Posted: February 15, 2003
Editors' Note: Mr. Antongiavanni is just putting the finishing touches on a book that will give fresh relevance to Niccolo Machiavelli's classic, The Prince. We are proud to present an exclusive sampling from the first few stylish chapters.
Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are.
—Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII
How Many Are the Kinds of Bodies and in What Modes They Should Be Adorned
All human male bodies are either diminutive, of medium height, or tall; and slender, muscular or of superfluous girth. Now, men may look good either due to fortune or virtue. But since Fortune's powers are unfortunately beyond our control, our natural appearance may be pleasing or not according to her whims. Thus a man must have recourse to his own virtue if he is to look presentable on all occasions; and this virtue consists in the exercise of the body and the mind. I shall leave out reasoning on exercising the body, since that has been treated at length by those who understand it. I will discuss only the exercise of the mind, by learning which clothes best suit which forms. As Xenophon wrote in his life of Cyrus, it is not reasonable that a big man wear a little coat, or a small man wear a big coat, and expect to look smart. Since tailored clothing can make a man look either rakish or ridiculous, as well as shorter or taller or fatter or thinner, it is necessary for him to choose models, fabrics, and patterns that flatter his shape while minimizing its defects.
Of Average Men
For men of average height and build, the rules are simple: the average man can wear whatever he wants. Nonetheless, the rules discussed below apply to him especially, because his commonness makes him less able to carry off eccentricities of detail. But in terms of fabric, pattern, and model, his choices are limited only by the occasion. Thus the average man should feel free to wear linens in the summer, flannels in the winter, glen plaids to the office, and chalk stripes to dinner parties; he may choose single- or double-breasted jackets, button-down or spread collars, and lace-up or slip-on shoes. He should only contrive to avoid looking ridiculous, as was said.
Of Diminutive Men
But the difficulties reside in all those who are not average. I begin with the diminutive man, who wishes to look taller. The universally recommended modes are to wear only suits made of worsted cloth and to avoid patterns. For most woolen cloths, such as flannels and tweeds, are bulky and thus make one look wider rather than taller; and patterns achieve the same effect by emphasizing unhelpful horizontal lines. Because they encourage the eye to move up and down, stripes are recommended for the short man, provided they are not too far apart. Solids ought also to be a staple of the short man's wardrobe, as they make him look slimmer and thus taller. And short men always look better in suits than in odd jackets and trousers, because the latter cut him in half visually. As to neckwear, solids elongate best, while discreet stripes and small patterns can be worn without harm; and ties any wider than three inches should be avoided.
For an example, there is Ross Perot, who attires his tiny frame only in dark worsteds—either solid or striped—always in a solid shirt, and usually in a striped tie. Fortunately for Mr. Perot, the dress codes of both business and politics coincide almost exactly with those modes that most recommend for the short.
But others have shown greater virtue in attiring themselves. Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney employed other modes, such as wearing their trousers at the natural waist—that is, so that they fasten approximately at the belly button. This elongates the appearance of the legs and shortens the torso, thereby promoting an illusion of height. At the other end, their trousers were always long enough to remain in contact with their shoes even when walking.
They also wore shorter jackets because the longer his jacket, the shorter a short man looks, much of his legs being lost under all that extra cloth. Reason requires of all men that their jackets always adequately cover their behinds; in the case of the diminutive man, it is imperative that it extend no further. Nor should sleeves extend beyond the wrist bone, for overlong sleeves make you look a boy wearing your father's jacket, in which case you will not be taken seriously. And your jackets should be nipped in at the waist rather than hang straight, for this has a slimming effect. I wish to add here that a jacket with higher shoulder pads is an absolute boon to the diminutive man, because the raised collar and shoulder line increases the sense of height more than any other mode. When such jackets have lapels with high notches, so much the better.
And if you consider these things carefully and observe them in the films of Cagney and Robinson, you will see that, though diminutive, they never appeared distractingly short but always well-proportioned and elegant.
Turning now to the other modes, I say that some recommend three-button jackets for the short man, and others two. And since the shorter lapels of a three button jacket make him look like a sawed-off Oliver Hardy, the short man is better off with two, since longer lapels emphasize the vertical line. Nonetheless, should a three-button jacket's lapels be rolled to the middle button—that is, made so that the top button is purely decorative, or what tailors call "idle"—then it is acceptable or even helpful, for the lapels on such a jacket tend to be narrower, and the idle button and buttonhole, though never closed, slightly add to the illusion of verticality.
And, as is the common understanding, diminutive men should not wear double-breasted jackets. Their extra flap of cloth in front increases your sense of bulk; their double set of buttons increases your sense of width; and their peaked lapels add an additional pair of horizontal lines. The net effect is to make you look like a fireplug, and men who look like fireplugs look ridiculous. Yet in spite of these dangers, many diminutive men nonetheless wear double-breasted garments.
And truly it is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to be well-attired, and always, when men wear stylish garments who can, they will be praised or not blamed; but when they cannot, and wear them anyway, here lie the error and the blame. Thus the short man who is drawn to double-breasted jackets should consider instead single-breasted jackets with peaked lapels. Despite the absence of this garment from the department stores, it is nonetheless quite proper—and, because of its smartness and its rarity, is greatly favored by dandies. And if someone should say: but peaked lapels add to the horizontal line, I reply with the reasons given above: that it is the double row of buttons and extra fabric of double-breasted suits that create the added sense of width, and make peaked lapels look like the arms of a fire hydrant, whereas on single breasted suits they look rakish. From this one may draw a general rule that never or rarely fails: whatever accentuates the way your body is, at the expense of how it should appear, however much you may love it, it cannot be worn.
Of Tall Men
Tall men tend to look gawky, gangly or gaunt; in sum rather like Ichabod Crane. Heavier cloths, such as flannels and tweeds, and also busier patterns, such as plaids and windowpanes, make him look more substantial and less like a beanpole. And in the case of shirtings, checks are most efficacious; in neckwear, stripes; and in accessories, boldness and clutter: the tall man's breast pocket should always house a handkerchief; his shirts should take cufflinks; his tie can be bold and should always be clipped; and collar bars also help. Stripes, whether on suits or shirts, do not help the tall man, and even cause great harm if they are thin and close together. And he ought to avoid bow ties, especially with suits and always in the absence of a vest.
The tall man should never wear skimpy or tight-fitting clothes, for they only make him look leaner and thus taller; as do jackets with square, built-up shoulders or narrow lapels, or that have no vents, or that do not cover his seat, since nothing contributes more to a tall man's ruin than a short jacket. If he can find a jacket with shoulders that extend slightly beyond his natural width, so much the better; but he must take care that they are not so broad as to suggest NFL equipment.
And...double-breasted jackets are most useful for the tall, because their double row of buttons and extra flap of cloth add to the sense of width at the expense of height, and also because all those buttons and the peaked lapels augment that clutter praised above. But his double-breasted suits should never be buttoned at the bottom button but always at the waist, for the long lapel roll effects an illusion of height that he does not need.
In terms of detail, the more the better. Thus the tall man's jacket should always have four outside pockets, and except for the breast pocket, these should always have flaps. Now, most jackets seen in America will only have three pockets—one over the left breast, and one over each hip. This imparts an extra touch of panache to your clothes, and adds to the clutter that de-emphasizes the vertical line. On trousers, cuffs are essential, as are pleats, because their extra cloth and fullness add bulk.
With respect to shirts, aside from including checks, small plaids, and horizontal and busy antique stripes in his wardrobe, he must also (assuming that like most tall men his neck is long) assure that his collars sit higher than is the norm on most ready-made shirts, lest all that protruding neck make him look like a stork. Boldly patterned and brightly colored ties work better for him than for other men, although striped ties, because they break up verticality, are the most beneficial.
And I wish the example of talk show host Conan O'Brien to suffice. Architecturally, his clothes are sound. But in no other respect do they benefit his lofty frame. And this is doubtless due to the influence of some media image consultant or network wardrobe prince who professes knowledge of what ought to be worn on television. And truly if his client were a politician or some other burdened by the necessity that he offend no one, the advice would be sound. But in the case of a show business personality, it is harmful, for people expect those with more money, more fame, and more delightful jobs than themselves to be more stylish; and when they are not, do not trust them, for they consider that all that opportunity afforded them has been squandered.
So in all Conan makes these five errors: he does not wear patterns; always wears dark worsteds; never wears a handkerchief nor any other detail or accessory; rarely wears striped ties; does not wear double-breasted jackets. Yet these errors would not hurt him if he did not make a sixth: wearing three-button single-breasted jackets with lapels rolled to the top button. For these jackets are most deleterious to the tall man, because their high button stance and narrow lapels make for an excess of cloth in the chest that covers so much shirt and tie which, when exposed, help to break up verticality. And if someone should suggest that he wear his jacket unbuttoned, I reply that nothing is more sloppy, especially for the tall man, for his jacket being of necessity longer, there is more of it flapping about and drawing attention away from his face. And so a prudent tall man will eschew these errors, and attire himself more in the mode of Fox anchor Brit Hume, who adheres to the rules set forth above.