Thoughts on Fashion & Grey Man(nerisms)

For awhile now, I’ve had a running set of notes on matters of fashion as it relates to armed civilians and plain-clothes armed professional. In the last couple months, various things inspired a flurry of additional notes and I’ve been putting thought together with mind toward an article or something.
This seems synchronous as various sources I read have recently had discussions or articles on this topic as well – Death Valley Magazine in particular has had two good pieces, one targeted at the traveling contractor and the other more generally focused. (Updated to add: DVM has Part II of the generally focused greyman article up, and its good)
With this topic being a current meme, I wanted to throw out some of these ideas and observations, if for no other reason than to contribute to the conversation. Also to clear my mental palette and get back to work on more serious pieces. None of these ideas are quite well formed enough to make a cohesive article anyway, so forgive me for that, but hopefully there will be some value in all this.

Armed citizens and non-uniformed armed professionals are regularly at-odds with elements of the clothing and accessory world. While we are somewhat spoiled currently by the number of clothing manufacturers focusing on armed individuals, they still represent a small minority. Most fashionable clothing is made for everyone else. Each area has its own endemic issues for the armed individual, and there is there turbulence in which those zones meet as well.
Many of those issues are contextual. In one context an item of dress or accessory may not look out of place, when in another context it might not only be out of place but present a significant “tell”. These contextual considerations are one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding and misapplication of ideas in this realm.
Speaking of context: I’m coming at this from a very US-centric perspective. I’m not a world traveling bad ass, or even a world traveling lame-ass. I’m more interested in how to blend in with the rest of the grass eaters in the mall, or how to dress up without sacrificing the ability to carry, than in how to look low-key in foreign adventure destinations. If that’s your speed: The crew over at Death Valley Mag had some great thoughts on that front recently.
Some of my ideas are universal, but some are probably is not – Context is everything, and you have to know what works and what doesn’t in your context. Observation and realistic, brutal, self assessment are in order. Too many guys (and girls) are married to an idea of what they have to look like to be the thing they are. If you are an armed citizen, a contractor, a cop, a Special Activities Division scary-motherfucker, it has nothing to do with what you look like – You are what you do, and the capability you retain, not the clothes you wear.

I’m not going to beat on the 5.11-Kit method of dressing much. Its been done elsewhere, and remains absolutely true. If you look like you just stepped out of a 5.11, Woolrich Elite or EOTac catalog, then you’ve got a problem. The kind of clothing that is aggressively marketed to the armed individual looks like the kind of clothing that is worn by men with guns.
Hollywood and popular media have noticed this as well. Pop media deals in simplistic patterns, symbols and images that indicate certain things when repeated and are highly easily recognized by the grass eaters. The cargo pants, boots, polo-shirt and photographers vest look is one pattern getting a lot of play right now, because it means something to the audience without it having to be explicitly said. That meaning being: Man with a gun. This should tell you that, if you dress that way, when some mope knocks over the Qwik-E-Mart where you’re grabbing a slurpy, he is going to peg you as a speed bump in his road to fortune and make your day, at best, far more interesting and complicated.

There is of course a flip side to this coin – Some people go over the top in their argument that wearing anything vaguely military/tactical easily marks you as something other than a grass eater at large. While I find this to be true, it can also be untrue – Context, again, being everything.
The Military/Tactical look (not necessarily function, but the look) has been consistently hot for a long time. It comes, and it goes but the grass eaters like to play dress up, and the look begins to cross over into fashion and pop-culture norms from time to time. Currently, with the wars on, its quite fashionable. (Hell, even your lady can benefit from some tactically influenced fashion: )
The guy in cargo pants and a dark earth-tone jacket is not necessarily a long-fang. He may be simply the outdoorsy flavor of urban yuppie grass-eater. The guy wearing jeans but combat boots may similarly just be a fashionista (/victim). Okay, so those guys are nothing special, but what about the guy who looks like he is carrying a 3-day pack, or has PALS type webbing on his messenger bag? He could be just another ruminant as well. We can use this to our advantage, to blend in with the crowd.

There are different approaches to this, but two I find most relevant are the sporty/outdoorsy type look, and the dressed down fashionable look.
We’ve all seen the sporty dudes who are rocking the Columbia Sportswear cargos and North Face hikers, sitting around the coffee shop with their vente low-fat soy mochas while reading some trendy magazine that talks about hair product and feelings. Some of us, for our low key look, prefer to take after that guy and use high function outdoors apparel that has a lower tactical-vibe. Even if you are using apparel from one of the military lines of an outdoors company like Patagonia, Beyond, Arcteryx, etc. in the right locale, that look actually blends very damn well.
Of course, no one is going out to a club or to dinner dressed like they just got back from hiking the Appalachian Trail. Dressing up is a different animal, and where a stronger fashion sense comes into play. Even if you don’t care about fashion, if the idea is to not draw undue attention, being obviously un-stylish ruins that. Fortunately, a lot of whats stylish currently is fairly compatible with carrying guns and tools discreetly. The narrow cut of suits that is haute couture at the moment may not be, but plenty of compatible styles are in, from untucked shirts, to jackets without ties or tucked shirts. It’s almost a timeless truth that most anyone can fit in rocking an untucked shirt and blue jeans in some variation or another. If you can’t put a gun under that, you’re not trying hard enough.
Not all fashion demands compromise on the protective front either. Just as jeans and leather jackets are tough, there are a lot of options for tougher footwear too. Combat boots have been trendy for awhile now, and while a lot of the trend is still with the old school Doc Martens type, the influence of the modern tennis-shoe type tactical boot is starting to show. Kenneth Cole makes a boot that shares some striking resemblances with the newer generation of tactical boot, and I’m sure that if they do it some of the higher range houses are as well. If the skinny jeans crowd can pull off a boot like that, you can pull off the real deal without raising eyebrows in classier contexts.

Kenneth Cole Reaction, Take A Dare boots.

Bags/packs are another place where I hear people regularly squawking that if it has some PALS or is olive drab, it will scream “shoot me first”. While this is true in many, many, places, it is not an absolute truth in urban USA. Particularly if you’re anywhere near a college campus, or a trendy area for shopping, the arts, etc. Military/tactical-look accessories like bags, packs, etc. are quite popular. Even without overt mil-inspired styling, a good half of the messenger bags I see are nylon or canvas in earth tones (what we call olive drab, flat dark earth, and coyote brown, they call cedar-dew, plains-mocha and otter). Sure, they may lack PALS, but so do a lot of nice, discreet, bail-out-bags which have plain sides and flap, to conceal hardsewn mag pockets and the like. For a couple years now, I’ve wanted to get messenger-styled “tactical” bag in green cordura, and sew a couple Bob Marley and peace symbol patches to the outer flap – I like the mental image of that flap covering a stack of P-Mags filled with 55grn. death.
Even trendy daypack designs can be found that reflect military stylings. For example, KILLSPENCER is a boutique bag/pack builder for the trendy, non-tactical, crowd that specializes in crossover designs using military materials and stylings to make hip urban baggage.
One of the themes I see repeated in criticism is that straps, buckles and pockets are, regardless of the color or design, a give away. Again, I say not necessarily. Oakley has been doing it for years on their civilian packs. I’ve got an Old Navy messenger bag that’s around ten years old and has little straps on it that look like small sections of PALS webbing, and happens to be dark-tan and olive drab canvas with lots of pockets and buckles on it.

An Oakley Pack: Straps and Buckles Oh My!

The hats and belts realm of accessories is a little different.
Popular style hasn’t quite caught up with the riggers belt, although its embracing the web-belt and one may pass for the other. Particularly some of the more unconventional variants out there, such as the Wilderness Ring, or Frequent Flyer belts, or some of the non-riggers type belts from someone like Ares Gear. (Note, I don’t mean Cobra buckle equipped belts – They look like an industrial safety belt, and if they can be seen, will stick out.)
Broad leather belts with solid buckles are, however, fashionable, and can also make a great gunbelt. Most couture belts are fairly thin leather, of rather shit quality (compared to fine custom leather particularly) that aren’t designed to support weight. My answer to this was accidental – I made a belt from a strap of belt-blank cut off a roll, 1.5” wide, heavy weight with a simple steel buckle with two chicago screws to hold the buckle-end fold. I finished the edges by burnishing them with beeswax on the lip of a longneck, and finished the leather with quality dressing, but it is still pretty simple – A nice, warm brown, with some rough spots and even a couple random marks stamped in it from the original manufacturer of the strap stock which give it a sort of vintage-industrial chic with the fittings I used. I made it to be a gunbelt, so color me surprised when I saw a lighter weight and shittier quality belt of almost the same look and design (but Italian manufacture) in an upscale mens shop for $200.
I also saw, just the other day, a picture of some shit-for-brains actor wearing a basket-weave belt that looked like an old school police gun-belt. I remember when everyone said to avoid that stuff like the plague if you weren’t a cop, or for off-duty/plain clothes wear, as it marked you for a cop. Guess the “counter culture” has made it their own, though personally I’d still avoid it.
Many major holster makers both production and custom offer a few models of gunbelt, for work and dress, as well. For those of you who aren’t DIY inclined, or need a truly dressy belt that will bear weight, there should be something among those products that is both classy and functional.
As hats go, various fleece and shell-type beanies, even from military/tactical lines, will work most places. A nice compromise for the boonie hat crowd are Outdoor Research Sombrero’s and Tilley variations on the boonie-hat type, they scream yuppie far more than armed and dangerous. The velcro-covered “dont shoot me” cap, however, sticks out almost everywhere. I wear a baseball cap all the time, and have worn one with velcro and patches. My favorite ball cap of all time though was a plain jane Ex Officio Mumz cap, dark green canvas treated with permethrin with a non-threatening “MUMZ” embroidery on the bill. The only thing that set it apart from every other cap, was that I’d popped off that stupid button the top (you know, the one that if you hit your head will be the focal point for every last foot-pound of energy going into your grape). Not practicing what I preach, currently I’ve got a “Pirate” tab from MilSpecMonkey on the back of an otherwise plain black cap. The only attention this has ever earned me was getting manhandled at Blade Show a couple years back by a former Ranger who objected to the similarity between the Pirate tab and a Ranger tab, and thought that gave him the right to grab me from behind without warning so he could get a closer look at the patch. Military-looking patches should probably be avoided on anything for a truly low-profile look, both to avoid unwanted recognition and misunderstandings about who has the right to wear what. (Please note: I’m not justifying wearing things you haven’t earned. I’d never wear a Ranger tab or any other patch I hadn’t earned, and am disgusted by anyone who would [including for airsoft/mil-sim and halloween costumes].)

Overall, you can sneak in a surprising amount of tells, if you are otherwise unnoticeable. The guy with OTB tactical boots, and a RAID pack, in cargo pants and a hardshell is going to ring some familiar “man with gun” bells. Same guy with a Timbuk2 messenger bag and some Lowa hikers is going to look sporty-yuppie rather than tactical. If that guy rocks the OTB boots and a PALS covered pack in jeans and an untucked shirt is going to look college student, self-employed, average joe to most people.
Knowing when, and where, a thing works or doesn’t comes down to paying attention and being contextual. If you are at all tuned in, you should be able to figure out what looks odd, and what of the stuff you like from your “tactical” comfort zone can actually be pulled off as a fashion element in any given context.
It is absolutely possible to dress highly functionally, with every allowance for a concealed weapon (or weapons), and still not look like a tacti-tard. It is even possible to do so fashionably for whatever environment you’re in. Further, it is possible to comfortably and functionally combine functional elements of the “tactical”-dress style, with more fashionable and blending styles.
There must be balance in all things. If you dress like a fashion-slave hipster douche bag, because you are a fashion-slave hipster douche bag, you may have a hard time carrying a gun or whatever else. If you dress like 5.11 Barbie, you’re going to have a hard time convincing much of anyone that you’re not carrying a gun.
Pay attention to whats popular, both whats fashionable and whats actually being worn where you are, and find solutions within what you observe that meet your needs, or ways to fit your needs into what you observe. It is not that hard.

The character Seely Booth, from televisions Bones, is consistently fashionable while carrying a gun. The shows costume people generally do a pretty good job keeping him well dressed in a manner that would allow for the character to always be packing without looking “tactical”.

I think a lot of the concern over what clothes and accessories do and don’t attract attention comes from a lack of confidence, particularly among armed civilians. They are worried about attracting the wrong kinds of attention, or maybe have a macho ego trip going about packing heat, so consequently they do all the wrong things.
There is a lot more to being the grey man than how you dress – Your appearance is only part of it. Behavior is important. If you behave in a manner that calls attention to yourself, people will pay more attention (duh). People at large are typically so wrapped up in their own worries and thoughts that you don’t occur to them, even if you’re standing right in front of them. If you work with that, rather than against it, you’ll have much greater success as even the “less-black” or “less-neon” man, much less the truly “grey” man.
There are other cues, in dress and manner alike, that are probably beyond the scope of this set of working notes. Realistically, if you’re trying to avoid notice by professionals then this probably isn’t where you should be turning for information (as it is well beyond my experience, and thus outside my “lane”). Guys from within certain cultures are going to have a much harder time of trying to pass notice by others from that culture. Physicality, carriage, attentiveness, and more subtle behavior can all be indicators that mean the world – They can all mean nothing, too. The Grey Man business is far more art than science, and goes far deeper than clothing. It’s one of those things that truly a practice. This ramble of thoughts are all drawn from on going practice, a key component of which is observation.

5 responses to “Thoughts on Fashion & Grey Man(nerisms)”

  1. Tony says:

    I like the fact that you pointed out behaviour. I just think it might have been better to point that out right at the beginning. People often focus too much on gear, as evidenced in claims like “5.11 cargo pants immediately blow your cover, whereas cargo pants made by a different manufacturer don’t”.

  2. BFE Labs says:

    The only reason I pointed out behavior late in the piece was that it just wasn’t my own focal point. The working notes I had going were all coming from a clothing and gear angle, so I pretty much stuck with that since I wasn’t looking to be comprehensive, just to contribute some to the ongoing meme.

    I agree that behavior is of fundamental importance – The clothes and gear are just the last part of selling an image, and idea, of who and what you are or aren’t.
    There is a good sized training industry for LEO/First Responders and to a lesser extent, Military, in my town. 99% of them can be spotted easily when they are out on the town, as they dress as they would on the ranges, and have their heads on a swivel (or, in some cases, have the complacent air of “I’m a cop/whatever and none of you got anything on me”). Even if they dress down, the short haircuts, Oakleys and attitude sell the image that the jeans and Ed Hardy t-shirts may not.

    All these things come together – If you’re able to be more subtle in your attitudes, the Oakleys are just sunglasses, the buzzed head is just cooler in the summer, etc. If you’ve got the attitude worked out, and have ditched the Oakleys and tac-boots, the 5.11’s are just cargo pants.
    It’s sort of understandable (though not forgivable) – If your social circle are all similar people (other armed professionals, other tuned-in armed citizens, etc.), the behavior patterns that are endemic to that culture tend to rise to the surface, and then become hard to notice, much-less shut down, when going out into more general company, in public, etc.

    In behavior we need to find the functional balance point at which we are taking in the amount of information about our environment, and maintaining the subtle positional dominance we’re comfortable with, without sending off giant-radiating waves of “this guy is dialed in” (or, in skel parlance “fuckin’ pig”) or any noticeable signals at all, ideally.
    There may be points at which being identified as something else carnivorous is a good thing – But I think its far superior to simply not be noticed as anything in particular. Every little bit helps, from small shifts in how the attitude presents, to not wearing the tactical tux everywhere.

  3. Pig Monkey says:

    I’ve got this covered. I rock a Mil-Spec Monkey regular guy tab on my pack. They’ll never suspect me! Ok, maybe not….

    I definitely think you raise a good point with context. I generally wear some type of 6″ boots, some type of cargo pants, and on top some type of “technical” layer like a fleece, hardshell, or even softshell. In most of the western US, I think I blend in fine — just another outdoorsy guy. But when I’ve worn the same costume in east coast cities, I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb.

    • BFE Labs says:

      I’ve been thinking about getting one of the regular guy patches for grins.

      Actually, on the patch front – I’ve been rocking a NSR Solutions patch on a mechanics type shirt lately, and it gives me a fairly innocuous workman vibe to normal folks. Anyone who is aware of MSM’s stuff would get it, as might someone familiar with the non-standard response term, but most folks? Nah. Even had one guy ask me “How you like workin’ for them? They hiring?”

      Yeah, I think the outdoorsy look works well in the west. I usually combine that with the bluejeans and cowboy boots look here in rural NM, and it fits right in.
      I think its interesting to watch tourists who come into your area from elsewhere, and see how they are dressed and act. Some people dress a certain way to travel exclusively, but a lot can be gleaned about dress and mannerisms in other regions by watching people who just wear what they wear at home wherever they are.
      Growing up in a somewhat elitist/insular western culture (ranching), tourist spotting was a sort of hobby (followed up by various snickering under breath remarks), and its surprising how quickly you can pick up on where someone is from by their clothes and accessories, and little else.

  4. Ian Wendt says:

    I generally speaking stick to wearing the outdoorsy brands. Although I often mix in some 5.11 or other para-military-looking gear. I think my common choice of footwear often sends people for a loop however, as I very frequently use Vibram FiveFingers. It’s not something most people, even the aware ones connect with somebody who’s relatively speaking armed to the teeth.

    Tourist spotting is always fun and so is fed spotting.

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