Archives for January 2008

Favourite Ensembles: Burberry Prorsum Fall 2005

Christopher Bailey has done a fine job at Burberry. With a company legacy of gabardine rainwear and perhaps the most recognisable tartan check in the world, it was not a simple task to take Burberry from its fashion status as a ‘gilded pretender’ and to push it into the respected arena of financially successful ‘superbrands’ such as Dior Homme and Alexander McQueen. Having all the celebrity and historical credentials one could wish for, comparable, but not necessarily equal, to rival brand Louis Vuitton, designing for such a grand name couldn’t possibly pose any risks for such a talented designer. However, he has not shied away from risk-taking as far as his work is concerned and his men’s collections, though they frequently draw on Burberry’s heritage, have broken new ground and sometimes, delightfully, draw on a wider English heritage.

Such is the case with the above outfit, one of my all time favourite ensembles from the runways. Though there is an undeniable conservatism – the classic shape of jacket, the straight leg trousers and the Oxford shoes – this outfit has such vibrancy, such a kick, that it draws second and third looks. The leather two-button jacket, with a texture and colour of forest ivy, produces one of the ‘effects’ for which I have great admiration; this is the effect of taking an ordinary and commonplace item and, by altering one facet of it, completely extricating that ordinary and commonplace theme. Another example may be the adding of a thin, egg yolk patent leather belt to a pair of black trousers instantly removing the dullness and the humdrum; like throwing a wedge of lime into the G&T. A plain jacket, even an ordinary wool or cotton ivy green jacket, would not have such a special effect; it’s the leather ‘twist’ that really lifts the item.

Individually, the items are of high quality and of an interesting texture, but it’s the agreeable interplay that really makes the whole thing stand out. The tangerine jumper would not have such an appeal were it not for the sober colours at its borders; and such pairing applies, vice versa – it’s the strength of that central tone that prevents the dark grey trousers and shirt from looking too miserable. The blue suede gloves and the plum shoes are inspired touches; both muted colours, not attempting to compete with the powerful knitwear, but still adding to the palette. The bamboo handled Burberry check umbrella, as well as the corsage, adds that welcome touch of whimsy.

Bailey once said that he refrains from thinking about things in terms of taste; good or bad, but rather, he prefers to think of items as ‘sophisticated or ugly’. The joy is then in combining the two together. Although as a look, I would prefer complete sophistication, which Bailey rightly regards as ‘too easy’, the combination is inescapably modern; like a 1960s office block built next to a Victorian mansion. It’s a challenge but its theory is grounded in the realities of our topsy turvy world: that ugliness in individuality can be tempered, and even enhanced, by a union with irreproachable sophistication and beauty.

Hiking and Style

If I could think of one leisurely pursuit associated with garments that are the antithesis of good style, hiking is the pursuit I would think of. Hiking, or hill walking, itself is a healthy and rather romantic activity; the beautiful scenery, the wonderful mountain air and the enjoyment of exercise. It’s a reengagement with nature and an invigorating experience, and it’s rather sad that the equipment and attire accompanying does not possess the same beauty or style. Having said that, it would of course be absurd to wear impractical and merely decorative clothing in the wide open spaces; one needs waterproof material, sensible footwear and decent warmth. You cannot be stranded on the peaks with only a silk scarf and a pocket square between you and the sweeping rains and the howling wind.

There is decent outdoor clothing that doesn’t look like it has been manufactured for traffic wardens; waterproof jackets that have style and aesthetic value and not merely Gore-Tex credentials, and boots that, blissfully, do not look like they have been constructed from an old car seat.

Hill walking doesn’t need to include a brief, forgettable departure from your personal style; by concocting the right outfit, you can feel a man of style even in the wilderness of the breathtaking rural glens. A visit to the local caravanserai, post exercise, in decent hiking clobber rather than the embarrassing nylon clobber that spends most of the time gathering dust at the back of your wardrobe, somehow makes a great difference. The way to stand out from the rest of the gaudily garbed walking crew is to tune in with nature; tonally, browns, greens, light greys and a dash of pagan orange. This is no camouflage, but rather a toast to Nature’s beauty.

Generally speaking, country walkers might choose the jacket on the left. Filled with natural down, it presents good value and warmth and is made by the highly esteemed North Face brand and it will be robust for a few coming years. It might also serve well as a jacket for winter sports. The down filling also means excessive layering is not required. However, despite these very practical and persuasive qualities, I would always plump for one of the other two jackets. Barbour jackets to me are a happy medium between hard-wearing practicality and timeless pastoral style; the greens and browns sing in harmony with nature, the waxed outer layering gathers character like that of a mossy rock and the construction always retains its shape even after years of use.
When it comes to boots, most of the footwear you will see when gadding about on the hilltops looks rather ‘technical’, (left) but is in fact merely comfortable; expensive hiking boots offer extra support, but I find that this market is largely a promotion of the value in Velcro straps, flashing lines and ‘technical’ looking materials. If you want to feel like you are wearing bedroom slippers on wooded mountains then hiking is not for you; nothing will ever feel as good as you hope, despite the appealing names. Timberland (centre and right) manufacture some of the finest practical footwear. The shoes are hard-wearing and comfortable and the support is perfectly adequate. Importantly, the designs themselves, while not exactly in the class of Berluti, are far more appealing and have a game-hunter rusticity in comparison to the rather appalling Hi-tecs pictured on the left.

Hats too are generally required; the Pens are not a place to be seen with an umbrella and felicities such as ‘feeling the rain on your face’ belong in a paragraph of Austen, not in the grim realities of the great outdoors. A lot of people choose rather cheap, shapeless hoods attached to their jacket. Whilst this is certainly practical, it is also rather dreadful. Barbour manufacture wonderful wax brimmed hats, utterly waterproof, that assist in cutting a fine mountain figure whilst keeping your head very warm and completely dry.

The Logical Waistcoat Theory (Part Two)

(The first part of this posting (on Wednesday) bemoaned the fact that the suit had become impractical in most offices, with the jacket rarely worn. It is understandable, but a shame.)

Here’s my solution. It’s logical and practical; though obviously that doesn’t mean anyone will take it up.

The key is the waistcoat. Men don’t wear suit jackets because there’s no need in an air-conditioned office; the waistcoat will not make you too hot. Men don’t wear suit jackets because it can be uncomfortable to work in at a computer; the waistcoat does not restrict you. A man without his suit jacket can look scruffy if his shirt becomes untucked; the waistcoat keeps it hidden. Without his suit jacket a man’s tie can look untidy; the waistcoat keeps it buttoned up and prim. It’s hard to fault the logic.

So basic office attire could be a two-piece suit of waistcoat and trousers. A man can then wear any weight of coat over it when he goes outside. There is no need to put on both a jacket and coat (if cold), or leave the jacket on the back of your chair all day long (if hot).

Wearing waistcoat and trousers is not quite as flattering as a jacket. But it does lengthen the figure in a similar way, maintaining that long line of smart dark wool. Pinstripes can still be employed to add slenderness, in the same way as a suit (it is hard to see this working with trousers and shirt).

And for those who like to get involved with their suits, to understand tailoring and aspire to a bespoke lifestyle, waistcoats offer much. Many tailors will tell you that a waistcoat is one of the hardest things to make, a summit of the craft. It needs to both fit snugly to the body and remain flexible. It is probably harder to find a well-fitting waistcoat than a well-fitting jacket off the peg. Plus, Tom Ford loves them.

There are of course other solutions to the dilemma I posed. If your shirt has long enough tails and fits close to your waist it is unlikely to become untucked. Your tie could be prevented from flapping by a tie clip. But I do think the waistcoat solution has advantages, as it retains the smartness of a suit and remains within the menswear tradition.

So, wear a two-piece suit with a difference to work tomorrow. If anyone asks why just point them in the direction of this blog.

I will if you will.

Teach Your Children about Dressing Appropriately

One of the things I love most about working in Washington, D.C., is seeing all the people who come here from across the world. For some, it is a life’s goal to just once stand in front of the White House and take in its iconic message of hope and opportunity – regardless of who happens to live there at the time.

For others, it’s a chance to explore the many remarkable public places that span the city; from viewing the Declaration of Independence to wandering through the endless museums, which by the way are free.

Though we are now in the chilly clutches of winter, tourists and school groups still descend upon the Capitol City with regularity. And as they do I still wonder at how often I see many of these children – and adults – dressed like they are going to wash the family car.

School groups in particular are unfortunate examples of what happens when those in positions of responsibility choose to abdicate roles of authority. In a nutshell, too many visitors to my city dress like slobs. It’s embarrassing.

While I love to see wide eyed kids gazing upon the Capitol dome for the first time, many of them, with seeming parental approval, express a total lack of decorum. During the summer in particular I regularly witness clumps of high schoolers marching off to visit their senator or congressman in baggy shorts, oversized tee shirts and flip flops! Girls sport the equivalent of beachwear and guys look like they just rolled out of bed and into last week’s laundry.

Now, I’m no stuffed shirt and am all for freedom of personal expression, etc.; but I firmly believe there are times and places for showing sartorial respect. I actually find it offensive that America’s schools and their D.C.-bound chaperones can’t even muster up enough backbone to require a decent clothes when walking though the Capitol rotunda, the hallowed ground where presidents and luminaries have lain in state.

What happened? I know that my parents would have ground me into the floor if they learned I showed up for a White House tour looking like I was heading out to mow the grass. Speaking of the White House, last year it was compelled to enforce a strict dress code for all visitors regardless. No jeans, no shorts, and no flip flops. This had to be enforced, seriously? Do parents even teach basic manners anymore?

As an American, I am frustrated to no end when I see this total lack of respect for others and for the dignity of our most significant public spaces. Dressing well to go out in public is a show of reverence to others and to the places you visit. It is a nonverbal acceptance that you are not the center of the universe and at times it is appropriate to convey a message that supports the idea of community.

Do we really have to require that people not wear halter tops or have underwear hanging out when they visit the Smithsonian? Apparently. I readily admit that in my personal experience, most often the well-dressed visitors I see wandering around this city are from other countries.

Parents, and everyone else, this is my plea: show your Capital City, your fellow Americans and everyone else, some respect.

The Logical Waistcoat Theory (Part One)

Men need a new uniform to adapt to air conditioning. Here’s a suggestion.

Let’s start with history and practicality. Suit jackets were never meant to be taken off. A man, no matter what his place in society, strained to have a clean collar and cuffs in order to appear smart. But these were detachable from the main shirt, which would be reworn for reasons of economy.

The maximum that was ever visible of a man’s shirt was his collar, cuffs and shirt front. For example, in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, the younger Chuzzlewit observes that many immigrants to America pack their suitcases with detachable shirt fronts – and have no real shirts at all. They maintain an air of respectability by having clean, white shirt fronts. They cannot afford a shirt, but no one will know they are not wearing one, because no one takes off their jacket.

The suit, with the possible addition of a waistcoat, was worn in its whole both for smartness and for warmth. The head-to-toe grey, blue or black was considered proper and smart – only a labourer or someone at particularly heavy work would take off their jacket (hence the association of being ‘in one’s shirtsleeves’ with toil). And only someone who was not afraid to get cold. The absence of central heating and air conditioning meant men wore a three-piece suit in heavy wool merely to keep warm.

Have a look at those old Hollywood films. How often do you see a well-dressed man’s shirt?

So, a suit from head to toe. Probably with long socks – both for warmth and for smartness again, to prevent showing naked leg and break that formal, dark figure. And the collar would be kept together with a tie, tucked into the jacket or waistcoat.

Today, if men wear a suit to the office they almost immediately take off the jacket. It would be too hot and probably uncomfortable to work at a computer with all day long. So they walk around the office in suit trousers, a shirt and possibly a tie. Without anything to tuck into, the tie may flap around unflatteringly. The effect is reinforced if the tie is loosened and the top button of the shirt undone. Plus, unless the shirt is very fitted, it will balloon a little around the waist.

If the man goes outside, it is likely that he will either put on both the jacket and a coat (in winter) or nothing at all (in summer). Either way, the jacket is redundant.

This redux of the classic lounge suit is often unflattering. Gone, for most of the day, is the waist-concealing silhouette of a well-made suit. That most attractive of outfits, which flatters many men like nothing else, is lost.

It is no wonder that many in the US have adopted a casual work outfit. If all you were wearing was suit trousers and a shirt, what’s the difference if you wear chinos and a shirt?

It is no wonder that putting a suit on to meet a client can feel a little artificial, like donning armour. And it is little wonder that many young men feel bored by a suit and prefer not to wear one (unless it is fashionable, as it has been for the past few years). But it is a pity.

(The solution to this modern workwear dilemma will appear in the second part of this posting, on Friday.)