One of the great themes in David Marx’s book, Ametora, is how it’s easy to miss things in your own culture until they get recontexualized abroad. For all the time I’ve spent looking at photos of how men dressed in old Italy and New England, I’m just coming around to the greatness of California style. It’s dressed down and casual, comfortable and relatable. It’s accessible in appearance, but aspirational in lifestyle. While the East Coast has a kind of moody weather and haunted-looking architecture that lends itself well to fisherman knits and brooding tweeds, California style is about simplicity and optimism.
California has a tremendously rich history in tailoring, although it rarely gets recognized. Los Angeles, for example, has a cluster of custom tailors and shoemakers who have long supported casting crews and musicians who needed bespoke clothes for their sets. And since the end of the Second World War, California has led the way in terms of showing how people can dress more comfortably and casually in warmer climes. The Beach Boys and Gidget, for example, once represented a kind of wholesome and uncomplicated coming-of-age story (and the coastline attire that came with it). In the 1970s, Haight Ashbury counterculture types decorated their milsurp jackets in a way that continues to inspire brands such as Visvim today. Even the 60/ 40 mountain parka, a staple of the Rugged Ivy look, was actually invented here by Sierra Designs.
California also has a workwear style that’s distinct from the heritage-heavy lumberjack look of the East Coast. And a perfect example of this is Benjamin Booker, a musician I’ve been into lately. Booker’s music is a mish-mash of old blues, mid-century soul, and garage punk. His voice is gentle, but has the gravelly quality of Tom Waits. Sometimes his songs are slow and heady; other times they have a frenetic, hair-raising, and howling pace. But they’re always tremendous. I’ve embedded some of his YouTube clips below.
Booker came to California a few years ago by way of New Orleans. He’s said in interviews how he used to wear polka-dot shirts in a dandy-ish way, but having lived in Echo Park for a while now, his style has really mellowed. He mostly wears slim-tapered black jeans, fitted chambrays, and loose tees layered underneath trucker jackets. His black jeans give him a blank slate to use against any shirt-and-outerwear combo, including things in matching black denim, which isn’t always possible with blue jeans. And nearly everything Booker wears is thrifted (“I almost feel ashamed for buying new clothes here,” he once admitted). One of his favorite pieces is a yellow ballcap with an embroidery of a man playing a guitar. He says he bought it at a “Life Aquatic store” in South Korea.
The great thing about Booker’s style is its accessibility. To be sure, it helps to be handsome and have broad shoulders (it always helps to be handsome and have broad shoulders). It also helps to be talented (it always helps to be talented). But the uniform is cheap, often a mixture of mainline Levis and thrift finds, and have that better-with-age quality that I love. The clothes are forgiving since they don’t demand a certain body type (they mostly reference cultural heroes who weren’t shaped like Adonises anyway). And while the looks are classic, they’re also genuinely modern in a way that won’t look out of place in most settings. If you’re wondering what to wear this summer, know guys have been wearing stuff like this in the dry desert heat of Los Angeles forever.
Let’s get this out of the way: the best version of the California workwear look comes from Goodwill, which means all designer versions are just verisimilitudes of the real thing. Get a pair of fitted jeans, some old tees, and a trucker jacket from the 1980s. Leather jackets, chore coats, and milsurp outerwear are great. Shoes can be black Dr. Martens or Chuck Taylor 70s, but if you want to make this even more Californian, you can wear Vans Authentics or Slip-Ons. If old t-shirts gross you out, try Uniqlo’s washed slub tees.
Slim Tapered Jeans: The centerpiece of this wardrobe. Get two pairs, one blue and the other black. I like COF Studio’s M1 and M2 cuts, which are slim without being Hedi-style skinny. They also have a slightly higher rise, which will protect you from the dreaded plumber’s crack when you sit down.
Slightly Cropped Tees and Modernized Utility Shirts: Vintage styled tees with slightly shorter sleeves and cropped hemlines, but also modernized chambrays and button downs. Try Barns, Levi’s Vintage Clothing, Imogene + Willie, 3sixteen, Lady White, Velva Sheen for tees. Then shops such as J. Crew for utilitarian button-ups. If you find you need to shorten the shirt, take it to an alterations tailor. Sometimes this look benefits from having the upper half look slightly more truncated compared to the bottom.
In general, keep things simple. This look benefits from having a pared down color palette restricted to blues, blacks, and olives. If you wear color, keep it to something vintage-y, such as burnt ochre. This look is great because it’s hard to get wrong and works well even in California’s heat. If you’re looking for a style this summer, you’d be hard pressed to find something easier.