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How To Develop Good Taste

Anyone who showed good taste in their choices and conduct was a gentleman. Good taste, thus, was both an indicator of belonging to ‘good society,’ and the main criterion of entry into it

Article contribution by Die Work Wear

Picture: Prince Achileas Andreas of Greece and Denmark and his older brother Prince Konstantinos Alexios of Greece and Denmark (credit: Facebook)

To exhibit good taste is to put yourself in closer proximity to elites, if not to be within their company. “Anyone who showed good taste in their choices and conduct was a gentleman. Good taste, thus, was both an indicator of belonging to ‘good society,’ and the main criterion of entry into it,” Gronow explains. “Taste was essentially both an aesthetic and a moral category; in other words, these senses could not be separated from each other. Thus, decent conduct, dress, and decorum were all indicators of an individual’s moral and aesthetic value, or good taste. What was tasteful was both decent and virtuous, too.”

Picture: Christian Sieber & Alex Rivière-Sieber (credit: Getty Images)

We see this dynamic at work today when we browse menswear blogs and forums. When you look across the entire landscape of men’s dress—which is made of balkanized communities oriented around niche aesthetics, such as workwear, streetwear, and the avant-garde—classic menswear is the only one that routinely gets wrapped with moralizing language about respectability. Of course, we should all strive to practice the kind of virtues Cardinal John Henry Newman described in his essay on what it means to be a gentleman. But discussions about the respectability of dress are rarely so thoughtful. Instead, they are often about a suited man wishing to signal his supposed social status in relation to the hoi polloi. In this way, dress and etiquette become nothing more than aping the aesthetics and behavior of the ruling class. Critical theorist Max Horkheimer described this dynamic as a kind of internalized repression, “inserting social power more deeply into the very bodies of those it subjugates.” 

The tragedy is that none of these things are enough to fashion you into a gentleman, even in the socio-economic sense of the term. In drawing a comparison between Bourdieu’s study of modern France and Stephen Mennell’s historical research on England and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Gronow writes:

"The lifestyle of the modern ruling class or bourgeoisie resembles that of Mennell’s court nobility: knowledge of etiquette is self-evident and its members are sovereign in their mastery of good manners. All the sensual and corporeal aspects of eating are concealed behind the strict formality of table manners. Pleasure is anticipated and constrained rather than satisfied. The modern French petit bourgeois is a typical parvenu, a country squire or nouveau riche who longs for rules and guidance in etiquette, for gastronomic guide books, in order to be able to live à la mode but never really succeeding in his efforts. He only reveals his real social origins by the insecurity of his conduct and by following the rules of etiquette all too rigorously. The main problem is not the thickness of the wallet, but rather the fact that it takes more than that to make a gentleman."

Jukka Gronow, "The Sociology of Taste"


The deepening of democratization and industrial mass-production, as well as the evolution of consumer societies, have all destroyed the old rules and rhythms of fashion. Cultural influence can now spread throughout a complex network rather than flow just from the top down. I think this change is generally a good thing and it has made our world aesthetically richer. The ruling class may draw aesthetic inspiration from the working class, who may draw inspiration from a particular musician or artist. Cultural power is no longer just about money and bloodlines; it can bloom from merit, virtue, and talent. We also live in different cultural communities that can operate according to their own notions of taste; we don’t have to follow whatever is set by an archduke of a Vogue editor. In a 2015 New York Times article, fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote eloquently about a “post-trend universe,” where “there is no single trend that demands our attention, much less our allegiance, as so many options are available to us at once.” Kennedy Fraser noticed the same thing when she took her post as a fashion columnist for The New Yorker in 1970. “After [1970], there was no longer any unabashedly accepted, universal fashion authority, and no real point in reporting the latest word of fashion news each season,” she wrote in the foreword of The Fashionable Mind. Style and taste have never been more democratic. 

The paradox of modern society is that people are relatively free to choose how they present themselves, while at the same time, are almost forced to construct a cultural identity through a series of consumer decisions. Whether we choose to or not, we broadcast our identity through the goods and practices we possess and display. With so many choices today, many people are left anxious. “Am I wearing the right thing to the office?” “How do I dress for this summer barn wedding?” “Does my wardrobe reflect who I really am?” This is largely why taste has become such a salient topic of modern life. 

So how does one develop good taste? Let me offer some suggestions:

Picture: Princess Maria-Olympia (credit: Facebook)

Start With An Aesthetic: Everything is contextual to an aesthetic. A hundred years ago, the scope for good taste—what Bourdieu would describe as legitimate taste—was confined to the taste of the ruling class. That is no longer the case today. This means rules about colors, silhouettes, proportions, and other such ideas are contextual to the aesthetic you’re trying to create. I’ve written some posts about how to think about silhouettes and color. But whenever a reader emails me to ask whether black pairs with blue or if a particular garment fits correctly, I feel that, in today’s culturally open world, you have to start with the aesthetic, not compartmentalize things as universal rules. This is partly why some guys who favor classic tailored clothing struggle with casualwear—they try to transport cultural ideas about suits and sport coats to very different aesthetics, such as workwear or sportswear. Sometimes rules can stretch across aesthetic spaces (like ideas linking romantic languages); sometimes, they do not (like trying to apply English grammar rules to Chinese). Derive your rules from aesthetics and your aesthetics from culture.

Think Of Fashion As Language: Questions about taste are more easily answered if you think of fashion as language, rather than purely as artistic expression. MIT linguist Noam Chomsky is famous for his phrase “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” which is an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical. A “good” sentence is more than just following grammatical rules; it’s about taking into account how different parts come together to create meaning. Take a look at the Instagram accounts for companies such as Aime Leon Dore (inspired by 1990s NYC), Savas (sophisticated rock ‘n roll), Canoe Club for Story Mfg (community gardener), and J. Press (American Ivy). All of these accounts rely purely on photos and videos—no words. Yet, they are able to communicate complex stories about identity and culture. Consider your outfits as a similar form of visual communication. 

Develop Your Vocabulary: Pay attention to films, TV shows, books, art, music, and the various subcultures in different eras (both contemporary and historical). This is not because, as the Goldsteins suggested, the principles that define good art can be used to create good outfits. It’s because fashion is a reflection of culture. Clothes carry the messages we use to convey our identity, whether real or aspirational. Paying attention to culture can help you broaden and hone your vocabulary. If you love classic menswear, as I do, the best way to understand that aesthetic is to review how Hollywood stars, European industrialists, American intellectuals, and Old Money elites dressed from the 1930s through the ’80s, since they defined that fashion. (It goes without saying that I think you can love this aesthetic without being classist about it.) You don’t have to be a strict recreationist and dress like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. But knowing the basic contours of that look can allow you to express it in more natural ways today without losing sight of what makes that style so charming in the first place. 

Picture: Korn Narongdej and Sririta Jensen Narongdej (credit: @kornnarongdej)

Think Of The Whole Package: This is a complex topic, and it can’t be easily distilled into advice. But the general idea is to be truthful about how your dress interacts with your physical appearance and lifestyle. On the one hand, it’s always easier to dress according to your stereotype—a husky man can look great in workwear in a way that a very skinny person may not be able to pull off. At the same time, I love when people dress against people’s expectations: nerdy guys in black double riders, rebels in conservative tweeds, young people dressed like older people, older people dressed in a younger person’s fashions, masculine people in feminine clothes, feminine people in masculine clothes, etc. When it comes to style, recognize that you can’t convincingly adopt someone’s wardrobe any more than you can mimic their manner of speaking (again, to bring it back to language). Pay attention to how other people use language so you can broaden your horizons, but allow your use of language to be natural to you. Good taste ultimately reflects something about you.

Rely On People And Stores: Over the years, I’ve come to know a few people who have developed remarkably tasteful wardrobes in a short period of time. Without fail, it’s because they relied on people with good taste. Some relied on the right tailors or merchants. Others had the advice of trusted friends. Whenever I have a question about a watch, I turn to Greg Lellouche, Mark Cho, or David Lane. When I want to get an opinion on a fabric for a bespoke project, I ask George Wang. Recently, I was wondering if I should get my polo coat made with machine- or hand-finished lapels. Given the very trad style, I turned to Bruce Boyer for advice. 

Over the last forty or fifty years, fashion has gone through what I’ve called The Great Uncoupling. Instead of going to clothiers such as J. Press or Brooks Brothers for their entire wardrobe, people now buy socks from sock companies, jeans from jean companies, and untuckable shirts from untuckable shirt companies. I think this is a terrible development. There’s real value in going to a store with a point of view and working with merchants (or tailors) who can guide you towards better choices. Be cautious about trying to do this on your own. Be wary of MTO shoe companies that will sell you expensive shoes according to whatever wild thing you imagined while on hallucinogenic drugs. Or group order projects where people design things by committee. Find people who can help guide you towards a more tasteful, coherent wardrobe, especially if you’re just learning to use clothes as language. 

Buy And Experiment: Ultimately, you just have to buy things and experiment. If you want to know whether tassel loafers or military surplus pants work for you, you can only consume so much visual media before you buy a pair and see for yourself. Fortunately, it has never been easier to resell things, either directly through platforms such as eBay and Grailed, or by going through consignors such as LuxeSwap and Marrkt. Sample slowly and let your experience guide you. When wearing new things, try to see what you like or don’t like about the style, so you can refine your taste and choose better purchases in the future. I wrote a post for Put This On once about how to build a wardrobe that allows you to experiment. Embrace this as a fun, lifelong process. 

Picture: King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands Facebook

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