Confessions of a Fashion Ignoramus

Shopping tips for the stylistically challenged

NEXT time you stop by a newsstand, take a look at one of those glossy fashion magazines. In it, you'll see grown men wearing purple knee pants, platform shoes, and tank tops made of chain mail. You'll conclude, as I did, that fashion is the province of people on a distant planet.

But lately your favorite chinos, loafers, and tweed sport coats have started turning heads at the office - for the wrong reasons - and that trendy guy in the art department seems to have more dates than a Christmas fruitcake. You see basketball star Charles Barkley saunter into a press conference dressed in a way-hip suit and a colorful tie and you start to wonder if you're missing something.

Well, you are.

Somewhere between collegiate conformity and all-out weirdness, there's a sliver of territory that's worth visiting. It's the neutral zone of men's fashion, a place where you can look good and feel comfortable at the same time. In search of this stylish new world (and at the behest of my editors), I went to Sola, a fashionable boutique in Cambridge, Mass., to do some reconnaissance.

Here's what I learned: designers are chipping away at the conventions of men's fashion. Today's lines are sharper, the colors brighter, and age-old staples like the necktie are becoming optional. Instead of trying to look like everyone else, some men are making an effort to dress distinctively, without causing traffic accidents.

Am I hip enough?

After my visit to the store, I went home and had a confrontation with my wardrobe. I pulled out what I considered to be my hippest duds and spread them out on the bed.

Right from the start, it didn't look good. A few rough calculations led to this disturbing conclusion: Some of my coolest threads date back to high school. I asked my roommate for his opinion. ``If you wore that in Paris,'' he said, ``people would put money in your hat.''

Determined to improve my fashion standing, I began the long and arduous process of wardrobe augmentation. Following are some tips I garnered along the way.

Do your homework

When it comes to implementing a fashion make over, here's a rule: If you've done it before, don't do it again. This means no more looking through the Yellow Pages under ``clothing, men's'' or calling catalog houses and ordering ``what that guy on the cover is wearing.''

Research is the key to building a new fashion attitude. Start by window shopping on your lunch hour to figure out what cuts and colors you look best in and where they're sold.

Since you're just starting out, you might want to avoid big department stores. Variety can be confusing to a novice. Go to a smaller store, because the clothes will usually reflect the tastes of just one buyer. To tell if you're in the right place, check out the salespeople. If you like the clothes they're wearing, chances are you've found a home.

A second opinion

When the act of shopping becomes unavoidable, most men resort to a phenomenon that scientists call the ``Male Shopping Reflex.'' It works like this: Shortly after shopping begins, a man will feel an overwhelming desire to seek advice from a woman.

Don't panic, this is quite natural. It can also be a good shopping strategy if the woman you bring along has good taste and isn't harboring any grudges against you. Here is a list of women to take advice from, in descending order of effectiveness:

1. A close friend or co-worker

2. Your wife or girlfriend

3. Your sister

4. Madonna

5. Your mother

Studies show that men who shop with their mothers usually wind up with clothes that ``won't wear out at the knees or show grass-stains.''

Speed is good

Many men are incapable of spending more than one hour in a clothing store without wanting to pound their chests and swing from trees. Here are four ways to shorten your shopping.

First, let the salespeople find your size and whisk away the clothes you've already tried on. The more you allow yourself to be waited on, the more resolve you'll have left when it's time to reach for your wallet.

Second, don't try on everything in the store. Even though that velour dinner jacket looks great on Ken the muscular mannequin, it might make you look like you've been standing too close to the microwave.

It's OK to try something different, but bear in mind that while dull clothes get you nowhere, stuff from the 1970s might get you fired.

Third, make sure you're in the men's section. Clothes are becoming more androgynous these days, so don't be surprised if you accidentally head to the wrong side of the store and start holding up ``shirts'' that turn out to be ``blouses.'' Nobody will laugh at you, unless of course you've wandered into the lingerie department.

Fourth, use the mirror. I know you used to tease your sister for spending two hours a day striking alluring poses with a hairbrush, but there's no other way to prevent a bad choice of size, color, or fabric from leaving the store with you. One minute in the mirror is better than two hours in the car, circling the block for a parking space so you can return the stuff.

On the cheap

Greek mythology has it that Zeus, the god of all gods, was often troubled by the fact that the toga didn't allow men enough latitude for personal expression. So, with a crackling thunderbolt from Mount Olympus, he created the necktie.

A good suit can look like an entirely different suit with a change of neckwear. It's one of the few cheap strategies that won't make you look like a moron.

Along these lines, remember that a seasonal close-out sale is a good opportunity to cash in on bargains. The best time to buy spring clothes, for instance, is early in the summer.

Buy the best

Buy high-quality clothes that will last, even if they cost more. Here's why: Class Shows. And it pays, too.

Instead of putting up another hanging bar in your closet for all the schlock you never wear, take good care of the clothes that you have.

Brace for compliments

When you finally show up at work in your new kicks, be prepared for the slew of attention you're bound to get.

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