Mixing the Hard and the Soft

Posted by: on Dec 21, 2011 | 7 Comments

Usually when talking about hard and soft dressing, I’m talking about tailoring styles.  Here I’m not.  There are two types of garments, hard and soft, and striking a balance will go a long way to making you well dressed.

Broadly speaking, we can divide everything in our closets and dressing boxes into two categories: hard and soft.  Hard garments are things like crisp white shirts, polished calf shoes, and any metal jewelry.  The soft stuff is easier to figure out – flannels, oxford shirts, challis ties, and pretty much anything you find yourself wanting to touch all day.

If you wear too much of the soft stuff you just end up looking sloppy.  Wrinkles and drape are good things, but in excess they go from looking effortless to looking slovenly.  There are exceptions, like putting a tweed jacket, rumpled oxford shirt, wool tie, flannel trousers, and suede shoes together.  But you had better know what you’re doing or you’ll look like a freshman circa 1960 who can’t find his 9am lecture.  Christian Chensvold of Ivy Style knows how to do prep without the shlep.

Pulling off the all-hard look is easier, but I think less elegant.  Worsted suit, precisely-ironed white shirt, sharp twill tie, and gleaming brogues.  Cufflinks catching the light at every opportunity.  It seems so formulaic and conventional if over-done.  Again, I’ll give myself an out, saying that a few city-centric gents I know look more dashing than boring when dressed this way, but they’re the exceptions not the rules.  Most live in London.

The best strategy for most of us is to mix the two.  There are the basics – soft jacket, crisp shirt.  And there are the more quirky combinations – flannel trousers, glossy alligator belt.  I’m writing this in a pair of grey flannel trousers and a cashmere v-neck sweater; only my white broadcloth shirt is keeping me from looking like a giant fuzz-ball.

If you’re prone to dressing one way, punctuate it elements of the other.  I for one tend to dress softly, so using a pressed, double-cuff shirt with metal links as a base for an Ancient Madder tie, wool/silk pocket square, and brown suede loafers keeps me in balance.  If you’re inclined the other way, using accessories like softer ties, pochettes, and knits to balance your more foundational pieces is an easy way to tip the scales back the other way without investing in anything huge.

This isn’t a commandment or a rule.  Just the recommendation that a little balance goes a long way.

Photographs Courtesy of Rose Callahan at Dandy Portraits.



  1. Derek Guy
    December 21, 2011

    Articles like this is why SR is easily one of my top three favorite menswear sites. Well done.

  2. valentine
    December 21, 2011

    Once again, you have spoken to women, as well as men. Thank you!

  3. gentleman
    December 21, 2011

    Stephen, you make an interesting point here. I am not sure, I would fully agree but we can discuss that in person soon.

  4. F.E. Castleberry
    December 23, 2011

    Very solid points and certainly something to certainly consider when getting dressed each morning.

  5. Grant Harris
    December 25, 2011

    Great points here. I know I’m a cub amongst lions, but I think this is similar to the high-low contrast argument, where two different types of styles or dress are tossed together. Like Agnelli wearing a gray flannel suit and combat boots, or Wooster wearing a DB and shorts.

    Personally, I prefer the softer side of dressing, but the rough is a necessary evil. Mastering both is the joy of the journey. Keep up the great writing.

  6. Roger C.
    January 4, 2012

    I tend to be a very soft dresser, but I have found that grenadine ties are particularly effective to set off a tweed or flannel jacket/suit.

    I work in academia, so I guess a dislike of the overly slick comes with the job, and the hard worsted suit/bling silk tie look doesn’t work for me at all.

  7. Yossef
    January 4, 2012

    Interesting, Roger. I wouldn’t expect academia to wholly embrace the hard and come out with an overly slick look. Then again, I’m not in academia, so I don’t see the inside.

    The more you know.


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