How to Dress Like Duke Ellington
Today I offer fashion tips to clueless guys
Today, the Honest Broker shares fashion advice for guys. (You thought you’d already seen everything here—hah, you didn’t expect that, did you?)
I can’t help the ladies, sorry. That’s way above my pay grade. But dudes, I can give you an assist—and some of you need it very badly.
My starting point is: Pay attention to musicians.
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And how do musicians dress?
Some of you think that’s a frivolous question. Who gives a royal hoot about the drummer’s denims? Who cares if Iggy Pop even owns a shirt?
But here’s a little secret: Musicians care about their clothes. A lot—and to good effect.
At least most of them do. And those who don’t probably should.
Learn from the greats. Sun Ra wouldn’t walk on stage unless his spacesuit was ready for lift-off. Miles Davis was so fashion conscious that the liner notes to his greatest hits album ignore his music—and only praise his clothes.
This classic of oddball music journalism is well worth reading. I’ll simply share the closing passage:
One night, after a concert in French Lick, Indiana, [Miles] asked me how I thought he’d done. “You sounded superb. You — ” But he stopped me. “No, not that,” he said. “I mean how did my suit look?”
When not selecting additions to his wardrobe, Miles is a professional trumpet player. People who know about such things tell me he shows a lot of promise.
And when Wynton Marsalis says “I like my lines to be clean” he’s not talking trumpet solos, but his impeccable suits.
When I was younger, I scorned Wynton’s high style approach.
I had my own theory of men’s attire back then—and was in a stage of youthful rebellion. My day gig put me in close contact with CEOs and high level corporate execs—and I had to deal with all the power politics of business attire.
Jazzy people like me (or so I thought back then) should resist this elitist suitifcation.
So I grumbled when the Marsalis brothers showed up at an outdoor festival in brutal heat, but dressed like senior partners at a Wall Street law firm. In the audience, we were sizzling like the fajita platter at Chili’s, and stripped down to bare essentials. Meanwhile Wynton was nonchalant on stage in a thick and formidable three-piece suit, a veritable Iceman of Hard Bop.
I learned several different theories of power dressing back then—but everything was so confusing and contradictory.
When I started billing out by the hour in my twenties, I heard that male consultants at Bain always dressed one step above their clients. If the client wore a two-piece suit, they put on a three-piece suit. Etc. Meanwhile, over at McKinsey, those poor devils were still caught up in the 1930s, only recently abandoning the required hat for its professionals.
“I dissed Wynton. But now I’ve completely changed my mind.”
Sometimes I’d glance at a copy of GQ, where they had male models playacting in some simulacrum of corporate attire. But no sensible person would let those wankers come near a profit-and-loss statement.
The truth is that none of this made much sense to me back then.
But maybe I was ahead of the game, astutely grasping the emerging semiotics of power dressing in Silicon Valley. It eventually became clear that authority was signified by dressing with less formality than your competitors. A lot less.
Apple absolutely slayed those IBM drones in their stiff office attire—with only two approved shirt colors: white and blue (and sometimes only white).
The bottom line for me (in those days of youthful rebellion) was a simple rule of reverse psychology: The better you dressed, the worse off your were.
So I dissed Wynton.
But I’ve now completely changed my mind on this. Today we live in a world where informality has reached dysfunctional extremes. Guys have absolutely no clue how to dress. (Sorry bros, I’m just stating the facts.)
Take my advice: If you ever make a billion dollars, do NOT dress like this.
The ultimate power play for a guy today is to dress like its 1930 all over again. Back then those well-tailored duds were just a sign of conformity, but that high style nowadays is a statement of total authority, confidence, and independence.
That’s why I now turn to Duke Ellington as my ultimate man’s style guide.
Duke stood out for his fashion even in those distant days when every guy with a glint in his eye dressed to kill.
And that’s not just my view—my preferred Twitter fashion adviser Derek Guy has the same opinion.
If I were starting out all over again, I’d go for Duke’s look. And—I’m absolutely convinced of this—the gigs would just pour in. Stroll into the club owner’s cruddy office with Ellington’s sartorial elegance, and within five minutes you will have the choicest booking on the schedule.
And incels take note! Learn to wear a suit like this, and I guarantee you a hot date for Saturday night. And maybe a promotion and raise on Monday morning.
Dave Brubeck told me about the time he shared a dressing room with Duke Ellington. Like most professionals on the road, Brubeck traveled with a suitcase, but that wasn’t how Duke operated.
I don’t think I belong in the same room with Duke, but that’s where I was assigned. So that’s when I finally saw how the Duke lived, the great big trunks like you’d take on board a ship. They were like small closets. All his suits lined up and the neckties and shirts and shoes, and a dresser to dress him….I never equaled anything close to the way he traveled. It was unbelievable.
And it’s not just the suits. Even without coat or tie, and his collar awry, Duke still makes a statement. I can practically feel the material of this quality shirt just by looking at the photo.
According to rumor, even the underclothes were impressive.
We’ve now stripped Duke all the way down to his skivvies, and found no flaws. So let’s leave it at that.
Learn how to dress from the best, my friends—and that means Edward Kennedy Ellington.
In the future, I’ll discuss the Duke’s organization theory and leadership style—which are also worth emulating.
Maybe sometime I’ll even look into the man’s piano playing. I hear that he knew how to tickle the ivories.