I only popped into the old-fashioned men’s outfitters on my local high street for jeans; but I emerged, like Mr Benn, a changed man. This followed a sorry episode in which I found I had been wearing my wife’s Uniqlo jeans – a friend subsequently pointed out if I just added a Breton top to my current ensemble (khaki safari-type jacket, the right jeans, tennis shoes), I could be any mum at the school gates.
Reeling, I wondered who I was these days, sartorially speaking. My wardrobe revealed a queasy mixture of unisex items, American athleisure, fashion for all ages and none, but certainly not a man in his mid-50s. There were classics- with-a-twist (designers, get in the bin), a few decent suits (sadly with moth holes), some stained jackets, and lots of ill-fitting trousers (diet, expansion, changes of prime minister – everything from Boris to Rishi). I needed a wardrobe rethink.
Back to said outfitters. There followed a wide-ranging conversation with the owner, David, in which mild example was made of my trousers (too long), polo shirt (too small), Marni jacket (sleeves required shortening), but mainly we addressed general menswear malaises: since the pandemic, we all order online more and don’t get things properly fitted (they offer free alterations). We men compensate for lack of fit and shape by dressing down even further; nobody bothers with suits anymore. It’s all about globalised American athleisure, resulting in slobs who might slip on their wife’s trousers.
I came out without jeans. I needed affirmation, especially on those questions of form and shape. I see loads of articles on flattering shapes for midlife women; what would be the male version? What should a midlife man wear now? So I enlisted the Telegraph’s Men’s Style Editor, Stephen Doig: please adjust my wardrobe for form and shape.
“Yes, women’s fashion is certainly about flattering shapes and different cuts for different body sizes,” said Doig. “And it’s a relatively unaddressed topic in menswear. Men tend to think about what should be worn, or what everyone else is wearing, or what looks decent.” And there are some near-universal problems for all men after 40: “Like a bit of a stomach. Moobs. Shorter legs – I’m not saying you have any of these problems, you understand,” he added smoothly. “Or guys with trousers cutting off their legs, making them look short like Rishi …”
Oh poor Rishi; he does look like a lamb dressed as a little lamb. Nor does the midlife male want to be ram dressed as lamb, like those huge guys in skin-tight, stretchy suits. Or sheeple in chinos and blazer.
What shape am I, I’m wondering? No longer the enviable triangle. Possibly rectangle? Not quite the dreaded inverted triangle yet. Trapezoid …?
“Look, send me your measurements and we’ll set up a photoshoot where we go through problem areas for all, and see how you fare,” said Doig. It’s instructive that I haven’t thought to use a tape measure on my chest (41in), waist (34in), or inside leg (short-arse) in years. So what areas do men in their 40s upwards tend to need help with?
A big one, this. Few of us escape the thickening, even if we don’t go full retired-professional-footballer-heading-down-the-bookies. Many of us compound the issue by choosing “tailored fit” shirts, which we hope will emphasise other areas (chest, arms, say) while somehow disguising and disciplining one’s expanded belly. Quite the reverse occurs, especially when you sit down; buttons strain, you get “placket gape” and everyone is offered tantalising glimpses of your navel.
The solution, I learnt from Doig, is to wear heavier, thicker cotton shirts, which will drape the body more flatteringly, skimming over the stomach, for example; to wear these shirts untucked (the extra length will draw the eye down and away); and to try grandad collars (aka mandarin), which will also draw the eye up.
I’d seen this look sported by paunchier billionaires getting off their private jets, and Simon Cowell. But it works, especially the heavier cotton. And this raises the issue of collars, generally: what’s the point when few of us wear ties? Moreover, collars come in far too many shapes and sizes.
Doig himself has gone as far as throwing out all of his collared shirts for grandads or more casual open-necked, non-button shirts. I take the address of the charity shop he donates to, all the same.
I’m not sure I have moobs yet. Do I have moobs? What I do have is a drawer full of cheap, flimsy T-shirts, I imagine because a fashion person once told me to buy basics on the high street. They last about a year, sagging at the neck, clinging to your chest, possibly your nipples, and many of mine have weird holes where my belt buckle pinches them. Do I need these problems?
I trust Doig, who counsels boxier, heavier-gauge tees from decent brands such as Sunspel or Madewell. They’re more expensive, but the weightier fabric will smooth out problem areas and sit away from the body in a more flattering fashion. They will also last far longer. In fact, I have one Fruit of the Loom tee in my drawer that was bought in the 1990s, still going strong. Hard agree with Doig here.
A couple more tips for the chest: an unbuttoned shirt over a T-shirt works wonders of concealment; half-button it from the bottom to camouflage a stomach. And a polo shirt instead of a T-shirt can give more form, and the collar adds a touch more formality. Darker hues will further distract from problem areas.
The dreaded double chin
Are we wearing polo necks this winter? Personally I find them constrictive and uncomfortable, and overly tight polo neck jumpers, particularly of the chunky variety, can bunch up and create a double chin or touch of wattle where there might not be one. Not so Milk Tray Man. Instead, steer towards the friendlier crewneck – it might not be as warm, but you can always add a scarf – or if you prefer a touch of heft in winter, a shawl neck has substance but doesn’t constrict on the jawline.
Discussing whether your polo shirt should be long-sleeved or short – it just depends how strong your arm-game is, we decide – the whole Telegraph team becomes side-tracked on the etiquette and style of rolling up your shirt sleeves. Above the elbow, Andrew, our photographer, was always told was common. But: James Dean.
Doig and I agree on below the elbow, to the thickest part of the forearm, nicely keeping your cuffs away from fresh ink on the page. Short-sleeved shirts are a go-to in summer, but cuts can be overly athletic these days – thanks, Love Island – so make sure they don’t cling to biceps, non-existent or otherwise.
We’ve probably all seen the meme of the boxer dog on his hind legs with the caption: “Men over 35 wearing skinny jeans.” And yet here we are, wearing skinnier-fit jeans than ever (even our wives’).
The problems with leg-hugging trousers are myriad; just look at the attention Rishi Sunak’s have garnered. They can ride up and make you look shorter than you are. Only you know about the Elastane or similar in the fabric, except everybody knows it’s there and finds it distasteful in a man of my age. Skinny jeans serve only to emphasise a larger bum, or the stomach heaving above.
Go for a straight-legged trouser instead, says Doig. Nothing skinny, nothing baggy. It’s like a revelation to me. “Just make sure they cut off right above the ankle line of the shoe.” I am already trying to think how many old pairs of straight trousers from my wardrobe I can resurrect and alter. Failing that, I’ll buy some straight, flattering, age-fitting trousers from my local men’s outfitter. Life is simpler and more dignified with a few rules.