Archives for September 2008

Jones Bootmaker: One Collection

Where would we be without our material dreams? I have often wondered what sort of person I could be without my never ending desire, nay craving, for perfection. When I wrote of my desire for a pair of Berluti’s I concluded that such a desire should never be satiated should I ever wish to enjoy any pair of shoes ever again. Achieving Everest in the first leap could prove to be disastrous to my sense of fulfilment. I recently ventured into Jones the Bootmaker in the spirit of attempting more lowly summits. Jones is a respected but rather commercial English shoe manufacturer. It is certainly an established name and one of the most respected high-street shoe shops but despite the Victorian trading date and the historical boasts, Jones has had little to recommend it. The shoe designs have been bulky and undistinguished. A year or two ago when I ventured into a branch to inspect their stock I was determined never to return due to the poor quality of design and manufacture; for shoes made of an exceedingly average leather, clumpy and unrefined, they were expecting gentlemen to part with at least £100. For a shoe aimed at the ‘young professional’ market – i.e. chaps who manage electronics stores – this was rather a lot of money.

I happened to walk past a branch on my way to lunch recently and despite echoes of my vocalised determination never to cross the threshold of Jones the Bootmaker so long as I shall live, I decided to have a quick browse; ‘To satisfy myself’ I mused ‘that there really is nothing I want in there.’ Indeed for several minutes there was nothing at all I happened to be interested in; square toes, exposed stitching, dull leather. I was thirsting for the pornography of an Edward Green or a Crockett & Jones when my eye glanced at an object that seemed curiously out of place; could it be? Yes. It was. It was a ‘proper’ shoe. I picked it up in disbelief, expecting it to vaporise in my grasp; the wishful mirage of a disappointed daydreaming shopper. Immediately, a Jones employee asked me if I needed any assistance. I confessed that I was in need of such assistance; some plausible explanation as to why there was such an excellently shaped shoe in the design desert of a Jones store. The assistant informed me briefly that it was part of the new ‘One’ Collection. Sadly, as with most high street shoe stores, her knowledge of shoes and shoe making ended there although her knowledge of sizes, European and English, in relation to stock levels was formidable.

The One Collection is specifically aimed gentlemen who are willing to spend money on good design and good quality, but who cannot afford the Jermyn Street whole-cuts or ‘superbrands’ such as Gucci and Prada. The fact that a manufacturer such as Jones has taken notice of the need to fill the huge gap in pricing, in the purchase of men’s footwear, is a pleasing one. However, there is the probability, in the UK at least, that chaps interested in spending £195 on a pair of shoes would rather not spend that sort of money in an establishment like Jones the Bootmaker; ‘Why bother’ they might suggest ‘when you can get a pair of Crockett & Jones for another hundred?’ Jones might experience better success overseas where the distinctly English name, the archaic reference to ‘bootmaking’ and the reassuring Victorian trading date carry greater currency.

The Rules and How to Break Them. No.1

Rule 1: Your trousers should fall so that there is one clean break at the front, and none at the back.

Rules are there for a reason, but there is nothing wrong with breaking them. These statements are not contradictory. That is one of the most important things to understand about the traditions of menswear.

All rules are there for a reason. They are useful rules of thumb that become formalised over time. And they become formalised because they have practical advantages that encourage men to apply them regularly.

So why is the generally recommended length for men’s trousers? Because it creates a clean line at the back of the trouser, adding to the lengthening silhouette that is the suit’s main aesthetic advantage. Because when a man is walking it looks more elegant if his suit trousers flap less and expose less of his ankle.

If the trouser were longer, it would create a puddle of folds that could ruin the silhouette of a suit, dragging the eye down and making a man look shorter. If the trouser were shorter, it would flap around the ankle and remove any elegance – probably reminding the viewer of a schoolboy in short pants.

That’s why the rule, or guideline, exists. But once you know this, there is nothing wrong with breaking it. Knowing why the rule is there helps you break it well.

For example, men on the European continent tend to wear their trousers shorter than is recommended here. They do that because they wish to expose their footwear, and perhaps their socks, to more inspection. Both are more a part of their outfit than for a English or American man. To quote one famous Italian “I don’t necessarily want people to see my socks, but I want to make sure they can see my shoes.”

Now, if men on the continent simply wore their trousers shorter, they would encounter the aforementioned problem with flapping. But they aware of the rules and why they exist. So they wear their trousers narrower as well, fitting them closer to the ankle and minimising any flapping. Hey presto: the shoe is on display, the silhouette is intact, but it is still possible to walk with elegance.

Once you know why the rules are there, you can work out how to break them effectively.

Step-by-Step: The Odd Waistcoat and Kilgour

Picking out and wearing an odd waistcoat with a suit needs a little more explication.

The previous post on this topic produced some surprise and scepticism, both among friends and on my blog (Permanent Style). The reaction, I find, is similar to that enjoyed by a suggestion on ties with jeans. Both are looks I favour because they add a twist to classic style (to paraphrase Paul Smith); they demonstrate an understanding of men’s style without sticking to a rigid set of rules.

They are, however, both hard to pull off. As was pointed out, they are not for the uninitiated, as small things – the weight of the waistcoat, the material of the tie – turn them from personal style into cringe worthy quirk.

The key to wearing a tie with jeans is material, as explained in comments to that post. The more casual the material, the better – wool, cotton, linen, in that order; but never silk unless it is knitted (and even then it is perhaps a little too dressy). Proportion, also, is important, with the narrower and more lightweight the tie the less formal it appears.

The waistcoat is similar. One reader commented that an odd waistcoat with a suit is “just odd, dandified in the extreme.” I can understand this reaction entirely, especially as the odd waistcoat that springs to everyone’s mind is brightly coloured, or at least lightly coloured – such as the buff waistcoats worn to many formal occasions.

But I would argue that if this waistcoat is plain, dark and of a slightly more casual material – flannel works well – it can look very suitable (no pun intended). After all, it is only slightly more dressy than a V-neck sweater underneath a suit, and performs a similar function.

Another reader commented that “I would be careful about using the third piece of a three-piece suit as an odd waistcoat. Especially if it is a stripe.” The waistcoat must, of course, be plain. A striped sweater would be hard to work, but possible. A striped waistcoat would not.

It must also be dark, falling as a shadow to the suit rather than a highlight. Dark grey with a lighter grey, patterned suit, for example (a checked suit works better than a stripe again, I’ve found, probably because the check is inherently more sporty). Black, also, can work well, though perhaps a little funereal. To avoid this, stick with a blue shirt, not white.

As if to prove my point, Kilgour has just come out with a selection of odd waistcoats in black and blue wool with its Autumn/Winter collection. I personally prefer the range without white piping (unlike the item pictured). But the suggestion that the customer might like to wear it with his winter, flannel suit demonstrates how far Kilgour has already run with this idea.

Also, having tried one of these on in the Savile Row store, the great thing about the Kilgour odd waistcoat is that it is cut much longer than the average part of a three-piece suit. This reflects the fact that men tend to wear their trousers on the hips rather than the waist today, yet the waistcoat should leave no exposed shirting between it and the waistband. A perennial problem (see the second part of The Waistcoat Theory for more) has been solved.

Why no Silk Socks?

One of my favourite things about wearing black tie is silk socks. In particular, the lovely pair of Brooks Brothers black, silk, full-calf socks I own. They rarely get worn except at black-tie events, and are therefore as much a part of the ceremony as the bow tie or the shirt studs.

Every time I wear them I am amazed by how cool silk is. Somehow, they feel cooler than bare legs. Each time an ankle is exposed or you remove a shoe, a gust of cold air rushes over the skin, as if it the silk were taking breath. Bare skin doesn’t do that.

Silk is used in wool mixes for a similar reason. Summer, cashmere sweaters often contain a percentage of silk as it is good at keeping you cool in heat and warm in cold. While wool on its own is very good at ventilation (which is why all the old cycling jerseys were made from loose-weave wool), the silk makes the material a good summer weight.

The same applies to socks. Many cashmere socks contain a percentage of silk in order to make them more usable day to day. (I recommend the Pantherella wool mix sock, which contains 17% silk alongside cashmere.) Without silk, cashmere socks are really only good for the coldest of winter days or for wearing around the house.

Which brings me to the title of this post. If silk is so breathable and comfortable, why does no one sell silk socks for everyday dress use? A 100% silk sock has a sheen to it, and is a little transparent, so I can understand why these would not be practical. But why not silk/cotton mixes? Surely a minority percentage of silk in a cotton sock would make it more breathable without any noticeable difference in texture?

For an answer, I turned to my local tailor here in the City, PA Crowe of 11 Ludgate Square. His response: “Silk socks are not considered to wear well, lasting proportionately less time than cotton or wool. Plus some people say they pull a little on the heel, retaining their shape less well and becoming uncomfortable over time.”

Both of these are good reasons why silk socks are fine for special occasions – they are worn infrequently and usually only in the evening.

However, a silk/cotton mix sock would suffer far less from these problems. The biggest reason they are not manufactured in bulk, in turns out, is economy. Combining the two is expensive and the market is untested.

Instead, PA Crowe recommends Cotton Lisle – a much finer cotton that has some of the properties of silk. But I maintain that someone should begin offering cotton/silk mix socks. Has anyone seen any on sale anywhere?

Interesting Facts on Loafers!

Well, I found them interesting. Largely because no one had ever told me them before. You probably know them already. Here goes.

Loafers are for people who loaf. And you’ll never guess who people that loaf are. They’re Norwegian farmers off to see their cows. You see, the cattle loafing area is the place on a farm where the cows are taken to be milked. And Norwegian farmers used a certain, convenient slip-on shoe to get out to this loafing area. Hence it’s called a loafer.

The shoe was launched by the announcement of this discovery in a 1932 story in Esquire magazine. (Yes, Esquire used to be a superlative style magazine. Bible even. Then it was relaunched in the 1980s as an all-things-to-all-men magazine, also known as a no-things-to-all-men magazine. Oh well. Bring back Esquire/Apparel Arts, that’s what I say.)

That Norwegian shoe must have been different to the slip-ons we see today. Only the very rich or eccentric would go out to milk his cows in his Gucci loafers with classic riding bit. Think of the mud. But the idea was there – the design built of necessity, a simple shoe that could be popped on for a brief job outside, and removed with ease when you returned to the house.

Similar, in a way, to the reason so many more people wear loafers for flying these days. It’s much quicker to check you’re not a shoe bomber.

This brings us on to my second exciting fact. The loafer is often referred to in the US as a Weejun because it sounds like the last two syllables of Norwegian. Perhaps you knew that already, but I didn’t. Imagine how satisfying the mental connection was. So instant; so obvious.

It turns out that just two years after the Esquire story, in 1934, John R Bass, Maine shoemaker of repute, introduced a loafer with a bar bridge across it, and christened it the Weejun to sound like Norwegian. The bar bridge was supposedly shaped like Mr Bass’s wife’s lips. It was as if Mrs Alice Bass were kissing the feet of her husband as he left the house every day.

Last but certainly not least, when the Bass Weejun became popular on US campuses in the 1950s it was occasionally used by students to carry a penny or a dime, in the event of an emergency phone call. Hence the penny loafer. Any or all of these facts may be erroneous, mythical or just plain made up (would the penny fall out if you ran anywhere?). But they are satisfying – a stylistic, philological and cultural history rolled into one.

As mentioned in a previous debate on slip-on shoes (Reader’s question: The deck shoe) I prefer the more elegant, less chunky slip-on. This season, Paul Smith’s dark green or red “Marcello” loafers are worth a look. Let’s face it, you probably don’t have any red or green slip-ons already.