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Shopping for clothes is an act many men dread and avoid. I used to be one of them. But then I realized the obvious — that the clothing we wear is a key signal to others about how they should perceive us. Should they trust us? Not if we’re wearing a beat-up hoodie that’s obscuring our eyes or a shaggy haircut that does the same. Should they respect us? Not if we’re wearing plaid pants or a ripped teeshirt or if the waist of our pants is actually closer to our knees. Perhaps most salient of all for the single men out there: do others find us attractive? Not if we’re wearing ill-fitting, ill-matched clothes or have unkempt beards.

Since the way a man presents himself is extremely powerful and entirely within his ability to control, we ought to be enthusiastically optimizing our personal style. Here are some tips that should make your shopping efforts seem more purposeful, less chaotic, and hopefully a lot less daunting.

1. Bring a stylish (and honest) friend.

Many men feel bashful about bringing a friend along to go shopping, but it’s important to get an objective opinion — especially when you’re in the beginning stages of evolving your style. We’re our own biggest critics, which means we’re more likely to associate style with risk (and therefore less likely to achieve genuine style). So bring a friend who can help you make the right style decisions and avoid the wrong ones. Soon, it’ll be simple enough to make those decisions on your own.

2. Read labels first.

It’s a waste of your time as an ethical man to try a bunch of items on, only to discover afterward that they’re made from animals. Commonly recognized plant-based fibers are cotton (including denim), bamboo, and even hemp; less commonly recognized but common-in-practice animal-free synthetics include acrylic, rayon, viscose, silk-free polyester, spandex, and nylon.

It gets trickier when the label seems incomplete. For leathers especially, internationally sourced items often contain a symbolic labeling system. If you see a symbol resembling a whole animal hide stretched flat, that means the product contains animal skin. (Click here for more information about symbolic labeling.)

3. No label? Use these simple tests.

If there’s no label at all, you should inspect the item itself. Leathers are marked by skin cell patterns that are slightly irregular and organic-looking — just like our own skin. Meanwhile, synthetic leathers are usually marked by an exact repeating pattern, as can be expected of a machine-made material. Sometimes leathers have been chemically treated so much that there is no longer any skin pattern whatsoever; in such cases, without a label stating the contrary, it’s safer to assume that the item is indeed real skin.

To determine whether or not a fur item is real or faux, you can inspect the base of the material to see whether or not the strands are rooted in real skin. A visual inspection can usually determine as much, but you can also try a needle test in which you push a pin through the base of the hair. If easy to puncture, it’s more likely to be faux; if difficult to puncture, it’s more likely cured animal skin. You can also compare individual hairs to see if there’s an inorganic exactness from strand to strand, or you can try a burn test by removing a few strands and lighting them with a lighter or match. (This is probably a bad idea to perform in-store and, no matter what, should be *very* carefully executed.) If the burned fibers produce an unpleasant organic smell, it’s real fur.

4. Focus on fit.

A lot of men think wearing baggy clothes makes them look manlier. In fact, baggy clothing hides a man’s masculine contours and causes unflattering billows and pouches. On the other end, skintight clothing makes a man look waif-ish and feminine, not to mention the fact that it’s generally very uncomfortable.

The middle ground you want to achieve is closer to “tight” than most men think, and I can’t overstate the importance of finding the right fit for your body. Wearing fitted clothing both instills and projects self-confidence, which feels great and is very attractive to others. Shirts and jackets should comfortably hug the outer edges of your shoulders. (If you can pinch the material on the outside of your shoulders, you’ve gone too large; if the front buttons of the shirt or jacket are strained, you haven’t gone large enough.) In general, pants and slacks should taper in as they approach the ankles and break just a little on your shoes.

Finally, note that S-M-L-XL sizing is non-standard from brand to brand. Don’t let your belief that you’re a Medium in that brand keep you from trying on a Small in another brand. You might find that a Small fits your body a heck of a lot better.

5. Colors are more dangerous than patterns in combination.

It’s possible to pull off some seemingly wild combinations when it comes to patterns — for instance, a pinstripe jacket with plaid shirt and small-dotted bow tie. As long as the colors work, you’ll probably be fine.

For better or worse, it doesn’t work the other way around. There’s just no escaping the problems of certain color combinations. Avoid pairing green and red. Don’t wear gold-metaled accessories with black clothes. Don’t wear brown footwear and accessories with black clothes, and vice versa. (Luckily, grey or navy blue clothes are more versatile and can work with either black or brown footwear and accessories.) Finally, avoid pairing colors that are very close but don’t quite match. The closeness actually exaggerates the ill match, thereby making it more noticeable to others.

For dress shirts, I advise developing a stable of neutral-colored basics — black, charcoal, grey, cream, white, navy blue, light blue — and letting your details (e.g. tie or bow tie) accent the look. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with loud detail accents, you’ll feel a lot more confident trying less typical basics — e.g. a pink striped dress shirt.

6. Choose patterns that achieve your goals.

Are you a trim guy who wants to look wider? Look for shirts with checker or plaid patterns, and avoid shirts with vertical stripes. Are you a wide guy who wants to look trimmer? Find vertically striped shirts and avoid checkers and plaids.

The eye perceives these patterns in intuitive ways. Vertical patterns emphasize length and diminish width; horizontally oriented patterns do just the opposite. Keep this in mind when sifting through piles of dress shirts at the store; it’ll save you considerable time if you know what patterns work best with your body.

7. Identify your favorite brands.

Once you’ve gotten some browsing under your belt, keep a mental record of the brands that fit you especially well and offer attractive colors/patterns. You’ll save time and energy by knowing just where to go the next time you want to update your wardrobe. Make sure to try plenty of brands before drawing conclusions here; you’ll likely find that your preferences evolve as you go.

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