By Mark Byrne
Illustration by Levi Hastings
It should probably be blue, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be khaki, or olive. It could be black, if you think you can pull that off. Gray’s an option, too. But you should have it, you should like it, it should fit you well, and you should take it with you everywhere.
In the half-dozen years since I started traveling regularly for work — first, as a writer, more recently as the owner of a liquor brand — I have never left home without at least one in my bag. I have dragged blazers to capitals like Paris, London, and Buenos Aires, but also to places like Colombia, Jamaica, and Kenya. I brought one to Bermuda, which turned out to be a good idea because everyone on that island wears a blazer to dinner. (And shorts, and long socks. Don’t ask.) I brought one to Kyoto but then bought a new one there because even my very-unstructured cotton blazer looked too structured next to the lineny drapes of fabric some of the men there were pulling off. The new Japanese one I bought was so lightweight it’s essentially transparent in the sun, a shade of black that only comes out when you scratch a pencil hard against paper. I have t-shirts with more structure.
Honestly, sometimes I pack two or three. They are, I insist, the most valuable item a man can bring with him to a foreign city. They’re the most valuable item a man can have at home, too. The reason is simple: You can wear it anywhere. A suit can be too stuffy. A t-shirt can look sloppy. But an unstructured blue blazer plays well in nearly any room — it is the ideal garment for keeping your options open. To lawyers and fathers-in-law and trust fund types, it's comfortingly traditional. To people who attend fashion shows, it just needs to fit perfectly to check the right box. To dates, men or women alike, it communicates that you took the occasion seriously.
The thing is a neutral palette. It's one thing with an oxford, a completely separate thing with a t-shirt. It can stand up to a denim shirt as well as it can a Supima cotton one. With an air-tie or a knit tie or no tie. Dark jeans or white chinos. It elevates everything without ever calling attention to the elevation.
Part of this is the witchcraft of fashion — its length extends the torso, making you look just a little thinner than you actually are; the shape of its shoulders, with or without padding, give just a little more breadth than you were born with; the V between the lapels neatly frames whatever you pair the thing with, t-shirt or tie. There are also more functional advantages, too: the wide pockets for a chilly night; an interior breast pocket to save your ass from sitting on your wallet; and a place to store a pocket square, which is really just a piece of cloth and should be brandished as such in the case of blood or tears.
Part of it, too, is history: For nearly two hundred years, western culture (and its tentacles) have associated the blazer with a good upbringing — or at least with money. Right around the time the full suit was coming into its own — evolving out of the shape and occasion of a tailcoat — a rowing club in pre-Victorian England was draping its members in something fairly similar to the jackets we know and love today. The key difference was bold striping and colored trims, which, thankfully, never made it into the mainstream. The rowing teams can keep those. What did go mainstream, gradually over the 19th century and then full-on throughout the 20th, was the basic shape of a top of a suit, with just a little less padding to it. It has now been fully democratized — you can get a blazer for $10 at Goodwill — but any cheap blazer still carries whiffs of its origin. Just enough, anyway, to communicate that its wearer put in a little extra effort.
At this point, its ubiquity is actually part of its power. It’s simultaneously a good look and a neutral one. A simple blue jacket, over a white shirt and a dark pair of jeans, is so straightforwardly correct that it can, with the right confidence, work as a key to the city. This, by the way, is why I always travel with one: so that when I go out, regardless of where I’m headed (and even if I don’t quite know yet), the way I'm dressed is never a mark against me. To a doorman, more often than not, a simple blazer will allow him to easily visualize you in the space: at a barstool, blending in with the crowd, not drawing any attention, negative or otherwise. (This rule does not hold at certain all-night clubs in Berlin.)
Look, for some people, neutrality isn't enough. I know men who would rather die than blend in. More power to them. I'm not advocating for head-to-toe discount bin business casual. Nor am I saying it's sufficient to repurpose the gold-buttoned number you wore to a stuffy family thing once, or take the top half of a suit and leave the trousers in the closet. The blazer's got to fit. It has to look good. Ideally, it should be a soft shoulder and minimally lined. It should have a slim lapel and two buttons. The blue should be damn good blue. As discussed, it doesn’t even have to be blue. The idea here isn't to eschew fashion, it's to handicap it against variable tastes. A simple, well-fitting blazer is indisputably acceptable. Its enemies are charlatans.
I know how this all sounds. Wear the jacket, dress the part, blend in, etc. This isn’t fashion; it’s strategy. There’s nothing particularly romantic about it — nothing edgy or reckless. Fifteen years ago, if you’d told the punk-ass high school student I used to be that one day I’d repping not just the preferred coat of the prep-schooled class, but also a rule, I’d have thrown my Bad Religion CDs at you. To that raging 17-year-old, I have this to say: you can cause more havoc from the dining room of the club than you can from curb. The blazer gets you in. It’s your key to the arena — whichever one you want to fight in, however you intend to wage your war. So, yes, rules are for schmucks. But they’re easier to break from inside.