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Dressing up Without Wearing a Suit

Updated: Feb 25

The suit is dead. At least to some extent.

It’s definitely dead for everyday wear. It’s even dead in most professional settings.

It's even more dead in Indonesia due to the heat and humidity, and people’s proclivity to reach for a batik shirt rather than a suit when an occasion calls for a formal outfit.

Given the huge gap between casual clothing (e.g., jeans and t-shirt) and a full suit, some may find it difficult to find the right balance between the two. Here are a few pointers I keep in mind when I need to dress up without wearing a suit.

As an aside, what is considered formal and casual will differ among places (e.g., Jakarta v. London) and settings (e.g., law firms v. start-ups). But the principles apply just the same, and may only need to be tweaked as necessary.

Dress Casual Outfits up, Rather Than Formal Outfits Down

I always start with a somewhat casual outfit as a baseline and then add things to dress the outfit up.

For weekdays, I'd start with a light dress shirt and grey trousers, and then I'd add a sports jacket (and perhaps a tie) on top. For weekends, I'd perhaps start with a polo shirt and jeans, and then I'd add a linen jacket on top.

Starting with a full suit and then dressing it down (e.g., by removing your tie or -- god forbid -- untucking your shirt) may look like the outfit was an afterthought. It may give the impression that you had attended a more formal and important event earlier and now decide to dress down. In simpler terms, it gives off a Wall Street banker at the nightclub look.

Keep Your Leather Shoes on

When one thinks of dressing more casually, leather shoes are oftentimes the first to go.

It's the easiest: most probably already have sneakers at home. And they instantly dress down the whole outfit, especially if the sneakers are light-colored. Some may also wear dark sneakers and try to pass them off as somewhat formal shoes (they don't).

The issue with sneakers is that the contrast of formality is too much. I typically reserve sneakers to casual outfits, mostly for Fridays or weekends.

I am not suggesting that you wear your black captoe oxfords for this purpose. Instead, opt for something more casual but still somewhat formal, such as loafers or chukka boots. You can further decrease the formality by opting for lighter colors (e.g., brown) and texture (e.g., suede or grained leather).

Wear a Jacket — Any Jacket

A few months ago I was attending an informal lunch with friends. I wore a suede jacket, polo shirt, jeans, and white sneakers. My non-menswear enthusiast friend mentioned that I was quite dressed up for the event. I was basically wearing the same thing as everyone else there, except for the suede jacket.

This outfit may be deemed casual for most (I most certainly thought so), but the principle remains: the second you put on a jacket, the outfit's formality is immediately elevated. I'm not sure whether it's due to the dark color, long sleeves, collar, or a combination of them all. But I find this to be true.

I use a similar trick when I take a video call and the other person on the call wears a somewhat formal ensemble. Between the time I connect to the call and turn on the camera there is no time for me to change. So, I just put on my navy shawl collar cardigan -- which is always within reach -- over whatever it is that I am wearing, whether it's a t-shirt, polo, or dress shirt.

The always-within-reach cardigan.

This is why before WFH, I always had one (or four) jackets at the office. It's the easiest way to dress up.

The spectrum of formality of jackets is obviously very wide. And a lot of factors come into play, such as the model (sports jacket v. safari or cardigan), structure (padded v. unstructured), cut (fitted v. loose), color (cold navy v. warm brown), material (worsted v. woolen or linen) of the jacket.

I tend to aim for the middle of the spectrum. Lately, I've been wearing a lot of warm-colored tweed and linen sport jackets. But one can never go wrong with a classic navy sport jacket.

Written by: Nikki Krisadtyo


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