Ethan M. Wong, Annotated

In which Berkeley Breathes attempts to not be an asshole.

Here is the essay in question, on “Bold Colorful Trousers.”

I will not be discussing grammar, because like I said, I’m not trying to be mean. Instead, I’m going to be nit-picking this essay a bit to try to work through some of my own thoughts on this. It’s not a dunk on Ethan. Ethan’s a nice guy, I like Ethan, I’m not trying to come at Ethan. I just happened to end up reading his essay on “The Bold, Colorful Trouser” and ended up having thoughts. This is like an extended version of my “An English teacher reads menswear writing” stories, but hopefully with less bridge-burning. I messaged Ethan before publishing this so he’d know it was coming, and he was awesome about it. 

  1. I think Ethan makes a structural error right away by aligning the preppy GTH trouser with brightly-colored skinny jeans of the Hot Topic variety. I’m not saying a connection can’t be made between these two things, but I think that connection would depend on a deep dive into the two cultures in question and an examination of how much either was positioned (from the inside or outside) as a subculture, and how these pants were a signifier or not of that identification. That work isn’t really done here.

  2. “a khaki and Nantucket Red may be made of the same chino twill” — They aren’t. Nantucket Reds are (or should be) made of canvas or sailcloth, while khakis are made of cotton twill. 

  3. “Like I’ve said before, tailoring and trad attire in general were what most guys wore all the time at least until the 1960’s” — This sentence brings up a question for me: how does Ethan define “tailoring”? The common noun definition would be the result of the verb — clothes created through the activity of tailoring, by a tailor. I’d argue that the majority of men did not wear “tailored” clothing through the 1960s. If Ethan is just using this word to mean more formal menswear, he may be correct, but it’s pretty unclear. This is the downfall of a lot of menswear (or I should say) #menswear writing — it’s only written for people who are already immersed in the specific conversation at hand, not a more general audience.

  4. “workwear and other sportswear is often mixed in, but they were much more informed by tailoring rather than casual for casual’s sake” — Again, I’m not sure what “tailoring” means in this context, but I also think we have an avant-la-lettre usage of “workwear” here that further muddies the issue. If we’re talking pre-1960s, then most workwear was just that — wear for work. In that sense, it was not “casual,” it was, well, workwear. It was different from a jacket and tie, but you could just as easily then make the argument that that tie was casual wear for a man who worked in a factory all day wearing coveralls and boots. This seems like another issue with a lot of menswear writing — it’s so grounded in menswear that it can lose sight of the actual world and history in which those clothes existed. “Workwear” means one thing in menswear, another thing outside of it. This passage shows both meanings intersecting, but not in a way where they are clearly explained and reconciled.

  5. “It’s the same overall garment, just a bit louder” — I really like this point, obvious as it may be. I think that is indeed an interesting aspect of GTH, that you’re taking the same form and changing one superficial aspect of it, which then changes the entire context in which it’s worn.

  6. “colors are a great way to separate the formal from the fun” — I suspect I may have issues with this theory later.

  7. “prep seems to be the casual relative to trad” — This isn’t an Ethan-specific problem, but it’s a great opportunity for me to say how much I hate the semantics of all these terms and their subjective interpretations and hierarchies. My understanding of them is, I think, similar to Ethan’s — “trad” is the most formal, “Ivy” is the college style that’s essentially trad having fun, and “preppy” is the inverse, what might be formulated as fun having trad. Trad is the office, Ivy is the classroom, and preppy is the country club. Two problems: what’s the difference between “prep” and “preppy”? and what’s the difference between “trad” and, for example, English menswear of the same period, or non-Ivy-aligned American menswear? The terms are too slippery to be used easily, and I think it’s a lot of work to use them if you have to spend a bunch of time defining them every time. 

  8. “We’ve had plenty of other influences come in over the years, like wearing workwear with sportcoats” — This is very nit-picky, but this isn’t an influence, it’s the result of one. The influence would either be workwear on “tailoring,” or the inverse.

  9. “The ideas of repp striped (over plains) and OCBDs (over stiff spread collars) is happening, and I’m not surprised that bold trousers added to the mix, though its still pretty rare (despite the fact of how common it was in the past)” — Okay, I said I wouldn’t deal with grammar, but this is pretty confusing. On more than a grammar level, though, a couple notes. First, repp striped ties and oxford-cloth buttondown shirts aren’t “ideas,” so the idea is something else — the reason those items are showing up more regularly now — and that isn’t explained here. Second, from my own relatively in-depth examinations of Ivy from roughly the 1920s to the 1990s, brightly colored trousers are not in evidence really at all until after the Official Preppy Handbook is published in, what, 1980? When they are, they tend to be worn in more costume-y settings, where the wearer seems to understand their connotations as stereotypical preppy clothes. The exception would be madras trousers, but these are pretty strictly relegated to casual settings, i.e. not school. 

  10. “Perhaps revisiting the attire of the priviledged in a semi-ironic way is how classic menswear will survive in a world where business and formal attire is seemingly at an end” — I sure hope not! We have enough smirking, smug irony in menswear as it is, and it doesn’t seem to be actually engaging with the privileged history of the clothes as much as repeating it in different ways. And it’s not exactly an accessible selling point for, say, J. Press, is it? Rowing Blazers is the standard-bearer for irony in preppydom, but look at their marketing and you’ll see that pretty much everything they do uses that ironic preppiness as a screen to insulate the sincere, earnest core of whatever they’re doing, which is usually grounded in Jack’s authentic personal enthusiasms. So while ironic preppiness may be an arrow in the quiver of future menswear, I think sincerity and earnestness is the only way to actually engage with the exclusionary history of the clothes, and the only way to attract a committed consumer base that cares about your product. Wearing everything with this ironic distance is both annoying and preventing you, the wearer, from ever seeming truly at home in your own clothes.

  11. “Red pants are an unusually welcome match for a monochromatic top block. It removes the prep angle, yet signals it at the same time” — Again, without defining these terms, I’m at sea in the argument. I’m unclear how red pants specifically remove the prep aspect of wearing colorful trousers — couldn’t GTH pants be red as much as any other color? Or are we saying the “monochromatic top block” is what changes the look to be less preppy? Unclear.

  12. “the bold trouser is truly an investment; a bold jacket can be calmed by somber trousers, but a bold trouser is instantly recognizable, especially once you take off your jacketing layer” — Didn’t you just say that the “monochromatic top block” was a good balance with those red trousers? How is that different from this? It feels like the conclusions about these colorful pants have already been made through more or less subjective, case-by-case observation, which is fine — that’s how we all come to understand what works and what doesn’t. Trying to nail everything down into a more or less scientific examination of Why It Works, though, requires reverse-engineering those subjective impressions into a cohesive argument, and I don’t think this essay succeeds here, especially if I walk away with the feeling that consecutive examples actually contradict each other. The phrase “instantly recognizable” feels like it’s reaching to be something different — that phrase doesn’t capture the nuanced difference between the effect of a bold jacket and bold trousers on the eye of the beholder, since both are really equally “recognizable” as what they are. Also, you could just as easily make the argument that a bold jacket is instantly recognizable as soon as you take your pants off. (Kidding.)

  13. “I mean I get it; Bold Colorful Trousers are a tough sell. They’re too formal in design yet dandy in color. It won’t fit into most wardrobe’s anyway!” I’m not talking about grammar. I’m not talking about grammar. I’m not talking about grammar.

  14. “I’d even go as far to say that a Bold Colorful Trouser is also much different than plaid/tartan or critter pants (which I actually think are easier to wear)” — this is a burning hot take! Critter pants easier to wear than solid-colored trousers? I want to hear way more on this. 

  15. “once you’ve done a lot of mixing in selvedge denim, military chinos, and wide legged pants, going bold is naturally the next thing” — Side note, but I don’t like this step-by-step philosophy of “learning how to dress well.” It seems to presuppose that getting dressed in the morning is like learning to draw, or play an instrument — you need to practice your basic fundamentals first, and only after those are mastered will it even be possible to move on to improvising a solo, or drawing perspective. The fact is, if you have the money to buy something, you can wear it. If you like kelly green pants, you don’t need to have practiced your khaki scales before putting those puppies on. I’d say you’re more likely to learn how to dress well by taking huge risks with color and proportion in the process of trying what you love. Clothing is clothing, not Algebra I.

  16. “It’s not for everyone, but these guys are certainly not everyone.” Well… yeah. No one is everyone.

  17. “its a fun challenge if you’re an advanced dresser in classic menswear” — This idea of being an “advanced” dresser calls back directly to my point above. I don’t know what this means. I look at yearbooks all the time, and some of the best outfits I see are on little kids, like Middle or even Lower School-age kids. Are they being given good clothes by their parents? Obviously, yeah, but the great thing isn’t the specific clothes, it’s how they’re worn. Those kids are able to wear the clothes well because they aren’t thinking about them too much — maybe they even hate them. That’s pretty much the opposite of a menswear formulation where there are “beginner,” I assume “intermediate,” and “advanced” dressers, where the ranking is determined by… Well, it’s not super clear here. Is it awareness of menswear history? Ability to “pull off” different things? (Obviously not, since Mark Cho can pull off a lot of things, but is not called an “advanced” dresser here.) I’m curious where Ethan would place himself on the spectrum; I’m also curious where you have to be on the spectrum to be able to teach others about how to dress well.

  18. “That’s probably why Ethan Newton and Tony Sylvester do it. They’ve already made a name for themselves for this ‘rugged menswear’ look, so going the opposite direction and leaning into preppy GTH tropes is another way to have fun with classic clothing and subvert expectations” — This is less clear in one particular passage than it maybe is as a general sense from the whole essay, but I’m getting a feeling that for Ethan, the goal is to reduce individual styles of menswear into discrete elements, which can then be played off of each other to create different effects for an audience. I’m missing two things in that formulation that I think are important: a larger whole which serves as the unifying umbrella for these different pieces, and where that larger whole resides internally in the wearer. It’s interesting that almost all of Ethan’s analysis is outward-facing. Where do our own feelings about what we wear, and our comfort level in those clothes, come into play? Every decision seems very calculated from outside the self rather than motivated organically from within it.

  19. “I’m not sure if its exactly tied to those skater looks, but for me, it’s hard not to make that connection. Especially since a bit of skater style is derived from classic Americana.” See my very first point. This needs a deeper dive.

  20. “preppy, rich asshole” — I’ll be honest, it’s super annoying to me that Ethan’s entire image of “preppy” seems to be Rob Lowe in Class. It’s a super simplistic, 2D version of the style, and if Ethan is distilling that down even further to use as a foil for some other aspect of menswear, we end up with this little nugget of “preppy” that doesn’t have any depth or substance, and thus doesn’t contribute much to one’s larger aesthetic other than a quick, clichéd style shorthand. I get that Ethan doesn’t want to associate himself with Tucker Carlson, but I think his desire to distance himself from that version of “preppy” gets in the way of having a clear-eyed view of what the style may actually be other than that one narrow definition. John F. Kennedy was, by all accounts, a preppy, rich asshole, but it’s still a fact that Kennedy in Nantucket Reds has a very different cultural and stylistic context than Tucker Carlson or Richard Press or Rob Lowe or John Updike in the same Reds. And this reductive stereotype of preppy style brings up an even more obvious question — if preppiness is just rich assholes, why would you want it in your arsenal in the first place? Using these elements at all speaks to their depth beyond that superficial gloss, so let’s get into that stuff rather than falling back on the easy applause line.

  21. “It’s almost as if they put it on and forgot how wild it is. It’s a skater (or punk rock) mentality, I guess” — Eh. I think skaters and punks are very conscious of what they wear, because they’re wearing it for a purpose. Again, this gets into the deeper dive we need on what our terms mean. Is “preppy” being used to mean “rich asshole,” or “rebellious, irreverent youth”? Either can be true, but it’s hard to juggle both at once, and it affects our understanding of the more specifically sartorial argument.

  22. “I’d argue that yellowish-khaki and light wash denim also applies” — Uh, what? Dad jeans are “Bold Color Trousers”? This speaks to a larger issue with the photos in the essay, maybe, which is that for all the allusions to larger menswear concepts in the text, none of the examples really exemplify those concepts. Most of the photos just look like people playing with color in general, rather than using their trousers to invoke specific histories and subgenres within menswear which they can then play against the other elements of their “fits” (as the kids say) to create some kind of ironic dissection of privilege, or whatever. So why can’t we just say, “Play with color”? And what more knowledgeable, “advanced” understanding of dressing does, for example, a uni-stripe oxford shirt, a pink Shaggy Dog, and orange pants (with bit loafers, no less) speak to that someone just playing around with color and trying something fun without having followed the 12-Step Plan of Advanced Menswear does not? 

  23. Quick note — a BUNCH of these photos are Anthony Sylvester (aka toneloki). Anthony is a follower of mine (and a great guy), so I know he likes the Ivy scene. When I see his outfits, I can tell he’s doing what Ethan is arguing for — placing different sartorial contexts in conjunction and conversation to create a unique new take. However, I don’t see him limiting those contexts the way Ethan seems to be pulled to do. Sylvester doesn’t seem to do a lot of hand-wringing about how certain things he wears will be perceived, and whether or not those perceptions will allow who he actually is to breathe. I attribute this to Anthony having a robust sense of self, where his clothes (as I mentioned earlier) draw from various different contexts as an organic expression of his own personality and attitude, rather than drawing from those outside contexts to create his personality and attitude in the eye of the beholder.

  24. Another quick note — almost none of these “Bold Colored Trousers” seem too bold. Most seem muted and dark. The ones that do strike me as truly bold don’t seem to really have the Ivy/preppy connotations that Ethan spends so much time distancing them from in the first place. When I think of GTH pants, I think of kelly greens, pinks, madras, maybe Lilly Pulitzer patterns like in that one Slim Aarons photo of Donald Leas. Even white, maybe. With this in mind, I feel like Acute Style is the best photo example here. I don’t love Acute Style’s thing — he’s a math teacher, and it looks like he plugs clothing values into a formula, multiplies everything by Ralph, and divides by slim fit — but his yellow trousers are pleated (distancing them from true preppy GTH), and they’re offset by a green knit tie, a blue oxford, and then a cotton navy jacket with dark, not brass or gold, buttons. The pocket square gives the whole thing a hint of formality and European-aligned dandyism that moves the whole look further away from Tom Wolfe’s portrait of rich, “go-to-hell”-clad New England vacationers. The next look, madras and pink, does the opposite — it’s pretty fully aligned with an Ivy idea of GTH, especially with the green tie — so again, I’m confused about how Ethan is really defining all these terms and concepts he floats in the essay. How are these two looks seen as accomplishing the same objective? How does the madras and pink pants look not have those connotations of rich, preppy asshole, if those are the ones we’re reading into preppiness by default?

  25. Another aspect of this whole thing that isn’t covered here is weight and texture. We’re seeing linen, cotton, and corduroy all thrown together, paired with madras, tweed, Shetlands, and Barbours. Each brings its own connotations of season and setting, and surely those connotations alter our reading of the meaning of colored trousers. For example, Maxwell Q. Wolkin’s fantastic tweed-and-pink-cords look doesn’t really count as GTH in the Wolfeian sense, because it’s a cold weather ensemble. How does that alter our understanding of those larger contexts Ethan was telling us are so important when choosing these pieces?

  26. “This is a full suit, but I’m putting it here because it applies” — It literally cannot, or this whole essay is meaningless. See specifically point 12 above. Or Ethan’s own caption to his photo example of Trevor Jones — “Note the somber top compared to the vibrant yellow pants.” This either matters, or it doesn’t. Can’t be both.

  27. Okay, now we get into the takeaways. First, “a bold colored trouser is absolutely appropriate across any season.” Agreed, but as mentioned above, this isn’t meaningfully discussed within the context that Ethan has chosen to frame this whole discussion (one that gets yet another invocation here — “preppy guys in boat shoes and a blazer”). Next, “let’s think about how white jeans and cream linens are the favorite of every menswear guy in summer! Is not a bold trouser in that same vein? Its imply taking that throughline and moving to the next step: injecting a bold, solid color.” I’d argue that a) these are not a through-line, but two separate lines, since white or cream trousers aren’t a crazy GTH move but have deep roots in very traditional menswear, and b) if they are on the same line, then white jeans would come after — they are the next step from GTH. We also finally get a mention of texture! The end of an essay is my favorite place to discuss important aspects of my argument for the first time. However, texture isn’t discussed in the way I expected. Here’s the meat of the argument: “texture helps make the Bold Color much more palatable, whether its a deep purple or a vibrant yellow. This is presumably because the raised fibers on a flannel or corduroy help turn a saturated color a bit dusty without fading away too much. Even the wrinkling on a linen or the visible wales of a cavalry twill are enough!” So, rather than texture being discussed as adding a contextual or seasonal aspect to a colorful pair of trousers, all textures actually have exactly the same effect — making Bold Colorful Trousers… less bold. Maybe this has something to do with the preppy connotations again? I don’t think Ethan is wrong here, necessarily — Nantucket Reds are guaranteed to fade, after all — but that also complicates the argument. If some of the OG preppy asshole pants themselves are making themselves “more palatable” through fading, then what is being added or altered in this new take on the look? I do think Ethan’s connection to Shaggy Dogs as another “dusty” version of vibrant color is good, but again I’m not sure he’s reading it correctly. After all, people want the craziest Shaggy Dog colors, so the desire is not to make these more palatable, since they’re being sought out to begin with. The difference, as with original GTH, between a Shaggy Dog and, say, a cashmere sweater is that one is more formal and one is more casual, so the Shaggy Dog is able to go nuts (“there’s a reason why bold colors are done on shetlands and lambswools rather than an ultrafine merino”).

  28. “You can definitely see that there is a bit of restraint that these men use when wearing it” — Here’s kind of the key issue I see with this whole essay. Ethan is saying, go big! go bold! with your trousers, but, hey, wait — mute them a bit, make them more palatable. I think this is located again in Ethan’s anxieties about preppy asshole connotations. If Preppy R. McAsshole IV wears super bright pants, and if Ethan is determined to not be Preppy R. McAsshole IV, then he literally cannot say, “Wear super bright pants!” even in an essay that is specifically advocating for wearing these exact pants. This is, to put it mildly, a bit of a road block to a coherent argument. A muted colorful trouser ain’t a bold colorful trouser, even if it’s an originally bold color that’s been muted down. 

  29. “While there are a few fits that seem pretty preppy (like Tony’s use of the Shaggy Dog sweater or Ethan Newton wearing a literal navy blazer with brass buttons)” — Ethan is super hung up on the navy blazer with brass or gold buttons being a super preppy item. It’s not central to this essay, so I won’t dwell on it, but that whole attitude strikes me as being limited by the exact mainstream perceptions of “anything tailored is formal” thinking that Ethan himself wants to push against. You don’t have to be Sean Crowley to know that navy blazers predate any conception of “preppy,” and if Ethan just feels like popular sentiment has turned on the navy blazer and irrevocably associated it with Tucker Carlson, it’s weird that he doesn’t include this in “stuff to push back against.” Also, fun fact, Tucker seems to wear navy suit jackets with khakis rather than actual blazers. No brass buttons on Tucker! Maybe people were screaming the f-word at him or something.

  30. “You won’t find boat shoes and a cheesy club motif tie here, though I’d be intrigued to see if one of them could pull it off” — This is kind of a crazy statement, if we’re being honest. I get that Ethan and I live in different worlds, but in the one I live in, I’d get weird looks for wearing pretty much anything on Ethan’s feed, and no one would look twice at boat shoes. That’s not because I teach in boarding schools, but because boat shoes are boring, mainstream shoes. Timberland makes boat shoes. Everyone wears boat shoes. We’re back to that very narrow, limiting idea of Preppy IV again — boat shoes are preppy, thus they are beyond what can be worn in the real-world by regular, non-preppy people. But I also get that they have a specific connotation — Ethan would look weird and wrong in boat shoes, because it isn’t his vibe, and that’s totally cool. The club tie thing is crazy for a whole different reason. In today’s world, 99.9% of “club” ties are actually motif or emblematic ties — ones from Chipp with that wavy FUCK YOU, or the black sheep, or whatever. Maybe they’re cheesy, maybe they aren’t. It’s just very odd to me that Ethan would put club ties and “tasteful” at opposite ends of the spectrum. If I wore a Chipp motif tie — or a school tie with crests, to make it less in the realm of irony — a navy blazer with brass buttons, Nantucket Reds, and boat shoes, I’m automatically tacky? I actually think that’s a solid look, and more “tasteful” on the spectrum of “Do you look like you live in some stratum of reality” than Chase Winfrey’s Reds and belted wax jacket photo used as an example here. So, make of that what you will, I guess.

  31. “Looking over the fit pics above, it’s almost as if these men know how ‘ridiculous’ the trousers are, which is why they wear them seriously” — I mean, this is literally Tom Wolfe’s formulation of go-to-hell. “The jackets were mostly navy blazers,” Wolfe wrote in 1976, “and the ties were mostly striped ties or ties with little jacquard emblems on them, but the pants had a go-to-hell air: checks and plaids of the loudest possible sort, madras plaids, yellow-on-orange windowpane checks, crazy-quilt plaids, giant houndstooth checks, or else they were a solid airmail red or taxi yellow or some other implausible go-to-hell color. They finished that off with loafers and white crew socks or no socks at all. The pants were their note of Haitian abandon.” In the world Wolfe was observing — Martha’s Vineyard WASPs — the blazers and ties were conservative, stuffy, while the pants were the one “note of abandon,” “implausible” and “loud,” in other words, ridiculous. However, since everyone was wearing them, and not questioning it, the look became normal and unremarkable. Or, as Ethan writes here, “It… looks like they had a last minute swap for the pants in their outfit: the grey flannels turned into purple cords or Nantucket red chinos.” So, after all this time, we’ve ended up right back where we started. Nothing has been subverted, nothing has even been inverted. We’ve just made something pretty confusing for a while, then restored the status quo. 

  32. I want to close this by acknowledging that Ethan doesn’t see himself as a rule-maker, and he doesn’t want to be an authority, something he reiterated in a DM to me when I let him know about this thing I was putting together. That’s fair — and admirable. Yet, this is a piece about rules, about orthodoxy, about hegemony, and about authority. Ethan may not consider himself an “advanced” dresser, but he considers the concept valid. He may not consider himself an authority, but he seems to consider others to be. So while Ethan pushes back on the idea of proscriptive rules and “authority” that tells people what to wear and how to wear it, he’s also reinforcing that same concept every time he talks about button-pocket harmony, or “slouch,” or whatever it may be. Food for thought. Thanks for being a good sport, Ethan. Keep doing you.