‘Casual’, ‘formal’… The sartorial word debate

‘Casual’, ‘formal’… The sartorial word debate

Reading numerous articles about ‘rules’, sprezzatura and nonchalance, one can only acknowledge that gentlemen are concerned about modern day etiquette. More especially, they keep raising questions about levels of formality, about what is casual and what is not, as if we were still prisoners of decorum, held captive by the behaviours of another era that are still reflected in today’s vocabulary.

Given the creative freedom of modern sartorial icons and their disciples, ‘formal’ is hardly the right word for the flashy outfits that one can see at the Pitti Uomo for instance. And one couldn’t describe that parade of impeccable bespoke and creative attires as ‘casual’ either! So what’s it all about?

Modern day sartorial connoisseurs are amateurs in the noble sense of the world—in Latin, amator means “one who loves”. They are knowledgeable about clothes and have a certain awareness of style. They do not dress according to the dichotomy between formal demands and casual relaxedness but rather in accordance with their own tastes. Those tastes are not arbitrary as they are based on the historical development of sartorial practices throughout the 20th century.

They care about style and craftsmanship, endeavouring to present a persona reflecting that. And yet, although they may be opinionated and have their own style, they still have a sort of obedient respect for norms that keep some prescriptive power even though society no longer imposes them.

Camel Coat
Grey Overcoat

It can be puzzling to read that a beautiful double-breasted wool overcoat should be described as ‘casual’ just because its colour is camel or light grey instead of blue or charcoal. Such a tailored coat is not country wear and is made to be worn with a suit — it is not in any way casual. So despite the word ‘casual’, suggesting a type of laid-back context, it’s about having a more or less flashy or sober style, and not about social prescription.

Some still think that beige, green or brown are ‘week-end’ colours. It may have been so in Victorian England but it is hardly relevant today. Should one also consider Prince of Wales (Urquhart check) to be a casual type of pattern? It may be true historically, as opposed to a solid fabric but today it is a kind of fabric that is a pinnacle of refinement and elegance and certainly not a symbol of leisurely nonchalance! A solid fabric is often presented as more severe that a patterned one.Well, it depends on colour and texture— an unlined cotton jacket in pink, however solid it might be, will still be less subdued than a grey pinstripe. But whether an outfit is austere or sober has nothing to do with social acceptance.

POW Suit 2
POW suit
Pink plain jacket

According to the Oxford Dictionary, casual indicates « comfortable clothes that you choose to wear in your free time », which implies that professional time is for uncomfortable suits. But today, except in very specific professions, people no longer have to wear a suit to work.

Fashion and social practices tend to change more rapidly than language. Ever since mass ready-to-wear became prevalent and personal image stopped being ruled by any specific codes—I’ve just encountered people with green hair, low (as in knee-length) baggy trousers and shrapnel-studded faces—talking about a ‘casual’ jacket or suit has become meaningless. That was when people wore suits in public and casual clothes during the weekend. By today’s standards suits and suit-jackets are now necessarily ‘formal’.

After all, as “hipsters” and streetwear lovers show daily with brash obviousness, it is perfectly possible to be very dressy without at all wearing a suit and tie. Conversely a drab outfit with dull tie and cheap shoes may qualify as a suit (albeit fused and ill-fitting) but certainly not as elegant.

Despite the prevalence of ‘sportswear’, at the opposite end of the sartorial spectrum, classic style is well and thriving in certain circles with increasingly bold choices leading the way. The Pitti Uomo event at least serves to show that men’s classic style has nothing to do with dull or stifling formalism. The very concept of sprezzatura (a sort of Italian synonym for casual) is about rejecting formality as a rigid attitude and promoting an air of casualness.

Purple Checked sport jacket

So what we refer to with words like ‘formal’ or ‘casual’ has become uncertain. Or to put it more accurately, we know what it means but we don’t know any more what it might apply to in our contemporary habits.

Since nobody is forced to wear black shoes after 6pm and since suits and ties are no longer mandatory uniforms, the conflict between formal and casual has now been rendered almost meaningless. Our public appearances are no longer divided between formal occasions and at-home comfort —so all the rules pertaining to casual and formal have stopped to rule the way we dress. Remember that dinner jackets (tuxedos) were once considered casual as opposed to white tie.

An extreme trend towards a complete inversion of values is now pervasive : in some social contexts the suit and tie can be perceived as a symbol of middle-class conformism.

Since we are not obliged to obey rules dictating what to wear, formal should really be a term specialized for its literal use, ie according to the Oxford Dictionary « (of a style of dress, speech, writing, behaviour) very correct and suitable for official or important occasions » — which points to cases when there are circumstances dictating sartorial choices, to an almost official level. So ‘formal’ implies the existence of a form to follow. One should thus use the term when there truly is a form that can be adhered to, such as black or white tie.

In that respect, one should not mistake two types of rules, social and pragmatic ones. Social rules are prescriptive and depend on social or professional demands: one profession will require sneakers and jeans and another will call for dark suits. These kinds of rules have nothing to do with personal style as they are a means used by a social group to foster its identity, trumpet its values and show off its status in society.

Pragmatic rules come from experience in deciding what works best aesthetically. They vary according to fashion and have been handed down by history and practice (the combination of patterns or textures, for instance). Sartorial buffs know that those rules are rather guiding principles that help and stimulate one’s aesthetic experiments and certainly not rigid laws that have to be enforced. Of course some pragmatic rules are so well known that they have almost taken on a compulsory value (like not wearing a pocket square of the same fabric as your tie).

But frankly, whether your tie is plain silk or grenadine or crunchy silk knit is strictly up to you and nobody is going to point the finger and stop inviting you at sartorial events if you’ve chosen to wear knitted silk with worsted suit and suede monks (brown ones! In town!! After 6pm!!!).

So since formal and casual are no longer really relevant to describe menswear and men’s attitude towards clothes, one might turn to other concepts. Dressing ‘up’ or ‘down’ can be ambiguous words too depending on people’s reference points.


In a way the opposition that exists is now rather between classic, conservative outfits that claim a slightly neutral allure (it’s the business, austere, severe or unadorned style) and another approach claiming a bolder attitude (refined, elegant, smart style).

But those are only extreme poles and there’s a continuum that reflects the freedom we actually have at our disposal. Whatever the words, from classic rigour to dandified flamboyance, sartorial reality is an open world of choices, free from rules that exist only as a quaint memory.

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John Slamson Tumblr : Sartorial Delights

Opening picture : Cifonelli Fall-Winter 2016/2017 collection.

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