Can you look good in cheap clothes? – Permanent Style

Is it possible to look good in cheaper clothes? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look better (in some ways) with better quality ones, or that there aren’t other reasons for choosing them. 

This question often comes up when we feature someone looking good, but not wearing the kind of expensive clothing normally featured on PS. 

Like reader Mattia for example (above and below) – many of his clothes were relatively cheap, either new or second hand, and he looked great. 

It also comes up when readers comment that they’ve bought lots of luxury clothing, but don’t feel they look good. Why does a friend look better, who hasn’t invested in any of this stuff? 

The mistake of that latter reader is to think that there is either a necessary or a sufficient relationship between quality and style. There isn’t. 

But those that highlight examples of students dressing well make the mistake of jumping to the opposite extreme – suggesting there is no relationship at all. 

As with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between. And it’s my job (and joy) to explore those middle grounds. 

People look good for lots of reasons, and most of them have nothing to do with clothes. 

People are considered to be better looking facially, and to look better physically if they are taller, slimmer or simply healthier. These are highly subjective – personally and culturally – but it’s amazing how often they are confused with clothing under the banner of ‘looking good’.

Confidence is arguably the most important of all, and a bit of charm and looking relaxed also help enormously. Even things like a hair cut, a shave or a tan often make more difference to looking good than clothes do. 

This is not to say you necessarily need any of these things to look good. But when everyone is admiring a guy in a simple white T-shirt and jeans, it’s more likely to be for some combination of these reasons, rather than the particular clothes he’s wearing. 

Moving down a scale most to least bloody obvious, the next point is fit. 

On PS I’ve ranted about the importance of fit for years. It’s why everyone should have their suit altered before they wear it. It’s why bespoke tailoring can be so flattering. 

But cheap clothes can still fit very well. That guy in the white T-shirt might look because his T-shirt has a nice taper, and even better if he wore a collared shirt that framed his face.

Maybe he wouldn’t, if he’s as square-jawed as I imagine, but for many guys these things make a difference – and they don’t necessarily cost money. 

Often, they end up costing a little. Alterations aren’t free, and the collar that suits you best might not be the one that’s trendy, and so not widely available. But we’re a long way from the expense of hand-sewn seams or superfine cottons. 

Actually, perhaps the next point is the most obvious. Most of looking good in clothes is not about quality, but about style. 

It’s not craftsmanship, or designers or luxury fibres. It’s about what styles you buy and how you wear them. That’s why the vast majority of writing on menswear is about this, rather than the sewing required in a pair of handmade shoes. 

On PS we don’t cover craftsmanship because it’s the most important thing. We cover it because other outlets don’t talk about it enough. 

Tradition and fit and quality are underrated, but style is always more important. You can look good in cheap clothes if you know how to put them together. And the corollary is that – sorry, cash-rich but time-poor readers – expensive clothes are no guarantee of looking good. 

So. All of this is true. But it doesn’t mean quality clothing isn’t important. Often it can make you look ever better.  

Style means you pick the right fabric, cut and lapel for your suit. Being tall, slim and good looking means you great in it. But it will add a definitely noticeable – if not necessarily describable – touch if that suit is made bespoke. 

The suit will flow down your torso, from flush collar to rounded chest to sharp skirt. It will look like it’s part of you, in a way that another suit never does. It also adds an air of refinement, even sophistication. In some ways it looks like you know how to dress.

These are all small things, and there is certainly an argument that they’re not worth the time and money required to achieve them. But they are beautiful. 

This applies most to smart clothing, but it does apply to casual clothing as well. 

A cheap leather jacket always looks cheap, no matter how well it’s designed. You might need to see it alongside a better one the first time to recognise the difference, but from then on it’s obvious. Cheap leather looks like plastic; often it is plastic. It just sits on you. Like a plastic hat. 

There is a similar, subtle beauty in other casual menswear: brass that ages naturally; horn buttons that are all naturally different. It’s particularly telling in shoes – indeed, in that profile of Mattia, he spoke of how he could never go back having bought his first pair of ‘proper’ shoes. They were Alden cordovan loafers, and how he appreciated how well they aged. 

There’s no need to talk more about this – we cover it day in, day out on PS. But it’s worth giving it its place in this argument.

The last reason to buy quality clothing must be that it has qualities which are for us alone. 

My Chapal leather jacket, for example, has an exterior that others might appreciate for its suppleness and patina. But no one sees the heavy cotton-twill lining, or the wadding between that and the leather. Yet that’s what I enjoy most about it – I feel it every time I put it on, and a surprising number of times during the day. 

I find a similar appreciation of leather in my Edward Green Cranleigh boots. I don’t know why it’s those boots in particular, but I notice the softness of the lining every time I put them on. It’s often the first cheap thing I feel in a cheaper shoe. 

I’m not sure my Real McCoy’s sheep fleece looks that different to a polyester one. But it feels very different when you wear it. 

Being an animal product, it moves and softens with you, like a leather jacket more than a synthetic fleece. Same goes for my down vest from them, and the pillow-like compression every time you put it on. 

As reader Ramon put it in a recent comment, “We live in an era dominated by the visual, and we tend to forget that dressing is a fuller sensorial experience.” Nicely put Ramon.

There are other examples of pleasures that are just for us. These include an appreciation of the craft – the time and expertise – that went into something. And the emotional connection that often comes from working with an artisan or a small manufacturer. 

You know the person that made the clothes, and you might be reminded of them when you wear the clothes, or are asked about them. 

I think this relationship between money and style has come up more recently because PS has broadened to include more casual wear. 

Money makes more of a difference with smart clothing, because better materials and makes are usually more expensive. That’s not necessarily the case with casual clothing – finer yarn does not make for better jeans. 

But quality does still make a difference. You might not want jeans in superfine cotton, but you may want the denim woven slowly, or rope dyed. Both take more time, so they’re more expensive. 

I think the important thing throughout all these discussions is just to talk about what we’re getting for our money, and why we might want (or not want) that. 

Explain and explore. 

Simon Crompton

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