Checkers & Balances – Guide to Plaid

Do's and Dont's

October 8, 2014  by

Being, as it is, past Labor Day, we are in prime plaid shirting season. Yet wearing this staple is trickier than you might think, fraught with unseen risks. Before you button down, read up.

There are three kinds of plaid: vintage, mod plaid of the kind found on Don Draper’s casual jackets, which I lack the self-confidence to wear; and heritage-style plaids, which are earth-tones and inspired by tartans and hunting gear. But then there is a third kind, a very bizarre-looking, highly-generic feeling plaid, made up of haphazard colors and lines. They are usually short-sleeved. They sometimes contain black. This plaid (Can I call it “Bad Plaid”? Too stupid?) is the primary subject of this article, and is one that, like yellow eyes or a red boil, is the physical manifestation of a deeper existential malady.

If you’re having trouble picturing Bad Plaid, simply close your eyes and picture any shirt you’ve seen on any rack of any Old Navy or Gap at any given time. For each upcoming season, these designers will take a nice-looking plaid and stretch and squeeze the proportions and alter the colors to match a schema that I for one can’t quite make heads or tails of. The weights of the lines and colors are all seem decided by a fourteen-year-old boy. It is “trendy.”

old navy bad plaid

Bad Plaid has, in my current observations, become a sort of default mode many men switch to when going out. I’ve seen an entire table of brunch-goers all in varying flavors of this plaid. Its ubiquity is something I’ve been meditating on for years, trying to sort out the appeal, as well as why it disturbs me so much.

There’s a sort of dialectic relationship between a giant retail outfitter and its customers; it provides what is popular, but that which is popular can only be comprised of that which is provided. And it is in this back-and-forth regurgitation that plaid has gone from singular fashion statement to sartorial white noise. Its inclusion in any season’s collection is considered mandatory for some reason (though it should not be), and, to make each season’s plaid feel different from before, designers [hackney] it, without thinking too hard. And then it is bought with the same level of consideration. Plaid is appealing for these guys because, perhaps, it is the only ostensible alternative to wearing something plain. But it is, now, of course, then, in its own way quite plain, very plain, plain Jane. I’ve had friends who are wearing plaid who I’m sure haven’t even cognitively registered that they are wearing plaid. I’ve seen shirts (and, dear god, shorts, but I’ll stop myself) that don’t even know they’re plaid.

I mentioned Mad Men earlier because this era contributed the latest great development in plaid–the last new species. It is deeply rooted in a certain time and cultural moment, and wearing it hearkens back to that moment. Conventional plaids, too, connect the wearer to very specific moods and traditional modes of masculinity; it is “butch.”

Bad Plaid, though, itself has no history or philosophy. In this way, Bad Plaid is a sort of negative plaid, plaid’s antithesis, plaid nihilism; it stands for nothing, represents nothing, believes in nothing, has colors like teal and highlighter-yellow, comes from nowhere, is capricious, is arbitrary, and is completely devoid of ambition. And in a larger way, I ask you: Is this any way to build a wardrobe, or to dress for the outside world, or to live life? Is this how you choose what to eat, who do date, by just reaching blindly and pulling something “off the rack,” as it were? Is it?

Of course not.

So how should plaid be worn, and to what degree? The short answer is sparingly, always with an appreciation of its roots and its outward [message]. Here are some rules of thumb:

Ralph Lauren Plaid Shirt

Plaid Shirts, Memorial Day through Labor Day: sparingly, about as often as you might drink champagne, and should be linen; something preppy from J. Crew or something fruity from American Apparel.

Plaid Shirts, Fall/Winter: Deep hues of green, blue, red, and grey, as a base; keep them light cotton in favor of heavy flannels; try the sublime Frank & Oak; be xenophobic when buying plaid. With these, fit is paramount; if it’s loose, you’re wasting your time; learn how to use a sewing machine or spring the $5 it’ll cost to tailor it.
If you want to wear something besides a shirt (or, I guess, a scarf) that’s plaid, you’ll have to venture out alone; there’s nothing I can say to guide you.

If you want an alternative to plaid, if what you read leaves you feeling empty and lost, consider neat geometric prints from the likes of Fred Perry for the winter, or gingham for the summer. I promise, if you open your mind and eyes, a whole host of age-, season-, and intelligence-appropriate alternatives will reveal themselves.Frank & Oak plaid shirt

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