Why We Dress Now

We wear what we wear to tell the stories we want to tell—of who we are and what we ourselves value, respect, and esteem

Man has been getting dressed every morning of every year since Adam strapped on his vegetal merkin and asked Eve if his bulge was unseemly. Eve, mouth full of apple, was too busy ruining everything forever to answer, leaving Adam to grapple with his leaf, which he has continued to do, in some form or another, ever since.

The leaf has grown in coverage and complexity, and over the last five or six years men's wear has joined fantasy football and Jennifer Lawrence as a singular topic of the collective male interest. Style has become a commodity, and what we wear, and in what combinations and variations, has become an asset to be leveraged for … what exactly? What advantages are to be gained—other than the respect and esteem of friends and enemies, colleagues and clients, and, sure, women—from dressing well? Why are more and more men bothering to dress well at all?

We might find a clue in a pair of all-black drum-dyed leather motoring gloves with crocheted-cotton backs that, on a recent afternoon, lay artfully arranged in a glass display case at Odin, a men's-wear boutique in SoHo. Odin is one of many men's stores that carry a heavily curated selection of small brands with interesting backgrounds, and in that way it is less of a retailer and more of an anthology of short stories. Essays on the well-dressed modern man, these stories are told through the hardwood floors and the old columns with their paint artfully peeling, and by the racks, sparsely populated by obscurantist names like the Tokyo-based designer Julien David, New York's Public School, and Yuketen, a shoe company specializing in classic American footwear.

We wear what we wear to tell the stories we want to tell—of who we are and what we ourselves value, respect, and esteem.

Soon after you enter the store, Taft, or one of the other waifish, bearded, sober-minded fellows who seem always to work at stores such as these (and to have names like Taft), will envelop you like a discrete fog. He'll share with you in a soft-spoken, unsalesman-like way the story of the gloves: that they are manufactured in small batches by Autodromo, which is primarily a watch company founded by Bradley Price, a racing enthusiast and industrial designer who lives in Brooklyn, and that they are modeled on the gloves worn by midcentury race-car drivers, the likes of whom wove around the track in Le Mans clutching the wooden wheels of their Aston Martins and Nash-Healeys.

No one goes motoring anymore, certainly not in New York City, where speed limits are zealously enforced and parking is a bitch. Even if they did, rare and hyperhidrotic is the driver who might sweat enough to require the crochet backs to sop up his perspiration. Yet the gloves are sold out anyway. "People respond to the fact that the gloves were made for a purpose. Even if they have no plans to go driving in them, the gloves tell a story," explains Paul Birardi, cofounder of Odin, even if that story's fictive and mostly wishful.

We wear what we wear to tell the stories we want to tell—of who we are and what we ourselves value, respect, and esteem. Men's wear, to manhandle McLuhan, is our medium. As for why man is compelled to tell stories to express himself, why he turns his voice to song or dance when walking would do, that's some next-level philosophical shit for the ages. But as to what forces of late have prompted him to consider clothes an acceptable mode of self-expression (rather than just a means to cover up and/or conform), that's easier to answer: It was the economy, stupid. Oh, and the Internet.

One could trace the current revival of men's wear to the financial crisis of 2008, which shook our faith in the disembodied world of capital and flickering figures on a computer terminal, and the founding, a year earlier, of Web sites like A Continuous Lean, which features melancholy elegies to vintage-seeming brands like Mister Freedom and Rag & Bone. Just as it seemed late capitalism was imploding, men were welcomed into the nostalgic embrace of old-timey brands. Soon other sites, like The Selby and The Selvedge Yard, were publishing money shots of Steve McQueen in a roll-neck sweater and men with beards on street corners with bluchers and fishtail trousers. These images spread to advertisements and storefronts, and in that dream world clothes became a cri de coeur against PowerPoint and whiteboards, suburban affluenza and corporate malfeasance, harkening back to a time when every man was a craftsman and every welt a Goodyear.

It was an ironic message, considering it was spread largely through the engine of the new economy—that would be the Internet—and one needn't be especially sensitive to irony to note that as heavy manufacturing has declined in the United States, work wear has flourished under the catchall rubric of "heritage" clothing. So overriding was this desire for heritage that a young man engaged in what could be called the creative industries might arrive each morning in the marble lobby of his company's headquarters to join a group of like-minded young men who all seem bused in from a Shendo coal mine in the 1950s. The only things missing would be their tin lunch pails and the black lung. They wear undershirts based on a vintage military issue, marled-cotton sweatshirts inspired by forties athletic gear, and work pants made from heavyweight twill, and carry tote bags made from vintage work pants. They flash their work IDs, nod at the surly security guard, and ride the elevator in silence, staring at their Red Wing boots. But they are going up, not down, with iPhones, not pickaxes, to be sedentary, not to dig through sediment. Their faces pale in their computer monitor's fluorescent light, their backs stooped over from days spent writing things like "inspired by vintage work wear."

Attention to heritage is a yearning to make friends with an industrial past and to insert ourselves into these craftsmen's stories—we can share our values and our belief in lowercase-i industry and the essential dignity of work through a few well-chosen articles of clothing. So it is that the windows of J. Crew and Billy Reid appear as time capsules to an earlier age and catalogs resemble a Dorothea Lange jaunt through an only slightly better looking Appalachia. Never mind that many garments today are made in China or that it would take an average American factory worker nearly seventeen hours to buy a pair of selvage jeans. Such are the wages of the new economy and such its desires. If we can't manufacture goods any longer, at least we can manufacture ourselves. And if this all seems cynical and dark, keep in mind that the self-made man is also quintessentially made in America.

And what of the self-made man who wishes to dress not like the worker but like that worker's boss? Well, he goes to the nice stores. Men's stores follow the same economic calculus as the rest of the world, so it makes sense that the nicer the store and the more expensive the wares, the fewer the men in it. Appropriately, there were no customers at the Madison Avenue flagship of Cesare Attolini, the Neapolitan suit maker widely considered to be the apotheosis of luxury men's wear, on a recent Saturday. The suits range from $5,000 to $60,000. The two-story duplex is a luxury Sahara: bolts of silk and cashmere, an espresso maker, a really nice bathroom, but no men. Nevertheless, said Enrico Libani, the crushingly dapper CEO, the appeal of bespoke clothing is growing. "It's a perfect storm," he explains. "There is a desire for young people to dress well. At the same time, people are hungry to keep the traditions of craftsmanship alive." Not everyone—or really anyone—can afford an Attolini suit. "We are sustained," said Libani, "by two hundred customers, who do about $8 million in business."

At Attolini, the fruit of the human hand is everywhere and nowhere at all. To wear an Attolini suit is not only to slip on a garment so light it seems living, so soft it seems gone, but also to shrug on the stories of the 160 tailors who hand-stitched every blazer, the sons of men who did the same, men who walked the same route around the factory with their hands in the jacket's shoulder, tugging and pulling the fabric until the sleeve came alive. Buying a suit these men have made cannot help but confer upon its owner the strength of the argument that man can never be replaced by machine. That the suit fits really, really well and feels amazing is almost immaterial. Almost.

These days, places like Attolini or such stately pleasure domes as the top floor of Ermenegildo Zegna on Fifth Avenue face competition from a far more democratic, rambunctious class of operations that promises closer, quasicustom fits. Now more than ever, a man doesn't have to spend a lot of money to look as good as he might ever want to look, making dressing well a relatively inexpensive proposition, with few barriers to participation. With a few clicks, a man can get a custom suit from online stores like Indochino or J. Hilburn for less than a grand. (Stories and suits are like dogs and ponies; the purebreds are going to cost you.) Or he can visit the emporium of plenty that is Uniqlo: Rows upon rows and floors upon floors of men's wear in minute and dizzying gradations of color and fit influenced by recent designer collections and offered at joke-seeming prices. (A cashmere sweater for thirty-nine dollars? I'll take three.) Uniqlo is a mass operation, fully mechanized and massive, and it caters to the mass interest in looking good with dazzling efficiency. And though there's nothing handmade here, no bearded craftsmen who toil away listening to NPR and knitting the sweaters by hand, a man can still purchase slim-fitting denim jeans along with a cashmere sweater and a blended-wool two-button blazer and appear, from at least a few feet away, to have come from boutiques like Attolini or Odin. We may not have the means to honor the craftsmanship and integrity of heritage and/or bespoke clothing, but we have the aspiration. To look great. To feel good. And to forge a connection, however real or imaginary, with the human hand.

And that connection matters. If, as Kant argued, no one can respect his own humanity who does not also respect the humanity in others, then a man's clothing carries with it his respect, interwoven and welted on, for the cobblers, tailors, tanners, and weavers who made it. For in respecting their humanity, we respect our own. By telling their stories, we tell our stories. And that is as good a reason to get dressed—and to want to dress well—as any.