The Look

My Fashion Don't: Getting Caught Up in the Rules

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the Rules. I'm not referring to the 1996 bestseller about landing a man by ignoring his phone calls (though I can't say I love those Rules, either). I'm talking about the rules of fashion: Which shirts work with which skirts; how to pair shoes and pants; tips on looking your best by likening your body to a banana, pear or (as the case may be) watermelon.

Almost without exception, these rules give me hives. They suck the fun out of fashion, turning what could be a creative enterprise into something closer to a pre-calc exam. How can you savor the charms of a waffle-weave cashmere sweater when all you're thinking about is whether its V-neck slims your broad shoulders?

Nevertheless, many of my readers are deeply concerned about the rules. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider this recent inquiry from a male chatter:

What collared shirts (button-down, spread collar, pinpoint, etc.) should be worn with different sweaters (crew neck, V-neck, etc.)? Should the collar be in or out? What about the cuffs? Should they be showing or not? Rolled back over the sweater cuff or down? And should the collared shirt be tucked in all the time?

I dutifully read his query, trying to envision exponentially complex combinations of collar, sweater and cuff. But I had to give up. My best tip? If you find shirts and sweaters this tough, try turtlenecks.

Fashion do's and don'ts are more ideas than dictums. It's up to each individual to determine what to adopt and what to ignore. Witness Will Adonizio's artful layers, above. The Washington resident is technically breaking a rule -- one collared shirt at a time is usually plenty -- but with his clothes' clean palette, it works.

By contrast, you'd expect someone like Tommy Hilfiger to have mastered the rules a few decades ago. But even he can get it wrong: At one of his fashion shows, the designer paired a sweater with an untucked shirt -- which isn't objectively awful, except that his shirt's hem stuck out several inches too far for his otherwise tidy look.

The best rule I know is to figure out what works on you -- with your frame, lifestyle and budget -- rather than blindly following someone else's notions about style. (Yes, even mine.) Take time to develop something of a fashion instinct. Try on clothes from a variety of retailers, even those whose wares are out of your price range, to see what you like and to learn a little about how good clothes fit.

It may sound as though I'm suggesting you invest hours in thinking about some pretty silly stuff, but you actually may save time. At the end of it all, you'll have a sense of your own style and where to find pieces that fit the bill. You won't dither over the merits of button-down vs. Windsor collars. You won't buy something just because Steven Cojocaru said it looked good on George Clooney. And you'll never again need to e-mail a fashion writer about shirts and cuffs. Now, doesn't that sound nice?

© 2008 The Washington Post Company