Archives for March 2008

Where Style Becomes Costume

Dressing in the full traditions of men’s clothing can make one a caricature. It must be combined with a touch of originality.

There are blogs on men’s style that are fascinating for the depth of knowledge they demonstrate – over the role of a split yoke on a man’s shirt, over the line of a shoe’s waist. They inform many things about what I buy and what I wear. But I am often a little disappointed when I see images of the authors.

This is because they seem to want to be an embodiment of what is – necessarily – historical dress, and become an illustration from an old copy of Esquire. They take every aspect of, for example, early twentieth century English country wear, and they copy it. They wear the cord trousers, the tweed jacket, the checked shirt and the wool tie. They add the flat cap, the brogues and the bright socks. They may add a hunting jacket with leather padding on the shoulder to protect from the impact of a gun’s recoil, or a waxed Barbour jacket with bellow pockets to accommodate shells.

These items are all correct, historically. And the chances are they will be of the highest quality, complement the wearer’s skin tones and fit him perfectly – as he takes great care over these elements as well. But it is just mimicry. He is in costume.

Even Prince Charles, on a hunt around Balmoral, doesn’t follow the traditions of hunt clothing this fastidiously. And he has an excuse for wearing something similar – he is actually hunting, he is actually English and all his forbears wore similar pieces throughout their history.

The style aficionado who copies it is just dressing up. He has none of the creative element that can make dressing so enjoyable, and so personal.

Let me give an officewear example. I like wearing pinstripe suits. I’m a fan of red socks, as well as double-breasted jackets and patterned handkerchiefs. But I know that if I wore all of these pieces in one combination I would look like a caricature. I might as well top it off with a bowler hat, grow a moustache and wander down Fleet Street twirling my umbrella.

So I wear red socks with more understated suits. Perhaps a plan grey flannel and open-necked white shirt. I rarely wear a handkerchief and a tie at the same time, as for me it is probably a little too much. And my double-breasted suits are not navy-blue pinstripe.

It is also fun to add touches of individuality – to experiment with odd waistcoats in formal suits, though there is no tradition of this that I am aware of; to combine smart clean Converse with wool suits, as I like the contrast of smart and casual; to wear darker coloured, wool handkerchiefs in odd jackets when worn casually. This is individuality and creativity. It is what makes dressing fun, rather than study.

I think that men who are very interested in their clothes are part geeky, petty academic and part creative, artistic aesthete. Everyone needs the former to drive them into reading and investigation, to be interested by the history and traditions of men’s attire. But everyone also needs the latter, to have the kind of mind that created these traditions in the first place. (Beau Brummel and the Duke of Windsor are heroes for being precisely the opposite of these geeky facsimiles.)

Unfortunately, when men have too much of the first influence and not enough of the second, they end up looking like an extra in a costume drama.

Commuter & Dad Bag Test: Crumpler – Funny Name, Good Bag

Crumpler Complete Seed ($105.00) & Part and Parcel ($160.00) /

Ever heard of Crumpler? Maybe not, but I suspect that most readers might recognize that little crazy-haired logo on the company’s bags. You might not remember exactly where you saw him or on what, but chances are it will ring familiar.

Crumpler is one of those brands; sort of everywhere but not necessarily front and center. The Australian company takes its bag making very seriously, but certainly not itself. The wacky product names that to an Australian contain a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor are all but lost on confused Americans. The website is a riot of cartoons, icons and stuffed animals. You have to hunt a bit for the actual products and then figure out what picture connects to which bag category.

Definitely a quirky company; they even demonstrate their bags’ various capacities by stacking six packs of beer inside – what else could you want?

Still, it’s a bag company and the bags definitely take center stage. Crumpler’s messenger, computer and photography bags are marvels of design and construction, and that’s what counts. Founded Down Under by former bike messengers, comfort and durability blend creatively with innovative, almost organic, designs.

The result is a distinctive personality and DNA that carries through to each of their designs. Once you know Crumpler, you can spot their bags a mile away.

I contacted Crumpler USA to find out if they could spare a bag for the Commuter and Dad Bag Test. They said, “Sure, we’d be chuffed” and proceeded to send me two; a messenger bag in gun metal grey and a laptop bag in a two-toned blue.

I was not really looking to test a laptop bag per se. But when speaking with them, I had mentioned rather specifically that since I was trying to find that elusive one-bag-that-can-do-it-all, carrying a laptop was one something that factored in.

So, along with the Complete Seed messenger bag, Crumpler sent along its Part and Parcel laptop bag.

Both are some of the best made messenger style bags I’ve ever seen. The water resistant 1000D nylon shell and 420D nylon interior are thick and sturdy. The Velcro closures are large and stay closed, even with full loads. Both have additional adjustable quick-release straps as well.

Crumpler shoulder straps are second to none; they are strong, flexible and thick enough to have an almost rounded edge. The shoulder pad, which is included (there’s an idea), is large and molds comfortably to your shoulder. The bags also have a standard “third leg” stability strap that provides additional security across your chest for full loads.

Part and Parcel

The first thing that strikes you when gazing upon the P&P for the first time is that it looks large; but that’s a bit of a false impression. Though boxy looking, it is not a deep bag, so when you actually sling it over your shoulder it doesn’t feel too large or heavy, even when fully loaded.

The P&P is very much a messenger bag at heart; it has no carrying handle and no outside pockets once the large flap is closed. When open however, a cacophony of interior pockets is revealed. And though usually a plus, in this case I could have done with fewer.

The bag is divided into two main areas; the rear section which includes the computer sleeve and space for large items like files and binders. The computer sleeve is generous and has enough padding to protect a stack of bone china plates.

The front section has all those multiple storage pockets and therein lies my sole complaint. There are just too many small pockets piled up one upon the other. Once I had filled them up, it became a challenge to remember which pocket actually held what item. Since each one has either zippered or velcro closures, you can’t even take a quick glance when searching for, say, your metro pass. Not a critical issue, but it’s still annoying.

There is a lot of organization housed in this bag. Even the inside of the flap is put to use by way of a large mesh pocket, though I’m not sure what I would store there. My wife tested the P&P as well and noted that a carrying handle would make a world of difference for those times when the shoulder strap is not practical, like getting in or out of a car.

The Complete Seed

Frankly, I was not entirely sure if I would like this black hole of a bag. It’s big. And if you don’t actually need a large bag, it can quickly become a formless hassle. Not so with the Complete Seed. This is now officially one of my favorite bags. Though certainly large, it is incredibly comfortable to carry either full or not so full.

This is a classic messenger bag so it’s designed to carry lots of stuff; hence, the focus is a large main compartment. Additionally, there are six smaller pockets ingeniously built into the Complete Seed’s front panel. The three “outer” pockets open along the bag’s top edge so they are easy to access while on the move. The three inner pockets are positioned identically, but run along the backside of the front panel (that is, on the inside of the bag). The center of these has a velcro closure to better secure small articles.

Locating the small pockets in such a fashion allows the main compartment to remain a huge block of negative space into which you could fit a small car. You almost don’t even notice the other pockets at all.

When filled with books, files and a laptop, it was still comfortable to carry. Though there was some shifting, that problem is not uncommon with a large bag that has no organizational features in its main compartment.

This is easy; both are excellent bags with many pluses and a few minuses. Even then, the minuses can be chalked up to the simple fact that each bag was built to perform a certain job so its features are geared in a particular direction. Both bags are some of the best constructed I’ve ever come across and each is truly unique.

Crumpler is innovative in its marketing approach and unafraid to design bags which are distinctive to the point of niche. Either you like them or you don’t. I do.

Which one is closest to my idea of a commuter/dad bag? The Complete Seed hits that mark. Though not really appropriate for a suit, and most messenger bags are not, it is a stylish and totally functional workhorse that I’ve been happy to tote around.

The Great Bottom Button Mystery

Ooo, there’s another one! A perfectly respectable businessman with only the bottom button of his three-button jacket done up. Just the one. Leaving the rest of the jacket flapping open.

It looks so bizarre. It creates an artificial, rippling belly of negative space, and as result is surely the least flattering way to possibly do up the buttons of a suit. Why on earth do they do it?

At first, I thought it was an aberration. One man walking towards me, his pinstripe ruined by a frankly odd buttoning. I briefly wondered why he had decided to do up just that button, and not the natural waist button, the middle button. Briefly I considered it, and then dismissed it – a mistake, an accident, certainly an exception.

Then a few days later it happened again. Someone else striding purposefully along Fleet Street, briefcase in hand, importantly talking into his mobile phone. With only the bottom button done up. This time the buttoning was so low that his tie had flapped over the fastening, like a bright dead fish.

Why? Don’t you see it when you look in the mirror? Doesn’t it strike you as odd, like doing up the top button of your shirt, and no others? Doesn’t the oddity of the effect suggest that the suit was not designed to do that?

As more examples popped up, I began to give the phenomenon serious thought. Why did you never see men with just the top button fastened? There were always a few with the top and the middle, or the middle and the bottom, but the waist button was always firmly secured.

Did the bottom-fasteners somehow feel that this arrangement gave them a deeper V, a plunging, masculine chest? They could be forgiven for thinking that (though still wrong) if the suit had a natural, soft roll. But modern, worsted business suits are true three buttons – the fastening is stiff and, unlike the flannels of old, there is little natural roll. So the artificial belly is the result.

Finally, a combination of curiosity and anger got the better of me and I asked someone. Embarassing, I know. But it was beginning to dominate every waking thought.

The gentleman in question was puzzled, then a little miffed, perhaps a tad embarrassed. He said he did it because it felt like a natural fit for the jacket, it felt snug. And there’s the rub: the jacket was too big for him, so it didn’t feel like it fitted with the waist button done up. The bottom button on its own felt better.

I’ve since found that some men go for the same odd buttoning if the jacket is too small for their belly – the cut of a jacket can mean that the bottom button fits when the middle doesn’t. It all depends on cut and on physique.

Of course, they’re all wrong. It looks silly and it ignores how the jacket was designed to be worn. Any man who wears his jacket buttoned in this way should be told to have it altered.
Fortunately, I have so far resisted the urge to tell any of them this.

The Double-Breasted Debate

I was always told that a double-breasted suit created breadth. Good for tall, narrow men. Not so good for the short and stout. This belief, though widely held by others, probably originates for me with the insistence of my mother that I would look lovely with a double breast, given that I am tall and could always be broader.

Funny how many opinions of oneself originate with such memories of youth. There’s probably a good case to be made that all one’s fundamental impressions of strength and weakness are formed at that age. When one is more insecure, more vulnerable. I’ve never liked my legs either.

But I digress. The traditional view is that double-breasted makes one broader. Alan Flusser disagrees: he contends that the swooping lapels of a double-breasted jacket, from the tip of a peaked lapel down to two crossed points at the waist, create the illusion of height. This illusion, he argues, more than compensates for the impression of breadth achieved elsewhere.

I can see the sense in his argument, but instinctively disagree. I knew he was wrong, but didn’t know why.

Now I do. Flusser is not wrong in his analysis, just in his conclusion. The answer is spelled out in The Suit by Nicholas Antongiavanni. His chapter Of Diminutive Men agrees that the sweeping lapel of a double-breasted jacket creates height. The double row of buttons and the extra flap of cloth, however, create breadth. Most would argue that the second set of features outweighs the first. But to a certain extent that is a subjective question.

More importantly, there is a solution for the diminutive man. If he wears a single-breasted suit with a low fastening (perhaps even a single button on the waist as preferred by some Savile Row tailors) and peaked lapels, he can achieve some of the slimming effects of a double-breasted jacket. This look, Antongiavanni argues, is rakish. It is unusual and slimming without the conservative or perhaps boxy appearance of the normal double-breasted.

The other solution is to go for a double-breasted suit with just two buttons, as was the model I had made in Hong Kong recently. While I have seen this design around occasionally over the years, it was most recently in the spotlight in Dunhill’s spring/summer campaign. Here a two-button double-breasted suit was used as a separate jacket with dark jeans and dark-brown derbys (not sure I quite agree with this look – a double-breasted looking rather out of place as an odd jacket – but it did seem to work on the fellow in the advert) and as a modern twist on a white linen suit worn by Jude Law.

Getting rid of the double row of buttons helps avoid the boxy look wonderfully. There is, obviously, now a single horizontal line across one’s waist, but it is at least a slim line. It all helps accentuate my breadth and ease those youthful insecurities.

Jeans: Just Liking the Basics

We talk a lot about brands on this site. What’s in or what’s out, what the new trend is and what you should give up. Brands and labels do matter; sometimes to others but more often to us. There is a certain cache to having an Etro suit as opposed to a mere Jos. A Bank; not only is the quality usually better but so is the “check me out” factor. But does the brand always have to be front and center?

When it comes to clothing, especially dress and tailored clothing, you do usually get what you pay for. Creating a well made odd jacket, for example, takes the time and effort of an experienced tailor and will involve more expensive materials. The amount of skill needed to construct a hand rolled lapel alone is prohibitively expensive for most average consumers.

For those of us who feel that the benefits of such craftsmanship are well worth the expense, arguing over the perceived value of a label is a rather moot point. But what about traditionally less glamorous articles of clothing – like jeans?

I know there has been a lot discussion of late about the benefits of raw, vintage, selvage, destroyed and every other sort of designer denim. The very design of the jean pant has evolved dramatically over the past few years. In fact, many see denim as the next big design movement for men.

Here is my problem: I like basic jeans. As I am now closer to 40 than 30, my need for a jean wardrobe has diminished. I simply don’t wear them as much as I used to. While I have flexibility when it comes to what I can wear to the office, I prefer tailored clothing. And when it comes to jeans, I happen to like a basic, functional and classic design.

I’ve decided that Levi’s classic 505 jeans are right for me. Nothing fancy; no hand sanding or customized distressing. I don’t want to break in my jeans for three months or dote over them like an expectant father. Though I have very high standards when it comes to most of the wardrobe, jeans are the exception. To me, they are supposed to be basic and casual. Jeans are iconic because of their lack of embellishment and fussiness. The very functionality of jeans is what makes them so archetypal.

Surprisingly, this opinion has left me with an odd feeling of not being too cool. Everywhere I look, I see a growing cadre of men’s designer jeans that can cost three to four times as much as the plain old five-pocket classics I prefer. Am I out of the loop; out of touch with current trends and the truly stylish? Shouldn’t I want to pull on APC or 7 For All Mankind? What about Rag and Bone? For more than $200, shouldn’t they be so much better than plain old Levis’ ring spun cotton?

I have fretted over my lack of designer jean obsession; I mean, I can talk for hours about the nuances of jacket venting (double), cashmere versus merino (merino), and the ideal grey flannel trouser (Incotex). So, why not jeans?

After considering this case from a number of angles, I have found an answer that works for me: I don’t care; it’s just what I like. When it comes to jeans, I go for the basics. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the creativity and unique quality that designers jeans offer; I do.

But, as is common in matters of fashion, I have likes and dislikes that are particular to me. And though I have no problem paying a premium for certain things, the jeans that work for me are just average Levis. That’s what makes life interesting.