There’s something compelling about a guy who looks great in a suit and tie. It’s not how they look, necessarily. It’s not the custom tailoring or the square jaw. It’s their comportment that makes them look good. It’s they way they move, their mannerisms, their confidence and their comfort.
I just can’t pull it off. I don’t have “it”. I own a few suits and a bunch of ties, but I always look like “a guy in a suit and tie”. I don’t emit an air of ease and confidence like I was born to wear this stuff. That is the domain of the truly great suit-and-tie guys.
The following list leans heavily towards the classic French and Italian looks of the 1960’s and away from the idiotic wide lapels and dinner napkin ties of the 1970’s. This is because the former is brilliant and captivating and the latter is laughable, ugly and stupid.
Here we go…
10. Gordon Gekko
Michael Douglas isn’t a great suit-and-tie guy, but when he portrayed Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, he apparently took a crash course in being smooth and commanding. Despite the handicap of having to wear some truly awful designs and cuts, he exuded the granite charm of a wealthy egotist brilliantly. You could almost smell the cologne when he enters a room.
9. Christian Bale
Sometimes a man is so goddamn magnetic that he defines his clothes. Christian Bale is like that. He’s not a natural suit-and-tie guy, but give him a nicely tailored suit and a pneumatic bolt gun and watch out! Bale defines the “too sexy for my shirt” kind of presence that almost precludes him from this list. No one wants to concede that a handsome face is necessary for a great suit-and-tie guy, but Bale is proof that winsomeness is part of the deal when it comes to owning a look.
8. David Bowie
While best known for dressing like an androgynous freak, Bowie has pulled off the suit-and-tie for four fucking decades and done it with casual ease. This chameleon has walked across stages and hotel lobbies in skinny ties and wide ties, skinny pants and parachute pants and has never shuffled even one step. The man glides effortlessly like PG Wodehouses’s Jeeves. I would even say that his command of the suit-and-tie is even more outrageous than his skin-tight spaceman suits. Bowie is totally cool. You aren’t, so pay the man some respect.
7. Peter Sellers
The greatest comedic actor of all time, period. But unlike most jokers, Sellers wore a suit like it was his own skin. From the British checks in the image above to the silly getups of Jaques Clouseau to the prim fastidiousness of Chance in the film Being There, the man of a thousand characters could portray them all smartly in a suit that looked like he’d been wearing it all his life. There will never be another like him.
6. Bryan Ferry
You may argue that Bryan Ferry wears suits and ties as a gimmicky adjunct to his persona as front man for Roxy Music, but you’d be ignoring the fact that he does it brilliantly, both on stage and off. Furthermore, his ability to explode value out of a shimmery tuxedo jacket without looking like a total jackass says more about the man than any rock reviewer can hope to understand. Suaveness can be created from whole cloth and Bryan Ferry is living proof.
5. Sean Connery
This list would be useless without James Bond and no one portrayed Bond with such impeccable style and ease. Whether wearing a trim tuxedo or a period Savile Row suit and skinny tie, Sean Connery wore it like a real man. His every move was calm and pedestrian; he could have been wearing jeans and a pullover. That he didn’t have to change his gait or comportment in order to utterly shine in a tuxedo indicates how some men are truly born to it while others have to work at it (Roger Moore, this means YOU!).
4. George Clooney
How can George Clooney out-rank Sean Connery? Because Clooney is modern and forced to abide the comparatively abysmal state of modern men’s fashion. Both men are handsome devils, but Clooney is working with a handicap that Connery never dealt with. Clooney is refined and confident and willing to let small imperfections show in order to produce a look that is simultaneously crisp and human. Hats off, George.
3. Donald Draper
In third place is not the actor Jon Hamm but his character Don Draper in TV’s Mad Men. The product of a research team, a bunch of brilliant costume designers and Hamm’s steely eyes and tough chin, Don Draper defines the very reason the suit and tie was invented in the first place. Trading in shining armor for perfectly pressed lapels, this warrior conquers Madison Avenue with sharp wit and a leather briefcase. If you don’t find Don Draper to be a completely captivating character then you must be dead inside.
2. Marcello Mastroianni
Maybe he has unfair advantage being slim, Italian and debonair, but Marcello Mastroianni OWNS the suit and tie. He stole away the garb’s reputation for stuffiness and showed the whole world how cool is DONE. His look is so timeless that Quentin Tarantino couldn’t help himself when creating Reservoir Dogs. Long after mankind has disappeared, aliens will visit our planet, look through our archives, find Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and say “Holy SHIT that guy is fucking COOL!” . It is a sad indictment of our culture that this look ever faded from prominence. It simply cannot be topped.
1. Sidney Poitier
Believe it or not, our #1 spot goes to a black guy! Wearing a suit well is more than being sharp or being handsome. A brilliantly worn suit and tie is greater than the sum of its parts, and in the film To Sir, With Love, Sidney Poitier showed how a commanding presence is part and parcel of your look, your words and your comportment.
This (rather dated) film is well worth a second look in order to see how a confident, smart, elegant man uses the suit and tie to express greatness. Poitier took a tool and made a masterpiece. His Mark Thackery is tough, yet sensitive. Commanding, yet reassuring. Dominant, yet accessible. This is the heart and soul of the suit and tie.
Even when forced to act stilted during the school dance scene, Sidney Poitier was poised and smooth and lovable. I would trade all the square jaws in Hollywood for 1/10th of the elegance Sidney Poitier exudes when he’s in a suit. It’s the perfect meld of man and machine. It’s what we intend when we wear these clothes. And nobody does it like Poitier. Nobody.
Honorable Mention: Reservoir Dogs
I wanted to include a short salute to this film. Tarantino used the outfits as a visual shtick knowing full well the power of the black suit, white shirt and skinny black tie. After all, if one Macello Mastroianni is stunning, how about SIX of them? It was a smart move and made the film (and Tarantino’s career) explode. It reminded audiences that the classic look shames our modern fashions and that sometimes it’s best to leave things alone. I, for one, would welcome the permanent return of this look.
After all, what’s cooler than this?