What the hell am I going to wear? It’s a question I ask myself, with varying degrees of urgency, on a daily basis. To date I’ve always managed to provide an answer. Some days, granted, with considerably more sartorial success than others, but the morning has not yet come where I have fled the house in nothing but mismatched socks.
I’m starting to worry that the day may be imminent. I’m getting married in less than two months, and despite having had the best part of a year to think about it, I have no idea how to dress for the occasion. Not for lack of trying; but the more suits I see, the harder I find it to tell the difference between them. In shop after shop, all I’m presented with is an endless, dreary ocean of navy blue, black and joy-sapping grey. After months of searching, all I know for certain is what I don’t want to wear: any of this.
Not all grooms seem to feel this dilemma so acutely. My fiancee and I, both 31, have become experienced wedding-goers. By the end of last summer, we’d been to 18 in as many months. At each of these, the groom invariably looked smart, stylish and, dare I say it, predictable. Deep blue suits worn with crisp white shirts; Oscars-worthy black tie ensembles; top hat and tails. They looked lovely. They looked groomy. They looked like blokes in suits. But that’s never really been my bag.
Like a growing percentage of the male population (including 34% of office workers), I do not wear a suit to work. While I own two of them – each purchased specifically for and worn exclusively during “wedding season” – I still go out of my way to avoid them. At one Suffolk-based church-and-marquee wedding, I opted for a short-sleeved floral-print shirt, no jacket, no tie. At a synagogue-and-hotel affair in London, I went for rolled-up shirt sleeves, burgundy braces and cherry-red Dr Martens shoes. I always get comments about being “directional”, or “brave” (possibly euphemisms for “absurd”). The problem is, it’s a reputation of sorts, and when people learn of my forthcoming nuptials, they expect me to push the boat out.
They’re right to, of course. Every fashion-conscious fibre in my body is telling me to make a statement. After all, I’ve been intimately involved in every stage of planning this wedding, invested lots of time (and, yes, money) and shared the stress – why not share the spotlight, too? But it’s one thing to be playful with what you wear as a guest, quite another at your own do. As the groom, can I really get away with wearing something bold and bright? Will my friends, family and bride laud my brave fashion choices, or just roll their eyes? And when all I’ve ever seen in the shops is rack upon rack of puddle-dull suits, how do I even go about making a splash? I want to be a peacock groom, but I have no idea where to acquire my feathers.
I call Luke Mountain, menswear buying manager at Selfridges. Apparently an increasing number of grooms-to-be are looking for something to stand out in on their big day. “Guys are becoming more daring, especially on one of the most important days of their lives,” Mountain says. “They just aren’t as stuck to the old rules, and they’re really embracing the personal aspect of the day and looking to express themselves.”
Mountain explains that across the menswear spectrum, from casual clothing to tailoring, the offering is becoming more bold, more daring and more adventurous, at once meeting demand and fuelling it. “Overall menswear has gone through a big change over the past three to five years, and that mentality has trickled down into wedding attire,” he says. “We still sell a lot of blue three-piece suits, and I suspect we will continue to, but we’re widening the offer, so we have something for everyone. We’ve recognised that there’s a wider appetite for a variety of occasion dressing.”
I’m encouraged, but not yet convinced. Is it possible to break with convention without looking as if you’ve turned up in fancy dress? I’d like to make people smile, without making them laugh. A friend points me in the direction of a former colleague – whom I’m deeply offended to hear described as the “most stylish person” he knows – whose wedding he attended five years ago.
“I was 37 when I got married,” says Angel Gonzalez (aka the stylish friend), who lives in London. “One of the reasons we hadn’t got married before was because we hated the whole formality of weddings. I’d been through the phase a few years earlier when all my friends were getting married, and I’d seen a lot of them wearing top hats and tails. I knew that wasn’t me. A lot of people have this conception of what a wedding is and they don’t challenge it, but I’ve never worn a tie to work and that kind of formality just doesn’t fit me.”
Parting with tradition in more ways than one, Gonzalez initially picked up a baby-blue suit from a charity shop for £20. Just two months before his wedding, he realised that the knees were almost totally worn through and had to restart the hunt. “I really liked that baby-blue colour, but finding something along those lines on the high street was difficult,” he says. “My wife was getting panicky because I still didn’t have a suit a month before the wedding.”
Eventually, Gonzalez found a pale blue suit in Ted Baker, which he wore with white-soled pink suede shoes, also from Ted Baker, a floral shirt from Paul Smith and no tie. His outfit went down a storm. “I think everyone who knows me would know I wouldn’t go down the route of wearing a traditional outfit. A lot of people commented that it was really refreshing to see me being me and not falling into the whole wedding trap.”
That’s easier said than done, I’ve noticed. The UK wedding industry is worth an estimated £10bn a year, and while words such as “memorable” and “unique” pop up in the marketing material of venues and caterers, photographers and florists, the marriage business, like any other, runs on mass production and economies of scale.
For a truly original outfit, then, the obvious answer is to go bespoke. Graphic designer Adam Cohen and his wife Annette now live in New York, but met and married in the UK. By way of a wedding present, a City-worker friend of theirs offered to pay for each of them to have outfits tailor-made. “I’d never had any sort of tailoring before,” Cohen says. “I could have gone off the peg, but I’m really pleased that I got a tailored suit. It felt really special.”
Like me, Cohen was initially conflicted about making too bold a choice. Both he and his wife, he says, hate being in the spotlight. But once he’d accepted that there would be nowhere to hide at his own wedding, he threw all his most colourful eggs into the basket. “I’m a trans man, and my wife is queer (not that that means I have to wear a mustard suit). Aside from that, but also because of it, we wanted to have something more interesting, more us, just different from the norm, because we don’t necessarily feel that normal. We know colour is a great way of saying, ‘This is really fun’, especially as it’s a wedding.”
To complement his bride’s green ensemble, Cohen wore a two-piece suit in mustard corduroy, bold floral shirt (with matching bow tie) and turquoise suede shoes. “We wanted people to go, ‘Yes, this is the sort of wedding that Adam and Annette would have,’” he says.
Sadly, even if I were to spend twice the £439 the average British groom does on his suit (a steal compared with the £1,378 average cost of a bride’s dress), a tailor-made outfit is not an option on my budget. I’m beginning to lose faith that I’ll find something suitably “me” – in large part because I can’t quite work out what “me” is. I decide to do what Luke Mountain assured me has lightened this burden for hundreds of grooms, and make a free, zero-obligation appointment with a personal shopper at Selfridges.
The evening before I’m due in, I receive a phone call from Kristian Bayliss, who is hoping over the course of a 10-minute phone conversation to understand my style better than I do. Having established where the wedding is (a nature reserve), when (late May) and what colours I like (anything but navy), he assures me that there’s plenty to work with. When I arrive the following morning, through the discreetly signposted double doors, past the plush waiting area and into a changing room the size of a generous double bedroom, Kristian – who has the swept-back hair, chiselled jaw and tailored suit of a catwalk model – presents me with his selections to try on.
First up is a deep blue tuxedo jacket from Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, embellished with a garden’s worth of embroidered flowers (too shouty, too blue, though I’m pleasantly surprised to see the brand’s wild side). Next is a double-breasted jacket and matching trousers in baby blue from Alexander McQueen (too Al Capone, too blue, but beautifully cut and made). On and on they come, until finally we arrive at a light burgundy, slim-cut two-piece (also Gieves & Hawkes, and almost perfect, but a tad muted for my tastes).
Kristian gently tugs on sleeves, pins the waist, adjusts my tie, with the care and diligence that my mother used to show on the morning of my school photo. When things are in the wrong size, off he goes to find an alternative, while I sip my complimentary white Americano. Somehow, this is more comfortable an experience than shopping online from my own sofa. “Wedding shopping can be an exhausting process,” he says. “You can drive yourself crazy over it. Here you sit back and we show you what’s out there.”
I’m there for two and a half hours. And while I leave empty-handed – I suffer from chronic fomo, and fear that there might just be something even better out there I’ve yet to see – I now at least have an idea of which brands make the suits I like. Something Kristian said during our fruitful changing room encounter sticks with me, and I realise that my mission for a unique outfit isn’t driven only by a desire to look like myself. “You don’t want to look like everyone else on your wedding day,” he said. “It’s your time to shine.”
That was certainly Ariel Mofondo’s thinking when he got married two summers ago in Chingford, north-east London. “I’d told my fiancee what I was thinking of wearing, but she thought I wouldn’t go through with it, because I’m a shy guy and I’m quite reserved,” Mofondo says. “But I said to her, ‘Look, it’s my wedding. I need all eyes on me.’ I didn’t want to be the same as every other person there. I needed to stand out in the photos. I wanted to be recognised as the groom. It’s confusing when the groom’s wearing a blue jacket and there are 10 or 20 other people there wearing the same blue jacket – you don’t know who’s who.”
The bride, Mofondo observed, wears white to stand out, so that’s what he would do. He bought a pair of plain black trousers from Next and a maroon bow tie from John Lewis, and splashed out on his piece de resistance, a cream Hugo Boss dinner jacket. “I really enjoyed it – I’m not going to lie,” he says. “It felt natural. Everybody complimented me on it. People who weren’t there but saw pictures made time to give me a call or send a text about what I was wearing. Even the priest said it looked good!”
There’s a fine line between making a bold statement and looking as if you’ve turned up in costume – something of which Adam Hickie, an accountant from Brighton, was especially conscious at his wedding, where each table at dinner was named after one of the themed nights he and his wife attended during their university days. “It’s the one day you can pretty much do what you want and nobody would say anything to you, but you don’t want people looking at you and thinking, where’s that come from?”
A directional dresser every day of the year, Hickie knew that his guests would be expecting him to wear something out of the ordinary, and he didn’t disappoint. He combined a Prince of Wales-check suit (Austin Reed) with a baby-blue, double-breasted waistcoat (River Island), bright orange dickie bow (Mrs Bow Tie) and reddy-brown brogues (Grenson). “We just wanted the wedding to be a big party, lots of fun, and with my outfit I was trying to set the tone.”
Isn’t that, after all, what a wedding should be: a celebration? I sure as hell want mine to be. I want my outfit to be fun, but not silly; to draw attention, but not ridicule; to make a statement, but remain stylish. And so, armed with my newly acquired sartorial knowhow, I take myself to Paul Smith, where I set eyes on and immediately purchase the most beautiful (and expensive) item of clothing I will ever own. The colour is bright, the lining brighter, the cut modern and slim. (If I’m going to put as much effort into finding an outfit as my bride has, I’m going to make damn sure to keep its precise appearance a secret until the big day.)
I ask to speak to Paul Smith, the man indirectly responsible for solving my wedding day dilemma, to thank him. He’s pretty blase about the whole thing, telling me people regularly stop him on the street to tell him they got married in Paul Smith suits. It’s too late for me, but what advice would he give to any groom-to-be stuck in a sartorial rut? The handsome devil, he says, is in the detail. “Whether that’s a colourful lining in a suit jacket, a stripe printed on the inside of a formal shirt cuff or just teaming a bright pair of socks with a classic navy two-piece. That’s a way to inject a little bit of personality into what you’re wearing.”
What did he go for on his wedding day? “Entirely coincidentally, the day I got married was also the day I got knighted. So I spent the morning at Buck House with the Queen in my tails and the afternoon getting married to Pauline, for which I wore a classic two-piece suit and a pinkish-coloured striped shirt, no tie and simple black shoes. I’ve still got the shirt now; it’s lovely to have something from the day.”
I may have spent a small fortune, but I have a suit that will turn heads not only on my wedding day, but hopefully at any number of future occasions, too (unless I tear the trousers at the crotch on the dancefloor – a genuine concern). Am I worried that my outfit is too bold? That I’ll somehow distract or detract from my fiancee? Absolutely not. Whatever I wear – or whatever she does, for that matter – she will look infinitely more spectacular than me. But with my peacock’s flourish, at least she’ll know where to look.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010