Some while back, my fellow columnist Simon Crompton and I traded thoughts on the in-between look; that particular style which falls somewhere in the midst of formal and casual.
He commented that Americans probably do this a little better than the English. I retorted that I know more than my share of fellow Americans who can handily prove him wrong – or something to that effect. He probably has a point though; where the English still tilt in favor of more professional work attire, Americans have years of corporate casual under their belts – for better or worse.
Actually defining what constitutes the in-between look is difficult but I eventually settled on Justice Potter Stewart’s criteria of, “I know it when I see it.” But the question still remains; how does one compose an outfit that is neither too dressy nor overly casual? While not exactly the stuff of deep thinking, the truth is it’s harder to pull off than many of us admit. Sure, some actors and celebrities always seem look perfectly in-between but they have access to either well staffed wardrobe departments or a well paid lifestyle consultant.
So, what about the rest of us? How do we find that elusive but stylish place?
The first thing I would say is that the in-between look is more formal than casual; that is, it is an assemblage of clothing and demeanor that shows you have style and taste but are not too fussy. One can look very polished in old jeans, 15-year old brogues, a white oxford and a sport coat. The actor Hugh Grant comes to mind, he perpetually looks like he’s ready for either an evening of bar hopping or an awards gala.
I have heard the in-between look described as informally dressy, or conversely, as casually formal. Whatever you call it, the goal is to be well put together but not really dressed up. At the same time, you do not want to look sloppy or shoddy. The outfit mentioned above would fall apart if the jeans had just been worn while clearing brush or if the jacket was too large and the sleeves had never been hemmed. This is look where details matter a great deal because a fine line is being walked.
I think there is some validity to the argument that American men are more successful at informally dressing well. Another reader, an Italian gentleman, pointed out that European men are often very good at dressing formally but are a bit hesitant when it comes to toning down that level of dress; it’s not a natural move. Where Americans like to match their style of dress to where the want to be – what they aspire to be, if you will – it is still fairly common for Europeans to dress according to social station, even if not deliberately so.
I had never really looked at it that way before. Such a mindset can make the in-between place an awkward and unfamiliar one, even to very accomplished men. A good example of this dilemma was recounted by Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, in his book DC Confidential.
It involves the first meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, which took place at Camp David, the president’s rural Maryland retreat. White House guidelines for the weekend called for a casual dress code but no jeans. Downing Street was stumped; how should Blair dress?
What would have been a ten, maybe 15-minute conversation in the States turned into a major production back in London. After a great deal of debate, he was outfitted in an awkward sweater and dark blue corduroys that were so tight that Blair could barely slip his hands into the pockets. Bush appeared quite comfortable in khakis, button down shirt and a leather flight jacket.
Negotiating the formal v. casual minefield does not always have to take on such international ramifications, but it sure can feel that way sometimes.