The Four Stages Of Menswear

This is a topic I touched on briefly a few weeks ago in my “When The Journey Ends” article. In that piece I wrote about how I feel I have moved into a new phase in my menswear journey.

Today, I would like to go into more detail regarding all the stages of menswear, as I see them.

There are four stages that the “regular” person will go through. I say “regular” because this list may not apply to someone who is, like, a vintage sneaker collector, or some other kind of enthusiast. Given that person’s hobbies or work responsibilities, they might never progress through these stages the way a normal person who doesn’t obsess about clothes would.

Stage #1 – The Realization

The most logical of all, stage number one is the Realization Stage. It’s the stage where you first become aware of how your clothing affects your relationships, both personal and professional. Usually, this takes the form of realizing you want to dress better.

Maybe you overheard a snide comment. Maybe you finally have enough money to spend on nicer clothes. Maybe you got a promotion and need to look the part. Maybe you want to impress that cute girl you met the other night.

Whatever the reason or circumstances, step one is the “I Need To Get My Shit Together” stage. The “I Need To Start Looking Like An Adult” stage.

I lingered in stage one for many years. I first got the inkling that I needed to dress better when I was working at a museum in Dublin, Ireland. I was twenty-two and just out of college, and I, regrettably, looked the part.

One morning, I read a poll published in a local newspaper that asked readers about items of clothing they would never wear in public. A hooded sweatshirt was on the list.

“Wait a minute”, I thought. “I wear hooded sweatshirts every day. What’s wrong with a hooded sweatshirt?”

Apparently, hooded sweatshirts were associated with juvenile delinquents.

“Oh, crap”, I thought. “Here I am, trying to make a good impression and everyone thinks I look like those obnoxious punks smoking cigarettes on the street corner with their pants tucked into their socks.”

It was one of the first times in my life when I realized that my clothing choices could have potentially negative consequences.

The time I spent in Ireland had a positive effect on my sense of style. I eschewed hoodies for sweaters. Wore more collared shirts. Opted for a bit more of a tailored look, altogether.

Despite this improvement in my overall look, I still had no real clue about traditional menswear. That all changed once my wife and I got engaged.

As we started the early stages of wedding planning, I decided I wanted to wear a tuxedo on the day. The problem was that I really didn’t know what a tuxedo was or how it was supposed to look.

That’s when I stumbled on Peter Marshall’s online Black Tie Guide (which I think now is owned by Gentlemen’s Gazette). I read the entire website numerous times. I learned not only about the black tie dress code, but about menswear on the whole.

I learned about fit, proportion, and etiquette. That knowledge awakened even more questions and led me down many online and printed sartorial rabbit-holes.

The Realization Stage was the stage at which I finally had a picture in my head of how I wanted to dress moving forward.

Stage #2 – The Avalanche

You’ve heard the expression “You know just enough to be dangerous”? That is an apt description of the Avalanche Stage.

See, once you go through the Realization Stage, your eyes are open to everything you DON’T have or the things you DO have that don’t look right.

Unfortunately, you don’t also have the knowledge on how to cultivate a proper wardrobe and be prudent while doing so.

Translation: You’re going to buy a ton of stuff.

You will do this for two reasons. First, after you read a bunch of stuff online, you will realize you don’t have staples like a navy blazer or an oxford button-down shirt. So, out you go to make those purchases. But then you realize that you can’t wear them with your usual pair of old dungarees. So, you buy a pair of khaki pants.

But then you need a pair of shoes. So, you buy those. But then you notice that you only own white gym socks. Can’t wear those with nice shoes and a blazer. Another purchase is made.

What about a belt? Well, you’ll need a mid-brown dress belt to go with your new brown shoes.

Ah! Now you’re all set!

But wait! It’s winter. You need a coat. You can’t wear your puffy ski parka over your nice blazer. Yet another purchase.

See what I mean?

It’s the menswear equivalent of “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie”.

Second, you’ll make a ton of purchases due to the fact that you’re excited but just don’t know enough about fit, quality, or your own personal style to make lasting purchases.

That means that you’ll probably pull the trigger on items that you don’t really need or don’t really fit you well. You’ll wear them a little in the next year or two, but gradually, most items purchased in the Avalanche Stage don’t stick with you for the long haul.

Once you find yourself in the Avalanche Stage, the important thing to remember is: slow down!

If you can be discerning at this stage, you’ll save money, time, and frustration.

One of my favorite items in my wardrobe was purchased early in my Avalanche Stage. That item is my grey, herringbone, Harris Tweed sport coat from Brooks Brothers. Even though it was expensive, it fit me well and I knew it was something I would have forever. I still wear it more than any of my other jackets. So, it’s definitely possible to make smart choices while in the Avalanche Stage. You just need to curb that impulse to go out and buy all the things!

Most of what’s in my wardrobe now are items that I have acquired in the next stage…

Stage #3 – The Hunter/Gatherer

This is the stage that most people occupy for most of their lives.

Once you have reached this stage you have realized what needs to be done to fix your wardrobe and have been well on your way to making those changes. You have successfully navigated the Avalanche Stage and have “chilled out” a bit.

At this stage you have a pretty good eye for what you like and what looks good on you. You are a more discerning shopper than when you were caught in the Avalanche.

What defines this stage, however, is the fact that you are always on the lookout for something new.

You’ll scope out sales or new arrivals from companies you patronize, even if you don’t particularly need anything. Something will catch your eye and you’ll hem and haw about whether to buy it.

Even though you have a well-curated closet, you’re constantly thinking about all the things you DON’T have. At the same time you might even have multiple versions of the same item.

If you are responsible, you even have a monthly budget for personal purchases. Little pick-me-ups here and there for when you’ve had a bad day (or a good day).

Your credit card information is saved on multiple online retailers’ websites.

If this describes you, don’t fret! This is the stage where most people are at the moment and where they spend the most time.

This is the “I’m interested in clothes and like to buy them sometimes” stage. And honestly, isn’t that where everyone who is interested in clothes falls?


Stage #4 – Settled

I didn’t know this was a stage until I entered it a few months ago.

In my “When The Journey Ends” article, I mentioned how, due to not buying anything for myself for over a year, I feel like I don’t need anything anymore. Sure, I want some stuff, but not enough to justify making the purchase. I just can’t see myself spending money on something unless I absolutely, truly need it.

I don’t really look at emails from clothing retailers anymore. I don’t use clothing purchases as rewards for myself.

I found that the more stuff I get, the less time I have to spend with the stuff I already have. And I have a lot of stuff that I love!

This is the stage where you feel largely content with what’s already hanging in your closet. You know what your own style is. You may even have a “uniform” in your professional and personal lives. At this point you have weeded out most of that superfluous junk you bought in the first three stages and distilled your wardrobe down into just things you need or love.

In this stage, you have stopped looking at clothes as an end, themselves, and started using clothes as tools to accompany you on the adventure of life. You still love clothes, and you still love getting dressed in the morning, but the wanting and the searching for something new or better has largely evaporated.

Maybe you have needed to resole that pair of shoes. Or patch the elbow on that jacket. Perhaps the cuffs of that shirt are a bit frayed or the crown of that hat a bit wrinkled. No biggie.

This is the stage in which your confidence really shines. This is the stage where you go from “clotheshorse” to “well-dressed man”.

Maybe there is a fifth stage, or sixth, or seventh. Maybe there is some sartorial nirvana stage that I won’t even know exists until I get there.

For now, though, these are the four stages of menswear, as I see them.

Which stage are you in?

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