Beyond suiting: Exciting everyday menswear

For the first decade and change of my adult life, I had two settings when it came to formal events: full vintage with red lipstick, or dapper menswear with my tie knotted Full Windsor. My professional wardrobe slowly took on a scaled-back version of this aesthetic. Most days what I picked out lent itself to an effect I liked to refer to as “prep-school asshole,” while sheath- and sweater-dresses offered occasional femme punctuation.

Then two things happened.

First, I had a serious injury that led to some body changes. After the first year in recovery, I decided to give away everything in my wardrobe that no longer fit, as an incentive to sew myself more comfortable options. I found out that this meant nearly every menswear piece I owned had to go.

Second (two more years later), I’ve realized that I wanted better integration between my work and off-duty wardrobes. The truth is, most days at my job either a suit or a work dress is more formality than I need or want. Meanwhile, my wardrobe has fallen into a rut I can best describe as “low femme” — mostly solid-color basics whose styles and cuts reference womenswear but aren’t particularly feminine. That’s not a bad thing — it’s comfortable and easy to style. But I’m starting to get bored.

I want to play! I want a mix of colors and patterns, shapes and silhouettes. And I want pieces from across the gender spectrum that I can mix-and-match into unexpected androgynous outfits, or curate for a strongly masculine-of-center or feminine-of-center look.

So, as I look to rebuild the menswear side of my wardrobe, here are the inspirations and sewing patterns catching my eye.

Military. Some of my earliest menswear pieces were vintage wool military uniforms that my (Vietnam war protester) parents had worn back in their grad school years. For most of my twenties, all my winter coats came from my local surplus store. I’m excited to sew pieces that draw on military references in new ways. First up? I’m going to veer away from my old pea coats and make myself an aviator jacket using the Style Arc Carly. The wide size range (size range 30″-58″ chest), oversized silhouette, and front and back body seams let you sew this pattern to suit lots of bodies. I’ll be making mine up in waterproof breathable fabric as a truly unique rain jacket.

Streetwear. Growing up in the heyday of hip hop left me deeply susceptible to the allure of a tracksuit… but head-to-toe Adidas is just never going to be my look. Instead, I’m looking to designers like Recho Omondi for ways to use unexpected materials and details to make this look my own. I’m thinking of splurging on some suiting wools and making up my own using the Louis Antoinette Teddy Bomber and French Navy Calyer Pants with an added tuxedo stripe.

Both of those are marketed to women, tailored, and limited in size range, so I wanted to suggest other choices. McCall’s 7637 (up to 48″chest) gives you a gender neutral bomber pattern option, and Style Arc’s Bobbi Bomber (up to 58″ chest) nearly doubles the size range of the others. 5 Out of 4 Pattern’s Diane Joggers offer sizes for a 34″-61″ hip, and adjusting the pattern to drop the crotch can give it more masculine swagger.

Americana. Ever since Levi Strauss used denim to create heavy-duty utility garments for Gold Rush era miners and railworkers, jeans and jean jackets have become visual icons for the U.S. I’m thinking olive duck or rust brown heavy-duty hemp canvas for the jacket, to add some 70s flavor, and a good dark indigo selvage denim for some truly classic jeans. Mimi G’s S8845 is a gender-neutral jacket pattern (up to 48″ chest).  Megan Nielsen’s Dawn Jeans (34″-58″ hip) include tapered and straight leg views if you prefer jeans designed for curvy bodies, and Thread Theory’s Quadra Jeans offer a classic masculine fit for hips from 35″-57″.

Suiting. Okay, fine, I was never gonna resist adding suits back into my wardrobe. But if a suit is calling your name too, remember how many different cuts and silhouettes suits have featured in the last century. You can go ultra-cropped (remember the shrunken suit craze after Inception came out?) or full zoot-suit oversized. Play with a genderfluid feel like Bowie and Grace Jones, by choosing tailoring that adds curves or obscures them. Or select wild, artistic fabrics like we’re starting to see at red carpet events. Whether you prefer sleek trousers or wide-leg shapes, slim jackets or slouchy ones, there’s a suit for you.

I’m still searching for the patterns to go with the grey/taupe microcheck wool and the palest pink tencel twill I’ve bought for winter and summer suits. If you’ve got patterns (especially tailored jackets) that have given you great results, leave them in the comments!

Finally, a couple of last tips for successful menswear sewing:

Tip #1: consider patterns from both sides of the aisle. Whether you buy patterns marketed to men, to women, or as gender neutral, you can get a menswear effect. I recommend choosing patterns by considering the kind of pattern alteration and fit adjustments you prefer to make. I’m 5’4″ and am fine with my curves showing in a dapper look, so I generally find it easiest to buy patterns marketed to women and then alter details for a more masculine effect. But if I were taller or seeking to create a straighter silhouette, I’d probably choose more patterns marketed to men.

Tip #2: you can alter a TNT to masculine-of-center fit and proportions. The vast majority of garments are marketed to men and women both, with style lines and fit being what signals masculinity or femininity. If you’ve got a TNT shirt or pants you love, you can make a few easy alterations to the fit so that it references traditional menswear proportions:

  • Bring collarless neck openings closer in to the base of the neck, and deepen button-front shirt collars and stands to cover the width of a tie.
  • Adjust short sleeves to hit around mid to lower bicep, or long sleeves so that they hit below the wrist near the base of the thumb.
  • Cut shirt bodies to ensure they have consistent ease down the length of the torso, whatever your shape.
  • Adjust your pants so the waistband sits somewhere between navel and high hip, with the hem either brushing the top of your shoe or longer so the front leg breaks (has a small fold) over it.

None of these are rules you have to follow, just visual cues that up the masculinity of a garment.

Tip #3: gender is performance. I’ll save the Judith Butler lecture for another day, and for now just remind you that gender presentation offers a wide spectrum of options. Clothes are a form of play, and you can choose to vary your vibe from day to day. Experiment, and have fun! I’ll be doing the same.

Note: The Sewcialists is a hyper-inclusive editorial site. We recognize that “Menswear” as we use it in our theme month is a very loaded term, and we use any gendered reference in these discussions to denote the most broadly accepted “traditional” categories only, without wishing to prescribe or proscribe what any person can wear. We recognize all gender identities and the choice to dress how one pleases.

T. Jakubowicz is a lifelong amateur maker who started sewing her own clothes after refusing to buy another work blazer that couldn’t hold two boobs at once. She can be found in the kitchen, in her garden, by her new DIY saw horses, at her physical therapist, or @themagpiegate on Instagram.