Archives for February 2008

All Hail the Bowtie

I have an opinion about men who wear bowties. They are mavericks; truly adventurous dressers who live on the sartorial edge. They are nonconformists and often seen as threatening to the establishment. Yes, look out for the man who sports a bowtie – he probably has an attitude.

For a long time, those who wore bowties were depicted as milquetoasts or mamma’s boys. This situation has slowly changed and bowties have begun to re-emerge as symbols of intellectual rakishness and individual dressers.  Sure, they are not overly common for day wear, but when worn in public they do carry a certain intellectual air. Sill, apart from being paired with a dinner jacket, many men are still afraid to tie one on.

And so there is no confusion, the only appropriate neckwear to pair with a dinner jacket is a bowtie. Please refrain from that annoying Hollywood “look, we’re going against the grain, notice us” habit of wearing bolos, long ties or silly a Nehru collar with a tuxedo. We get it; you’re creative, now just follow George Clooney’s lead you’ll look great.

Bowties have been a favorite of mine for years; I even wore them in college to student government meetings. I felt intellectual when sporting one; even a little dashing. Bowties have so much more personality than regular neck ties and it always seemed to me that interesting people inevitably wore them. A bowtie can provide a natty counterbalance to an otherwise staid outfit – something that a neck tie can’t claim.

I am a longtime fan of journalist George Will, in part because he almost always would wear a bowtie on TV. Recently he has been wearing more neckties, and this is too bad. Sporting a bowtie and that perpetually brainy look, you knew right away that this guy has something to say and that he marches to his own drummer. Bowties have that power.

One reason bow ties are more often the purview of clever men is that at first they are difficult to tie. And let me stop you cold here. Never, under any circumstances should wear a clip-on or prettied bowtie. Ever. They are just so wrong on too many levels. Learn how to tie one yourself and be proud of it. A particularly useful way to practice is using your calf as a stand-in for your neck. Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite simple.

Bowties can be paired with many types of outfits. On the business side, they look good with all nature of suits, though models with a higher lapel stance can visually compensate for the dearth of exposed shirt fabric cascading down your front.

They also can work well in less formal settings, allowing for a bit of dress up when needed. Paired with jeans or khakis, cords or gabardines, bowties can give voice to your inner college professor.

Style of, by and for the People

The fact that technology has revolutionized traditional media is nothing new, but the way in which it has transformed the fashion world has been comparatively under-acknowledged. No more than ten years ago, the only outlet men had to learn about fashion and trends was either their monthly GQ or Esquire. Online media has progressively challenged the monolithic print publications, which have themselves moved increasingly into online space.

Now that everything is constant and on-demand, trends have a much easier and faster way of diffusing. Whereas it might take a print publication a month to pick up on something, another month to fit it into the next issue, and finally the extra time it would take to catch on in the general public, the Internet has greatly shortened the time needed. What is on the Sartorialist one day can easily become popular in the span of a single month, if not sooner.

More specifically though, a new breed of online media may further revolutionize the world of fashion: the user-generated site. These sites, rather than being directed by a group of editors or industry-insiders, are intimately in touch with the realities and limitations of regular people. For example, while GQ might recommend a $5,000 suit, the number of people able to go and purchase a suit half that price is very small.

This facility to share information and opinions may have a powerful effect on style and fashion as a whole. On one hand, it makes fashion more accessible and available to those with a curiosity or interest in learning some of the fundamental ‘rules.’ On the other, doesn’t it seem a bit like a case of the blind leading the blind?

According to Yuli Ziv, editor-in chief and founder of the online user-generated magazine MyItThings, “Print magazines used to have the power to dictate fashion. The Web 2.0 revolution and social shopping movement have brought user-generated content into the ultra exclusive world of fashion and now are changing the rules. Today’s trends are controlled not only by selected editors and columnists; they are also driven by the wisdom of crowds.”

Social shopping sites of this nature are almost exclusively tailored to women, though it will be interesting to see whether there will be an analogous venue for men. Clearly, the interest is there. Look no further than the first page of either Style Forum or the forums to find threads of men sharing pictures of their shoes and recent purchases.

Because style is such a subject field, it would make sense that a ‘crowd’ would be just as effective as any style guru at judging what is ‘stylish.’ After all, we normally judge ‘good’ style as what is acknowledged to be attractive by a broad group. The only question yet to be seen is the collective taste of the masses.

Unmistakable Style of Matinee Idol

There was something rather special about the old matinee idol. Unlike the screen sex symbols of modern years, the idol inspired more than a little heat under the collar. They were objects of lust to be sure, but they were also something a little finer. In Robert Altman’s 2001 film ‘Gosford Park’, Jeremy Northam, himself no slouch in the screen idolatry department, played one of the classic 1930s idols, Ivor Novello. One of the most memorable parts of the portrayal was Novello’s slightness of manner. Apart from the troubadic interludes at the piano, the ‘Gosford Park’ Novello was a quiet and unassuming chap quite remote from the public image, the brashness of the billboard and the pomp of his music; he possessed a measured and universally pleasant manner.

Indeed some idols were quite the reverse of the noisy and showy characters they portrayed. Rudolph Valentino once remarked that women, despite many claims to the contrary, were not in love with him but with his picture on the screen; “I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams.”

This humility and private indignation with the sensationalism they caused was a rare quality of a matinee idol. Considered second rate in their quality as thespians by an envious theatrical fraternity, the idol was for many merely an extremely handsome clothes horse, a stylish but vitally empty creature of superficial whimsy. Characters like Errol Flynn endorse such description, but Flynn was a rare beast in the world of Hollywood men being more inclined to the boisterous bonhomie than the boudoir whereas chaps like Dirk Bogarde retained their sense of mystery with their casual elegance. They captured the imagination of males and females alike; conjuring as much admiration for their chic as for their exotic good looks.

They were somewhere between a sportsman and a dandy in style; never allowing their mighty neon names to take their image into absurdity and yet still managing to live up to their cinematic presence with powerful panache. They never had the ornamentation or the affectation of stage and screen fops; they were clean cut, elegant and yet somehow simple. Such attitude was reflected in their screen and stage personas and it was obvious, in the case of luminous leading men like Robert Donat, that their style was not part of an act but really a marketable part of who they were.

In many ways they were the cinematic muses: the marvellous and mesmeric men of celluloid, towering figures of the imagination, their timelessness and everlasting appeal displayed to magnificent effect and captured for all time on little reels of film.
Crucially, the one telling thing about the matinee idol was, that for all his supposed exoticism and ethereal splendour, he was frighteningly convincing as the Everyman. Richard Hannay may have been a fabulous and witty brick of a chap, but it was the honesty and goodness with which he was played by Donat that won the hearts of moviegoers.

The true magic of the movies was in taking something ordinary, something commonplace, and parading it in beauty and style; the matinee idol had an unmistakable and organic input in this process and that such idolization should continue off-screen was only to be expected. When something ordinary is done so very well, it is really rather a rare thing indeed; therein lies the secret of that unmistakable style.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Cravats

In continuing the recently begun series on love/hate sartorial relationships, I chose an item of elegant and yet comic status. It is one of the most theatrical accessories available to gentlemen; effete and yet at the same time, a strong symbol of a dying patriarchy. The cravat is an ancient wardrobe item and though it started as a simple length of cotton or linen, it evolved into a graceful adornment for the collar.

Nowadays, anything that seems to be worn around the neck, and tucked behind a shirt or jumper, is considered a cravat. Though the ascot is, to many, the last design of the true cravat, ‘cravattism’ is something that can happen to almost anything – in tradition with it’s origins as a humble stretch of fabric.

Though it is frequently worn by traditional and conservative men, young and old; usually underneath a smart and stiff shirt and v-neck combination, there has been a recent flurry of experimentation, with the likes of Robbie Williams, Jude Law, David Beckham, Billy Zane and Jeremy Piven all embracing a style of neckwear normally associated with middle-to-old-age chaps who drive 20 year old Jaguars.

Despite this stamp of youth and celebrity approval, many still find their noses turning (and possibly their stomachs), when they see willing guinea pigs promenading towards them with ruffles of silk concealing their neck. Frankly, some simply do not like this sort of adornment – if anything, to them the most attractive and modern of styles is the open collar and naked neck and of course, the cravat is the antithesis of this. Others might be rather put off by the connotations; the effeminate patterning indicative of a forgotten age of ‘the decorative man’, the concealment of flesh indicative of a very English repression.

However, I consider it rather a shame this style has been maligned thus; tying something around one’s neck to good effect takes a skill and even artistry. And I think those capable of protecting their necks against the cold with such flair need recognition and not mere mockery.

As an accessory, in my opinion, the cravat is an excellent item. Rather like the sartorial equivalent of a valance; it completes the effect, and covers up the awkward ugliness effectively and elegantly. For poor emaciated souls like myself, it offers structure and substance to a rather insignificant upper torso; like the moiré silk that conceals the flimsy and unattractive wiring sprouting from a chandelier.

Then again, such ‘fuss’ is precisely the sort of thing that antagonists rail against; minimalism is a modern trend, in all aspects of life. Chaps turn up to restaurants in what looks like gymnasium attire, people furnish rooms with striking economy of colour or pattern, objet d’arts are more likely to be praised for their ‘purity’ or ‘simplicity’ rather than their ornate complexity: it’s surely no wonder that the cravat is seen as a hilarious prop, unnecessary and fussy.

However, I think such style is due an honest revival, not merely a cameo. There is only so much ‘purity’ and ‘simplicity’ I can take before it all starts to get rather nauseating and pompous. Times have indeed changed, but they are changing still – I think there is call for a cravat Renaissance. It will be a challenge however, to shrug off that fustiness that has long been associated with it.

Personal Touches to Your Personal Style

When it comes to really setting yourself apart from the crowd it’s those little things that make the difference. Today, it seems as though exclusivity itself is no longer exclusive; so taking some time to focus on the personal things that you find special will indeed pay off in the end.

They can range from expensive wardrobe additions to simple touches. The point is not to break the bank because as you should know by now, money does not buy style. On the other hand, money well spent can be a smart long term investment.

So, here are a few things to think about. By no means a comprehensive list, these are just a couple of ways you can bring some more personality to your personal style.

Custom clothes: Let’s start big and get this out of the way. If you can afford to do so, investing in custom made clothes is a wonderful way to add flair to your wardrobe and overall appearance. Handmade suits, jackets and shirts will fit you like nothing else and will simply look better than off the rack clothing.

Remember that assembling a working custom wardrobe can cost a small fortune and take a while to pull together. Additionally, even if you stick to traditional cuts and fabrics, styles do change and your clothes won’t be the height of fashion forever. Regardless, well thought out and designed purchases will stand the test of time better than trying to be just another fashion plate.

A good place to start is with a few custom shirts. There is usually a minimum quantity for your first order, but you’ll get a nice variety of fabrics and several options when it comes to collars and cuffs.

Move on to suits, sport coats and trousers as your interest and income dictate.

Good shoes:
The next rung on the high-end investment ladder is a pair of good shoes. There are many makers of fine footwear from which to choose. Most are English, but some American makers like Alden and Allen Edmunds are well known in their own right. Look for leather uppers and Goodyear welted leather soles. The leather adapts to your foot’s shape and Goodyear welting allows soles to be replaced, adding years of service.

If you have cash to spare, custom footwear is the ne plus ultra of bespoke. Feet are the real workhorses of your body and deserve respect. Custom shoes will be molded to each foot and hand assembled by skilled craftsmen. It can take a while to get them to you, but when you finally slip on those custom brogues or oxfords, your feet will never feel the same.

In addition to just looking different than most mass produced footwear, handmade shoes will last a very long time due to the quality of materials and level of craftsmanship employed. They many even outlast you.

Here we get into a less expensive but nonetheless high impact sartorial tool: the monogram. Formally the purview of upper-classes, modern technology has brought monogramming to the masses. While this option is now available almost anywhere – from shirts to socks, golf clubs to toothpicks – limiting its usage can increase the cool factor.

Though shirt cuffs, handkerchiefs and signet rings are great locations for the well placed monogram, try not to overdo it. Your initials in small gold lettering on a leather briefcase is a nice touch but a monogrammed baseball hat is a bit tacky. Be conservative with all the branding or it will look silly, not sharp.

What most people want to achieve with monogramming is a hint of the patrician life; for someone to think that, just maybe, you have a butler laundering your shirts every other day. I mean, why else would you need your boxer shorts monogrammed?

These are the really unique items that speak to your own interests, hobbies or collections. I know people who collect vintage leather briefcases, fountain pens, mechanical watches and Tiffany desk sets.

Whatever your interests, don’t be afraid of integrating them into your day to day life. Use a leather journal to keep your schedule, trade in your old dress shirts for new ones with French cuffs and put your dad’s old cufflinks to work, wear that fedora you’ve always coveted.

More than anything else these are the things that make you unique and individual. Ever been to New York and seen the naked cowboy in Times Square? You’ll never look at a cowboy hat the same way; but you’ll also never forget his get-up – or lack thereof – again. Is he nuts? Perhaps; but he also makes a good living and sure seems to enjoy his work.

However you choose to approach defining your personal style just don’t be a drone. Don’t go through life towing the sartorial line because you are afraid of taking a stand and standing out a bit.