The Italian Background

The generalisation that the English experiment with their shirts and the Italians with their jackets broadly holds, particularly in business wear. While the English tradition of checked and plaid wools is a fine one, it was always largely restricted to the country (or at least the weekend) and has died out slowly as fewer English men wore suits casually.

The Italians are more willing to experiment with suit cloth at every occasion. This necessitates a shirt and tie combination that makes no attempt to compete with that cloth – the Italian Background.

The Italian Background is simple: a plain blue or black tie on a plain blue shirt. (Occasionally the shirt will be white, but this can look a little funereal.)

The combination works well because a blue shirt suits most people more than white, and it fades more into the background; because a dark tie fades more into the background than a pale tie; and because the dark blue tie is the most similar in tone and harmonious combination with a blue shirt – without being too similar and evoking tone on tone.

But this is analysing the obvious. It works as the plainest and yet most sophisticated of supports to an otherwise daring suit pattern – or indeed odd jacket. It equally supports an adventurous pocket-handkerchief, gloves, hat or jacket. When trying to balance an outfit, the Italian would much rather tone down a tie than go without one.

Four examples are displayed here, all courtesy of The Sartorialist. The first is possibly the most extreme. The high contrast, double-breasted jacket stands out, but is supported effectively by an Italian Background and dark trousers. It even makes it possible to add a pointed handkerchief without appearing over the top.

The second example marries an Italian Background with a hat and bright coat, while number three includes a faintly ridiculous coat that needs all the help it can get. Notice the uniformity of dress in this second combination as well – with odd double-breasted jacket and spread collar. While this may be because they are both associated with the same clothing outlet, it shows the versatility of the Background.

Example number four brings out a particular aspect of the Background – its fruitful combination with beige or tan (yellow, essentially). It is no coincidence that every one of these pictures involves a jacket in some shade of tan. And the gentleman on the left in this example shows that the Background is the best choice for what could otherwise be a very hard suit to find combinations for.

If in doubt, go for the Italian Background. (Oh, and buy yourself a nice, plain blue tie.)

Commuter & Dad Bag Test: Timbuk2

Timbuk2 Cross Classic Messenger ($150.00) & Cross Wiki ($60.00) /

If there is one company that’s the proverbial 800 pound gorilla of the messenger bag industry, it’s Timbuk2. The San Francisco based company’s three paneled bags have become somewhat iconic, just like its curly-cue logo. Though owners can customize those panels to almost any color combination, the bags are still instantly identifiable.

From its founding in 1989, Timbuk2’s goal was to create a bag rugged enough to serve the street pounding bicycle messengers of San Francisco yet stylish enough to appeal to a broader market.

Unlike other messenger bag companies, whose bags were co-opted by people looking to emulate bike messengers, the epitome of cool, Timbuk2’s designs were created with potential suburban commuters in mind. In 1994, the three panel design was perfected and customers were encouraged to customize their bag designs.

This gave birth to the particularly unique Timbuk2 style wave, now seen from San Francisco to New York, Memphis to Denver. Produced in different sizes and with various functionalities, their bags all share a common look and distinctive personality that can go city slick or biker artsy based on the owner’s preferences.

The Timbuk2 web site is a combination retail portal and street art venue. You can customize your bag right down to the color of the swirling logo. The site also has an interesting history of messenger bags.


The company sent me two bags, a medium classic messenger bag and Wiki laptop sleeve. Both are in the new Cross fabric that is somewhat akin to a heavy duty hounds tooth. The wide woven pattern at first looks loose and potentially weak. In fact, it is a tight weave that is totally waterproof. The Cross fabric is part of a textile experiment that has the company designers re-imagining their products with more high-end materials and treatments.

The Results

Both bags are great in their own ways. The Cross fabric is different enough to be innovative, but practical enough for daily use. In terms of bags’ functionality, they are each well designed and do what you want them to do.

Cross Classic Messenger (M)

The Timbuk2 medium classic messenger bag is in many ways the perfect commuter messenger bag. It’s large enough to hold what you need but small enough not to turn into a sack of stuff. Unlike purpose built bags that were later put to use by office dwellers, Timbuk2 messenger bags were built with that very constituency in mind.

That translates to the unique pocket panel fitted into every Timbuk 2 messenger bag. There are slots for pens, a clear window of business cards, a cell phone sleeve and a variety of other pocket in varying sizes. There are also two zippered pockets – one large and one small – for securing your valuables and loose items.

Other options like a body stabilizing strap and shoulder strap pad come with this particular model. Small but meaningful features include bag buckles constructed from metal rather and plastic and a key tether located in an outer pocket instead of the normal in-bag location.

Cross Wiki

The Wiki is a laptop commuter sleeve with a carrying handle. Other than an outside pocket that can hold a few sheets of paper, that’s it. The thickly padded corduroy lining cradles and protects your machine and the limited features keep its purpose clear and simple.

I found this to be a great bag for moving around the laptop and keeping it simple. I am a convert to keeping my laptop in its own slim and trim bag. I may not get everything into one bag, but this is a sensible and handy alternative.

Blue Jean Baby

In a fairly recent magazine article, a fashion journalist noted that the prevalence of stonewashed denim among Hollywood leading men amounted to an embarrassment for the very image-conscious film-making industry. Pictures of starry-wonders such as George Clooney pottering around in light blue and rather shabby jeans were items of evidence and though the question central to the piece was ‘What is wrong with our leading men?’, the real question I was tapping my fingers over was; ‘Whatever happened to those very blue jeans?’ You know the sort of thing I mean – solid blue colour, unwashed, with brightly contrasting turn-ups: the sort of thing worn in the 1950s and early 60s with penny loafers and baseball jackets. I remember Grace Kelly wearing a pair at the end of Rear Window; reclining gloriously whilst reading a fashion publication. Their strength of tone epitomised the artistic character of that era; Pop art reigned supreme and American culture was an appealing export. Colour representations were apt to be bright and simplistic – rather like a cartoon or a child’s drawing. Lichtenstein’s ’industrial paintings’, and Rosenquist’s billboard-influenced collaging come to mind when imagining this bluest of blue denim.

Though friends of mine contend that such denim must still be available somewhere (what isn’t in our aggressively productive world?), it is rather hard to find. Brands like Cheap Monday and Dr Denim manufacture brightly toned blue denim but it is nowhere near the texture or particular tone. In fact, when searching online for denim of any kind, jeans seem embarrassed of ’blueness.’ Though marketed as indigo, so many jeans avoid true blue dyes. They’re darker and more steely; many are practically dark grey. Recent denim trends have pointedly avoided blue – all tones of grey, black and even brown have replaced azure as the standard for jeans. And to me, this is a great shame. True-blue denim is irreplaceable; the only alternatives seem to be wearing a darker hue or returning to the dreaded Tom Selleck-esque light stone washes. Both are depressingly inappropriate for the outfits I have in mind which, in actual fact, centre around the pre-Preppy Americana and are thoroughly appropriate for the coming warmth; red gingham shirts, burgundy loafers and tortoiseshell Wayfarers: an homage to the mid-Twentieth century of ‘American cool’ – without, of course, the drop top Chevy and the slick backed hair.

Two Tips on Ties

Here are a couple of tried and tested tips for tying ties. Apologies for the excessive alliteration.

I’m a fan of a nice, large dimple in a tie. Two reasons: I think it adds a certain lustre to the silk to be pulled in thus, and the added tension helps keep the tie in place, taut and a little pushed out.

I’m sure most are familiar with how, basically, to achieve a dimple (if not, please inform me in the comments section and I’ll do my best to describe it). However, I always found difficulty in achieving a consistent dimple in the middle of the tie. It would always verge over the one side and eventually, as a result, disappear. I also found that a decent dimple in the early stages of tying would seem to disappear in a similar way by the time it was tightened up to the collar.

So, two tips. First, lay out your tie on a flat, hard surface and estimate the two or three inches that pass through the knot during tying (perhaps hold it up to your body to discover this). Then, fold the tie along these two or three inches in half, with the front of the tie on the inside. Press gently along the fold with your fingers, or leave a heavy object on it briefly.

When you pick the tie back up again, there will be a visible fold down the blade. That will fade after a short while, but the lining of tie retains the fold. Because it is often a thinner silk or a canvas, it is more easily distorted. So when you next pull the tie taut, it will naturally return to that halfway fold, creating a perfectly placed dimple. The effect is also reinforced over time – the more a tie is tied with that dimple, the more easily it will return to it.

Second tip: always secure the knot and its dimple completely before pulling on the thinner blade to bring it up to the collar. Otherwise the dimple is likely to be loosened on the way up.

When you have pulled the wider blade under, over and down through the knot, let it hang for a second to pinch it ready to create the dimple. Then tighten the knot by pulling both the wider blade and the knot downwards – it is slightly counter intuitive to pull the knot down, as it will eventually go up again, but pulling it down thus will tighten it far better for the journey up to the collar.

One more tip, even though it does bring the total to three and spoil the alliteration: if your knot is a little too thin for your liking, try looping the wider blade over once more (in a four-in-hand knot this is) than usual. It makes less difference than you’d think, but just enough to satisfy.

Stripe Stereotypes: Show Your Stripes

What do your stripes say about you?  Whether I like it or not, the striped cotton creations I purchase on Jermyn Street do reveal a good deal about my character. For instance, my preference for old, ordered patterns – akin almost to Regency stripe wallpaper from Sanderson – exposes my love of the classical and the old-fashioned. Similarly, my reluctance to wear outrageously thick stripes or stripes of acidic tone, reveals my cautiousness and lack of daring. Anyone analysing my striped collection of shirts would judge me an aesthetically traditional conservative, and this is, without doubt, the most correct observation one can make. Even when my shirts do veer slightly from the classically hued Corinthian columned variety into something perhaps a little more exotic in tone, slightly more experimental in pattern, I tend to tone down the daring with a sober tie.

Stripes, so long a pattern of camouflage, can actually be terribly revealing; to expose your bias and make naked your idiosyncrasies. I admit, there is an awful lot of scope for generalisation on this topic. Of course there will be those who purchase a great range of stripes and who have the mightiest sartorial capacity; no style being off limits, no stripe too thin, too bright or too wide. However, I do find when I am casually eavesdropping in the bustle of a noisy shirt maker on Jermyn Street that people do have their ’types’ when it comes to ‘stripes’: “It’s not really me that one…”; “Nope, sorry – I’ll do pink, but not pink stripes”; “Hah, I’ll look like a butcher in that!” Opinions on the thousands of stripe designs that flood the ever popular high-end shirt market can frequently be heard if standing within earshot and the one thing that strikes me is how judgmental stripe buyers can be. Purchasing stripes, it seems, is rather political. An old gentleman in a covert coat when offered a pink and black natty looking model, straight from the style books of Etro or Paul Smith, might look askance at the shop assistant as if they were an Etonian who had just been offered an Old Harrovian tie.

The peer

As one of the few remaining hereditary members of the House of Lords, the peer is keeping up appearances for all aristocrats across Albion. In the good old days, the unelected House members could dash into their seats for a chat and a quick vote and be off to White’s or Pratt’s before three – all in the tailored, but evidently ancient, clothing they wore the day before. Bengal and Regency stripes are the general rule for the peer and the old made to measure cloths are making way for ’adjusted’ versions timidly suggested by Timothy at Turnbull & Asser. Healthy looking blues with feint touches of white and red are emblematic of his renewed patriotism and the only exception; an uncharacteristic Satsuma-tinted Bengal, which has become his favourite shirt: the result of a rather flattering comment by a particularly ambitious young female on his staff.

The Islington ‘media type’

The Islington ‘media type’ doesn’t really like Jermyn Street. It’s just not the sort of place he’d wish to be seen in. Duchamp, Interno8 and Paul Smith are more likely to receive his carefully bestowed custom and conveniently, they are all located just a liberal hop, skip and jump away from his Soho offices, on the other side of Regent Street. Traditionalists might refer to his multi-striped shirts as ’busy’, but he rather believes that his style of stripe is a future design classic. As one of the several head-honchos in a powerful P.R. firm, he has the influence, and the cash, to adapt his oh-so-Noughties office furniture to his taste for the nouveau stripe; even his Apple Mac is designed by Paul Smith.

The City trader

The City trader is a happy chap – he’s just been promoted in his department at the establishment investment bank where he has worked for 15 years. Patience and hard work seem to have paid off and his ‘matey mates’ are very impressed with his quick ascension, if a little surprised; it must be the first time a happy go lucky charmer from an inner city comprehensive has risen so quickly at such an old-school-tie bank. In celebration of his promotion, a few dozen shirts were purchased on a visit to Jermyn Street. In reverence to the affably arrogant management at the crusty bank, he decides upon a number of generously striped items considering it’ll make him look, as he put it, “more like a toff.”