Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An Engineering Eye for the Average Guy

This is one of my more unusual blog entries, so I'll start with a disclaimer that I do have a life and I'm not obsessive compulsive. What follows is an engineering version of 'clothes make the man'.

When I lost 60 pounds through a combination of vegan diet and exercise, I began to look for new clothes from an engineering standpoint, not a fashion standpoint. To work 20 hours a day and fly 400,000 miles a year, I need very practical clothing that fits well, survives abuse, and works in a multitude of settings . Here are my lessons learned about men's clothes, from toe to head.

First, a comment about the color black. Black is formal and informal. I've worn it to the stuffiest supper clubs on Beacon Hill and to rock concerts. It's the choice of savvy business travelers and the always hip Steve Jobs. It does not show dirt or wrinkles. At 3am half way around the world, you do not have to think about color matching. It never goes out of style.

Shoes - Most shoes are made in a single average width. This means that men with wide feet (I'm 9 EE) buy shoes that are too long so that the width feels right in the shoe store. However, just about all shoes stretch in one direction - the width expands with wear. If wide shoes are not available, buy shoes that are the right length and the width will expand by stretching in a few days. I used to wear size 10D shoes that were too long but the right width. I now wear size 9 shoes (European 42/UK size 8) and after a day or two of wear, they are perfect. Since I'm a vegan, I only buy non-leather shoes which is not as hard as it sounds. Take a look at Mooshoes, Vegetarian Shoes, and Novacas. My choice is a simple black office shoe for day to day, and a simple dress boot for New England winters.

Socks - Why do we wear socks? Since mankind evolved to walk on two feet without the encumbrance of shoes, our feet are not optimized to manage temperature/moisture/friction encased in a shoe. A sock should keep feet dry all year long, warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. Hence, a few thoughts about socks. Cotton as a fabric is like a sponge. Once wet, it takes days to try. Just dunk Levis in water and see how long they stay wet. Does it make to sense to put your feet in a sponge and then encase them in a shoe? Cotton socks are not a good choice. A wicking combination of polyester/nylon/wool is ideal. Polyester wicks, nylon provides strength and wool provides temperature regulation. I wear black Smartwool liner socks. From a vegan standpoint, this is an interesting moral dilemma. Animals are not intentionally killed in the wool making process (unlike leather), but the use of any animal products is not consistent with veganism. Since veganism is a journey toward a goal in the modern industrial world, I have accepted the fact that until I find a better performing material for temperature regulation, a small percentage of wool in my long lasting socks is acceptable.

Pants - Have you ever looked at a group of men walking down the street? Half have pants that are too long, creating large clumps of fabric falling over their shoes. Half have pants that are too short, exposing socks and looking like capris. Why is this? Typically men's pants off the rack are sized in even-numbered lengths i.e. 32, 34, 36, so it means that a person with a 33 inch inseam cannot get a good fit. Also, pants are cut from templates based on an average sized thigh, seat, hip etc. Buying pants turns out to be very challenging because they are a 3 dimensional object sold with 2 dimensional measurements. The way that pants are constructed is that they have an inseam, a rise (from crotch to navel), and an outseam (from shoe to waist). Here's the engineering - the inseam is not a straight line and pants measurements are related by this equation: outseam=rise+inseam-1

Purely by luck, 32 waist/34 length Levi's Button Fly 501's (in black of course) have an outseam of 44, a rise of 11 and an inseam of 34 which are exactly my measurements. However, no such luck with dress pants. A typical 32x34 dress pant has an outseam of 44, a rise of 12.5 and an inseam of 32.5, making me wear the pants about 2 inches above my navel because of the 12.5 rise, but that makes the pants too short. Wearing the pants below the navel makes them long enough, but then the crotch sits 2 inches below my body, creating a "gangsta" look. The bottom line of all of this is that men need to determine the rise (where on the waist they wear their pants) then find a pair with the right outseam to give them the right inseam. Unfortunately, pants do not have published rises or outseams. In my case, finding a pair of dress pants that fits was not possible and I had to find a company that creates pants based on body measurements. The cost of these is not much higher than typical off the rack dress pants. My belt is not leather - it's microfiber polyester from Vegetarian Shoes.

Shirts - Finding a shirt that fits well is very challenging. Collars are sized by inches i.e. 15 or 16, sleeves are often sized by multiple inches 34/35, and just about all shirts follow a typical template that creates a waist with way too much extra fabric. A tailor's template for a 16 collar includes a 40 inch waist measurement - you have no choice. For me to find a shirt that fits a 32 inch waist, I'd have to buy a 13 inch collar, which would asphyxiate me. How can I find a shirt with a 15.75 inch collar, a 34 inch sleeve, and a 32 inch waist? Only two choices - a polyester mock turtleneck that stretches, or a company that creates shirts based on your measurements. I have black mock turtlenecks off the rack and black linen shirts made to my measurements.

Jackets - Many suit jackets and sport coats have the same problem as shirts. I wear a 40 Long, which automatically comes with sleeves about 35 or 36 inches long. I buy black Nehru jackets made of rayon/polyester that fit my chest and body length, then have the sleeves altered.

Thus, my office wardrobe is black, mostly vegan, and fitted to my measurements by ordering custom shirts/pants, wearing Levis 501s, and alteration.

My outdoor wardrobe for ice climbing, rock climbing and mountaineering is made of form fitting synthetic materials by Arcteryx, which by random chance has outdoor clothing that matches my every measurement. Although I wear all black in the office, I wear red shirts (no Star Trek jokes allowed) outdoors for visibility.

Clearly this is more information that anyone wants to know about clothing, but it works for me!


Trevor said...

I actually found your entry fairly fascinating, primarily because I don't often encounter human beings who put as much thought into dressing practically as you do.

Unknown said...

Interesting post! I had always wondered what all those measurements really meant but I never went through that much trouble to figure it out. And yes, I am an engineer as well.

For rock climbing I have always been surprised at how well prAna gear fits. I don't know if they're vegan though.

Olivier Forget
Lead Developer, H2-O2

PS: congratulations on losing 60 pounds. I bet that makes climbing a mountain a whole lot easier!

Kevin said...

Nice post. I like the fact that you are not just another geek CIO.

This information is an extension of what we IT folks aim to do for our stakeholders; solve problems, make life easer and at least from my perspective, promote "simple living."

PS: My staff (I run an IT shop with 1/2 Apple computers) are chomping at the bit for the new MAC Book Air - I look forward to your post.

Jen S McCabe said...

John - excellent post!

I'm looking for a custom pants/shirt maker for women, as I've finally found the 'perfect fit' and the store, of course, has discontinued that style.

Ah, the trials and tribulations of engineering one's own dress...

Unknown said...

Do you know with mock turtleneck Steve Jobs exactly wears? Brand?

Mike said...

Great post! I (6'4", 180 lb, 16 neck, 32 waist, 13EE shoe) experience a lot of the same problems... and wind up solving them in many of the same ways.

I'm not a big fan of all black - when I wear it, it makes me feel like I'm trying to be too 'hip,' but it is a good color for most garments.