For Men, a Holiday Look That Goes Directly From the Office

December 6th, 2012

THE holiday season brings many challenges, from the practical (what to give your boss) to the emotional (what to give your boss that will kill him in his sleep).

Gregory Vaughan for The New York Times

Wool suit, $ 469, and cotton pocket square, $ 29, both at  SuitSupply; Gucci cotton shirt, $ 385 at mrporter.com; Hugo Boss navy bow tie, $ 55 at Saks. More Photos »

Yes, the proper Christmas spirit can be difficult to get right — much less display — especially when trying to figure out how to dress for the gantlet of holiday parties if, as is often the case, you have to go to one directly from work.

This particular quandary has intensified with the advent of a new directive, increasingly common on invitations, urging festive attire. It’s not black tie, it’s not business dress, and it’s definitely not come as you are. But what is “festive,” exactly?

“It doesn’t mean anything,” said Jennifer Gilbert, the founder of Save the Date, a New York special events company. “That’s the whole problem. So many people put that on invitations now, and no one really knows what it means. Well, women do. But 9 times out of 10, you say ‘festive attire’ and guys show up in a blazer, the shirt they wore to work, unbuttoned and without the tie, and jeans. So it ends up being the opposite of festive.”

The “festive” predicament is familiar even to those in the fashion business, where outr? clothing is celebrated more on mannequins than on management. But while designers don’t always have the most practical concerns in mind (they’re artists, O.K.?), it turns out that men’s fashion is chockablock with stylish answers.

The three-piece suit is a good example, especially one in a fabric that has a little extra dash: a bold houndstooth, or a colorful tweed, like those in the Phineas Cole line at Paul Stuart. The faint unease of being in costume that can keep a man from putting on a three-piece on an ordinary day makes it ideal for the holidays. The same goes for classically tailored suits and jackets made in bold or unusual fabrics, like the magnified tartans that Thom Browne used this season.

Some clothes answer the question almost literally: suits and jackets that are plain except for the black satin lapels stolen right off a tuxedo. And even a well-tailored suit in a solid color can walk the line between business and formal when paired with a bow tie (in any color but black).

“It’s actually a really good way to expand your range, because the rules of what’s acceptable are much looser,” said Alex Badia, the men’s wear editor of Women’s Wear Daily. “It’s the one time of year you can be a little funny or silly and get away with it. I’m not saying you should wear a Christmas sweater. But you can take liberties with other traditional heritage pieces of tailored clothing, like plaid pants or a suit worn with a contrasting vest in a nice color, which do look festive but which you can still get away with at the office.”

Such garments are not conservative office attire, but they send a message that you’re doing something fun later, which at least gets your co-workers wondering.

AND unlike a tuxedo, they are fit for all kinds of parties and occasions, depending on how much you dress them up or down. You might look at a Marc Jacobs synthetic jacquard camouflage sport coat and think, “When would I wear that?” The answer: surprisingly often (just not so often that people get tired of it). Moreover, with the borders eroding on formal wear as well, many of these clothes can double as cheeky black-tie wear — or for when the dress code is “black tie optional,” which may well be the only code more confusing than “festive.”

“I am finding that formal wear is more important than ever,” said Alan Maleh, the founder of a new men’s style magazine, Man of the World, who added that he recently wore a Thom Browne bright plaid suit in lieu of a tuxedo to a couple’s 40th anniversary party. “It’s really crossing all the boundaries. Guys are really stepping it up. Me, I tend to like something that makes an impact in a unique but classical way, like a bold plaid jacket with navy tux pants and a simple bow tie.”

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