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Monday, June 30, 2008

Challenging the Norm 4: Belts and Ties

Many of us are used to substitutions in our daily lives, especially when two things appear quite similar. Butter is swapped out for the equally yellow fat, margarine, a knife works just as well as a pair of scissors in opening a bag, and the generic acetaminophen tablets work just as well as Tylenol.

Substitutions in fashion are less common, since most pieces of clothing are markedly different in some way (otherwise, what would be the point of shopping). Occasionally, however, we can exploit some symmetries which allow us to utilize elements of our wardrobe in new ways. This brings us to today’s substitution items; belts and ties.

Ties and belts have a number of similarities:

  • Thin, nearly rectangular shape
  • Approximately the same length
  • Fastened in some way (buckle or knot)

Thus, I am (as always), motivated to mess around with this and switch things up. The two obvious questions:

  • Can we use a tie as a belt?
  • Can we use a belt as a tie?

After some research, I’ve found that the answer to the first question is “almost always,” and the answer to the second question is “with the right type of belt, and some modifications.” Let’s start with the easy one:

Using a Tie as a Belt

My first inclination was to find someway to fold the tie along the long direction to make the wide end fit inside the belt loop, but this seemed more damaging than just sliding it through the loop. As you can see here, it only cinches the tie briefly, allowing the full width to return for the majority of the belt:

Instead, we just pull the tie around through the belt loops, tightening all the way through until both ends are secured near a loop. It must be mentioned that the tie doesn’t have nearly the same fastening power as an actual belt, and thus is best worn with pants that don’t need a belt to fit well. As you can see here, starting the tie in the standard first belt loop leads to having a lot of the wide part off to the side:

Thus, I recommend beginning at the second loop; for most standard ties this brings the wide part to the center (if you want it there). You could, of course, do other things with the loose end, but that’s up to you!

While this doesn’t seem to damage the ties in any way, I’d have to imagine wearing one in this fashion is more demanding than as a necktie. You may not want to use your most expensive ties for this purpose (then again, maybe you do, just a warning).

Using a Belt as a Tie

The more difficult endeavor approaches. The work, however, can be done, with some minor modifications.

To begin, the ends of most belts to not appear very tie-like, but more rectangular (or possibly slightly rounded), though they do have the approximate width of a skinny tie. It is an easy hack to make the belt more triangular (or some exotic shape), and I’d imagine this wouldn’t detract from its value as a belt, but the choice is yours.

Now, for the actual “tying,” we begin with a small loop around the collar, bringing the belt buckle to the point where the standard tie knot would rest, right in the indentation above the breastbone and between the collarbones:

The long end should then be fed through the buckle, keeping it as straight as possible down the center of the shirt.

This is where you have to decide whether to create another hole in the belt at this location (one won’t be there, unless your neck is waist-sized), or to leave the belt loose. Either works, since there isn’t nearly as much tension in the belt as when worn on pants.

The last hurdle is the likely excessive length of the long end. You probably don’t wish to cut off a few inches, as this could ruin the belt’s utility as… a belt. Other options are to fold it under and fasten it (not recommended since it will be quite bulky), or flip the long end through the loop created by the short end of the belt (almost like a real tie). This will prove difficult given the twisting required by the strip of the belt.

Or, you could use a buckle with two hoops, like this belt from Old Navy, which facilitates easy looping and tying to adjust length.

There you have it, a strange reversal which could potentially double your belt count, and maybe add a few to the tie count (I’d have to say the ties make better belts than the belts make ties), while adding a lot to your originality and creativity.

Always Another Way

…there’s always another way. Obscure references to the Matrix aside, the words ring true. We make so many choices in fashion (whether we realize them or not), that there is almost always another way to achieve a desired effect, to wear a particular piece of clothing, or to put an outfit together.

Often, the other ways are not particularly effective, or produce undesirable effects. For example, you could wear your shoes on the wrong feet, but it probably wouldn’t feel too comfortable. However, if we free our minds up a bit, we can find reversals, switches, and modifications which are new, interesting, and effective. It's a nice way to challenge the norm.

Today, we’re going to consider a very simple change to a very common outfit pattern. Consider a short-sleeved polo shirt, showing the undershirt underneath. This “look,” deservedly or undeservedly, carries the connotation of being “preppy” and “clean-cut.” Based on those connotations alone, the pair can easily be used to satisfy some simple fashion goals.

  1. To look preppy or clean-cut (obviously).
  2. To bring a slight amount of formality to a casual or athletic outfit.
  3. To appear simultaneously youthful and mature (as the outfit is prevalent among college students).

Our work here will most directly affect the first goal, but it also explores some additional goals.

So how do we construct such an outfit? We’d probably find an undershirt which works well with the color of the polo, slip it on, then add the polo, unbuttoning enough to see some of the color contrast, right?

Not today.

This time, we put the polo on first (if you insist, you could wear an additional undershirt underneath, though you might start to look puffy), followed by the undershirt, making sure to fold the collar of the polo over the undershirt. Hmm, quite a striking effect. What have we accomplished here?

By using a darker colored undershirt (as we have here), we provide a strong contrast to the lighter colors of polo (pastel-ier is often equated with preppier). By being frugal with the area we provide to the “important” color, we intensify its presence. We also channel a secondary prep look, in which the dress shirt collar is folded over a sweater. In this way, we have multiple dimensions of the prep look, giving the final product a preppier impression overall.

Further, we bring a formal idea (collar over shirt), to a casual idea (short-sleeves), something which is not often seen, and is thus interesting. Consequently, one nice effect is the ability of the polo collar to make a very casual undershirt or tee shirt seem more formal.

This technique is also useful for purely practical means. Have a badly wrinkled polo, or one with a noticeable stain? Wear it underneath an undershirt, revealing only the collar. It can also help reign in strong colors or patterns, like this metallic silver polo.

Before, I'm not pleased.

After, it's much better.

One caveat is sleeve length. We should be careful to ensure that the polo’s sleeves to not extend too far beyond the undershirt sleeves (not much more than half an inch), otherwise we risk losing intentionality, as there will be an awkward mismatch in length. A slightly longer polo sleeve does, however, provide additional points of color contrast, which may be desirable.

So, before you go through the motions in your morning dress, stop to consider what could be done differently, because there is always another way.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Practical Post 2: Destroy to Gain

In our zeal to break the mold, to come up with something unusual and new, we can often get so excited, so worked up, that we end up doing something rash, wasteful, or inefficient.

I almost committed such a mistake today when coming up with an improvement on my Braille shirt. One shortcoming of the first incarnation was that, although the shirt had Braille characters on it, it could not be read as Braille, since there were only visual markings, no tactile ones! My first (admittedly very reasonable) thoughts were to either use fabric paint or to adhere some objects to the shirt to provide the characteristic raised bumps.

Let’s step back and look at the math here, since this is something a bit more permanent than the washable sharpie. Say I decided to apply Duke blue fabric paint to a plain black tee shirt.

Losses: 1 plain black tee shirt
Gains: 1 black and blue Braille shirt
Total: No net change in number of shirts

Then I came up with a different approach. What if, instead of creating raised bumps, I created tactile contrast by cutting holes in the shirt, revealing the Braille characters by recession? Certainly, this would be just as easy to read visually (if the circles are large enough), and for such a short message, just as easy to read by touch (I’d imagine that for a large piece of text, it would be difficult to read “inverted” Braille).

Then, I could wear the shirt with holes over any other color (black would defeat the purpose) to create the Braille effect in a number of ways. Suppose I own N different colors of tee shirt (besides the black base). Let’s look at the math now:

Losses: 1 plain black tee shirt
Gains: N different colors of Braille shirt
Total: N-1 new shirts (technically I’m wearing two shirts)

This looks a lot more effective to me. Don’t forget to step back and think about the process you use to achieve fashion goals. There are often multiple ways to get the same (or similar) results, and they’re not always equal.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Another Norm Challenger: LittleMissMatched

You never wear mismatched socks, right? Right. How could you? It'd be embarrasing! What if someone saw your fashion oversight?!

Sounds like norm-based thinking to me. Of course, I'm guilty of it as well, we all are (unless you don't match your socks, on purpose).

Well, the people behind LittleMissMatched got their collective minds beyond all that. The idea follows my four-step norm-busting process in straightforward splendor:
  1. Almost everyone wears matched socks.
  2. People don't have to wear matched socks.
  3. It's easy to not wear matched socks, all I need are two different socks.
  4. Hooray, I'm wearing mismatched socks.

That's all well and good on an individual level. I could have "shattered the fashion world" tomorrow morning by walking out in gloriously contrasting socks. Except nobody would have cared. The genius, the limiting step, is convincing other people to do it (thus leading to profit).

This happenened in two steps. First, they designed some killer socks. All of them are fun, interesting, and well designed with respect to color and pattern. Ok. I'll still take them in pairs please.

The big idea is understanding why people don't wear mismatched socks, and finding a way to circumvent that mindset. Mismatched socks, when occuring unintentionally, are bad because they reflect a lack of care, a lack of intentionality on the part of the wearer. Often, it's just a red stripe that betrays us; clearly we were so cavalier about our footwear that we didn't bother to notice.

How does LittleMissMatched take advantage of this? They remove "accidental" from our vocabulary. The socks (which come in mismatched sets of three) are so vibrantly different from one another, that you'd literally have to be blind to accidentally wear them. Nobody in their right mind, seeing someone come down the street with a blue and red striped sock and a yellow and purple polka dotten one, could think that it was an accident. LittleMissMatched has allowed people to increase their intentionality, to utilize an oft forgotten garment to make a statement. That is why people buy from them. Not only have they challenged the norm themselves, they make it easier for their consumers to do so to, and thus they sell.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Goal: Challenging the Norm

The fashion perspective of the everyday person is often normative, in that what is worn by the masses, or some large subset thereof, becomes the model upon which fashion judgments are based. The evidence is found all around us:

  • Specific garments go dormant for years, decades at a time, such as bell-bottomed jeans. There’s something very Tipping Point about this phenomenon.

  • Countries, even states, and even regions within states have distinctive fashion cultures, and these fashion cultures are rarely breached. Ask a US high school student if they’ve seen someone wear traditional Indian clothing. Not just at school. Ever.

  • The modern business workplace is a “hotbed” of fashion homogeny. Whatever the norm found, be it formal businesswear, business casual, or completely casual, you’ll see a remarkable lack of variation in most corporate environments.

The reasons, too, are abundant:

  • We’re often limited in what we can purchase by the stores around us, though this is starting to change. Until online shopping becomes commonplace, the majority of people in a region will be buying from the same subset of stores, and thus, the same subset of clothes. This means you are inundated with images of a specific subset of the fashion world, making it difficult to judge against other images.

  • We really don’t have any control over what gets put in stores. This is important, as it makes our judgment selective rather than constructive. While the fashion designers get to make judgments via creation of garments, thus in theory judging based upon all fashions they can imagine, we only have the ability to judge among their offerings.

  • We’re naturally attuned to “follow the crowd” for evolutionary reasons. To say that we eat because we see others eat would be a misinterpretation of biology, but to say we follow the herd because they know how to get food would be more reasonable. When we see others wear clothing and receive positive attention (or avoid negative attention), we naturally make note of this, influencing our own thoughts and judgments. Then, when a large group of people wears similar clothing, all to safe effect, it becomes easy to follow suit. After all, deviation is inherently risky.

Sure, deviation from the norm is inherently risky, but it’s a lot riskier for the fashion designers, isn’t it? That’s why they get paid to move fashion norms, to create deviations, because if they’re not accepted, it’s more than a minor embarrassment, it’s millions of dollars on the line.

Fortunately, our risks are much less frightening. When we make a fashion deviation (unless you’re a super-celebrity or something), the worst that can happen is that a stranger or a friend makes a snarky comment about it. Maybe they’ll make fun of you about it the next day. Aw. Thus, I often set about achieving the following goal:

Goal: Challenging the Norm

Utilize my clothing and fashion to deliberately go against the current norm or to defy expectations, while remaining within what I personally perceive as aesthetic.

In less rigor, do something unusual and unexpected, but that you still think looks good! The process probably isn’t as hard as you think. As a starting point, here’s a step-by-step method which I’ll illustrate using my first example in this series:

  1. Come up with a simple fact about the majority of clothes. Often, the more general, the better.

  2. Determine the logical opposite of this statement.

  3. See if it is practically feasible to execute this opposite. This will likely require you pick a specific implementation of (2). If possible, proceed to (4). If not, return to (1).

  4. Execute said opposite.
Use your common sense to find examples which you can actually implement. For example, the following would not be a good choice:

  1. Most jeans are not diamond-encrusted.

  2. Jeans could be diamond-encrusted. (Proof)

  3. I do not have thousands of dollars to encrust a pair of jeans. I also lack the equipment to securely fasten diamonds to denim. I should try again.

How about an example that I came up with and executed in less than twenty minutes?

  1. Most shirts with words are in English. Generalize: most shirts with words are written in a spoken language.

  2. A shirt could have content written in Braille.

  3. Yes, this is feasible. All I need is knowledge of the Braille alphabet, a blank shirt, and a silver sharpie.

  4. Done (for those who can’t be bothered to translate, it says DUKE):

Again, less than twenty minutes from conception to completion (if you don’t count drying time). I notice that you can see the results of a previous design faintly underneath. I didn't feel like washing the shirt again before putting this together. Anyway, the effect isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s certainly interesting. I’ve got a few more ideas for this goal on deck, as I complete them, I’ll post links to the associated posts here as well:

Always Another Way
Belts and Ties

Challenge the norm yourself, and unleash your inner designer (we all have one).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Color Theory Video 1: Basics and Definitions

First piece of video content for fashionablemathematician!

Head on over to youtube to check out the first video in my color theory series (which closely follows the blog posts).

Color Theory Basics (1)

You can, of course, read the associated post:

Color Theory Chapter 1: Basics and Definitions

or go to the color theory portal page:

Color Theory Introduction

Friday, June 6, 2008

Color Theory Chapter 9: Analogous Combinations

You may be surprised that we’ve waited so long to discuss combinations of analogous colors. We saw in Chapter 5 that monochromatic outfits were relatively easy to construct, and that the results were nice. It would make sense for analogous colors to be the next step up in difficulty, but instead we moved on to complementary, then triadic and split and dual complements.

In media which utilize a small number of colors (such as logos, print design, and often fashion), we see a surprising lack of analogous colors. Consider the emblems and uniform colors for the teams in the NFL and the MLB. Of the approximately 60 teams, I count only who 4 use analogous colors in any significant way (these being the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland A’s, and Seattle Mariners). Interestingly, all four instances either use green and yellow or green and blue, though I’m not sure if there is any significance to this. Much more common are monochromatic, triadic, or complementary relations.

Now look in your own wardrobe, especially your shirts. How many of them even have multiple colors on them? Of those that do, how many use analogous colors? I’d guess that the number will be fewer than you expect. I can’t say that I fully understand why this is true, but I can give a few reasons why mixing analogous colors is more difficult than imagined (note that this is much less true in art, when often in natural subjects color flows continuously, requiring the use of analogous hues).

  1. When colors are very near each other in hue, it creates a tension because the mind wants the two colors to be the same. This is similar to the effect described in Chapter 5 with adjacent blocks of similar (monochromatic) colors.
  2. Given that color changes in fashion are usually abrupt (edges), we have a disconnect with natural systems, in which analogous colors usually flow continuously, while contrasting colors produce edges. This means that we may tend to expect edges to be associated with higher contrasts, such as triadic or complementary colors.
  3. The contrasts created by analogous colors are often too small to be interesting, while the similarities are also too small to exude coherence.

So how can we hope to use analogous colors effectively? From the above we see that at the core of the analogous problem is the indecision between coherence and contrast. We must manage these two ideals when putting together. In either case, the key is intentionality. Our choices must make it clear that we’ve introduced the colors for a specific purpose, either contrast or coherence.

We’ve already looked at two ways to introduce contrast into a set of analogous colors; split and dual complements. We can form a split complement from a pair of analogous colors by adding the complement to the center of the two colors. Similarly, we can create a dual complement simply by adding the complements of each color. Thus, we see that complementary relations are often not so much removed from analogous ones. Once the split or dual complement is set up, we can proceed as in Chapter 7.

How else can we introduce contrast? If you’ve been following along, you probably have an idea about where I’ll go next; value and saturation. Adding a second type of contrast increases the perceived “distance” between the colors, making the juxtaposition seem all the more intentional. Recall our ideas about this from before, typically we want the color with higher saturation to have lower value. Our other standard trick is to utilize proportions. By giving one color a significantly greater intensity, but a significantly smaller area, we can draw attention to the color, and the intention of our contrast.

We’ll that is wonderful. Now let’s tackle cohesion. Again our goal is to make it apparent that we want these two similar colors together! Now, if we include a color once, it might be an accident, but what if we do it again? And again? And again? Each repetition of a particular color solidifies our intentionality, and the legitimacy of the color in the context of the entire out fit. This can be achieved without much difficulty. Try a shirt with a particular color as the figure or accent (perhaps as the collar or a stripe) and match it with a cloth belt. Bonus points for successfully using a nonstandard (read: interesting) belt (for example, a red shirt with orange design, orange belt with khaki to dark brown shorts or pants).

Another method of introducing cohesion is to invite continuity (as in nature) by ordering analogous colors in a logical sequence. This works especially well if you simultaneously decrease the value as we progress down. Consider a progression from yellow to green. We could begin with a yellow undershirt of light value, layered underneath a yellow-green polo shirt (making sure the undershirt is clearly visible). A pair of dark green slacks and brown shoes (and belt) complete the look. Everything flows nicely, and the matching of hue and value flows give significant coherence to the end result. As an advanced exercise, one could consider mixing the two above approaches by using a yellow belt as well. This probably requires a closer look at the colors, but certainly can be done.

Finally, as we mentioned before, analogous colors often occur naturally. They are thus very appropriate for clothing which depicts natural things, such as images or prints. This method, of course, requires significantly less thought, but do not neglect the relation of the colors in the rest of your outfit.

Well, hopefully a good start into utilizing yet another category of colors in your fashion lives!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Color Theory Chapter 8: The Intermediary Contrast

Just a brief lesson this time (we’re getting into specifics territory). Often we want to use a particular color combination, but just find that the resulting color contrast simply does not work. Fortunately, this is not the end for our color friends! Today we’ll look at how to downplay a contrast, making it more appealing, through the addition of more contrasts.

Let’s think about why this should work. If there is only a single contrast in a visual field (in this case typically a hue contrast with high intensity), then the eye will tend to focus on it. Providing a second contrast (especially of a different variety, say value or saturation, or even a hue lying between the initial two hues) takes attention away from the initial contrast, often making it seem less strong.

The concept is best illustrated with a specific example. Suppose that I want to utilize a blue-orange color combination. Since the colors are complementary, we’re going to be dealing with a very strong hue contrast. Worse still, I have nothing orange with low saturation or value, it’s all high intensity stuff! It seems like we’re headed straight for an eyesore! Not so, thanks to a light brown and a gray addition. A beige collar and gray stripe on this orange shirt allow us to safely pair it with a navy sweater, as follows: (visible despite me playing Guitar Hero)

The shirt provides a surprising number of additional contrasts:

  1. Strong value contrast between the sweater and the collar.
  2. Hue contrast between the sweater and the collar.
  3. Saturation contrast between the orange and gray stripes.
  4. Saturation contrast between the gray stripes and the sweater.

Immediately, we see a reduction in strain on the blue-orange hue contrast. The addition of a few other color elements has given the visual system a lot to look at, mediating the power of the complementary color contrast, making it an interesting, rather than overbearing, part of the entire look.

Similar methods can be used to reconcile many other color combinations. It's quite helpful, especially if you've got an item of clothing that just doesn't seem to go with anything else. Often, adding another layer of color is all it takes to make an outfit work.

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