Archives for November 2008

Return to Old Briefcases

On a recent excursion to the shops, accompanied by a friend, we found ourselves in the luggage section of a large and famous department store rather by accident. We had wanted to find quite another department but such is the labyrinthine layout of this gargantuan store, we had turned in a wrong direction somewhere and had ended up in an area of brass locks, leather tags and superfluous straps; surely, we needed nothing here. “Hold on” my companion muttered “I need something for the office, something like a briefcase.” Now I should mention that of my acquaintances, this particular friend happens to be one of the more traditional. Picture cutaway French collars, formally patterned ties, double breasted suits and substantial overcoats and you will be well acquainted with his wardrobe.

Due to my knowledge of his traditional taste, I imagined that he would make a beeline for the classic briefcases; stiff brown leather with plenty of brass. He picked up a canvas bag with a shoulder strap, to my immediate surprise, and asked me what I thought. I admonished him and asked rather acerbically when he was planning on re-attending primary school. The issue is not that I have a problem with such an item as a product but that a sensible, suit wearing solicitor of his education and aforementioned classical taste should consider such a strange bag. For one thing, a bag with a strap is an absolute devil on one’s suit; even after a short time the wear of weight on a shoulder shows and it pulls the jacket away from its position on the torso, distorting the construction. It’s even worse when the top button is fastened and the weight pulls at the centre of the suit.

The other problem with these ‘postman’ bags is that they actually make more difficult what they are intended to make easy (transporting documents, laptops and stationery). The fidgeting one must go through for the ‘comfortable’ position, the way the bag knocks at the thigh. Placing the weight of work on the shoulder sounds like a sensible solution but it can cause other problems; these bags and suits were simply not destined for each other. I remember young chaps at school whose suits evidenced ‘shoulder fatigue’; resulting, over time, in the suit shoulder pulling away from the neck, exposing an inch or two of shirt shoulder.

“Look” I said to my companion “these are far better for you; you spend too much on suits to have them ruined by a postbag.” We were inspecting a collection of classic Mulberry briefcases with simple push locks. I motioned approvingly and yet, to my dismay, but not surprise, my companion opened one and, chuckling heartily, pulled out a tissue-wrapped shoulder strap – detachable and adjustable. Moving on we discovered the more classic examples; bridle leather cases with solid brass fittings and a key lock. Attaché cases with wonderful suede linings and combination locks. It was a relief to discover that no one had attempted to attach a shoulder strap to these well designed and long-lasting items.

It was when my companion stood in the full length mirror, straight and tall with the briefcase in his grasp, I realised another thing about these magnificent strap-free traditional cases of high quality: they look ever so much finer than all the alternatives.

The Enigma of Flusser

Alan Flusser knows a lot about style. Anyone who has read his books knows that, and knows that he has a gift for communicating his knowledge (though I would say that he had a better editor on Dressing the Man, which has a lot less flowery prose than Style and the Man).

The enigma of Alan Flusser is that, although he knows a lot about men’s clothes, he doesn’t necessarily follow his own advice. In a recent comment on this site, one reader pointed me to a video interview with Alan on, the GQ men’s style website. The video can be seen here.

In the interview he is wearing a charcoal-grey pinstriped suit, white shirt, black tie and a pink handkerchief. It’s a combination of strong tones that some might find hard to pull off – that black tie and white shirt could easily make you look like you are at a funeral, and a strong colour like pink can easily look cheap against black.

But it seems to suit Alan well, and he has obviously decided (pace his tonal recommendations in Dressing the Man) that his is a high-contrast complexion, complemented by high-contrast clothes.

Half way through the video, though, the camera pans down to reveal Alan wearing a pair of pale, ripped, rather baggy jeans. It’s hard to think of a starker failure of marrying formal and casual – indeed, as in our previous discussion, in wearing jeans and a jacket – well.

The textures of material are at completely different extremes (worsted, denim) as are the colours (white and high-contrast, blue and subtle) and the patterns (pinstripe could not be more formal, ripped jeans hardly more casual). It is an archetypal Newsreader Look.

So I am afraid I have to disagree with the reader on this point – Alan here is doing the exact opposite of everything I have professed and argued. Try wearing that combination yourself and then wear it to work.

But, and it is a big but (no sniggering in the cheap seats please), I have complete confidence in Alan Flusser. His books are too good, and have been too fundamental to my passion for clothes, for me to think that he does not know what he is doing. He knows the rules and he knows he is flaunting them.

Alan also has a rather personal take on style generally, as can be seen in the other photos shown here. I can only presume that when you know all the history and traditions of men’s cloth-combination, you want to do something a little different. You can only break the rules well when you know why they are there, after all.

The Odd Trousers

“But those trousers” she said “don’t match your jacket.” I happened to be socialising with a group of friends when a young lady in our company uttered these words. She was absolutely spot on; keenly perceptive and interested. “You are quite right. They don’t.” I replied “But the real question is; do they marry well?” Frowns, analysing squints and much silence passed before the response which was, in all honesty, rather positive. It set me to thinking about the sustained growth and influence of the suit culture; the culture that dictates one wear identical material on one’s legs to that on one’s torso. Consternation at the wearing of a plain jacket with patterned trousers, or vice versa, somehow smacked of other matrimonial appraisals: whispers behind the napkins and other mindless twittering about the ‘wholly unsuitable’ social match of an earl to an actress. My jacket and trousers were not such worlds apart. It was the simple fact that they were not equal that appealed to me and provoked initial disquiet in another.

Suits are splendid but I am easily bored by them. I always feel that I must liven them up with accessories and vests. Sometimes the result is a little ridiculous but I feel that the monotony of fabric needs breaking up. I seem to have the greatest fun in wearing jackets and trousers as a ‘mixture’; a plain black jacket with some grey houndstooth trousers, a light grey jacket with some charcoal chalkstripes. I don’t think there is anything ‘casual’ about such ensembles. The old gentlemen of the city, dressed in bowler hats and carrying umbrellas, were famous for marching around the Square Mile in their striped trousers and black jackets. Morning dress, one of the most formal forms of dress, is most often represented by striped or houndstooth trousers and a dark coloured tailcoat. It was common for Victorian gentlemen to wear morning coats and frock coats with alternative trousers – either matching the waistcoat to the trousers or to the jacket.

The other alternative is to wear a patterned jacket and waistcoat with plain trousers; for example a checked tweed jacket with matching waistcoat and white trousers as Jude Law demonstrates in the picture above. Mr Fry, as Oscar Wilde, sat next to him, looks rather like a gelato counter in comparison; the affectation in his ensemble is the ‘daring’ in wearing such a colour of suit. However, the affectation in Mr Law’s outfit, the pairing of a matching jacket and waistcoat with alternative trousers, is far more satisfying to my eye.

I think one must be careful in choosing the ingredients for these ‘cocktails.’ The cut of the jacket must not be too dissimilar to the intended style of the trousers; i.e. wearing skinny trousers with a substantial jacket could look rather odd. Colours are also very important and I always look to marry the shoes, trousers, vest and jacket through mutually complementary tones. Despite all the mixing, patterns and colours, there must be some logic; some connection between the individual items that is immediately discernible when making the selection.

Wear a Flat Cap, But Wear It Right

Winston Chesterfield wrote a good column earlier this week on the love/hate relationship many have with the flat cap. I too am a fan of the flat cap, and it is usually my preferred hat. But I think two points are essential here: many men, including me, turn to it because there are few other sensible alternatives; and when wearing a flat cap, material is key.

My hair is thinning (some would put that in the past tense). On a cold day, I need a hat.

Plus, wearing a hat is a much more practical way of keeping off the rain than an umbrella. Take a look at any 1930s Hollywood film that features rain and you will find almost all men sheltering by turning up the collar of their coat. A waterproof coat with a high collar, combined with a hat, is very good at keeping out the rain. You don’t need to carry around a cumbersome brolly and your shoes are drier.

Modern man has an irrational aversion to getting anything wet, even if it is a coat designed for that purpose. Take a hat out next time it’s raining, rather than an umbrella.

So I need a hat, and hats are good. But what are my options? A Fedora, Trilby or other rimmed hat is terribly hard to pull off, particularly when you are on the young side of 40. I think it comes after cigars but before pocket watches in the order of accessories you can get away with as you get older. A beanie makes me look like a teenager. And a baseball cap makes me look like an American freshman.

(I think this lack of reasonable headgear is one reason for the huge turnover in umbrellas. People buy disposable umbrellas because they don’t really want one that is bulky to carry around, or they are afraid of losing. But they have no alternative against the rain because they feel silly in a hat. So we’re doomed to drown in crap brollies.)

A flat cap is the only realistic headgear for those between 21 and 40. It was this necessity that first persuaded me to buy one. But over time I have also learnt lessons about their suitability and propriety. Here, material is key.

A flat cap need not necessarily look like country headgear. It does if it is made of tweed or thick wool in hound’s tooth – even more so if it has large checks on it in bright patterns. As Winston rightly points out, Lock & Co does some marvellous caps, but they are deliberately items of countrywear: they are casual option for a man that already wears a Fedora or other rimmed hat for work. They are deliberately sporty to contrast with the formal brims of the working week.

We are not in that position, and do not need checks or tweed as a result. Instead, I recommend going for corduroy or felt. Both look smoother and smarter. Plus, ape the colours and (lack of) patterns seen on formal headwear: black, grey and occasionally brown.

If you wear a tweed flat cap with a suit you look like an Irish farmer on his way into town. If you wear a smart, black felt hat with a suit (and black shoes, obviously) it is merely your take on a staple formal headwear.

British Style Genius: The Country Look

The roots of British style in the functional garb of hunting and working in the country are obvious. But one easily forgets the broader and longer roots of these traditions.

So many pieces of modern British clothing originate in country wear. The centre vent and angled pockets of some suit jackets, for example, which consciously ape the hacking or riding jacket. There the central vent was required to allow your jacket to sit comfortably when you rode your horse, and the angled pockets made access easier when mounted, as your legs and lower jacket are naturally thrown forward.

Items like the trench coat, equally, which while not necessarily country garb come from the same tradition of practical British clothing. There the epaulets are required to keep your ammunition or gun sling on the shoulder. And the extra layer of material across the shoulder is intended to help cushion the recoil of a rifle.

With both these items, elements that were originally practical are now there just for style. But it is comforting to know somehow that they are not merely the whim of a designer, that they have tradition and history.

That comfort in practicality was most amply illustrated in a recent episode of the series British Style Genius, during discussion of the Barbour jacket. While well known in the UK, it apparently gained fame in the US after the release of the film The Queen, where Helen Mirren wore a version while in Scotland. Apparently the day after the premier a woman walked into the New York store and asked for “the coat the Queen wore”, and sales of that model doubled.

But the comfort in practicality was demonstrated by a rough treatment of a typical Barbour, driving over it in a car, dragging it round a field and even firing shot at it. Only then did the jacket seem worn in and characterful enough to appeal to the Barbour faithful.
The wide-spreading roots of the English country tradition were demonstrated by an exploration of how other brands, particularly Laura Ashley, have influenced British style. While you wouldn’t necessarily think of Ashley and hacking jackets or trench coats in the same stylebook, the floral prints that originally made her popular come from the same idea – a fondness for the country and all the familiarity and comfort English people associate with it.

Indeed, this is the enduring impression of Queen Elizabeth that was left by the programme. Growing up in a family of country-philes, and without a father from the age of 25, she always felt most at home outside, with a silk scarf around her head and a big jacket wrapped around her. Green wellies, not Kurt Geiger heels.