Archives for June 2008

Summer Cardigans

The strange thing that many seem to forget about summer is how much time you actually spend outside because of the pleasant weather. Dining al fresco is common at this time of year. As is drinking in street cafes, late walks through the park, barbecues and picnics; there is a much greater emphasis on spending time outside, even when the sun has long set. Naturally, at warmer times, people are prepared to wear clothing to suit the climate. It’s sensible not to be overdressed; sweating away in multiple layers is ill advised. But so, I would argue, is leaving the casual knitwear at home to shiver with cold in the surprising cool of an evening. No matter how warm the day, perching yourself outside for an extended duration as the evening draws in and the temperature falls is inadvisable unless you have suitable clothing to keep you warm.

One of the most sensible items to take with you is a cardigan. A cardigan is a smart addition to an outfit if you happen to be wearing shorts and it is rather a happy medium between the ever so casual jumper and the much more formal jacket. They are fantastically versatile for the summer as well. I have a strange habit of getting cold upper arms when the shock cool of a summer evening arrives and I can slip on a cardigan, unbuttoned, and rejoice in the pleasant and subtle warmth. The question is; what type of cardigan is most appropriate and why.

1. The thicker cardigan

Thicker and heavier cardigans are better when you are more exposed to the elements. They can feel a little bulky for very warm days, even when worn undone but they can still look appropriate and stylish with most ensembles. Some of the best colours for such cardigans are navy blue, white and red; simple and classic colours, adaptable and masculine. They are particularly suitable, and befitting, for extended visits to the coast where the cool breeze over the sea can really chill a summer night. One of the key elements of this type is the attractive shawl collar, a feature of comforting elegance that can be turned up for increased protection from the cold.

2. The silk-cashmere cardigan

The silk-cashmere cardigan is indispensible in the summertime. Elegant in the glorious ripple of material, the pleasant texture and wonderful touch against the skin, it remains beautifully casual when open, falling gracefully at the sides of the torso. If it cools up later on, it can be buttoned and if it is really punishingly hot in the middle of the day, it can be artfully draped over the shoulders. Black and white are fantastic colours, again for reasons of versatility. Pima cotton is an acceptable alternative if silk-cashmere is considered too extravagant but the material will pill with extensive use.

3. The cable cardigan

It’s rather like ‘the thicker cardigan’ in construction, but the cable cardigan is a little special; the cabling and subtle off white colour are perfect for summertime and it is an excellent option for more traditional outfits. Whether worn with a favourite pair of shorts or some elegant chinos, it will give you an aura of an Edwardian sportsman; genteel with a good punch of nostalgia, and this ‘sporty’ aspect to the garment is appropriate for family picnics with a quick game of cricket (or indeed baseball).

The Shape of Your Feet

Different types of shoe will fit you better than others. This has nothing to do with the material or the design. It is the last.

You will occasionally hear people, deep in sartorial conversation, say something along the lines of: “Well, you see I’ve never found anything to quite fit my feet ever since Edward Green discontinued the 202 last.”

They are referring to the shape of the sole of the shoe, how pointed, chiselled or rounded it is at the toe, how wide through the ball of your foot and how tapered at the waist. This is the last. At a basic level, it is the footprint the shoes make, and it is the most important thing to fitting you well.

[By the way, do not panic EG fans, the 202 is live and well! It was just an example. Think of the summer sales and calm down.]

Now, I have no idea what last suits me in Edward Green, John Lobb, or any other shoemaker for that matter. But over time, largely through chatting to friendly staff in shoe shops, I have discovered a few things about my feet.

I have very wide feet across the ball of my foot. I know this because, whenever I put on a shoe that is too slim or too pointy, I have to try it in a bigger size to avoid pinching down either side of my toes.

However, I also have a relatively high in-step and narrow bridge across the top of my foot. I know this because when I try this pointy shoe in a bigger size, I cannot do the laces up tight enough. My heel slips at the back, which is never a good sign.

The lovely co-owner of Hardrige shoes, just off Bond Street, taught me this, during a long consultation. (I recommend Hardrige for custom made shoes. For around £250, 20% on top of the ready-to-wear price, you can customise the lining, piping and colour of the leather itself.

Now I know this about my feet, it doesn’t mean I know which last to pick. But I do know that a chiselled toe fits me best, something that can be wide yet still elegantly slim at the toe. I know that I need to be able to tighten the shoe effectively, often to extremes. An oxford shoe (one piece of leather split into a V where the laces are, rather than two pieces tightened from either side – a derby) needs to start with quite a lot of space remaining in its V. Even when the leather has expanded and the V narrowed, it must tighten well. A monk-front shoes also works well in this regard, as an extra hole can often enable it to be tightened further.

It also means that if I ever walk into John Lobb to pick a pair of shoes, I’ll be able to give a fairly good description of the last I want, if not the number.

Go find an accommodating sales person. I recommend glancing through shop windows and finding one that looks a little bored.

Bright Trousers

One of my favourite pleasures of the summer, something that lasts all too short a time, is basking in the bountiful beauty of colour. The magnificent flowers and trees, the lush cool blue-green waters, brightly coloured exotic fruits that quench your thirst on a warm blue day; the summer can be a blinding plenitude of tone. It’s rather sad then that on my more blithesome days, I have not always been able to mirror the glory of nature in the summertime. I have been comparatively moderate. Nature has blasted through the kaleidoscope and I have remained relatively lifeless. What am I driving at? Simply that colour is needed at this time of year; and a good deal of it.

It’s difficult to wear a great acreage of colour and remain conservatively dressed. A pink or bright green suit sounds very natty and extremely daring but I find the overall effect of such loud ensembles rather disconcerting. A man dressed thus will push the concept of individual style to the very precipice; where the long fall into the flames of absurdity may be viewed. It may be possible to temper the strength of the suit with a far more conservative choice of shoe, shirt and tie but even then, the kiwi coloured man smacks of something zany; a caricature of something from Roald Dahl.

I believe the quenching solution to a thirst for colour lies with the unity of contrasting jacket and trouser; of the staid and the gaudy, the bright and the dull. Some might favour a brightly coloured jacket with trousers, perhaps a lemon yellow with some light grey trousers. The ‘bright jacket/dull trouser’ combination certainly works, but is it manageable and indeed affordable? The other option, the ‘bright trouser/dull jacket’ combination is certainly more popular and works magnificently well. Beautiful berry red trousers with a cool navy blue blazer; a dark brown linen two-button with pink chinos, or even a black double breasted jacket with some tangerine jeans, brightening up your legs is a fantastic way to embrace and reflect the glorious colour of the summer.

The difference between the jacket/trouser combinations is a matter of personal taste and budget. There will be those who look on their legs unfavourably; who would not dream of glorifying them in colour. I have had reservations about the bright trouser in the past, but it is largely a psychological problem that it is possible to overcome. The trousers are very eye-catching, but therein lies the charm.

The same can be said of the bright jacket. Although more expensive than trousers, and available in fewer colours and from fewer retailers, the richly coloured jacket will shock those virginal to its effect when they first enter the dressing room; a bright orange jacket I tried on recently, despite being of a fruity and gorgeously deep colour, overpowered me rather too much for me to accept it as a garment for my wardrobe. I feared that I do not have the stature nor the frame to compete.

However, I can envisage the same jacket looking dazzling on many men; and worn with a pair of navy cotton trousers, the bright/dull combination, the meeting of the fantastical with the mundane, would complete the perfect image for the summer.

The Berluti Shoelace Knot

Last October, I was wondering around the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. An absurdly largely shopping centre that contains its own Italian street and indoor ski slope, it has the best shopping in the Middle East. (Or did. So many of these things are going up everyday in the UAE that it has probably been overtaken by now).

Alongside the usual fashion brands, it had an Etro, a Carolina Herrera and a Berluti. I was impressed. As I walked into the Berluti branch, preparing to umm and err over a particularly beautiful pair of loafers, before inevitably walking out empty-handed, I saw that the sales assistant had his head in his hands.

Three Americans, in loud shorts, were complaining, almost shouting, about the prices.

“How the hell can these be three times the price of the Gucci and Prada shoes?” they asked. The assistant tried to explain that Prada, and to an extent Gucci, are not shoe companies. That their shoes are made by other people. And that some of them are, well, a bit rubbish. All that’s branded is not gold.

They refused to believe this. Instead, they enquired when the sales started. Berluti doesn’t have sales, the assistant replied. This was the last straw, and they stomped out (even though the oldest American, who was wearing some fairly funky tortoiseshell glasses, was staring wistfully at a pair of Club wholecuts in chocolate (see picture)).

There followed a rather pained conversation between me and the assistant, where he complained that he gets this everyday. Most shoppers in the Middle East, it seems, whether local or tourist, are after brand more than anything else.

I soothed him with some ooing and aahing over the loafers. But before I started with the umming and the erring, he taught me the Berluti shoelace knot. I’m glad he did, as I now tie my shoelaces like this everyday, unless I’m in a real hurry.

It’s simple, but effective, and I shall explain to you how to do it.

Start the knot as you would do a normal bow, crossing the two laces tightly (you can even cross them twice if you wish, which keeps them in place more effectively – I was taught that by a sales assistant in John Lewis in Kingston, when I was 12).

Form the two ends into loops, again as you would a normal bow. Then hold one of the loops while you go around it – twice – with the other. This is exactly the same as a normal bow, except that you go over the same place twice.

It achieves the effect of a double bow (where you tie the two loops and then tie them again, rather than going over the same place twice) but is far easier to undo.

Now, I’m not sure whether Berluti can be credited with inventing this knot. I’m sure I’ve seen it too many places for that to be the case. But it does work well, so there’s no harm in allowing them to christen it. Besides, it gives me a reason to make a star out of that poor sales assistant.

[For pictorial assistance, first look at the picture, which uses the Berluti knot. Then try this link – – which I believe refers to the Berluti knot as the surgeon’s knot]

The Curse of Smart Casual

A few weeks ago, a reader posed what turned out to be a somewhat complicated question; “what do I wear,” he asked, “to a wedding where the dress code is “smart casual”?

In most cases, a wedding is one of those events that are fairly easy to dress for. In the summer, a well tailored poplin or linen suit should fit the bill. Depending on regional preferences, perhaps seersucker or, as was the case for my wedding, white ducks and a blue blazer. For formal events, a morning suit or white dinner jacket is best for daytime and of course a dark colored dinner jacket is always correct for an evening wedding. (Try midnight blue instead of black for some real style)

Personally, I have a rule when inviting others to an event of mine; either I tell my guests in detail what they should wear or I don’t tell them at all. Why, for an occasion as important as a wedding, would the host offer such an ambiguous sartorial instruction as “smart casual” – especially when doing so throws a wrench into an understood social convention? Why do otherwise reasonable people do such frustrating things?

My own theory is that we all want to be creative and different at important moments in our lives. We want to stand out from the pack and be recalled as creative. That’s all well and good, but it only works when everyone is included in the plan.

Several years ago some friend of ours decided to throw a surprise wedding – they wanted to be unconventional, so instead of wedding invitations they sent out invitations to an open house. They had just moved to a lovely mountainside location, so it made sense to those receiving the invitation. The problem was that we live on the other side of the country and flying out for an afternoon open house would have been expensive and difficult, so we declined. This couple was so intent on keeping the true event a surprise that they never let us know what we were really missing – not even a hint. It took a while to get over that one.

My point is that unless everyone is on the same page, you are putting an undue burden on your guests to figure out what’s going on. Had we known the truth, we would have been on the next plane. To a lesser extent, cryptic phrases like “smart casual,” “summer festive” or worse, “beachy fun” leave the wedding guest in a bind. To one person, smart casual may mean tailored chinos and polo shirt while to another it might be an elegant suit with no tie but a nice pocket square. And what the heck is beachy fun – should I wear swim trunks?

In this case my reader knew the groom’s personality and that his likely attire would be a suit and tie. The groom’s only additional direction was that he and his fiancé wanted people to be “comfortable.” Though intended to be helpful, this additional nugget of information only served to make things more confusing.

My approach to this unfortunately vague scenario is to go classically simple. A nice sport coat, open collared shirt, pressed trousers and polished shoes will get you through almost any situation. Blue blazers in particular earn their keep and, because of their inherent versatility, can handle dressy and casual scenarios with aplomb.

All in all, when faced with situations such as these it’s best to sit back and take a deep breath. If you are not able to or comfortable with asking your hosts for some specific direction, take the middle route. Try not to over dress, but for goodness sake do not under dress.