Archives for November 2008

The Rules and How to Break Them. No3

Do not wear white after Labor Day.

Rules are there for a reason, but there is nothing wrong with breaking them. These statements are not contradictory. Once you understand the rules, you can work out how to break them effectively.

Of all the rules, not wearing white after Labor Day in the US is the most disconnected from its intention. Doing so attracts the ire of many people who would otherwise have no opinions on correct dress or style. They certainly would not point out that notch lapels are anathema on a tuxedo.

For example, in an online discussion on this rule, one person comments: “White should never be worn between Labor Day and Easter. It is called good manners. Only the ignorant of decorum would say…oh, it doesn’t matter. It shows how much education and attention to propriety a person has. Only break the rule if you want people to think you do not know any better.”

Can you feel the vitriol spattering up onto you?

The reasoning behind the rule is simple. You wear white in the summer because the weather is brighter. It is usually sunnier, the sun is higher in the sky, so it is brighter. And light-coloured clothes suit brighter weather, just like black is the dominant colour of an evening event. Other light colours are equally summery – tan linen jackets, seersucker suits, co-respondent shoes – and suit brighter weather.

But that does not mean that it is never bright in winter. Indeed, the frosty and blue-skied days of December often seem the brightest, if only by contrast to the leaden days that surround them.

White is the lightest of colours and therefore only suited to the brightest of days. In order to avoid having to teach the plebeians about the harmony of colours and weather, a rule was invented – only wear white in the summer months, here defined as between Labor Day and Easter. Like all rules, this one loses in complexity what it gains in immediacy.

Once you know why that rule exists, it is easy to break it with impunity. Winter whites can look simply lovely, although they should really be creams and off-whites to be most practical and flattering.

The pictures illustrate this, with the wearing of cream cotton trousers (again, from The Sartorialist. He just takes the best pictures). Trousers are probably the easiest rule-breaker to go for, as they are after all not far off the ubiquitous American chino in colour. I’d go for shoes next, with jacket last.

It is no coincidence that this rule is dominant in the US, yet barely known in the UK. The weather in much of the US, particularly the east coast, is consistent enough to link sun with particular months, and so produce a sensible rule. In London, where you are just as likely to have grim rain in July and a week of sun in January, the rule seems absurd.

That is what the rule means, and understanding it allows you to break it intelligently. Wear white when it’s bright.

Forgotten Style Aces: Edward Hughes Ball Hughes

A friend recently told me that they believe there is no better, more flattering combination of shirt and tie for any man than that of black and white; a white shirt, with a black tie. Traditionalists might scoff at the practice of wearing black ties to anything other than a funeral or an evening function; until quite recently, the modern practice and code has been to wear all colours of tie during the day, except black.

Some I have encountered remark that wearing a black tie makes you look like personal security, or a doorman, or a chauffeur: a man in service to another. They are often surprised when I inform them that you can trace back the ‘invention’ of the black tie (or cravat) with the white shirt to a gentleman who represented anything but the image of servitude. A man who lived a life so wildly fantastical that his interesting tale is refuted as Aesopian myth; but he was real and he was indeed credited, and credit was always to be his downfall, with the invention of the black cravat.

Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, known in society as ‘The Golden Ball’ due to his extraordinary wealth, was a friend of the Prince Regent and a noted dandy. He was, in addition to being fabulously rich, a handsome man and, no doubt due to his notoriety as a hedonist and colossal gambler, influential in matters of fashion. Ball Hughes was still at Eton when Beau Brummell was gambling his last farthing at the tables in St James. His spells at Cambridge and in the navy must have been brief; by the age of 19 he had inherited a fortune of £40,000 a year. With such riches, connections to the highest circles will have been expedited.

In the days of the Regency, and indeed the era of George IV, men like Ball Hughes were the Hollywood stars. In the capital of the largest and most influential empire, society concerned itself with sex, scandal, money and fashion; Ball Hughes was one of those at the centre of attention. He bought Oatlands, Henry VIII’s great palace in Surrey, from the Duke of York and spent his honeymoon there with his beautiful new wife, a sixteen year old Spanish danseuse. He would famously be seen, set striding across his newly acquired estate, hunting in his latest creations for fashion; an army of servants carrying guns, wine and food behind him.

However, despite his undoubted influence in fashion, it was for his career as a gamester that he was best known. Gambling at anything from cards to shuttlecock, Ball Hughes dissipated most of his fortune away through his speculations at the tables. He was written letters by concerned friends, fellow members of his clubs, that there were conspirators, vultures; ‘they seek [to] knock down your whole fortune in one night.’ Though he gained little reward but pleasure from his gambling habits, the Oatlands speculation was one of his few triumphs. Much of the land was sold for the development of villas and Ball Hughes was able to live out his remaining few years in the luxury he had enjoyed throughout much of his life.

So for gambling he was known, but for the black cravat he is remembered. His legacy for his heirs had all but disappeared but the most important legacy; the daring to flaunt an alternative style, however conservative that style appears in the modern day, preceded one of the most common practices and combinations of tone available to men today. I often think to myself that I could credit few individuals with the appreciation that they were the reason I do a certain thing, or dress a certain way – largely because if they did exist, they are unknown to me. I relish therefore the opportunity to raise a glass to a single figure in history whose accidental power and influence is the reason I am flattered by monochrome today.

Paul Smith Sale Shop, Take Two

Ok, I’ve written about this before. But it deserves a second mention – largely because I bought my fifth pair of shoes in as many years there yesterday.

It is the Paul Smith sale shop. Located on Avery Row, just off a Bond Street tributary. Sells many items made by Mr Smith (suits, socks, shirts). But most impressively has a constant turnover of great shoes with 40% to 60% off.

You wouldn’t think that would happen with a sale shop. After all, its function is to take the dross that didn’t sell in the main store before the end of the season and recover as much profit as possible. When things don’t sell here, they have to be binned – so there is a steep incentive to try and recover your costs at least.

There isn’t always a great selection. Over the summer there was an alarming proliferation of leather sandals in the Paul Smith stripes. Which didn’t shift for months.

But pop in there when you are near Bond Street and I reckon every second or third visit will find you sorely tempted.

Last time I wrote about the store, I had just bought a pair of red “dip dye” suede brogues. They were lovely. All season I had watched that dip-dye range sit mockingly in Selfridge’s, daring me to spend over £250 on craftsmanship that doesn’t realistically match the great Northampton cordwainers they parade alongside.

Then, two months into the next season, a wave of the red suede numbers dropped into the sale store. It would seem red suede was the least popular of the permutations, yet they were my favourites.

But many of the shoes I have bought there have not been unusual. Chocolate wing-tips, for instance, and tan suede boots. The range of shoes and the sizes available is often impressive.

Particularly compared to a recent incarnation of the Paul Smith sale shop, which opened in the Royal Exchange in London. What was originally a straight Paul Smith store turned into a sale shop, but stocking an unusually limited range. All the shoes come in just one or two sizes, often seven for a man. (Which is usually a sign that the products are ex-display rather than ex-store, as display products are nearly always size seven – apparently it is the most aesthetically satisfying, for all you size sevens out there.)

Which brings me to the reason my enthusiasm was ignited anew. I had been looking for some practical boots, particularly with the prospect of Christmas in the country and lots of long Dorset walks. Something rubber-soled, possibly calf-length, nice hard-working leather.

And I found them yesterday in the sale shop, in the shape of Paul Smith’s collaboration he did with Triumph motorcycles. They’re slightly different to the model shown, being lower and not having the checkerboad pattern on the inside. But boy were they great value.

Go now. And watch out for the brown snakeskin oxfords.

The Professional Professor

Last year, I wrote about achieving what I broadly referred to as the “college professor” look. Grounded more in beloved stereotype than classroom fact; tweeds, corduroy, tortoise shell glasses and leather dispatch cases rounded out this idealized look. While more inspiration than practical, this style embodies classic Ivy League charm and actually blends quite well with the current trend toward tailored clothing.

Having so dispensed with the hypothetical, I felt suitably up to the challenge when one of my closest friends, a high school teacher, asked me to write a column on how he could upgrade his professorial wardrobe.

His everyday wardrobe is fairly casual; khakis, jeans, polo shirts and sweaters are staples. Though he’s never been a suit and tie kind of guy, Bob (let’s call him Bob) now wants to dress in a more professional manner. He runs the school’s large drama department and wants his wardrobe to reflect this level of responsibility.

He wants to project authority and professionalism without looking overdone, and in this case a daily coat and tie is very overdone. He’s not a banker, he’s a teacher; but does not mean he isn’t a professional. Bob is very good at what he does and wants his appearance to project that ability and experience.

What is needed here is an in-between look; professional but not stuffy, relaxed but still grown up. One of the quickest ways to do this is by focusing on fit and tailoring. You don’t have to give up your personal style to pull on a more polished look because you’re not changing who you are. But you do need to pay attention to how you translate your personal tastes into a more refined look.

In Bob’s case, as with many guys stuck in a dressing-for-college-class mindset, that means making a few key changes. Often, the simplest things make the biggest impact. Ditch shapeless worn out khakis in favor of tailored pants and swap baggy, faded jeans for fitted dark washed ones instead. Rather than rely on sweatshirts, try pima cotton crewneck sweaters. It’s all about reinterpreting your outdated college-era wardrobe for the grown up you.

For many men, navigating the waters of business wardrobes without the benefit of a business suit can be a little scary. Suits are easy and authoritative. But for someone in Bob’s situation, a suit makes no sense.

In his case, odd jackets and blazers are the best solution. An odd jacket, be it corduroy, tweed, flannel or cotton, will provide the formality and authority of a suit coat but do in a comfortable and relaxed fashion.

Odd jackets can also be paired with almost any kind of outfit and give it a polished, finished look. And these days a jacket does not automatically necessitate a tie. I love ties, I personally think they are a wonderful way to express personality and can tie (get it?…tie…) an outfit together. But achieving a complete outfit sans tie is easily done with this kind of dressing. Layering a fine gauge sweater over a patterned shirt, or added a pocket square can provide needed texture, color and detail. As with everything, focus on quality, craftsmanship and material.

I don’t normally focus on a particular brand when discussing overall style goals. However, in this case one brand immediately comes to mind as a great one-stop resource; J. Crew.

J. Crew’s modern take on classic New England preppy style can easily help Bob, or anyone, pull together the “real world” professor look. For example, Bob would look like a new man walking into his classroom dressed in:

– Classic fit “essential chino,” in British khaki
– “Reed” wingtip brogues, in brown
– English leather plaque belt, in chocolate (monogrammed with his initials)
– Button down end-on-end “secret wash” oxford, in waterfall blue
– Half-zip merino wool sweater, in deep blueberry
– Washed wool herringbone jacket

This look was pulled together right out of the pages of J. Crew’s Holiday 2008 catalog. It is polished yet relaxed and also flexible; he can wear the jacket, or not. He can swap the chinos for their Vintage slim-fit black selvedge denim jeans. Either way, he still presents a positive image of style and self-possession without appearing at all stuffy. By focusing on separates that can be mixed and matched, multiple looks can be pulled together from a minimal number of key and classic pieces.

Yes, it does mean investing in a new type of wardrobe, and some of that investing can be pricey – especially if Bob expands his shopping horizons and comes to appreciate the outstanding fit and quality of, say, a Brioni sport coat. Frankly though, that is not the ultimate goal. You do not need to idealize famous clothing brands in an effort to dress well and project a stylish, confident – and confidence inspiring, for that matter – look.

The real point is that Bob will now be buying clothes that can last for life and can be added to over time. He is creating a new kind of wardrobe that can grow and evolve as he and his career grow and evolve. The fact that he wants to do all this is the most important thing of all. We are judged by how we look and how we carry ourselves. These days, now more so than ever, you are in charge of your career and you are your best marketing consultant.

Sweater Colours: Green, Biscuit, Red

Winter provides a new outlet for the man interested in expressing himself through colour in his clothes. A sweater underneath a jacket, particularly with a suit, provides a very different pop of colour in an outfit – larger yet also more restrained than a handkerchief or even a tie.

Like a coloured waistcoat, it functions best when peaking out around the jacket’s waist button, as shading and outline. Without the jacket it is a dominant colour rather than an accent. Yet it is also subtler and more practical than either of the silk accessories mentioned above, and benefits as such. It is harder to appear foppish or affected, smacking as it does of utilitarian warmth.

The sweater can be V-neck, cardigan, shawl collar or anything else – the only thing to bear in mind is that the neckline should roughly mirror that of the jacket it is worn with. A loosely buttoned cardigan will seem more natural with a one or two-buttoned suit. A round-neck sweater is always going to suit a high-fastening three-button suit.

So to the colours. I have three recommendations that particularly please. They are bottle green with navy, biscuit with brown and red with green (probably tweed).

A dark blue such as navy has essentially two options with its accent colours: very subtle or very brash. Red socks with a navy suit work somehow because they are over the top, equally yellow and other bright colours. But the most harmonious accent colours are dark, strong colours, principally green and purple.

So with a navy suit try a bottle-green cardigan, loosely framing the jacket’s lapel, enriching the blue itself in its richness and reflection of tone. Perhaps a blue/white striped shirt, and a dark tie if desired.

Second, bringing out the browns of a chocolate-coloured suit through a biscuit colour, or tan. The pleasure of a chocolate-coloured suit is that, despite its unusual colouring for business, it is so dark most people take it for grey. The addition of a sweater in either a pale biscuit colour (think Rich Tea) or tan (think highly-polished Oxfords) brings out that rich brown tone. Again, I’d go for a blue or blue-striped shirt (depending on the balance of pattern elsewhere in the outfit).

And finally, bounce up a green tweed with something bright – and nothing’s stronger than red. Strong colours work so well with tweed because it is so subtle on its own, quietly hiding flecks of autumnal colours in its thick weave. The country squire’s socks of bright red and bright yellow work well for this reason. As a sweater against the cold, perhaps over a pale yellow or cream shirt, it is no longer so affected as the socks, but charming and ever-so practical.