Archives for May 2008

Embracing the Summer Hat

As much a part of summer as cocktails on the lawn, afternoon walks in the shade of the trees and sandy slumbers on the shore, the summer hat is an object of reassuring majesty. For what is chiefly a season of disrobing; a period in which we dress sparingly to preserve comfort, the hat can be an accessory of practical elegance. When the sun beats down brutally, and there are few moments of respite from such oppressive heat, the hat is by far the best thing to wear. Sun umbrellas, though certainly elegant and fit for a lady, are not the sort of thing for the beau boulevardier; they are apparatus, awkward and contrived. The only serious thing to guard against sunstroke, sunburn and unattractive squinting is a good hat with a generous brim.

Though hats are certainly much more popular in the summer months, undoubtedly for the reasons I have advanced, they are still rarely seen. For some, there is an uncomfortable stigma to wearing a proper hat; it is an event, a special occurrence: “Should I wear the new panama today? It’s a bit showy”; “Don’t wear your hat; we’re only going to my mother’s.” This sense of preservation and ceremony only really serves to keep the poor old hat, and please excuse the droll pun, in the shade. Hat wearers are almost seen as eccentrics; as though the wisdom in donning one has long been exposed as superstition and antiquated irrationality. The remarkable thing about a hat such as a summer Borsalino is how much more grace and finish it provides to the wearer. It’s the coronet to the robes of glory; and a sensible summer essential.

I think the question of ‘which hat?’ is a tricky one. For one thing, hats can look magnificent on the shelf, and indeed on others, but they can look utterly wrong when you perch them on top of your own head. The reason for this is that hats are very distinctive; the way they appeal to you in form and shape, objectively, might not be concurrent with the effect you eventually produce. Therefore, it is important to try a good many hats on – for sizing and styling reasons. One man might have a romantic notion of owning a panama of a certain shape, but he might find that another shape or style suits him much better. I too have experienced disappointment with a style of hat that has appealed to me from the pages of a book or the perfectly formed window displays. It is very difficult to look good in all styles of hat, so it is best to accept your fortune when you find it; wider brims are better for those with wider faces and narrower brims, like pork pie hats, generally, look better with slimmer faces. Similarly, wide brim hats worn by those with narrow faces and shoulders tend to look a little odd, drowning the man and making him look rather juvenile and green.

Another important consideration is that, though Borsalino, Christys and Lock & Co make fabulous hats of outstanding quality, stylish and well-made hats can be picked up in less intimidating emporia. And if you discover a hat with a glorious shape and an excellent fit, do not despair if the band is of poor quality or unappealing; haberdashery stores sell good quality grosgrain ribbon and silk that can be fashioned into smart bands for hats very easily and inexpensively by a local tailor.

A Modern Ascot

I’d like to wear an ascot, but I just can’t. Outside of a wedding or a trip to Ascot, I’d have trouble pulling it off. I have, however, found something that is near enough to be satisfying without being too flamboyant.

The two keys to making this work are colour and collar. The colour needs to be dark and with a subtle, dark pattern if any. The collar should be non-existent: I wear it with a sweater or t-shirt rather than a shirt. On the v-neck of a shirt, even a polo shirt, it looks too forced. As with braces, white suits and most hats, it’s very hard to wear at my age without looking silly.

So, the new ascot. It is a short, dark blue scarf in silk, which I found accidentally in a vintage shop for about £5. No more than two feet long and four inches wide. It is worn in place of a scarf on more summery days like today, tied once and tucked into the front of a round-necked cotton sweater.

I have a long neck, and so collars generally are a good thing – polo shirts rather than t-shirts; shirts themselves above all. The short silk scarf, however, adds some needed height and weight to the neck of a sweater.

I prefer a dark colour and pattern, because again it makes the outfit a little less flamboyant. This is of course an entirely personal decision, but given the recent results of the Menswear Poll it seems most readers are more conservative than me if anything; so my dark blue neckerscarf with black graphic pattern is probably more likely to appeal than a yellow polka-dot version.

Again, my aim was to take a little-worn item and bring it into my wardrobe in some way. I would draw a parallel with woollen handkerchiefs – something I find far easier to wear with non-formal outfits than silk handkerchiefs. It is more muted, and subtle, but undeniably there.

One problem. Aside from a discovery in a vintage shop in York, I have yet to find a silk scarf of similar size. Has anyone seen something similar being sold as new? It strikes me as something that Dunhill or Aquascutum might carry, but I could only find regular, pre-folded ascots in their stores.

Any reports of sightings would be appreciated. In the meantime, I encourage you to scour the vintage shops and try out this suggestion with your best summer-weight sweater.

Brad Pitt / Tom Ford Sartorial Arrangement

An elderly acquaintance of mine once patted me on the shoulder, and drawing in breath, calmly stated; ‘You’re young, you make mistakes; but you’ll get older.’ How true. Mistakes are best made when a man is young; mistakes in old age can be rather costly. Youth is the asbestos that guards us from the lasting damage caused by our various misdeeds; we learn early, we change. If we learn too late, we are already lost.

Even in the light-hearted arena of fashion it is possible to recognise the importance of evolution and learning. The phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ has often been used for women who are disinclined to let go of the fashions for youth and there is a curious belief that men are not subjected to similar ridicule or scrutiny. This is untrue, and particularly untrue of men who spend their lives being scrutinised, not merely by those within their small sphere of existence but by the entire world, however remote and detached it may be.

Brad Pitt is an excellent example of a man who finds himself in such a position. As an actor, whose external image has been so important in assembling his phenomenal career, Pitt has attracted more scrutiny than most would be able to bear. He is fortunate in that most of the scrutiny has been to his credit; he is at the right end of the Victorian freak show of Hollywood. Despite the fact that Pitt never wants for admiration and never needs to market himself in a compromising manner, it is clear that the ‘Pitt package’ has gone through a recent change. And it is certainly a welcome change.

While never badly dressed, Pitt was never one of the Hollywood heavyweights who wowed sartorially. He was fortunate in his youth that he possessed excellent body and facial structure; that he could wear something plain and uneventful and no one would ever notice that it was so. Everything else was secondary to the physical appeal. Now that he has visibly aged a little, it seems that Pitt is determined to continue the process with grace and dignity.

His ‘partnership’ with Tom Ford, while it certainly benefits Pitt in terms of wardrobe, also benefits Ford in terms of marketing and credibility. I use the word ‘credibility’ with hesitation merely because Ford needs to garner no credibility from the fashion set – the magic he worked at Gucci earned him round after round of hearty applause. The ‘credibility’ sought is that of Joe Public; the chap who might purchase an Italian or Savile Row inspired suit from Ford’s new collection having seen Pitt look ‘mighty snappy’ in the wife’s glossy magazine.

Mercifully, Ford is a designer that adores classicism above all. Despite the variety of influences evident in his men’s collection; large lapels from the 1970s, loud checks from the 1930s and Tony Montana style satin, Ford is in love with tailoring. For the Row, he might appear a little fashion forward, but as far as the avant garde fashionistas are concerned, he is quite the opposite. He sits, very comfortably as far as I can see, between two worlds. And remarkably, there is considerable space to accommodate him. Celebrated designers have great influence in the contemporary world; a world where demand is great and supply expected to be instantaneous. Traditional tailoring is something the modern generation understand less and less. Their currency is a designer label, a brand they know and can feel secure in. Ford has the capability to sell the fundamentals of a good suit back to them, and uniting himself with Pitt is surely only the beginning.

And Pitt doesn’t do badly out of the arrangement either. Since he started sipping coffee with Ford, Pitt has really come into his own, sartorially speaking. Elegance was not a word you previously attached to the man but it is hard to deny that his recent upgrade, an acceptance of age and an agreeable willingness to polish, have given him a convincing façade of grace and style.

The Question of Personalisation

“Is something the matter Jeeves?” asked Bertie, quizzically. Jeeves turns around slowly and informs his young master that there appear to be some ‘curious objects’ in his wardrobe. “Curious objects?” parrots Wooster, pacing over to the wardrobe with furrowed brow. Upon seeing the items in question, Bertie looks at Jeeves innocently and proclaims; “They’re handkerchiefs Jeeves, handkerchiefs” to which the great valet frowns and smiles, knowingly; “I think not sir, they appear to have writing on them.”

This superb scene from the Granada production of Jeeves & Wooster, based on the fabulous Jeeves books by PG Wodehouse, aside from being one of my favourites, introduces rather nicely a topic which I feel needs addressing; the question of personalisation. The only thing I have personalised is a pair of black velvet Albert slippers. It has never really occurred to me to personalise shirts, handkerchiefs or other accessories. I can see the appeal; adding your entwined initials or even a family crest to small items can add personal value to the item in question. Your stamp is there to see, the item is uniquely yours. As Bertie quite rightly ripostes to Jeeves critique; “I think they look dashed smart!”

However, Jeeves’ equally powerful response to Bertie’s suggestion that “everyone gets things initialled these days”, that he thought the practice was “…reserved for those who were in danger of forgetting their name” is also a consideration. Does the man of style really need to add his monogram to his carefully chosen threads? Is it a requirement that he see his family letters, no matter how smartly arranged, on clothes and accessories? I, being one who has arranged letters in what is perhaps seen by some as a vulgar manner on a pair of honest slippers, cannot possibly pass judgment on the practice per se; decrying the use of personalisation would reek of hypocrisy. I still consider my slippers smart, but I have grown into the idea that they are a one off – I make no plans to initial cuffs or linen handkerchiefs. In one way, initialling cuffs to me looks untidy, no matter what the font; it draws the eyes of others because it looks unusual and a little out of place. In comparison, considering the Albert slipper, it always looks conspicuously plain without adornment. Thus, a monogram or a crest actually balances the slipper correctly, just as a bow or a buckle would.

Speaking to a rather opinionated chum of mine, who is of the opinion that initialling clothing is the sartorial equivalent of needing a personalised number plate, it seems that critics of the practice mock the insecurity of a chap who needs people to see his name stitched into his cotton and linen. While I can understand this viewpoint, I think it needs to be remembered that personalisation is precisely that – personal. Although there will be the armchair aesthetes who’d argue that real individualism requires no signature, many people of considerable style feel moved to identify some, or even all items of their wardrobe.

After my meandering thoughts, which had turned and retreated as many times as an Italic monogram, I concluded that personalisation is only universally tasteful when it requires a searching eye to identify it. I have seen gentlemen with initialled shirt collars, suit lapels and even shoes. Numbers sometimes accompany the letters, perhaps an ostentatious reference to the birthday of the wearer, or worse, even the number of shirts, suits or shoes he might possess. Such vulgarity is rare, but it is seen. When certain people reach the apogee of financial and social achievement, they feel confident and determined that the world know exactly who they are. They pay for the dubious privilege of having the world see their identity before they’ve opened their mouths, offered an ungloved hand or slipped them a card. Then there are the chaps that don’t feel comfortable walking around in clothing that, if it was mislaid, might as well belong to somebody else. Since they carefully selected their Sea Island shirts then they are inclined to brand them accordingly. This I can certainly appreciate, especially when handing over significant sums for the item in the first place.

The point is to brand stylishly and with subtlety; the choice of font is a top consideration, as is the colour – a contrast might be considered too outré whereas a tone-on-tone is much more subtle and requires more than one glance for identification, but the most important thing is where on the item in question you plan to personalise. To personalise on the inside of a shirt or suit is indeed subtle, but it smacks of a schoolboy inclined to lose his uniform. I think the idea is to imagine yourself in the position of a great artist preparing to add his signature to the masterpiece; if one is looking long and hard enough, one will see it. For this reason I believe it is better to add a subtle signature in a darker or lighter tone of the item in question, as anything else can look like graffiti. This is so that, just like the signature of a fine artist, you might mistake it for being part of the design.

To Cuff Your Pants or Not?

The other day, I had an interesting question posed to me by one of my readers. He had recently purchased a pair of pleated trousers at Brooks Brothers and it was recommended that he have them hemmed with cuffs.

His wife, who is German, objected to this approach and cited her and her European friends’ opinion that stylish men do not cuff their pants. In a quandary, he called up the store and talked to another associate who said that pleated trousers demand cuffs and that their added weight help the pant leg hang properly.

Unsure if this were the best advice, my reader asked the same question of me. I understand the confusion because this tricky issue that is one that’s both sartorial and personal. By that I mean the question of cuffing one’s trousers is partially based on a cultural perspective and partially on personal taste.

For starters, his wife is correct that in Europe cuffed trousers are less common. The fact that his wife is German certainly explains her dislike of cuffs. The German aesthetic, when it comes to function over form and elegant austerity over lively embellishment, is fairly well known.

Across Europe though, as with anywhere else, fashion preferences change. I purchased a pair of wonderful Incotex pants in Venice and had them tailored there as well. The salesman and tailor both recommended cuffs, the execution of which had some of the most beautiful finishing work I’d ever seen.

That these immensely stylish and opinionated Italians recommended cuffs caught me off guard because the pants were in fact, flat fronted. Flat front trousers are pretty much the rule in Europe and I began to think that to my reader’s wife, therein lay the real issue.

I suspect that she wants her husband to embrace a more Eurocentric wardrobe, sans the pleated trousers. Generally speaking, pleated trousers are far more common in the United States than in Europe. The only caveat to this generalization is England, where you’ll still see pleats a little more often than elsewhere on the Continent. It’s also still fairly normal to see pleats on both American and English suit pants.

Anyway, to get back to the original question; when it comes to tailoring, pleated trousers should always have cuffs, period. The weight of the cuff will help the trouser leg hang and both physically and visually balance the peats up top. On flat front pants it’s more of an option dictated by personal preference.

For example, my Incotex trousers are a very fine gray worsted and the cuff help keep the lighter fabric from riding up my calf. Also, since Italians like their pants legs cut so darn high (barely touching the top of the shoe) you need that weight to keep them in place. Had wished to do so, it would have been perfectly acceptable to have gone with no cuff and have the hem cut longer.

So, here is where it all comes together: if you like pleated trousers, they really need to be cuffed. If you’re working with flat front trousers than it’s a preference thing and either option is just fine.

Another way to look at it is from a cultural perspective. Pleated and cuffed trousers just look American, especially with the fuller cuts favored by American brands like Brook Brothers. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a truth. How do you want to look; American or European?

Personally, I tend to like classic American casual clothing and European tailored clothing. When I go to Europe, I try to dress less American; not for any political or self-conscious reasons, I just enjoy the change.

My ultimate recommendation is always to go with what you like and what feels right, because in the end you’re the one wearing the clothes. Still, as someone with a wife who has a killer eye for menswear, I never discount what she has to say.