all in suitably dark tones. Brown was the colour of the country, of tweed and felt hats; of shoes more than anything.

The colours of hats and shoes demonstrate this rule most effectively.

Shoes show how English the rule is. For decades other countries have worn shoes other than black for business without any implied lack of decency or formality. The Italians wore little other than brown, the French (though fairly conservative themselves) strayed into other colours, and the Americans developed a fondness for oxblood – as well as a love of brown in some areas.

But for the English, business meant black. They were therefore free to characterise anyone in brown shoes as off-duty, casual, and come up with a rhyming code like ‘no brown in town’ to remind anyone who was tempted to stray.

Hats show how practical the rule still is. Even today, most lovers of hats would say they do not wear a brown hat for business, sticking to blue and grey. In this slightly antiquated item of dress, therefore, the rule continues to be relevant, reminding people that they should treat business with the dignity it deserves (as the Austin Reed maxim goes).

However, the most important thing to realise about this rule is that it is out of date. Brown shoes, suits or jackets are no longer forbidden for business in England, or anywhere else. It is the spirit of the rule that is still relevant – wear business attire for business. In any office there will be items that would be considered unprofessional to wear. For some, that would be trainers, or jeans. In my office, unfortunately, the only thing that would probably be unacceptable would be shorts.

That is what the rule means, and understanding it allows you to break it intelligently. Wear brown, but make sure your attire is always and everywhere appropriate to the work you are doing.


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Simon Crompton is a journalist and a style enthusiast living in London, who blogs at permanentstyle.blogspot.com. He has too many suits.