A seasoned writer and cultural examiner—especially in the world of men’s style—David Coggins’ perspective is one of the most respected voices in the industry. In this column, Coggins brings his renowned personal perspective to the fore, dissecting the discrepancies and hypocrisies in the world of modern style. Welcome to The Opinioneer.

Good design involves elegant solutions to ongoing problems. These solutions can be simple or complex, though after the fact they have a sense of inevitability. That’s the result of vision and an understanding of human nature. Sweatpants are none of these things. Sweatpants are the physical manifestation of giving up, of communicating that you have had enough. You stubbornly refuse to ask more of yourself, like a child refusing to get dressed for school.

What redeeming qualities do sweatpants have? Well, their partisans say, they’re comfortable. Comfort is the justification of the unimaginative, the health food of the sartorial world. When food tastes good, the fact that it’s healthy is secondary. When kale tastes dreadful we are reminded that it’s healthy. If clothes look good, the fact that they’re comfortable is incidental. If they look appalling, then we are told that they are comfortable. If somebody tells you what you’re wearing looks comfortable it's not a compliment.

But here’s the thing: Well-made clothes that are fit for society are comfortable. A well-made suit with high arm holes is comfortable. But you won’t know that because the people who wear them don’t lead with that description. They’re too busy looking good. It’s time come to terms with this higher calling.

The comfort equation comes from those who arrive at the airport like a teenager binge-drinking Mountain Dew at a slumber party. Ask a little more of yourself and perhaps you can come up with your own elegant solution, even when you travel. Getting on a transatlantic flight? Try your best and biggest cardigan, and channel Lebowski. Try a cashmere hat and the nice scarf your girlfriend gave you and warm up in the bulkhead. What about loose fitting cords, camp socks, Blundstones? Do you scoff at moleskin pants? Then you likely haven’t worn any, because those things are comfortable as hell, and, plot twist, they can be tailored. They’re the sweatpants of the sartorial set and have been for generations.

Here’s a secret: Men have been comfortable in tailored clothes for the century before you were born. Not just tweed coats, but field jackets, cable-knit sweaters and anything that Paul McCartney wore that year he grew a beard and lived in the countryside. If you’re explaining that something is comfortable then it’s already too late. There should be visible appeal beyond that.

I wear a sportcoat out of principal when I travel. I want to do my part to make the experience just a little less dreadful, for me and for the people around me. I realize that’s not for everybody. But maybe you saw the article in the New York Times recently that said that airline employees are allowed to upgrade well-dressed passengers. That possibility, however remote, should be enough to make you dust off your herringbone sportcoat you wore to your college interview. Or the Boglioli jacket you bought at deep discount a few years ago. Cut the tags off, get it tailored and go forth.

What about when you’re not traveling? Good question. Because that’s nearly your entire life. I still maintain a basic equation: ask a little more of yourself, aim a little higher and wear something that wasn’t designed to be perspired in. The best-dressed men I know look entirely comfortable in a sportcoat. It can be unstructured, you don’t have to frequent Savile Row. Look at anything Massimo Alba makes. Now those clothes cost and maybe you don’t want to go down that road. But comfort with formality is like an acquired taste. You don't like coffee the first time you have it (or possibly even beer) and then you get used to it. Same with all the things children dislike and mature people grow used to. That’s why a man at ease in a sportcoat looks like he’s earned it, and has come to terms with his own maturity.

These days, the culture of the individual rules. In many ways that’s a good thing. You don’t want to be a company man? Power to you, join the ranks of freelancers and get good at tracking down invoices. I’ve done it and still do it. But that doesn’t mean you have to head out looking like you’ve been cramming for finals. You’re not in college any more. The fact that there are fewer and fewer rules doesn’t mean you should head to the bottom as well. If anything it’s a chance to set yourself apart, to be the adult in the room. Would you rather your girlfriend ask you to dress better or be the one proudly telling her girlfriends that you’re well dressed?

We’ve all seen the men at Pitti Uomo prancing around like fools in purple suits, monocles and the rest. I walked past a man with a parrot on his shoulder, like he’s in a circus. I’m not advocating that. Formality for formality’s sake is banal. I am saying that dressing a little better than you have to is its own reward. This stretches beyond the chance that you might run into your ex-girlfriend, a potential employer, an editor at Esquire or Gay Talese. You didn't move to New York to look like you’re living in your parents’ basement. You came because you have a sense of purpose, and you owe it to yourself and the people around you to dress that way, to set a higher standard and, more importantly, to be comfortable with your own enlightened style.

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Tags: the-opinioneer, sartorial