Dapper District: Fashion Physics

Sometimes you just have to go with what feels right

Click to Buy (clockwise from top left): A.P.C. New Cure straight leg jeans, $175; Paul Frederick Herringbone town coat, $99.95; Brooks Brothers Regent Suit, $998; Lucchese 1883 Tan Ranch Hand Boots, $329.99

Confidence in what you’re wearing is like knowing the position of an electron when you know the momentum.

Bear with me. As an English major who took AP physics in high school, I’m eminently qualified to make up metaphors to describe everyday phenomena using laws of physics that I vaguely understood at the time and barely remember now, right?

Let’s take what I call the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Werner Heisenberg figured out that the more precisely you measure the momentum of an electron, the less precisely you can measure its position and vice versa. Quantum stuff. There are some cool physics reasons why this is true, but the basic concept is easy enough, right?

I propose the Warrenberg Certainty Principle: If you’re confident about the clothes you’re wearing, it’s almost impossible to measure other people’s actual reactions precisely. This happens because of another science thing called confirmation bias. This means that if you have a hypothesis in mind, you’ll tend to discard evidence against it and seek out evidence to favor it.

So if I’m walking around in my coat with my collar up and feeling confidently rakish, I will subconsciously:

keep a lookout for appreciative signals,
interpret ambiguous signals as positive appraisals,
impute a causal relationship between my clothes and these signals.

And I come away feeling that everyone is giving me a knowing wink as if to say, “Looking good, hombre.” In other words, I become more confident as a result of being confident. I would chalk this up to hubris, but every once in a while, one of those blessed strangers will say, “Love that tie!” in passing.

Similarly, if you’re worried about whether everyone else approves of your outfit, you’ll look for supporting evidence of his or her disdain—like all the people you walk by who aren’t paying attention to you. Must be because they hate your clothing. The connection isn’t obvious until you know what to look for!

Another advantage to the Warrenberg paradox: When you’re confident, you push the envelope a little bit when you get dressed. Then you do interesting things by accident, and you like it, and it feels good, and people appreciate it, so you start pushing the envelope even more.

Confidence is an echo chamber, then. Once you reach a threshold level of confidence, it feeds itself and just grows. The question is how do you reach that threshold? Luckily for you, the answers are nearly infinite, and they are the most fun parts of dressing well. You’ll know your threshold when you put your favorite clothes on. They’re the pieces that make your chest puff out, that make you stand up straighter, that bring out the color in your eyes, that make you feel a twinge of otherworldly class. Here are some of mine:

1. A pair of jeans with a killer fit.
2. Well-aged cowboy boots.
3. A suit with the perfect silhouette.
4. A scarf that, improbably enough, picks up all the colors in my suit and in my coat.
5. Herringbone.

Regardless of what does it for you, chase that feeling.

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Shop Around Blog | Style | Find a Spa