Style Movie: Easter Parade


Of all the appropriate ‘Sunday afternoon movies’, the classic American musical is one of the most magical; particularly if it happens to feature the one and only Fred Astaire. Mr Astaire is such an entertainment on screen. He has a glorious gazelle like form; slight and compact but also svelte and terribly elegant. His acting is watchable and often amusing; his singing is, if not that of Sinatra’s category, competent and tuneful. However, the quality that Astaire possessed for captivating audiences and Audrey Hepburn alike was his ability to dance. I watched the pleasant Irving Berlin musical ‘Easter Parade’ recently to enjoy Astaire’s dancing and Berlin’s songs but I found myself equally transfixed with the glorious costume.

Set in the early half of the twentieth century, Easter Parade’s costume is faithful to the high-starched-collar world of New York in the era of the industrialists. Bow ties, round collars, boaters and button holes; indeed, in some scenes, the gentlemen manage to look more decorated than the ladies. However, whereas other films might represent this era religiously, garbing the leads in blacks and greys, avoiding the merry and fanciful Hollywood interpretation, Easter Parade embraces it fully. Astaire is easily the most dandified and elegant creation of the film; needing outfits that sing and dance as much as he, wonderful ensembles are provided of high wing collars, striped ties, cream waistcoats, striped trousers and spectators that give Astaire the exotic air of an eccentric patrician.

His ‘Easter Parade’ outfit itself is quite glorious; a black silk topper (natch), an off-white double breasted waistcoat, a starched shirt with detachable wing collar, an interesting houndstooth cravat, striped trousers (not spongebags) and a black morning coat. The only items that look a little antiquated, even cartoonish, are the spats. It’s unsurprising, and quite appropriate, that Judy Garland should sing these lines as she dresses Astaire in his parade clothing; “Never saw you look quite so pretty before/
Never saw you dressed quite so lovely what’s more”

Sadly, we live no longer in the natty world of the Gilded Age. However, the enduring lesson in the film is that of the timeless appeal of crisp elegance and tasteful adornment. There is something so vitally ethereal about the image of Astaire in a sports jacket, bow tie and boater, clicking his spectators along the floor, something that would almost certainly not be present were he to click around the same floor in an unbuttoned shirt and Armani suit. However, this is not to suggest that one needs the valuable feet of Fred Astaire to produce such an effect with the clothing but simply an attitude that conveys the same elegance.

As a muse and a clothes horse, Astaire is unmatched. He brings a character and warmth to the clothing that releases it from the cold and distant historical context of early twentieth century history; that time of smoke, suffering and sepia into the brilliant Technicolor world of music and dancing. The razzmatazz works its charm on clothing symbolic of propriety and dignity by gilding and yet softening such rigidity; Astaire in a bow tie and buttonhole is the very picture of elegant, and playful, innocence.

Reader Question: Upgrading Shirts

Chris (Westie): I want to move on from wearing M&S/Next shirts that don’t fit me properly. Would my next step be to go straight to a tailor? How much can I expect to spend and do I need to know what kind of material and colour or pattern I want?

Going straight to a tailor is always going to be the preferred option if you can find one that is easily accessible and not too expensive. I couldn’t afford the majority of tailor-made shirts in London. The cheapest I have found are at SuitSupply for individual shirts (around £80) and at Brooks Brothers for bulk orders (around £70). Both are too expensive for me to use as my regular shirt suppliers.

I was fortunate enough to go to Hong Kong a few times on business, and having now had my measurements taken by a reliable tailor there, and had them adjusted a few times, I have a reliable source of new shirts that fit well and cost around £25, which is much more reasonable. This is the option to go for if you can find a comparable service – but I’m aware that may not be possible.

There are options to have shirts made to measure over the internet. Manning & Manning over at www.shirts-custom.com is one example. However, I have never tried any of these services and so cannot vouch for them. What’s more, I wouldn’t trust myself to measure myself. Something is bound to be altered in the very act of measuring, rather like quantum mechanics. And getting someone else to do it might be even worse. Better to have a proper tailor involved.

So, Chris, your next best option is to spend a lot of time trying on shirts in slightly more upmarket shops. This will take a while but is worth it. Think about the experience as all the shopping you’ll ever have to do, rolled into one weekend.

Essentially, every brand will cut their shirts in a slightly different shape, with the width of the neck being the only constant. Try each of them on and you will eventually find one that fits you pretty well. Here is a rundown of my experience of mid-range shirts in London:

Massimo Dutti
– Some of the best shirts for value for money. Two lines around either £40 or £60. There are more tailored options, as well. Rather too short in the tails, but that is inevitable these days as manufacturers want to save money by using less material, and men often want to wear their shirts untucked and therefore do not want dress-length tails.

Reiss
– Some nice shirts but a very slim fit. Many fit me well around the waist but are too tight across the chest. Collars also a little too large for my taste. Also rather expensive – usually £60 to £80. You might as well order a bunch of made-to-measure shirts for that price.

Hackett – Probably my favourite off-the-peg shirts that I still own. Good quality. Could be a little narrower in the waist but not bad considering. Also a little short in the tails. £50 to £70.

TM Lewin
– Again, good value. In the sales often reduced to £25. And there’s always a sale. Good long tails but far too large in the waist for me. They now have a semi-fitted line but I haven’t tried them. £25 to £50.

I hope this is useful, Chris. Another option would be to go to a department store and try on a lot of different brands. Stand in front of three mirrors, to show you every angle. And bring a girlfriend with you, or a man with at least as much interest in clothes as you. Looking at the folds across your back will be key (see my posts on the fit of a suit).

Reader Question: Office Casual, Part 1

Ed, London: Office attire where I work is very casual – a lot of jeans and t-shirts, with only very senior people wearing suits. I’d like to incorporate some more formal or dressy items into my work attire but don’t want to stand out too much. What would you suggest?

I’d start with ties and shoes. Retain the casual benchmark that is a pair of jeans, and try adding smarter shoes and/or knitted ties.

Leather shoes are a whole world of joy, as I’m sure you’ll have realised if you’ve read this blog for very long. Many collectors of upmarket shoes wear them as much with jeans as suits, and doing so gives you a greater range of choices. If you’re going to opt for leather shoes with jeans, bear the following things in mind:

– Shoes with greater bulk or pattern are more casual. So go for brogues or wing-tips. The heavier look of patterned and layered leather shoes makes them sit more comfortably with heavy materials like flannel and denim.
– Suede is a lovely casual option but can be hard to maintain. Make your second or third pair of smart shoes a brown or ginger leather. That way you always have an alternative if it looks a bit wet out (don’t wear suede in the rain if you can help it).
– Go for brown. Whether chocolate, tan or blond, brown shoes will go best with jeans. Black makes you look like a schoolboy and other colours can be hard to wear effectively. (My only exception is red leather, which I think can look great with indigo denim.) Broadly speaking, the darker the brown the darker the jeans should be. But there is much greater flexibility here than with suits.
– Get a good-quality leather belt in a similar hue to wear with your shoes. Again, there is greater flexibility than with suits as to matching the shoes to the belt. But try and find something similar (two browns should be sufficient for all shades of shoe).

Next, ties. Wear a well-fitting shirt with the jeans (all important considering that there will likely be no jacket to cover the shirt). It should fit well both at the waist and at the neck – nothing would remove this outfit’s crispness more than an undone shirt collar.

For ties, anything is good apart from regular silk. Wool works well, as the duller texture suits the trousers and shoes more than silk – which complements polished shoes and worsted wool far better. Particularly good are the narrower, square-ended wool ties.

In that same vein, knitted silk can also work well. It has a shinier hue but the texture makes it inherently more casual. Also cottons or cotton/silk mixes.

This gives you two fantastic areas of menswear to plunder. It should go without saying that the jeans should be traditional and straight cut. No drainpipes or flares please.

(I’m warming to this subject. The next post will explain why textures are the key to getting Ed’s combinations right when he wants to add a jacket or vary the trousers.)

Canali PR Effort: The Olympics in “Style”

In its August 11, 2008, press release, Canali announced that it has partnered with NBC Sports to outfit the on-camera personalities for coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The Canali / NBC partnership was the initiative by the Olympic Primetime host Bob Costas.  As part of the sponsorship, NBC personalities each received several complete outfits including custom made suits, sportswear, and accessories, and will wear Canali for the entirety of the three weeks of Olympics coverage.  “We are proud and excited to have been selected by NBC Sports and the Olympic Games,” said Elisabetta Canali, Global Director of Communications. “We worked closely with NBC and each Olympic broadcast anchor to find the right fabrics and styles that would make them feel comfortable and pleasing to the eye.”

Watching the U.S. Olympic coverage, I cannot help but think how uninspiring the NBC sportscasters look.  Bob Costas’ outfits, in particular, are incredibly dull.  Black suit, blue shirt, red tie or black suit, white shirt, and black tie with white stripes.  How boring.  The jacket fit also leaves much to be desired as evidenced by a  piece of loose fabric on the back when Mr. Costas is sitting.  On the other end of the spectrum is the gymnastics commentator Bela Karolyi who, flamboyantly yet catastrophically, tries to match gingham shirts, odd colored blazers and solid ties.  This leads me to the following question: did Canali provide these men with any guidance on fit, color and pattern matching before allowing them to put the clothes on?  Arguably, even Cesare Attolini provided outfit would look like a mess without proper fit and guidance.

Another minor flaw, although this is more of my personal quirk and probably why I don’t own any Canali suits, is because I am a huge fan of a soft Neapolitan shoulder.  Canali jackets, on the other hand, are too structured for my liking, and the shoulders, in particular, look too boxy.  But I digress.

While I find Canali to be a good maker of mid-upper level Italian clothing, I think the label is trying to become another Armani by its latest attempts to gain popularity in the mainstream media (in 2007, the label provided George Clooney’s suits in Michael Clayton).  Could this trend potentially lose Canali some appeal with the more discerning buyer?  I am not sure.  Whatever Canali decides to do, however, I  hope it does not follow the Armani formula by charging ludicrous premiums on mediocre articles of clothing.  And if it does, so be it; there is always Corneliani, which is as good, if not better.

Introducing the Lazy Fold

Sometimes, just occasionally, I change my mind. While the didactic style of some of these postings might suggest a singleness of purpose, an almost obstinate point of view, I am open to the possibility of evolution. The stuffing of a handkerchief is one such occasion.

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, Tips on Stuffing, I outlined the three most popular ways to arrange a silk handkerchief: pulling the centre to the bottom of the pocket, thus exposing the points; vice versa, exposing the puff; and combining the two by folding the handkerchief in half, displaying both the centre and points.

I used to be a puff person. Exposing the points seemed a little affected except on a special occasion (my wedding, for example, though that was a linen handkerchief). And the folded, combination option does not leave anything at the bottom of the pocket and therefore tends to slip down during the day.

The puff was practical by comparison and a little more understated. However, it had a number of weaknesses, chief amongst which was that differently sized hankies would puff at different heights out of the pocket. The tips could be folded down inside the pocket in order to adjust the height, but that rather defeats the simplicity of the technique and could take a few attempts to get just right.

Instead I revert to what I have christened the Lazy Fold. Stuff one corner of the handkerchief into the pocket until you feel it touch the bottom. Then fold over the rest and stuff it behind, leaving as much silk exposed as you desire.

It’s easy but surprisingly effective. Height is easier to adjust, it’s quick and it never has to be done more than once. What’s more, the fold you create above the pocket is slightly different every time, creasing in a different place. This creates a more casual, less studied look. (Something you want to strive to do with a handkerchief as it will look, to most, rather studied already.)

As a footnote, I also find that if I want to highlight the border pattern of the handkerchief a fold is better than a stuff. This is in direct contrast with my previous posting, which advocated exposing the tips to achieve this effect, and relegated folding to cotton or woollen handkerchiefs.

That is the traditional approach. But in this case I believe I was (whisper it) wrong. It is very hard to display the points of a silk handkerchief without it appearing affected, at least in a business setting – which is where I would be wearing mine almost exclusively.

Try a normal TV Fold instead, with the edges uppermost; it is more subtle. I consider myself evolved.