The Experts Speak: Style for a 30-Something

Last weekend I enjoyed a lovely 15-minute coffee-shop conversation with a pair of GVSU students. The girls had been giggling about a patron who had just left; he was a fairly short and pudgy male, probably in his late 40s, with thinning hair. The girls thought his attire was grossly age-inappropriate — he was dressed head-to-toe in too-tight Aeropostale clothes, including a teal polo with the big “A” logo on it and a bit of chest hair flashing over the top. He also wore tight, ripped light jeans, flip-flops and a clamshell necklace. And you can’t forget the gold hoops in each ear. A veritable walking stereotype.

As I recall, I made some pithy comment to one of them about their observations that started our shared conversation. Short version: They thought that “older people” (defined, as best as I could tell, as folks over 30) shouldn’t try to dress like college students. I was more agnostic about it.

On their major point, I am sympathetic. On one hand, it’s not my business to tell people how to dress. If a 90-year-old wants to rock out a faux hawk with his Volcom T-shirt, leather bracelets and tartan Vans, more power to him. Just like the 19-year-old with the tweed jacket and bow tie is free to dress as he likes.

But people are people, and our clothes help tell the story about who we are. They’re an immediate visual indicator of our tastes and socioeconomic status. They identify any sociocultural tribe to which we voluntarily associate. So, although one’s apparel isn’t anyone else’s business — clothes do send a message. There’s a degree of prudence in playing the game.

As it happens, the conversation last week coincided with the the arrival of a few magazines, including Men’s Health and Details, that shared their own perspective on what men ought to wear in the summer 2012 season. Me being me, I then spent the better part of a week thinking through the somewhat insecure question of what message my own clothes send, and what a 30-something guy should or shouldn’t wear. I even scoured some style magazines and websites (well, briefly — I was interested in the subject, not obsessed by it).

Observations from the self-appointed guardians of male style:

  1. Despite the comments about “men in their 30s,” the real age bracket is more like 27-to-37, although a person’s weight and visual signs of aging (grey hair, wrinkles) affect the sorting. A 35-year-old who worshipped the sun during his college years may well fall into the over-40 bucket if he looks like a wrinkled prune, whereas a 35-year-old athlete with great teeth and good hair can still pull off the 20-something look without difficulty.
  2. Men who are clearly adults and no longer in their extended adolescence should wear clothes that fit. Well-tailored clothes send a message of competence. Too-tight or too-loose equals too sloppy. As do hoodies.
  3. Avoid no-name “uniform” clothes, even if you’re married with children. The Gap jeans and T-shirt (or polo), or the khakis and button-down, that are worn often enough to constitute an informal uniform are a sign of surrender. Vary it up.
  4. Brands matter more. Certain labels are associated with — indeed, are iconic of — youth. Think Abercrombie or Hollister, then avoid them. Some stores, like The Buckle, cross age brackets (especially if you’re a Nickelback fan), but the older you get the more ridiculous you look when you peacock. Trendy clothing for the urban chic look for the 30-somethings — the kind that gets you a pass to the front of the line at an upper-tier Vegas nightclub — usually cannot be acquired at an average suburban shopping mall, although if you’re into the vintage scene a local consignment store may prove useful. Guys with the physique to pull off a closely tailored look may find Express or its equivalents an good choice.
  5. Accessories count. An expensive watch, a well-designed belt or a couple of pairs of high-quality shoes matter and can set off an otherwise routine wardrobe selection. As do jewelry choices: The clamshell should permanently retire, as should the 60-gauge spacers, but a couple of subdued bracelets or a ring or two are fine.
  6. If you wear hats, substitute the ratty, backwards-turned baseball cap for something like a newsboy or a thin-brimmed fedora.
  7. Hair styles convey station. If your hair says, “I could only get a job in an indie records store” and you’re in your 30s, you’re telegraphing a future of lifetime earnings in the lower quintile. Not an attractive prospect for potential mates. And if you’re thinning on top, for heaven’s sake, lose the ponytail. No one likes looking at Gallagher.
  8. Tattoo with caution. When skin sags, so does the ink.
  9. Always dress a half-step more crisply than everyone else, regardless of the situation.
  10. Watch color palettes. If (like me) you’re brown-haired and hazel-eyed, you will look better with earth tones like browns and greens and oranges. This rule governs accessories, too — I’d look better with golds than silvers, which is unfortunate since I think black/grey/blue/silver makes the prettiest color combo. Find a way to flash color, like a pocket square or a tie or bold socks or something.

The core message that today’s style sentries share makes a lot of sense: As you age, your clothes serve as at-a-glance proxies about your socioeconomic status and cultural affiliations. Dress how you like, but the guidance seems to favor fine things — watches, shoes — and well-tailored clothes set off by bold colors.

Decent advice … that I usually manage to ignore.