French Collars and Cuffs

“Men should only wear those” remarked an acquaintance “when they’re over forty.” He flicked his finger nonchalantly at a charming ‘French’ shirt (white collar and cuffs). I disagreed with him on the basis that youth is a perfectly acceptable, and often most appropriate, period in which to explore style to the fullest.

I very much like French collars and cuffs. I like the smart white ‘framing’ of the shirt colour or pattern; they are reassuringly formal. They are not all worn correctly. Some people have a tendency to buy an extremely large collar size and, due to the white accentuation, this has the rather sad effect of making a man look like a matchstick with a Polo mint; others wear them without jackets and while this look is largely inoffensive, it is not using the qualities of the shirt to best effect. A French shirt without jacket, billowing in the wind, can make the shirt cuffs look more like rigid manacles if it is the standard fit of shirt.

Another mistake which is made is to assume that this shirt is only for formal wear; for a wedding, or a terribly important meeting. Some men who purchase them retain them for such purposes and such purposes alone and, in doing so miss out on the fun (yes, fun) of wearing such a shirt on less formal occasions.

To open the French shirt at the neck is not the most traditional or conservative method. Most might prefer a tie but in fact, the French shirt, with the crisp white contrast is enough of a decoration in itself.

Wearing it with a neck scarf, of linen for summer perhaps and of silk for winter, is particularly eye-catching; the white collar and ruffles of a cravat appear made for each other, so natural is the harmony. While a mid to light blue is the most popular colour – a representation of two of the Tricolore – there are other colours and patterns, flattered by the ‘touch of white’ in the French shirt. Lilac, light pink and stripes are complemented very well in the context of a French shirt.

Although they are currently a fashion item, they are not as widely available as one might hope. Even Jermyn Street assistants stare at me blankly when I request examples of them. They are around and, increasingly, are manufactured without white cuffs – Hackett and Ralph Lauren examples found are all sans white cuff.

I discovered a curious blog article written, clearly with a sense of humour, denigrating the shirt as one worn by ‘assholes’; mentions were made of Gordon Gekko and Bill Lumbergh (from ‘Office Space’) as prime examples of the type of man, or monster, who would wear such an item; brash and feared rather than respected. The apparent connotations for the wearer are of disreputable and unpleasant characters; selfish, greedy, manipulative men epitomised, in the eyes of many, by the character of Patrick Bateman; the sick, greedy and lunatic serial killer creation of Bret Easton Ellis.

I think it rather a shame that this is such a popular opinion. The heritage of the shirt itself is more apparent from the French shirt. It is a reminder of the past; that collars used to be detachable – an era of delightful prim and fuss. To me it speaks not of boozy brokers and sleazy executives but of an old world charm: of high starch and clean Edwardian lines. White adds sparkle and a sense of cleanliness marvellously well, while at the same time enriching and ennobling the colour juxtaposed.

Should You Wear a Belt?

Following on from my last posting on what belt to wear, there is one, perhaps more important question – whether to wear a belt at all.

Those who wear braces deride belts as “pull-up not stay-up”. They suggest that several times a day you will be forced to hike up your belted trousers back to their original position. This would not happen with braces.

Now, I have never worn braces. But I have also never had to pull up my belted trousers during the day. I would suggest that the reason for this is that I, like most young men these days, wear my trousers on my hips. Not my waist, and nowhere in between.

Your hips – that gap just below the first ridge of your hipbones – provide a fairly stable location for the waist (the irony!) of your trousers. The swell of bone above and below stop them moving.

This is not necessarily the case on the waist, where a variable amount of fat can provide a less rigid shelf. Unless you have less than 5% body fat, there will always be more softness here than on your hip bones.

Most people who wear braces also wear their trousers on their natural waist. So it is understandable that they would deride belts as useless.

One good way to make sure your trousers don’t slip is to have a belt that fits you perfectly. The best way to do this is to have a belt cut to your waist size and punctured with holes at your precise measurements, with perhaps one either side to be safe.

(Most luxury brands offer this service. I have one from Lanvin that cost £40. Not a bad investment for something in both black and brown – it is reversible – that I will wear often, for years.)

Outside the realm of braces, there is a much better reason not to wear a belt. It can seem like too much clutter in an outfit, spoil the long lean lines of a suit, and suggest that your trousers simply don’t fit.

The first two of these points are the most important. How much more elegant is it to wear no belt with your suit – indeed, no belt loops – and have one clean, smart colour from shoes to tie? I would recommend not wearing a belt with most suits if you are dressing smartly – perhaps defined as when you are also wearing a necktie or a handkerchief.

With neither of these accessories, a belt can be a nice addition – a focus point for the eye, a replacement for those missing accents. It is also a natural accessory for a casual outfit – with odd jackets, with tweed, cotton or linen.

P.S. Make sure you look after your belt. It will get worn and fray over time, but this can be mitigated with cleaning and an occasional polish. Wearing a frayed belt is akin to wearing unpolished shoes – no matter how much of a favourite they might be, it just looks scruffy.

Indeed, my father tells the story of the manager of one company who paid to give all his male employees new belts, because Englishmen “tend to wear old favourites, and never consider that their belt might be denting their image of professionalism”.

Why the fuss: Abercrombie & Fitch

Walking up to Regent Street is a regular activity of mine. I walk across St James Park, up the Duke of York steps wedged beneath the clotted cream Nash Carlton House Terrace, and up Lower Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus. I tend to avoid the Circus due to the high concentration of people congregating; taking pictures, loitering, pointing, pushing and shoving. If I were a tourist I could tolerate it. However, seeing it everyday is rather distressing.

What I used to do was take the route up Swallow Street. Until I realised that I saved even more time avoiding the throng by walking up Sackville and turning right down Vigo Street. However, I have recently had to avoid this route on particular days and resort back to Swallow and even Air Street to access Regent; my favourite shopping street. The reason? Well, it has nothing to do with the quiet establishments of Sackville Street – an ‘always empty’ travel agency, a stockbrokers, a couple of tailors, a book and printshop and Jasper Conran. No, even Vigo – despite the arrival of Napket and Starbucks – is not the reason for the consistent waves of people moving to and from Regent Street. At the end of Vigo, as you come to the corner of Gieves & Hawkes on Savile Row, you see the veritable ‘ants nest’; the line of dashing people can be traced back to a large and handsome building that sits on the corner of Burlington Gardens and Savile Row.

The steady stream of humanity moving in and out of this building would give the impression to the passer by that this is a structure of great importance. Is it a museum? Or perhaps an important royal residence?

However, passing by the building, from the strong shower-gel-perfume they seem to inject into the atmosphere to the low thud of vocal techno, you soon realise that this is no attraction of culture. The topless man, shining in oil, at the entrance to the store makes you think it could be some bizarre club; but it is only the bags that are carried out of the building that expose it as a shopping emporium.

Abercrombie & Fitch, although new to the area – an area of discreet art galleries, luxury goods and smart Italian restaurants – is easily the biggest, and noisiest, draw. Shoppers alien to the quiet Mayfair streets sit outside disconsolately, guarding their Bruce Weber-photograph bags full of booty. But what sort of booty is it?

The little I knew of the brand came from word of mouth and popular culture. I remember listening to the song ‘Summer Girls’ by the Lyte Funky Ones, when I was a school lad, in which the lyrics confessed a partiality for girls that wear Abercrombie attire. A&F was one of those American brands that was generally unavailable in the UK and this hard-to-get-hold-of aspect only heightened the curiosity. Since then, it has made numerous appearances, and received many a mention, in many Californian drama series to which, naturally, the youth of the UK have become rather addicted.

Though a born sceptic, I gave the store the benefit of the doubt and paid a visit to see what all the excitement was about. When I walked in I almost stumbled into inanimate objects for, much to my bewilderment, the store is completely devoid of natural light. It’s rather like walking into one of those Disney ‘rides’; I half expected a robotic pirate to thrust a sword at me from the shadows. In the dim light I was approached by a good number of muscular Narcissi who were helpful, but conspicuously so. I spotted racks, piled extraordinarily high, with colour and so I made my way over for examination.

The incredible thing about Abercrombie & Fitch clothing is that it is the least interesting thing in the shop, or I should say, the least distracting. Apart from a couple of pleasantly striped but poorly constructed shirts, most of the clothing looked like it had washed up on a beach in Thailand; the flotsam from a backpacker’s cruise across the waters of South East Asia. The branding was prominent and repetitive; A&F stamps on polo shirts, t-shirts and even shorts. I looked for clothing more suited to a cooler environment, but could find none; it appears it is always summer in the Abercrombie world or, at least, ‘Forever California.’

Incredibly, though Abercrombie & Fitch clothing cannot boast design or uniqueness, it comes at a hefty price. The polo shirts, ‘custom washed’ – and blighted by hideous white ‘stamping’ – were as expensive as Ralph Lauren’s, a minute’s walk away.
Everything in the shop was exorbitantly priced; I imagined poor parents shuffling through with their children, being asked to purchase shirts and shorts, of dubious value, for more than the cost of their hotel. Nothing I touched reassured me of there being any fair worth in the shop. There were no special materials; no silk or cashmere, nothing that had taken work or craftsmanship. Nothing that required more than a squiggle of a pencil from an infant.

My understanding of A&F is that they are selling a ‘lifestyle’; the ‘Californian dream.’ When I compare this ‘ideal’ with the, oh let’s say the more ‘East Coast’ ideal of Ralph Lauren down the road, it’s difficult to believe you are talking about products and ideology from the same nation. Ralph Lauren’s shop has a focus on design classicism; cut, material and quality of finish. Abercrombie, though comparatively priced, offers none of this. It merely offers the purchaser a simple garment and the ‘privilege’ of wearing the Abercrombie name across the chest, thigh or any other area of the body broad enough to emblazon a logo. Ralph used to do this – Polo Sport was an offender – and a few of his items have overly generous references to the designer. However, I am always reassured that items from his store, though certainly symbols of status, have many more additional qualities to recommend them.

The Woven Leather Belt

Belts are a fact of life and most of us have a closet full of failed attempts at finding just the right combination of style and utility. For even the most sartorially proficient, finding just the right fit can sometimes mean forgoing the style we really wanted – a practical example of form following function.

Even when those two goals are met, many men are, frankly, clueless when it comes to actually pairing a belt with the rest of their outfit. For those who wear a suit every day, it’s a simple drill: match your belt and shoes. Of course that’s not some kind of inviolate law; rather, like so many other fashion rules, it is meant to help you learn the basics before becoming creative.

The rest of the working world is more or less on its own. Without the time-tested conventions of formal dress, the open ended options offered by casual work environments leave some men a bit confused. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen elegant, narrow dress belts clumsily paired with slouchy khakis. The coup de gras is when that gent is also sporting shiny dress cap toes; I see it more than I would prefer, it’s not pretty.

I think I can offer up a good solution though; a belt that can span the arc of casual dressing, from jeans and a t-shirt to pressed chinos and a blue blazer. The woven leather belt.

An excellent option that provides long term style and customized functionality, the woven leather belt is a good investment financially and sartorially. In brown or black, this multipurpose workhorse can fit in very well in most casual work environments. With a neutral yet masculine style and the ability to fit you exactly right, this appealing belt hits all the marks.

Though not at all appropriate with a suit, this belt’s style tackles most any corporate casual situation with aplomb. And in addition to being able to size it to your exact needs, this style of belt also has year-round appeal. It is casual enough to be right at home with your jeans, but still possesses a refined quality that pairs well with dressier pants.

Look for one crafted from strong but supple leather, tightly woven and at least 1 ¼ inches wide. Unless you are going for some kind of Southwest cowboy look, avoid decorative patterns and shiny hardware. Stick with a traditional solid brass buckle and leather keeper. Bear in mind that designs will vary and some brands have a polished look while others are clearly meant for your days off.

I’m not claiming that this is an all purpose belt, or that it works for every occasion; but it’s a belt you should have on hand for those many in between situations.

How to Pick the Right Belt

This seems like an easy task. But it can be fraught with problems.

Let’s start with the most basic guidelines. If you are wearing a leather belt, it should match your leather shoes, if you are wearing them. Black shoes should be paired with a black belt, brown with brown and tan with tan.

The shades need not match exactly, but they must be close. The brown may be a little paler or a little darker, but it should not be able to be described as tan.

The texture need not match exactly either. The belt can be crocodile, ostrich or brogued. Indeed, a belt that matches the shoes exactly (both black crocodile, for example) smacks of artifice. Somehow it suggests you are all crocodile skin underneath, and only these two bits are peaking out.

Suede belts and woven leather belts are naturally more casual, and that should be reflected in the suit or outfit they go with – linen suits, odd jackets, outfits without ties. But again, colours should be similar.

Brightly or unusually coloured belts can work well, particularly as one pop of colour on an otherwise plain outfit. However, the colour of the shoes and belt should always be different enough to be a real contrast.

Brown is not an effective contrast with black or tan. Try primaries – reds, yellows – with black shoes, as you would with socks. And more muted colours with brown – oranges, greens – again as you might with socks.

The belt should not be too wide or too narrow. The easiest way to gauge whether it is either of these is to compare it to the width of the belt loops it will go through. Jeans have wider loops and should have wider belts. They can also be heavier, to reflect the material. Worsted wools should have sleaker, slimmer belts. But again the width of the loops is your best guide.

The buckle should be obvious, at least with a suit. Slim, discrete and silver in colour (unless you wear much gold elsewhere). No logos.

Ribbon belts can work well, particularly with summer outfits (again, matching the weight of the belt to the weight of the material it ties together). Best not to combine them with every other preppy accessory, though.

Ties as belts may have been a favourite of Fred Astaire but they are hard to pull off with elegance. If he had started wearing neckties around his waist before he was universally considered stylish, I would bet a chunk of money that it would have seemed artificial.

Next week, the follow-up question: whether to wear a belt at all. You lucky things you.