Home Audio Transcription Podcast #783: Developing Your Personal Uniform

Podcast #783: Developing Your Personal Uniform

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The personal uniform is a look that you’ve settled on as your regular get-up. Today on the show I talk to two style writers, David Coggins and Michael Williams, about all things concerning this stylish-yet-bandwidth-saving approach to dressing. We discuss what a personal uniform is, how to develop one and why that development comes with age, and how to find inspiration for yours. We also talk about establishing the base pieces of your personal uniform, buying multiples of its fundamental components, and refining your look over time.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The personal uniform is a look that you’ve settled on as your regular get-up. Today on the show, I talk to two style writers, David Coggins and Michael Williams, about all things concerning this stylish-yet-bandwidth-saving approach to dressing. We discuss what a personal uniform is, how to develop one and why that development comes with age, and how to find inspiration for yours. We also talk about establishing the base pieces of your personal uniform, buying multiples of its fundamental components, and refining your look over time. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/personaluniform.

David Coggins, Michael Williams, welcome to the show.

David Coggins: Hey, Brett. Good to be here.

Michael Williams: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Brett McKay: Well, David, long-time listeners are likely familiar with you and your background, because this is your fourth time on the podcast. This is a rare… You’re a four-peater. This is a rarefied group you’re… You joined. But for newer listeners, can you briefly tell us about your background in the world of menswear and style, and you’ve… I mean, why have you spent so many years writing about it?

David Coggins: Yeah, I don’t like to do the math on these things and look back at how long I’ve been writing about this stuff, but it’s great to be back on the show. Great to talk to you. I started out because I was just interested in clothes, and why we like them, and how they’re made, and the people who make them, and people who wear them in an interesting way. And as I… Get older, I… My views evolved the same way we… The way we dress evolves over time. And so… And also, half the magazines I wrote for have gone out of business, the way print magazines tend to do these days. So, as a matter of fact, I even wrote a lot of my early style stories for A Continuous Lean, a site Michael knows a lot about. So that was a good starting point for me, and it’s nice to be talking with you guys today.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Michael, let’s introduce you to our listeners. What’s your background in the world of men’s clothing and menswear?

Michael Williams:Yeah, so, I started a website called A Continuous Lean, back when websites like that were called blogs. Now, I started a men’s style blog; I was randomly one of the first people to do that. And it’s even kind of funny, because I… If you meet me, you’d kinda think like, “Wow, this is the guy that started the men’s style blog.” I… Maybe you wouldn’t have guessed that. But it’s all in here; it’s in here somewhere, but… I basically was interested in all these things, was, you know, reading about menswear online, and a lot of what was out in the magazine, it’s not what Coggins was doing per se, but just what was out in general kinda wasn’t exactly the aesthetic or the point of view that I was looking for, and I thought, “Well, I should just do this for fun as a creative outlet,” and started that site, and it became this…

You know, I sort of was in the right place at the right time with the right point of view, and it sorta just kinda became this popular thing, and then that sorta propelled me along to… You know, just my career has sort of followed, you know, the growth of ACL, and then, you know, I do marketing work and write about other stuff on… You know, my whole career has sort of evolved around that, but… And I sorta just fell into it. But I’m still very interested in… You know, much of what Coggins was saying too. It’s like the people that make these things, or how things are made, or what goes into the things we wear everyday, and that’s something I’m still pretty passionate about.

Brett McKay: Yeah, A Continuous Lean; I remember finding some way upon that back in 2008 or 9. And I’m sure if a guy is listening to this podcast and they own a pair of Wolverine 1000 Mile boots, or a pair of selvedge jeans from… What’s that North… That North Carolina mill… They probably have you to thank.

Michael Williams: Yeah. That stuff was coming sort of mainstream when I was championing it, so, I don’t know if I… If they had me to thank, but I definitely helped sorta propel that, you know, for better or worse. And, yeah, the denim factory, which is no longer… Is called the White Oak factory. But yeah, that stuff… You know, I think part of my idea behind doing what I was doing with ACL was, this stuff isn’t gonna be around forever, and especially if people don’t start to appreciate some of these things, and a lot of the stuff sort of has come and gone, but then other things have gained incredible popularity, so it’s kinda been interesting to see on both sides.

Brett McKay: So, you guys… A while back ago, David, you did a newsletter on your Substack about finding your personal uniform. And this is something you and Michael talk about on your podcast that you have; it’s a recurring topic. Let’s start there; like, what do you guys mean by a personal uniform? Is this something that you’re supposed to wear everyday, like Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck and jeans and New Balance shoes?

David Coggins: Well, I think the uniform is fascinating to me, because it combines sort of self-expression and ease, and that’s a lot of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about how to dress; it’s something that reflects who you are, but also something that makes your life easier, especially in the morning, when you don’t wanna make major decisions about how to present yourself to people you work with or people you’re meeting with. And so, I’m fascinated with… Especially as we get older, it seems like we arrive more clearly at a sense of kind of who we are, and the clothes we need to reflect what we’re doing in the world, and so a uniform… I think, for some people, it might intimidate them, ’cause it seems like you’re committing to something, but I find it really liberating in a way, because it just takes another thing out of your… You’ve resolved something very important and easy on a daily basis. So, I think that’s what we talk about when we talk about uniforms.

Michael Williams: Yeah, I mean, I think the reason Steve Jobs was doing it is maybe a little bit different than why David and I champion it. I think he was trying to just eliminate the effort in, you know, choosing what to wear everyday, and it was… It’s almost like if you… You could not eat and just have soylent if you just needed the nutrition, and you couldn’t get rid of eating as a time… You know, as something that you spend time doing, or energy on thinking about, and just get the nutrition from something else. You know, there… You could do that, but it wouldn’t really be much fun. I mean, I think that… A lotta times, I think about Steve Jobs, and I think he was doing it maybe for a little bit of a different reason.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you guys… I mean, you guys aren’t approaching the personal uniform as a chance to not care about aesthetics, or how you look. And you know, it’s also… It’s not like a Star Trek thing, where everyone’s wearing the same uniform because of it’s… You know, it’s functionality. But you guys do care about aesthetics, and you do care about how you look, and… You know, you’ve dialed in into your own unique aesthetic, and what you think looks good on you, and what looks best on you. And then you replicate it. So you’re not just being utilitarian about it. But I mean, it does save bandwidth in figuring out how to dress. Beyond that, are there other benefits to having a personal uniform?

Michael Williams: Well, I mean, dressing, to me, still reflects some sort of self-knowledge. So if I see someone who’s… Has arrived at a uniform, I know that he knows himself, which is always gonna be appealing and reassuring, and also that he’s at ease with himself. It communicates something that puts other people at ease. And so we’re not talking about a uniform in some way that all men wearing the gray flannel suit. It’s like someone can wear a gray flannel suit and look like himself, someone can wear a chore jacket and khakis, and look like himself, but you kind of wanted… You do have to make decisions to arrive at the point of not making decisions, right? It’s sort of like if you master a meal that you can cook when you have company, it took you a long time to arrive at that, but now that your friends are coming over, you know exactly what to do and how to prepare it.

Brett McKay: I guess, I may need to be clear here; when you’re talking about the uniform, I think a lot of guys would say, “Well, I’ve got a uniform. I wear a t-shirt and jeans and flip-flops everyday.” It seems like that’s not what you guys are talking about. It’s not like a default… You’re trying to be intentional about it. Am I right about that?

David Coggins: I mean, I would have encouraged anyone to avoid something that involves other people seeing their toes. I don’t think that’s gonna win any awards, unless you’re a lifeguard. But… I think that we’re talking about something that you go out in the world, and it’s not because you ran out of ideas. It’s because you have a really good idea, and then that is… That’s specific to you. I mean, maybe uniform is even… I don’t know if it’s giving the right connotation, but when I see… And I know when you meet certain people, like a certain creative director, you’re like, “Oh, I get it. This is what he does.” He’s got a very specific t-shirt, a very specific pair of sneakers, and maybe a fancy watch, and jeans, that I don’t know what they are, but I know they probably cost a lot. I’m not saying that’s for everybody, but I was like, “That guy has arrived at that point of view, and that… And it… And he’s at ease in it, and it works for him almost everyday,” and that… You know, that communicates even a certain sort of power in a way, or at least a resolve, that he knows what makes sense for him.

Michael Williams: I think it’s interesting. Everyone can have a different opinion about this, and there’s no right or wrong. And the way Coggins sees this could be very different than the way I see it, and it still could work. So there’s… You know, there’s no… There’s no right or wrong answer with this stuff. I see the uniform as like a refinement of your personal style. Say, you took your music collection that you’ve accumulated your whole life, and you had to strip it down to the top 25 records or whatever, and you’re kinda like, “Alright, this is the stuff I enjoy the most and I wanna sort of like continue to have in rotation.” So, for me, it’s like, if I feel like, “Oh, I look good in unstructured sport coats, and they’re casual enough for me, and they’re comfortable enough, and they work for meetings, and they work for travel, and they work for all this other stuff, and I feel confident in them,” then I’m gonna keep that in my… My sort of rotation, or… And make that part of my uniform.

And so, everything I wear is kind of like… It has… It has that sort of basis where you know you look good, and you feel confident in it, and it feels like you are representing yourself, and so, every… Your uniform is made up of all the things that you’ve sorta tried over the years and feel like you look good in, and give you confidence, and present you in a way that you feel is accurate to how you see yourself. And that, to me, is like… Is the uniform. That’s… You know, it’s an evolutionary process, in a way. I don’t think you could do it if you’re very young. You can’t just be like, “Alright, this is my uniform,” ’cause you kinda haven’t tried everything. You need to know… You know, sort of go through that process and figure out what… What works best for you, and what you… What makes you feel the best, and it’s sort of like stripping away all of the noise and just keeping the important things that serve you sorta the best, or make you feel the best.

Brett McKay: Yeah, David, I’ve… I follow you on Instagram, and my parasocial relationship that I have with you… I sense like every time I see pictures of you, it doesn’t… You have… There’s a continuity of what you wear. It doesn’t matter if you’re fly fishing, or at a book signing, or you’re with Michael watching the PGA Tour. It’s… And it’s kinda where it’s all those situations, they’re… They call for varying degrees of formality. And you do change the formality, but there’s an overall… Yeah, like there’s… That’s David’s uniform. How would you guys describe your respective personal uniforms these days?

David Coggins: Well… I mean, I should say, I’ve spent a lotta time thinking about this, more than most people should ever do. If you’re writing about it, stories, and books, and newsletters, you’re gonna be spending too much time, and also, if you’re… Slightly tend toward… To be self-absorbed, which maybe someone has said about me at one point in my life, or more than one person, then you have some sense of who you are, and what you wanna… How you wanna communicate yourself, and I think… I generally like traditional tailoring, and… But then, loosened up slightly. And I think there’s a way to be comfortable. I like things that are old that I’ve had for a while. I don’t like to look like I’m just wearing new clothes, and I don’t generally think people look their best in new clothes, ’cause it’s just a little squeaky. And that… I would say that about things in general.

And so, to me, if you have a… An easygoing sport coat that you’ve had for a while, and an Oxford shirt that… Not a dress shirt, just an Oxford collar shirt and a knit tie, that will get you looking pretty good in most places, at least, and I feel comfortable in those clothes, and I can kinda ratchet it up slightly into more kind of flannel in a suit, if I’m going somewhere that I think requires that, and if I’m in the countryside, I can kinda loosen that up with chinos, and something like a chore coat or something, and that kinda makes sense for me, and I still feel relaxed in those situations, and I think…

I mean, I’ll just put a word in for tailored clothing; I think a lotta guys try to wear a suit or a sport coat, and it often doesn’t fit well, and they get… Which isn’t even their fault, they just get it from a place that doesn’t specialize in those things, or doesn’t have a person who helps them get to a point where they feel more comfortable. I mean, most people get a suit, it doesn’t feel good, and they reject it, and they never feel comfortable in it, or they don’t ever wanna wear it. But if you get one that does fit well, and that you are comfortable in, and you just literally wear it four or five times, you get to a point where you’re like, “Oh, I can do this. I can be myself in this,” and then kind of evolve from there. So, I will put a word… Quick word in for tailoring there, ’cause I think so many men look good in it, and they often don’t get to the point where they… It would be like driving a manual transmission car, and you stall once, and you’re like, “Forget this, I’m sticking with an automatic.”

Michael Williams: Yeah, I think… I have a similar view to David, but I think it’s a little… My approach, I think, was formed a little differently than his was. So, part of what I have always strived to do is… Like, I always thought about, if I look back… If I took a photo of myself now and what I’m wearing, and I looked back at it in 10 years or 15 years, how am I gonna feel about that, right? And what I’m wearing, is it gonna be relevant to that time in 15 years, or am I gonna look like a clown? And… You know, I think… So part of what I’ve been always trying to do with my personal style is think about that; you know, trying to be sort of neutral in a way, but still representative of my personality. The other thing I’ve tried to do, which I think Coggins does really well, and I think… You know, if you talk about the two of us going to the Masters together and what we’re wearing versus what everyone else is wearing, I really try not to give in to the sort of social pressure of wearing a certain thing in a certain place.

And I really try to stay with who I am and what my personal style is, and not feel like I need to go into some other zone because I’m going to an event or because something’s happening. I really try to keep it focused on, you know, what I feel comfortable in, what I feel like represents me, and, you know, try to stay in that zone in a way and not sort of give in to the social pressure of, you know, dressing a certain way, which I think there’s actually a lot of in the world. There’s a lotta pressure to look a certain way, and I think, you know, I’m always just trying to look like myself, and that’s kinda my goal, and those two things together have sort of, you know, driven me into this place where… Wow, I, you know, have a pretty defined uniform which I feel great about.

Brett McKay: So like, okay, the Masters example. Alright, most people there… I mean, is there a dress code at Masters?

David Coggins: I mean, they…

Brett McKay: Or is it just like you wear Nike Golf clothes? Is that what it is?

David Coggins: It’s a very funny situation, ’cause it looks like they’re gonna… These guys think they’re gonna get handed an emergency golf situation, and they’re gonna have to run on to the course and hit it on the par three.

Michael Williams: I was thinking about this; I was at a golf tournament this weekend. I think people also don’t know what to wear there, because of… It’s, you know, Augusta National or whatever. And so, I think they just think, “Well, it’ll be really safe if I just wear golf clothes.” You know, and they just… So a lotta people wearing golf clothes, I think it’s just based on that, but then there’s also just people wearing golf clothes, which doesn’t make any sense. And then there were Coggins and I. We did not… We were not fitting in to anyone else, but it was… You know, I think we perfectly looked like ourselves.

Brett McKay: So what would you guys wear? Would you be easy to spot?

David Coggins: I think we would be. I mean, I’ve been reminded of those photos that were taken of us, so, I mean, just the age of social media, people sent this picture to me and asked what coat I was wearing, or where the… I was… I had a Masters hat, for one thing; they have a rope hat… Different one every year, and so, that’s always what we look for together, or at least what I look for. And I was wearing it, I think, some sorta sunglasses and a… Just a chore coat. But I was wearing a knit tie. And so, I don’t know. It had a particular look to it, and I thought it looked like we were having fun. I mean, I love the Masters, but I’m not really a golf person, I’m just a Masters person, if such a thing exists. And so, we were out there enjoying ourselves. And… [chuckle] That photo… I mean, I guess we did stand out, but that’s only if you care about these types of rarefied exercises anyway.

Brett McKay: Michael, what were you wearing?

Michael Williams: I was wearing khakis and an Oxford button-down, you know? Like, I wasn’t wearing… I was just wearing something really simple, which I wear most days, you know? I was very much in the zone of what I typically wear. I think we would have stood out a little bit, but I also don’t think anyone walking by us would be like, “What are those guys wearing?” I think if you really stopped and said like, “Who’s different here?”, it would have been… You know, we might have stood out in that way, but I don’t think we were sort of raising any eyebrows walking around the place, you know?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I know the picture you’re talking about. And what’s… Yeah, you’re right, you guys didn’t look like weirdos. You actually looked… You know, David was wearing a tie, it’s like, he looks comfortable. Like, that looks appropriate for the Masters, with the ball cap, and then, you know, Michael is like… Yeah, he looks… He looks well-put, and he looks put-together, and he looks comfortable as well, and you didn’t look like you were wearing that weird synthetic golf stuff that everyone… Every attorney… Dad wears these days. And so, David, your general… When I describe your uniform, it’s like… I think of country gentlemen; that’s what I see. Yeah, he just looked relaxed, doesn’t look overly… You just… You look comfortable. It looks well-worn and comfortable. Would that be a good description? Like, you’re ready… It’s like you’re ready to go out for a fly fish…

David Coggins: I think… [chuckle]

Brett McKay: At any moment.

David Coggins: I mean, it’s funny when you put… When you start to put words on these things, ’cause then it sounds like… I think one of the points of what we’re talking about is trying to be relaxed, and when we dial it in, what the recipe is, and it sounds more contrived, but that’s what we’re doing. So, I would like to think that it’s like a… Maybe a country person who comes into the city, so you’ve got a little bit of a foot in both worlds, so… But you can handle being… Having kind of a serious lunch, or you could handle going outside and, you know, looking at birds or something, or fly fishing, like you mentioned. And so, I think you wanna have… Like, you… I always like people who are interested in kind of two different worlds. Like, I like English guys who love Italian tailoring, ’cause they try to dress like Italians, but they end up just looking more English, but I love that. And Italian guys who love the traditions of being English. You know, these Italians revere the English traditions, and when they try to dress like them… I mean, they can’t look English; they’re just gonna look more Italian, which… I love that.

So I’m into all of those worlds kinda coming together, and with a certain amount of ease. I mean, I used to like things that were fancier, maybe, or I thought I had to get really serious dress shirts, or really serious tailored clothing, especially when I worked more in Midtown. But I don’t… It’s too hard to keep that stuff up for me. I don’t wanna get all that stuff laundered and pressed, and so, I found… Or even if I’m traveling, it doesn’t travel so well, so I like fabrics that can kind of absorb heavy wear, and I just… I like to have, you know, nice enough things, but I like to wear them and live in them, and if the elbows start to get a little thin, that’s fine with me.

Brett McKay: Alright, so, Michael, how would you describe yours… Uniform? David’s is like “Country mouse goes to the city.” What would be yours?

Michael Williams: I don’t know that I have a setting. I really love well-made classic American things; like I, a lotta times, wear jeans and an Oxford cloth button-down and a, you know, navy merino sweater, and… You know, that’s kinda like my zone. You know, I have a couple jackets that I figured out that I love; like, I’ll wear a Barbour coat, or I’ll wear a chore coat, or I’ll wear, you know… Unstructured sport coat, but I don’t really… I’m not as tailored, maybe, as David, but I do love these sort of tried-and-true classic things: The shirt on sweater, and… You know, leather… You know, leather brogues, and things like that. So, that’s kind of my zone. Canvas sneakers; I have one canvas sneaker I wear, and one pair of leather shoes that I wear, and one pair of boots, and, you know, one type of jeans, and one khaki, and so, I just kind of figured out all those classic items. I mean, I like really well-made things, so I like to think about value in a different way, where you maybe spend a little bit more upfront and buy something of better quality that’ll last you a long time, and… Like David, I love to wear my things a lot. So, you know, I love to, you know, wear things over and over, and really… You know, spend time with them and live in them, and that’s, to me, very comforting.

Brett McKay: So you guys are in your 40s, and you mentioned earlier, this is like, a uniform isn’t something you can really establish in your 20s. So how did you kinda decide like, “I’ve arrived. This is it. This is the look I’m gonna have until I’m buried in the ground.”?

David Coggins: [chuckle] Well, it evolves, you know, and I think one thing that’s interesting when you look at this is that you can tell different times in your life and different things you’re trying to do. And so, when I… I think when I really had to… When I was working in advertising and was in Midtown a lot, I… And I had to get up [chuckle] and get dressed for serious people, I was looking for making the fewest decisions, but with a rough core of what I was trying to do, so for me, that was like gray flannel trousers, a blue shirt… A light blue shirt, and a solid tie or a knit tie, and then the only decision I had to make was what sport coat I wanted; what pattern sport coat, so that pattern was the… Was a kind of variable, and everything else was set, and I really started to think a lot about it at that time; I was about in my mid-30s then. And then as I evolved, I… That was a little more tailored than I wanted to be. I like to not worry so much about taking care of the clothes. I just wanna be able to toss them in the washer. I don’t even wanna iron them, I just want them…

So then, I got into more like corduroys, and moleskin trousers, and Oxford cloth shirts, like Michael was saying, and that started to make sense. Sometimes, you don’t realize it until you’ve worn it for a while. I mean, I talk a lot about how much we can learn about our clothing and dressing when we travel, because we have a limited number of things, and so sometimes, that sets you off towards a uniform, because you just have one sport coat, or a couple pairs of whatever it is, and you start to wear them on most days, you know, like, “Oh, wait a minute, this is something. I can do this.” You get back to New York, or wherever you’re living, you’re like, “Oh, I just wanna stick with this. This is very reassuring. I don’t want all the clothes that are sitting in my closet, I wanna just stick with what I had,” and that’s… That can be a good way to know how little you need, or to learn about what suits you.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Here’s a question. A thing that I’ve noticed in the past… I wouldn’t say like five years, like my… Second half of my 30s… 40s. One thing I’ve noticed personally is, I’m starting to pick up stuff that my dad… Part of my dad’s uniform that I remember. I’ll pick it like, “This looks good.” Then I’ll put it on, and I’m like, “I look like my dad when he was my age,” ’cause my dad had a uniform. His uniform… He was a federal game warden, so he had to go to the office. It was pretty casual; it was like Wrangler bootcut jeans with a pair of cowboy boots, and a peak polo shirt from Lands’ End with this awesome looking belt, and it just looks solid, like I… [0:23:25.6] ____. That’s just a… It’s just… It’s a solid, solid look. And sometimes, every now and then, I’ll pick up a polo shirt, like, “This looks awesome.” Then I look at it, I figure, “Oh, this is why I think it looks awesome; my dad had a shirt just like this.” I’m curious, did your dads have personal uniforms, and do you think they’ve influenced your own personal uniform?

Michael Williams: Coggins, I think you can… My… I didn’t really… I’m not very influenced by what my father wore, although he definitely wore, you know, very much the same thing all the time, but my dad was in a very different sorta line of work and career, and… Basically did… You know, owned a construction company, and so, for me, it was like… It was a very different thing than what… My life and whatever now, so it doesn’t… I don’t feel like I’m gravitating in that direction, but… You know, I think a lot of these things… You know, because I never learned any of it from my father, I feel like it’s… A lot of it’s just inherent in people, right? You’re sort of… You just have it or you don’t, in a way. Right? Coggins, I’ll throw that to you. I’m sure you have a good…

David Coggins: Well, my… I mean, it’s funny; my dad is very stylish and a great dresser, but he’s much more adventuresome than I am. Often, it’s the other way around, where the child is more adventuresome, but he loves color and pattern, and he’ll wear all sorts of things that are way too bold for me, and he kinda gives me a hard time. He thinks I’m too conservative; he thinks I’m overdressed, which, again, is not the way these things generally are, and I think… I like the fact, though, that as a young man, he… As a boy, really, he took me to, you know, the polo store in Minneapolis where I grew up, and there was a man who worked there that I know, a guy named Paul. And you know, they taught me things and put me into clothes that I didn’t know if I was ready for, and I have this old herringbone sport coat that was union-made in America. Thing is crazy now if you see it; huge shoulder pads, but it was… And I didn’t like it as a kid, and now I see it, I actually had a friend take the shoulder pads out, and I’m still, you know, wearing it now, you know, 35 years later.

And I think it’s good to learn… I mean, what I learned from my dad is a lotta lessons, and the importance of knowing lessons, even if, ultimately, you react against those kinda guard rails, and I think… Now, we don’t take the time to learn. Sometimes, we don’t take the time to learn those lessons and to know what we’re reacting against. I feel like people… It’s sort of a free-for-all out there, and it helps to kinda know… The history of some of these things, and often, when we do, like you’re saying, when we come back to stuff our fathers did or something you’d see, where you’re like, “Oh, right, I liked this from that movie or that era. Maybe it’s time to look at this more clearly.” And then you know, you go on eBay for a few hours, and you try to get to the bottom of it.

Michael Williams: You know, there… It is interesting, and we’re saying, you know, you… Theoretically, you can’t have a uniform if you’re young, but it’s… Like anything else, you can; it is possible. And a lotta times… And especially if you look at… You know, the people that I know that grew up in Italy, and the culture of dressing in Italy, and fathers and sons, and the way that… That education happens between fathers and sons… It can, you know, really shape someone’s personal style to the point of like, they are very young, and they know exactly what they like, and they have sort of a lot of perspective, and… You know, that’s a big cultural thing that happens in Italy. So, it can happen, and it can happen here in America; it can happen anywhere. And someone could figure it out very young and just be like, “This is what I’m gonna wear,” and they have it. So, you know, I think it’s… It’s… Anything is possible; it doesn’t… There’s no perfect path to any of this stuff, or right or wrong way to do it.

Brett McKay: And I think something too, I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older. So when I was younger, I was more willing to take risks with things I’d buy, so I’m like, “That looks cool, and it’s kinda… It’s flashy or whatever,” but now, I’m not drawn to that. I’m not… I’m not about blending in, but I don’t wanna stand out too much. Does that make sense?

David Coggins: Oh, of course! I mean, that’s a huge… You know, there’s a time in your… Your life when you experiment more, when you try to discover more things, which is really exciting. I mean, I think about… You know, if you live in New York, and you start to… You go to a lotta concerts and clubs, and you try movies that you don’t… You haven’t given a lot of thought to, because maybe there was a good review, but you didn’t even think much about it, and now it’s like, “Wait minute. If I’m doing something, I’m researching a way to do it, am I gonna commit to watching this TV show, or to buying this thing, or… ” And that’s just part of, I think, how we… How we invite new things into our lives. We just have so much already there that you’re not gonna start reading a biography on someone that’s gonna take you three weeks unless you really are ready for it.

Brett McKay: Yeah, when I was in high school, I went through the neo-swing movement thing, and I was… I just had Aberdeen, you know, camp shirts and bowling shirts, and I had a pair of… I got these things… They were hideous, really, I thought they were pretty cool at the time. It was a pair of black and white wingtip Doc Martens, but the white part was black and white check. And I thought… I thought it looked awesome; I think I wore ’em to a prom.

David Coggins: [laughter] Well, I mean, the classic situation is when someone looks like they’ve got it all figured out, and they’re like 17, and they’re walking out, and you can tell they feel like they are the coolest person, you know, in the zip code. And you’re just like, “Wait till you see the photos of this in five years, or ten.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah.

Michael Williams: Yeah… Wait, can I just say that… I… I was looking at… I found some… Some profile on TikTok, and this kid, he’s… He talks a lot about fashion, he’s got a fairly significant amount of followers, and his videos get a lotta likes, and… He… You know, I was kind of interested, as, you know, someone that feels fairly well-versed in… In this stuff he’s covering, you know, what he was saying, and… And he… You know, he’s confident in what he’s talking about, and again, he’s got a good following. And then there’s one thing where he does a tour of my room, and I think it’s his dorm room. And it’s… You know, in a way, it’s cute, and it’s cool that he’s doing it, but also, it’s very much like a college kid’s room, and… You know, he’s trying really hard to have this, you know, sensibility and personal style and… You know, with furniture and all this stuff, and design. And, you know, I can’t help but to sort of think it’s… You know, he… I’m using in a way because he’s so young, he doesn’t really know. But he’s speaking with so much conviction, and he feels so strongly about what he’s… What he’s saying in the world, and it’s not a judgment on anyone; it’s… You know, that’s… I feel like part of youth is, you do feel very confident in the things you’re doing, and then when you look back at them, you’re like, “Wow, Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Like, I don’t know if that was the aesthetic that I should have been going for.”

Brett McKay: No, I like that, Micheal. I like that heuristic you use in trying to figure out your uniform is like, will this… If I look at a picture of this 10, 20 years from now, what’s my reaction gonna be? Am I gonna be like, “That looks good,” or am I gonna be like, “Oh, man, that’s embarrassing”? And I think my choices, when I was in high school… Oh my god, that was… That was dumb. But I mean, it made sense at the time.

David Coggins: But… So that’s the famous thing though, but as soon as you’re explaining to a young person, you have to be like, “Actually, it wasn’t just me, everybody was doing this,” or then you know you’re in trouble, right? Because then, it’s like you’re swept up in something and you couldn’t pull yourself outside of it, or see yourself outside of it, where you’re like, “No, that’s just the… The lapel with at the time,” or “This band was huge,” or “You should have seen Michael Caine, everyone was doing it.” And that’s usually a… I mean, but it’s human, you know, and I think that’s what’s so great about these conversations. I mean, I always love when someone gets really obsessed with something, because even if it’s… I mean, I remember my friend telling me earnestly in high school, he was like, “I only listen to Pearl Jam. That’s the only thing I listen to.” Of course, that lasted for six months, but that’s what it means to be 16, you know? You have these strong feelings. And it doesn’t stop there, by the way, because, you know, guys are saving all their money to buy some watch or car or whatever else it is, or sneakers, that then they either just sit in their, you know, closet, or they kind of resell them.

Brett McKay: So okay, let’s talk about how guys can establish their own personal uniform. It sounds like it’s an organic evolutionary process, but where do you start? Say you wanna be a little more intentional about this; alright, you’re 35, 40, you wanna establish your look. Where would you guys recommend starting?

David Coggins: Well, I mean, these are good questions. I think… I mean, I love certain stores and certain types of clothes, and I think it’s important that you have kind of a few basic things that look good on most men, and I think Michael alluded to the unstructured sport code, and I think that’s really a good place to start. And I think every… Every man looks good in… You know, it can be washed cotton, it can be a little more… A little… It can be tweed; it can be whatever you like, but I think an unstructured sport coat is something you can wear with… With, you know, dress trousers. It’s something you can wear with chinos, it’s something you can wear with jeans. And so I would… I would look for that, and you can… You can… You can go to Drake’s, you can go to J.Crew, you can go to Ralph Lauren, but you can… Or just start the process and find… See one that you like and start looking on eBay for cheaper ones if you want, but I think that that’s a really good place to start, because that… That’s something that can… You know, kinda be part of your arsenal in a really useful way, and I think… People will like how it looks on you. I mean, there’s a reason these clothes have been… Men have been wearing them for 100 years. It works. It’s effective. It’s like, you know, why does the martini exist? It’s a good equation. These things make sense, way before we’ve been around, and I hope way after we’re around. And so… I mean, get a good sport coat.

Brett McKay: Alright, so start off with a sport coat, is your recommendation?

David Coggins: Yeah, absolutely, and… But one that you can… You know, when I say unstructured, I mean like not a lot of padding in the shoulders and in the chest, and so that means you can even sometimes roll it up, if you’re in the south. I mean, look at Sid Mashburn’s site. I mean, these guys live for that sort of thing. Not just a formal suiting, but an actual sport coat, I think, is really… Really something that can… That can go with you wherever you go.

Brett McKay: Michael, how about you? Where would be your starting point?

Michael Williams: Well, I just wanna say, David’s starting point is like personal uniform 301, and I would start at… I would start at 101. I think the sport coat’s like… Maybe advanced lesson… You know, a couple… A couple courses down the line. But, you know, I think the Sid Mashburn reference is a great one. There are places that you can go to. There’s a lotta great men’s stores left in the United States that you can go into and talk to them about what you feel comfortable in and what you like, and they can help guide you. Like, it’s pretty difficult to go too astray at Sid Mashburn. They’re gonna help you. My personal recommendation is, there’s a lotta things out in the world that have been fundamentally the same for a long time, or very consistent over a long period of time, like the Barbour coat, like the 501, like certain, you know… Certain brands, like, my favorite shoe company is Crockett and Jones; their shoes have sort of never changed. And to me, that’s like a good bet. It’s like, find those companies, and wear those things that are pretty classic; it’s hard to mess that up, in a way. The other thing is, you know, I think you wanna think about when you feel the best, and what you, you know… It’s like, figure the mental images of yourself where you look the best, or what were the scenarios where you felt like you looked really good, and try to build on that and replicate that and expand that; I think that’s a good place to start.

Brett McKay: I think that’s a good idea. So, you’re not trying to play dress-up when you’re trying to establish a uniform. You don’t wanna feel like you’re going to prom, or you’re going to a black tie wedding.

Michael Williams: I think it’s the opposite of that. You wanna feel like you are yourself, you know?

David Coggins: One thing that… That’s a really good point that Michael makes about enduring design that have been mostly unchanged, and if you’re feeling less kind of formal than a sport coat, I think that the chore jacket is really a useful thing. Almost every company makes a good one now, and that’s something that you can wear most days, and you can even dress that up or down. I mean, I wore it with a knit tie to the Masters, but I think most of the people are not gonna do that, but that’s a really nice everyday piece, if we’re speaking in, you know, style terms, that you can get a lotta use out of and that will go a lotta places.

And I think you also wanna… When you’re thinking about a uniform, you’re thinking about something that’s repeatable, so that’s like the old Brooks Brothers Oxford cloth shirt, and you buy a stack of them, but you’re also thinking about an investment that might go with the two earlier that you have for a long time, so if you get a pair of Crockett and Jones Chelsea boots, that’s an incredible thing. It’s a fair amount of money, and then you have ’em for a decade, and that’s great, or Aldens, or whatever it is. And so, you kinda wanna pick your spots about… Something like a Lacoste shirt, that’s great. Get a stack of them if they go on sale or whatever. And then you’re also getting, you know, the best… The jeans you really love. I feel like when you get something that you talk yourself out of or you save a little money, then it just ends up unused, and you really wanna believe in what you’re wearing and care about it, and then you’re gonna… Then you’re gonna wear it more.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so David, in the newsletter you had about establishing a uniform, you talk about base pieces. I guess you… For you, an unstructured sport coat or a chore coat could be a base piece. And Michael, for you, a base piece could be that Oxford button-down. It could be a base piece that you can add on to; a thing that’s consistent, and you can add on to it or take away from it to vary the look, depending on your situation.

Michael Williams: Yeah. I would say, you know, even if you wanna go to UNIQLO and buy button-down shirts and khakis from UNIQLO, and socks and underwear and whatever else, and then you maybe spend a little bit more money, you know, to David’s point, like buying a shirt jacket, or buying a nice sweater, or buying a nice pair of shoes, or an accessory or a bag… You know, those things where you can… I think you can sorta step up and then… You know, I think then, your uniform becomes the base; it’s like the… A couple types of pair of pants that you like, and then you mix them with a couple shirt jackets, a sport coat, a… You know, a sweater, all these things, and that’s how you sort of like build the variety of your uniform. That’s my take on it.

David Coggins: I have to say, when I was a young guy and moved to New York, I was living in men’s stores, even though I wasn’t… Couldn’t afford those clothes. And I think there’s something to be said for that, now that we’ve got the, you know, Instagram in our pocket, but I liked to go to Barneys, and I liked to go to Bergdorf Goodman, and I would talk to the guys who worked there. And they understood what… My stage in life, and they didn’t put pressure on me, and at a good store, they won’t put pressure on you, and if you… If you go into Ralph Lauren and look at the way they have the kinda mannequins rigged up, or what’s in the windows, it gives you a sense of kind of how they view things, and… And you can see what you like from that. You can see how much it costs, you can see what you think is… Makes sense for you or what doesn’t make sense.

But it’s good to do those things. I mean, I go on the Sid Mashburn website… Site, even at this stage in my life, and look at how… They have a clever way that they show each kind of sport coat. If you scroll over it, it’s got a shirt and tie, and then if you scroll over it again, it’s like with no tie, so you can kinda see it worn two different ways. And I still get ideas about that or see what I like and ask myself, “Well, why do I like that so much?”, or “That’s interesting, and I’d never thought about doing something that way,” and I think that’s a good thing that you can still learn and see and even surprise yourself. I mean, you’d probably look better in a light pink shirt than you think. I mean, a lotta guys do, and I… I didn’t wear pink for a long time, and then I did, and then that sort of changed my life, or I didn’t wear brown, and now I wear brown almost exclusively.

Like, you do wanna give yourself room to evolve, and I think that’s what we’re talking about. It isn’t like once you set your… Your uniform, you can never change. Of course these things can rotate, or you can wear something and just make a little change. I think when I was talking about… Like if you have a corduroy suit or… Cords are good. Like, that’s a good fabric. And I recommend finding cords that you like, and maybe a corduroy sport coat that you like, and then you just… It’s not something you have to be delicate with, or… Depending on where you live, a Harris tweed coat. Like, these are things that are great, and you can get cheap ones on eBay, and really kinda live in it for a while, and get it dirty; throw it in the laundry. I’ve… I do all sorts of weird stuff. I’ve put Sirocco coats that seem too kinda precious, I just threw it in the laundry, and then they were twice as wrinkly, and then I was… I felt better about it, oddly.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned getting inspiration, like, going into men’s stores, and for me, early on, like, you know, late 20s or early 30s, I would go to blogs. I’d go to A Continuous Lean. I’d take Ivy, Dyework, where dye… I mean all… And that’s where I would get my style inspiration. I feel like that… Is it… Has it all moved to Instagram now? Where’s your guys? Like, where do you recommend guys going to get solid inspiration, ’cause even… I feel like a lot of the magazines… They’re not… Like, the style advice or… It’s just… It’s not very good. I don’t… That’s my… It’s just like, “Here are the 20 boots you need this winter,” and it’s like, this is not useful for me, because… It’s too much.

Michael Williams: I think it’s kind of all over. There’s… There are still sites like Dyework, where… That are interesting, and there are still sites out there that have a much more edited point of view, which I think is more helpful, if you identify with that. And then it’s like a mix of Instagram and all these other things that will help serve as an inspiration point. I think it’s… The mainstream fashion media is a little bit different now than it was, and it’s driven by different things, and part of that’s commerce, and part of it’s much more Fashion with a capital F than maybe it used to be. It used to be much more about service, and educating guys, and… Sort of classic style, and now, it’s much more fashion-driven. So I think… But you need to find the people that you can identify with, and if that’s like Matt Hranek and William Brown Project, or whatever it is, and then you sort of figure out, “Alright, these are the people that I feel like I wanna model my personal style after,” you can sort of go from there.

David Coggins: I think that’s a really good point that Michael makes, and I also think the danger of Instagram… Like, I really love the original photos, and when I say original, like 15 or 20 twenty years ago, photos from Pitti Uomo, where it was actual Italian men and what they were wearing, or Japanese buyers and what they were wearing. Now, with social media kind of accelerated to such a… Speed, those things feel, often, very mannered, very theatrical, very self-aware, and very ridiculous to me. So I think you have to be careful. Like, you don’t wanna dress like you were expecting to be photographed. Like, that’s craziness. You know, that’s not a way to live in the world, unless you’re really, you know, Nick Wooster, and there’s only one Nick Wooster.

So, you can look at these places, but you… It’s sort of like, you look at them, and then you pour a little milk on it to mellow out the coffee, because it’s just too… And some of these things are very intense, and these guys are getting close and experiencing them in a way that isn’t really… You know, it’s like they’re living in a photoshoot, and if you’re in a photoshoot, some things make sense, and then when you’re out in the world, they make a lot less sense, you know, and I think you wanna… I think… One of the things we’re talking about is like where… Where you’re comfortable and what your life requires, like are you going to meetings? Are you… You know, physically active the way your dad was bred, if he’s, you know, going out as… You’re working in the forest service, or whatever it is that people need to use. Are they gonna be walking in mud? Are they gonna be in a boardroom? Are they gonna be reassuring investors? And then, they’re gonna be doing things very differently. And that’s… I mean if people say that things don’t matter, that clothes don’t matter, just think about the people that you want working for you, and how you would want your lawyer or accountant to dress. If you’re getting your… Your… [chuckle] Your… Your taxes done, do you want the guy to be wearing a Metallica shirt? I’m not sure.

Michael Williams: I think it’s like the… If you have good personal style, it’s a bonus for you. If… You know, I think it’s not… It’s not about losing points or… You know, it’s about… You have an opportunity to present yourself as unique, or special, or different, or whatever that is. That, to me, is the big win with having good personal style. It’s not about conformity and fitting in and making sure you’re dressed appropriately for your role.

Brett McKay: When you guys find a piece of clothing that you think is gonna be a part of your uniform for a while, do you buy multiples of it?

David Coggins: Of course! I mean, that’s a huge deal. Like, when it… Or if something seems like it’s gonna be shut down, or, I mean, if you just know something is great, like when they were still making Brooks Brothers Oxford cloth button-down shirts in America, and you knew that, and maybe there… That was a delicate balance there, I got a stack of them. I mean, it has to do with where you are in your life, and what your priorities are, and your budget, but if you find a bottle of wine you like, man, get some, and if you find… If you’re traveling and you see espadrilles, or if you… Even Masters hats, it’s… Yeah, get on that.

Michael Williams: I like the wine reference; that’s pretty interesting. I mean, you’ll be happy if you buy a few cases of some wine that you love; you’ll be happy in five years that you did it. For me, buying a couple… Or buying things in my uniform all depends on the brand, and what it is, and what it costs, but I know that… You know, brands like Patagonia; if you love something from Patagonia, they phase out things all the time. So, if you… If there’s a jacket you love and you wear it all the time, it’s worth buying a few, because they probably won’t carry it through. The other time I’m buying multiples is, you know, I wear these canvas sneakers from Muji, and their website, they rarely have them in stock. And the stores are… It’s always sporadic if I can find them, so when I do find them, I buy five pairs at the same time, and they’re not expensive, but I’m like, I don’t wanna risk… You know, I don’t trust them enough, almost, to be able to always have them, you know?

So… And I… I used to buy this sweater every year from this store in Alabama that I love called Harrison Limited. And they would sell this super, super soft lambswool Shetland sweater, and I would buy… Every fall, I would buy one; it was like my annual thing, and I would sorta call the shop and be like, “What colors do you have?”, and then I’d say, “Alright, send me the green one,” and they’d mail it to me. And then they stopped carrying the sweater, and I’m like, “Alright, now I need to figure out who made the sweater, where else can I find it, and… ” You know, I would have been better off just buying a few and, you know, not just dragging it out.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I had a pair… There’s a pair of runners or sneakers that I got; they’re like a replica of some vintage French army sneaker. And I love it, and they stopped making… Whoever decided to make it stopped making it, and I can’t… I need a new pair, and I’m out of luck. It’s… It was a good look.

David Coggins: That’s like a classic situation, where you… You think something like… For me, even fishing gear, like certain waders that, when I was younger, they seemed too expensive, and then ever since then, the waders have been getting crazy, so now I’m on a mad hunt to find these 20-year-old waders, which of course doesn’t work, or fish wading boots, and… If you see something you like… I mean, it’s actually interesting, because Michael was talking earlier about these companies that continue to have the same product; that’s a good barometer of the values of a place. If they do something well, and they… You know that they’re gonna continue to have that, it’s the same way if you go to some beloved restaurant and you know you can get this great dish, that they’re gonna keep doing that, and that that… That that’s a sign of what they… How they want you to interact with them, that you… They want you to trust them, that they want you to come back, and that you can always get this Barbour jacket, these Red Wing boots, these 501s. That tells you a lot about those places.

Brett McKay: How do you know if your personal uniform should change? Is it something intentional, or does it just kinda happen naturally; you just find that “I’m wearing this thing a lot this year. This is part of my uniform now.”? Is that how it happens?

Michael Williams: Yeah, I think it’s part… I think part of that is recognizing the winds when they’re happening and saying, “You know, I feel good wearing this. You know, I should just… I should stop thinking about… I should stop spending time thinking about, you know, what I’m gonna wear all the time and stick with the things I feel good about.” I think you just start to sort of be… It’s a very liberating sense in a way, where you’re like, “I’ve arrived at this, and I know I like it. I don’t have to worry about… It’s one less thing I need to worry about from now on,” and you start… Start to just drop things away, and then, you know, repeat the things that work really well for you.

David Coggins: Yeah, I mean, sometimes, I’d notice that my clothes are shrunk. Now, I know it’s just… Like, your body changes, right? It’s not the clothes, obviously. And you make some change about what makes sense for what you’re doing. I mean, if you have a kid, or you’re traveling to a… And you’re in a hot place, and something works or something doesn’t. I mean, some of what we’re talking about is like… Where design and function converge, and when something makes sense, because it… I don’t know, you’re carrying a camera in your pocket, so you need bigger pockets. I mean, that’s literally how some of these things happen. A lot of the clothes we’re talking about have existed for a long time, and that’s why… You know, a safari jacket or a chore jacket or something that the army developed was to solve certain problems, and you might have those problems; you’re carrying certain things, and you need clothes that meet your purposes. And maybe your… You know, your coloration changes, like my beard is gray now. [chuckle] It’s gray, and that changes things like what colors I should wear. I don’t look the same as I used to in those… And you wanna… And that’s alright. You want to evolve that way, and I think it’s natural that your clothes change as you get… You know, get older, and your kind of place in the world changes, and that’s something to be embraced, I think.

Brett McKay: So let’s say some guy’s listening to this, and he goes, “Okay, I wanna start developing my personal uniform and refine it.” Parting advice; where’s one thing they can start doing today to start making that happen for themselves?

David Coggins: [chuckle] Well, I think you gotta think about what you… Like, your comfort level and what you’re trying to do. I mean, I always encourage guys to dress up a little bit. I just think… It’s nice to try harder than to try less hard, and if you try a little harder, then in the long run, all that will become easier; you set a higher bar for yourself. And so, I think it’s nice to dress up a little bit. I mean, I… I think it’s… You know, it doesn’t mean you have to live with it forever. I think one of the things we’re talking about is a little bit of experimentation, which is natural, and then finding a new level for yourself.

Michael Williams: Yeah, I think a big part of this is… You know, what you could do today is be open-minded to looking better, and to putting in a little bit more effort, and dressing a little bit better, and starting to do it and making it a ritual, and I think once you do, you’ll appreciate that you have put in that effort. And I think that goes a long way, and just being maybe a little bit more introspective about who you wanna be and how you wanna project yourself, I think, would be a great place to start.

Brett McKay: Well, guys, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your respective work?

David Coggins: Well, yeah. I mean, my book, The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life, which we discussed on a previous episode, that’s…

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ve gotten a lotta good feedback about that from people…

David Coggins: Oh. Oh, that’s sweet. I’m glad to hear that, thank you. That’s out now, still out, and the paperback is coming soon. And then my newsletter, The Contender, comes out every week, and then I have the podcast with Michael, Central Division, our conversation every week too, which you can get from either subscribing to The Contender or his newsletter, A Continuous Lean. Michael, I’ll lead you right into it.

Michael Williams: Yeah. Oh, thank you, David, that was very, very well done. I wish I had a book to say that I had written, but all I have is a newsletter, and it’s just acl.news, is my newsletter.

Brett McKay: Well, Michael Williams, David Coggins, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.

David Coggins: Thanks.

Michael Williams: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guests today were David Coggins and Michael Williams. Check out their respective newsletters. David’s can be found at thecontender.substack.com, and Michael’s can be found at acl.news. If you subscribe to either of their newsletters, you can get access to their podcast, Central Division, where they talk about style, fly fishing, golf… You name it, they discuss it. And make sure to check at our show notes at aom.is/personaluniform, where we’ve linked to some of the brands and clothing pieces mentioned in this show, as well as that iconic picture of David and Michael at the Masters we discussed. Check it out at aom.is/personaluniform.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check at our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so in Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you all to not only listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.



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