What Women Can Learn From Menswear

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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“Borrowing from the boys” is one of those fashion clichés we’ve never quite understood. Striped tees, destroyed denim, sneakers — isn’t that the way most women dress when we’re not meeting foreign dignitaries? But, having wardrobes full of unisex pieces doesn’t mean men and women thinkabout fashion in the same way. Ever hear a guy wax poetic about the minutiae of stitching and button placement between a Levi’s Type I and Type II jacket? Or, have you wondered why it seems so much easier for them to get dressed in the morning.

Without being too essentialist about it, adopting a dude-like approach to fashion can lead ladies to some pretty major clothing revelations. We spoke with some of our favorite style experts, from the man behind Madewell’s perfectly tomboy-chic designs to Details‘ style director, to a woman who makes bespoke suits for ladies. We found out their secrets to simplifying and editing their wardrobes, and how to make maximum impact with a minimum number of pieces. It’s not about being one of the guys (unless you want to be). It’s about using a menswear sensibility to make sure your style is perfectly tailored for you.


Don’t be afraid to have a signature look.
Rachel Tutera, the designer behind Bindle & Keep, a New York-based bespoke clothier for men and women, explains the appeal of a signature look: “I wear Levi’s 508s or navy khakis every day with a blue or chambray shirt and Timberland x Woolrich boots. It feels really good to have an aesthetic. Sometimes I wonder if having a uniform makes me look boring — or like I don’t bother to change clothes. But, then I realize it’s so representative of my identity and taste that I don’t care what it makes me look like, because I know it makes me look like myself.”

Don’t think of a uniform’s lack of variety as a bad thing — think of it like you’re creating an indelible image that people can recognize for miles. Isabel Marant’s slouchy tops and skintight pants or Kate Lanphear’s blonde crop and black suits prove that minimal variety can make for maximum impact.


Know your go-tos — especially on busy days.
Somsack Sikhounmuong, Madewell’s head of design, describes his current uniform as “RTH jeans, sweatshirts, and adidas Stan Smiths. With a full day of decisions ahead of me, it’s nice to keep it simple in the morning by having a few go-to pieces.”

Whatever your uniform of choice, make sure it serves not just your style but the day you have in front of you — because sometimes, a closet full of choices can be anathema to getting dressed and on with life.


Take the three-year test.
Details style director Eugene Tong told us, “I look at shopping as a long-term investment. Unless I feel like it is a piece I will still like in three years, I don’t buy it.”

As simple as that sounds, it’s not something most of us consider when purchasing, say, a skirt for Saturday night. No matter how much you spend on an item, try to make sure it passes this test, and you’ll wind up with far fewer “never-wears” in your closet.


Call in the experts.
Since men have limited clothing choices, guy style is truly in the details. And, men who are interested in fashion often develop a sensitivity to the finer points — button placement, lapel widths — that other people hardly notice. (Don’t believe me? Try asking a group of fashion-conscious dudes what they think of button-down collar shirts with a suit and tie.)

Classic men’s style guides, like Alan Flusser’sDressing the Man and Bernhard Roetzel’sGentleman: A Timeless Fashion, or even a good sewing manual, have a fascinating wealth of info about design, construction, and how to assess a garment’s timelessness and quality that apply to men and women’s clothes. These are invaluable in training your eye to notice details and will make you a way more discerning shopper — and, bonus, you’ll be able to opine on club collars and Windsor knots with the best of ’em.


Buy up, not out.
We think Tong’s approach to shopping is the key to a better — and better-edited — wardrobe: “These days, I don’t buy many new things. Instead, I tend to buy better versions of pieces I already own, like upgrading a wool sweater to a cashmere one.”

Instead of buying a wide variety of clothes, try upgrading the pieces you already have in your closet and wear most frequently. That way, your wardrobe has the very best version that you can afford of the pieces you actually wear — instead of a wide variety of clothes you’ll likely never touch.


Have a hero.
Producer Spencer Mandell tells us, “I model my style after Johnny Depp during the 21 Jump Streetyears, and specifically when he would have to enter a high school and play the tough, street-wise teen.”

Okay, not all men can expertly channel Tom Hanson’s way with a denim vest. But, if you dig a little, you’ll find that many men have a style hero whose dressing serves as their template. Whether you aim for Alexa Chung’s modish femininity, or Solange’s print-mix mastery, having an icon in mind can go a long way toward defining your style.


Resist the impulse.
“The older I get, the fewer impulse purchases I make,” Sikhounmuong tells us. “They rarely work out for me. I’ve learned my lessons and now know better!”

Our experts agreed that curbing last-minute buys keeps your wardrobe more focused. And, if we’re being honest, it’s those spur-of-the-moment splurges — from world-of-pain statement heels to dresses we bought because they’d be perfect for tonight — that tend to hang in our closets, unworn. Best to avoid ’em in the first place.


Let your closet evolve to fit your style.
Tutera tells us, “This is the time of year for editing. I just went through my clothes and realized that I own a lot of shirts that are now too big for me, since I had top surgery, and many garments I consider too busy or loud for my evolving taste — goodbye, gingham!”

Admittedly, we’re guilty of ignoring this one, big time. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a few sentimental pieces in your closet, even if you never wear them. But, make sure the majority of your wardrobe reflects your style and your body as it is right now — not four years ago or in college or the last time you went on a shopping spree. If your style or your size has changed, your closet should, too.


Embrace your age.
The folks we spoke with have a special love for those pieces they’ve had so long, they become vintage. “I have a vintage brown belt that I got when I first moved to NYC for college,” Sikhounmuong tells us. “I’ve worn it ever since, 18 years and counting. A simple, well-worn belt that looks good dressed up or down is a rare find.”

And, it’s not just about how long you and a garment go back — it’s also about not being fearful of scuffs and wear, and instead embracing the nuances and character that age can bring to a garment. Mandell tells us, “When I buy a new pair of jeans, I write the date on the inside left pocket with a Sharpie. That way, when I’m ready to buy a new pair, I know exactly how different styles age.”


Don’t shop for fun.
“Generally, I try to shop for utility and with purpose. For me, it’s less about trends and more about what I need,” Tong says.

We’re not saying shopping should be a grim exercise or that you can never deviate from your to-buy list. But, buying out of boredom is the enemy of a well-edited wardrobe.

It helps to go in with a game plan. Think about what your closet is missing. A great trench? A chunky-heeled boot you can actually tolerate walking in? Consider shopping to be a mission to fill in those gaps — and, most importantly, remind yourself that it’s okay to leave empty-handed.


Fit is literally everything.
“While it’s an extravagance to have something custom-made, it’s one that’s really worth it,” Tutera tells us. “When you wear something that really fits your body, it’s like being re-introduced to your body in a powerful, transformative way.”

Behind every well-dressed man, there’s a person with a tape measure: his tailor. Most dapper dudes would never think of going without one — why should women?


Think about how you feel — not how you look. “My style philosophy is to wear what feels good,” Tutera tells us. “This may not seem nuanced or structured or tethered to any rules, but, ‘Wear what feels good’ has basically been a meditation for me as I’ve learned to be self-possessed wearing men’s clothes. And, I like to think of this very simple meditation as empowering for anyone who wears clothes.”


Make a wardrobe mission statement.
For Tong, it’s “Wear the clothes; don’t let the clothes wear you.” I have a friend who coined the phrase “Dressy but messy” to remind herself not to look too “done.” And, Sikhounmuong told us he always aims to make his style “thoughtful, but not over thought.”

The principle that guides your fashion choices is definitely worth defining. That way, no matter what kind of clothes you wear, they’ll always feel like you.

Click HERE to read more from Refinery29.

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