As the party season approaches, the accompanying deluge of invitations has black-tie greenhorns scrambling.
"Men are coming into our store saying they've been instructed not to return home until they clean up their act," says Rick Pallack, a Sherman Oaks clothier and designer. "Their wives and girlfriends have sent them, after telling them to dress as if they live in this century."
So how does a mild-mannered dresser become a sartorial superman?
"Giant steps don't work for the first time unless you're on the moon," cautions New York-based Eleanor Lambert, who created the highly exclusive International Best Dressed Poll 50 years ago. "The first lesson is to do the classic look perfectly. Start by buying the best dark suit or tuxedo that you can afford."
But after that, men who are tempted to try something a little more exciting will have plenty to choose from this holiday season.
California men's wear designers, in particular, are offering silk brocade vests and riding coats as evening wear. They're showing velvets, florals and paisleys--to wear all at once or a little at a time.
At Rick Pallack, an initial make-over might include a dressy double-breasted suit with pleated pants and a French-cuff shirt. The relaxed, looser, draped silhouette provides an immediate update. Pallack will even lay out the outfit from head to toe and take a photograph for the neophyte to hang in his closet.
"The next time he could try a suit with a slightly broader shoulder," Pallack says. "But you can't take Woody Allen on his first shopping spree and expect to create Don Johnson."
A more advanced dresser may sport an oversized double-breasted tuxedo with shawl collar, wider lapels and fuller pants. He might wear a shirt with front embroidery, a black suede and silver Lurex bow tie and cummerbund. Antique cuff links or studs and a suede, velvet or silk tuxedo shoe with a low, slanted heel enhance the look.
Raising fashion consciousness is most easily done with accessories.
A daring holiday statement can even be made with a tie clip, says Sami Dinar, who outfits the dapper Arsenio Hall from his Beverly Hills boutique.
Dinar's sterling silver, three-pigs-on-a-rocket tie clip is a bestseller for men who like to start small when creating an individual style. Other options from Dinar's store include lapel pins of sterling silver camels, snakes and spiders.
Moving into more exotic territory, vests are a good first step.
The Oriental silk brocade vests at Tyler Trafficante in Los Angeles are store designer Richard Tyler's idea of party fashion accessories. Also suitable: formal tuxedo vests in silk with polka dots or stripes, about $100-$140 at Rick Pallack.
At Modern Objects on Melrose Avenue, designer Jef Huereque is showing silk-screened and hand-quilted vests inspired by Chanel bags. The store also carries a purple velvet vest with gold tassels and matching purple jodhpurs--not for modish milquetoasts.
When buying a vest, for durability, check to ensure it is lined in front and double-lined in back, suggests Tom Julian, associate fashion director of the Men's Fashion Assn. But a soft-knit vest need not have a lining. A vest also should have front pockets and a tab closure in back for adequate size adjustment.
Experimenting with this season's colors is another sound strategy. Spice tones--such as chartreuse, gold, sage, olive, and mustard--are current, as are purple and burgundy.
"There is a new boldness in color," observes designer Emil Rutenberg. "And color makes a timid man immediately sexier."
A single shot of color such as the lively, printed viscose shirts from the design team at Politix, in Century City and Westwood, may satisfy fashion fledglings. Clacton and Frinton's anarchic rainbow glows with an eggplant gabardine suit with mustard shirt, multicolor Guatemalan vest and spotted red pocket square, all by the Los Angeles store's designer-owners, Michael and Hilary Anderson--for the fashion fearless.
For the most daring holiday revelers, the opulent, sensuous dandy look is in full swing.
There are embroidered velvet smoking jackets at Tyler Trafficante. Paisley, floral and silk Jacquard vests, bright cummerbunds and washable silks are popping up all about town. Luxurious, frilly pirate shirts with full puffy sleeves are catching attention at trendy night spots such as the China Club (ponytail optional). Call it foppery or "Dangerous Liaisons" revisited.
Apropos of romance, those with a nascent passion for fashion may profit from enlisting a knowledgeable female to accompany them on their shopping jaunts.
But once it's just him and his wardrobe against the world, every man should take a good hard look in the mirror before stepping out.
And the fringe benefits?
Says Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown: "A woman on the arm of a man in stylish evening clothes feels like she's Christian Lacroix's top model."
That's not a bad companion, indeed.