Archives for July 2008

A Sliding Scale of Formality: Shoes/Trousers

You see quite a few bankers around this part of London wearing driving shoes with their suits. They presumably think they’ve stumbled onto a great thing – like loafers, but different, and in a huge range of colours.

But then they can’t see their suit trousers piled up on the rubber nubbins that driving shoes often have on their heels. To those walking behind them, it looks just as bad as wearing chunky trainers with a suit.

Driving shoes and worsted wool (the smooth wool of most suits) are just too far apart on the formality scale. This is why they look wrong together; why suddenly the shoes make suit trousers look flimsy and insubstantial, a little like pyjamas.

Here is my approximation of the sliding scale of formality:


Wholecut OxfordsWorsted wool

Toecap Oxfords (quarter brogues)Worsted wool/linen or cotton

Monk-front shoesWorsted wool

Half-broguesWorsted wool/linen or cotton

Derbys (Bluchers)Flannel/worsted/cords or khakis

Smart slip-ons (Norwegian split-toe)Worsted/cords or khakis

Full brogues (wingtips)Flannel/cords

Suede/NubuckAnything but worsted

Deck shoesCords or khakis/jeans

Driving shoesKhakis/jeans

[Notes: This list does not include boots, extending above the ankle makes any of these types a notch more casual; neither does it include shorts, as I think they can look good with anything but the top three types of shoe; double soles also make any of these a notch more casual, particularly monk-fronts; patent leather should be reserved for formalwear; cotton is the most versatile material and can be hard to pin down, as jeans can go with all but a few of these shoes, as can khakis arguably.]

These, to me, are the types of shoe (beginning with the most formal and ending at the bottom with the most casual) that most suit a material of trouser.

The more formal and elegant a piece of clothing the more delicate its materials and textures are likely to be. Worsted wool needs shoes with sleek shapes, slim soles and clean designs. Heavier wools need heavier shapes, most obviously flannel with brogues. The rough seams and rubber ridges of driving shoes are more suited to jeans or more casual trousers.

Within this range, combinations can work by going up or down one notch, possibly even two. But the problem of wearing driving shoes with worsted is demonstrated – the two are just too far apart.

Suede Shoes: Should I?

When I was a young lad my parents, ever practically minded, used to consider that the tricky problem of buying clothes could be mitigated by purchasing garments that were rather too large for me but that could be temporarily altered. The sad fact of the matter was mine was an adolescent body not capable of achieving the ideals of growth that my parents had envisaged. However, I am grateful to my parents for their input. Such practical thinking is admirable, and as they were intent on buying me items of very high quality, it was also rather necessary; I would soon have outgrown a perfectly fitted trouser at the age of 15.

Thinking practically about your wardrobe can save you money. I think a good number of people prefer to devote their time to other activities and expect their clothing results to be as instantaneous as their Starbucks coffee; walk in to shop, find needed black shoes, pay, walk out. The devil is that the product that has been made so readily available to our purchaser, like the Starbucks coffee, is probably overpriced. To get the right results from clothes shopping a good deal of research is needed. It’s preposterous to expect that the average retailer on the high street can be trusted to provide a product that offers, as well as style, long term value for money.

It’s perhaps ironic then that the more practically minded purchaser is apt to make impractical purchases. One such purchase might be a pair of suede shoes.
In the proper hands, suede shoes can be an excellent addition to a gentleman’s footwear collection. However, unlike full grain leather, which possesses the protective ‘skin layer’, suede is only from the soft underside of the animal’s skin; making it softer but also far less durable. Suede also has a tendency to absorb liquid very quickly, making suede products unsuitable for wear in wet periods. And no matter how cautious I have been with it in the past, it has always ended up looking tired, worn and dirty far too soon after the purchase.

“This” I was told by a charming and multi-lingual cobbler in Rome “does not always have to be so.” He informed me of protective sprays, brushing techniques and new suedes, all of which I was previously aware, that had been created for what he termed “the lazy people.” I surmised that lazy people are unlikely to purchase suede shoes because they are more decorative than practical. When new, they look gorgeous; the subtle matte finish is the footwear equivalent of a chocolate truffle. However, taking the decision to buy a pair is momentous. Suede shoes are the difficult child, the young offender and the family puppy; they require a great deal of care and attention. They should really be worn infrequently and never when it is raining. There are shoe care guides aplenty that offer ‘solutions’ for worn, wet or dirty suede but the unhappy fact of the matter is, your suede will never quite be the same again once it has shown the ugly evidence of use.

Lifting the napp on worn areas with a brush will not restore your shoes to their former glory, and dirt marks on light suede are unlikely to be completely lifted even after hours of attempt with a putty rubber. This is not to dissuade (please, excuse the pun) the reader from considering shoes in such a material. I myself have longed for a pair of black suede Stemar lace-ups that slipped through my fingers several seasons ago and despite my consideration that, though splendid, they would soon be irretrievably damaged by the persistent dirt and wet of London’s streets, I would still fall to my knees, irrationally and theatrically, and beg them to be mine.

How to Salvage Your Clothes

This is advice that was given to me on when you can save clothes that are ripped, stained or holed, and what to do about it.

The situation:
A sweater with a hole in it
Can it be salvaged? The more unravelled the fabric and the finer the knit, the more difficult it is to mend without being too obvious.
What to do: Find a seamstress who can reattach the loose knitted ends. Whatever you do, don’t wear a sweater with a hole in it if you plan on saving it.

The situation: A sock with a hole in it
Can it be salvaged? No point. The same goes for t-shirts.
What to do: Buy a new one and move on.

The situation: A small, clean cut through a suit
Can it be salvaged? Yes, provided it’s a cut rather than a rip and that the weave does not have a complicated pattern.
What to do: The services of a good reweaver, also known as an invisible mender. Trouble is, invisible menders are very hard to spot. Alice Zotta at 2 West 45th St (Room 1701) is recommended in New York.

The situation: A suit jacket with bubbly lapels
Can it be saved? No. The bubbles happen when a cheap suit – the kind that has a fused construction, made with glue rather than stitched – is caught in the rain. The glue dissolves. To tell if your jacket is fused or canvassed, pinch the material around a buttonhole with both hands, one on the inside and one on the outside. See if there is any material floating between the outside and inside when you separate them.
What to do: Buy a more expensive suit.

The situation: Salt-stained shoes
Can they be saved? Yes, provided they aren’t also dried out (see below).
What to do: Take a 50-50 solution of water and vinegar and wipe it sparingly over the shoes. Wipe off the excess. Once the salt stains have disappeared, treat your shoes to a loving, liberal repolish at the cobblers.

The situation: Shoes whose leather has become cracked by too-rapid drying after a downpour. Or, indeed, a lack of shoe cream for a good few years.
Can they be saved? Sorry. Consider this a cautionary tale. Leather is organic, and if you dry it out too quickly, it’ll go stiff and the fibers will break at the stress points.
What to do: Next time, wipe down your wet shoes and then dry them slowly, away from direct heat. Put newspaper inside to absorb the moisture.

J. Press: As Classic as You Can Get

This is a true story: Back when he was running for president in 1980, George H.W. Bush (that’s George senior) was giving a speech at his alma mater, Yale University, and being heckled by some students. Someone yelled out that Bush was just another out of touch “Brooks Brothers Republican.” The president, apparently offended by that particular remark, promptly opened his suit coat to reveal its J. Press label.

I’ve always liked that story because it shows the deep dedication that some cultures naturally create. J. Press has that kind of culture. It is the quintessential New England prep-Yale Man-old money-Ivy League brand that the J. Crews and Ralph Laurens of the world want you to think they are. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those brands, I’m a fan of both. But J. Press is special because that’s where it all started. It’s the real deal.

Though not as well known commercially as Brooks Brothers – there are four brick and mortar J. Press stores to Brooks’ nearly 200 – J. Press is as classically preppy as you can get. In fact it quite literally invented the look. From the 1930s through the’50s, Press helped to cement the image of American preppy in the minds of college students everywhere. Known as the “Yale” or “Ivy League” look, it came to define the stylish New England intellectual or at least moneyed, layer of society that was the ruling class of the time. A hybrid of English prep school uniform and traditional American wear, the preppy look is timeless.

Founded in 1902 by Jacobi Press, in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, his namesake company has always adhered to a traditional some would say conservative, design philosophy. Much of their clothing is still American made. Mr. Press would probably feel right at home were he to walk into one of his stores today. In fact, the store has never moved location.

Sartorial innovations like the sack suit and natural shoulder were invented here. The trademark three-button suit coat with the rolled lapel that visually converts it to a two-button is also a Press innovation. The sack suit itself, given global branding by Jack Kennedy as the American suit, is also credited to J. Press.

Another of their signatures is the lack of pleated trousers. All Press suits have flat front pants and always have; it’s the kind of consistency and tradition that make the company such an icon among its customers, generation after generation. Where Brooks Brothers’ shirts are famously voluminous, Press shirts are more trim and discreet. Their shirts also have, should you choose the option, a distinctive flapped pocket.

But don’t mistake that tradition and adherence to New England stylistic values for old fashion stodginess. Though smaller compared to Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart or Joseph A. Bank, J. Press is a global player and major style influencer on the Trad front. To see just how popular and relevant J. Press is to the fashion world – at least for the true preppy market – you need to go a little ways past New Haven, all the way to Japan.

J. Press is huge in Japan. In 1974, the Press family sold the rights to license J. Press in Japan; becoming the first American brand to be licensed in Japan. To many a Japanese professional, the sartorial standard by which business and traditional dress is measured is J. Press. In fact, the company is today a wholly owned subsidiary of Onward Kashiyama Co., Ltd. Onward Kashiyama realized almost immediately that to preserve J. Press’ Ivy League cachet, it needed to stay out of the way. And that they have done.

J. Press has maintained its preppy core values and remains the truest expression of traditional New England Style. What else would you expect?

A Different Link

“Gentlemen”, so I was once told by a particularly patriarchal and patronising old man, “do not wear jewellery.” When I challenged this assertion with evidence to the contrary – that of smart gentlemen wearing rings and watches – he scoffed that the rings (‘likely to be wedding rings’ he suggested) were more like manacles and that wristwatches were too practical to be ever considered jewellery. Though this gentleman did happen to be one of the fustiest characters I have ever encountered, I did concede that he had a point; male jewellery tends to be hidden (like a necklace), vulgar (like an earring or a bracelet) or functional. We are quite the less decorated sex. Whereas women adorn their necks and wrists with gold, silver and gemstones, men plod along plainly. Not that this should not be so. The bejewelled men of preceding centuries, perfumed powdered and puffed, seem to be awkward and inconsistent representations of masculine style; a man is very easily over ornamented.

This is perhaps why wristwatches have become so significant for the modern man. Being able to tell the time is not something one needs such contraptions for in the modern age; mobile phones and Mp3 players, carried around by many men, not only carry such basic information as the relevant hour and minute but also the day of the month, the average rainfall and the time in Honolulu. Choosing to buy an attractive watch has much more to do with aesthetics and prestige than mere function; over half of those truly vulgar wristwatches covered in diamonds are so glitzed with the gems that it makes it nigh on impossible to read the time. A man could not claim he needed the watch to function as a watch; it’s merely an expensive bracelet that happens to have a watch face.

And so we come to the rub of the issue: functionality – the perfect, and quite necessary, excuse.

A man’s daily clothing offers little in the way of potential bejewellment; shirt studs are strictly for evening shirts only and tie pins, though elegant, are really occasional and not everyday. Tie ‘clips’ or ‘bars’ can smarten up the wear of shirts and ties, particularly when the clip is fastened to highlight a particularly lustrous silk. However, wearing one everyday can be a little repetitive, considering it’s prominence in an outfit.

Cufflinks are the one everyday item that can add what has been referred to as ‘bling’; the merest flick of the wrist and the ‘jewels’ are exposed. The essential factor? They are entirely necessary to keep one’s double cuffs securely fastened. As their function is simple and, once fastened, they can be easily forgotten, a man can afford to decorate as conservatively or as garishly as he wishes.

Buying cufflinks is very much a matter of personal taste. I tend to avoid the twee hot and cold taps, the dire dollar symbols and anything with Playboy insignia. Jan Leslie and Deakin & Francis are excellent, albeit expensive, manufacturers of individual, attractive and tasteful links. Though novelty formats, such as glittering frogs and insects, are not always favoured by very serious gentlemen, they can offer that little touch of humour to an otherwise staid ensemble; even lending a hand to identify, in a harmless and playful way, the identity of the wearer: for example, the charming practice of an Upper East Sider in wearing the delightful ‘wasp’ links from Jan Leslie.