Archives for November 2008

The Virtues of Wardrobe Maintenance

I recently wrote a rather lengthy article for my blog focusing on my belief that when times aren’t so good, people tend to go for the classics. When every cent counts, a wardrobe based on longevity and timeless style often wins out over flash and of-the-moment fashion.

Focusing on the classics, like a well cut single-breasted grey suit, is a smart investment that will last for years and fit the bill for most any business situation.

But investing in classic suits, solid dress shirts, dressy chinos and quality footwear is only half the battle. The other half is properly looking after your pricey investments. Keeping your clothes in great shape takes a little work but that effort will keep everything in runway shape for a long time.

Though the natural aging of fabric and leather and wearing down of cuffs and elbows are normal, it should be held off as long as possible. Doing so allows your possessions to keep their appeal while still developing the character that makes you want to keep them around for years to come.

Here are a few basics that will help your cherished clothes last longer while still looking great.

Hang up you clothing and invest in sturdy wood hangers. Using a solid and well sized hanger (suit hangers for suits, slimmer hangers for shirts) will add years to your clothing and help protect your garments from snags, wrinkles and stains. When you get home after a long day at work, change right away and either hang up your work clothes or toss them in the laundry/dry cleaning bin. Make a point to keep you closet in order too, so no crowding. Garments need room to breathe and space to air out. In most cases, wrinkles will work themselves out in between wearings. An impromptu steaming can help too – just hang your day’s outfit next to the shower.

Most suits and sport coats only need to be dry-cleaned once a year. Delicate fabrics and linens may need more attention, but on the whole brushing your garments with a clothing brush will remove most dust and dirt. Spot cleaning can address minor stains and help avoid unnecessary trips to the cleaners. If your suit is looking a little too lived in, go ahead and take it in for a pressing only. It will look refreshed without being unnecessarily exposed to damaging dry cleaning chemicals.

Though some people insist on dry cleaning their dress shirts, I prefer to launder them at home. When it comes to home laundering, cold water is usually best but always look for the care tag first. Iron on a slightly cooler setting and lay off the starch. If you are still compelled to use it, starch only those areas that can get a little unruly, like the cuffs, collars and plackets. If you regularly send your shirts off to the cleaners, pass on the starch there as well. Commercial presses do a fine job of working out wrinkles without the need for extra chemicals.

Nowhere else does the concept of “investment clothing” hold forth than with footwear. A good pair of quality business shoes can easily cost several hundred dollars. Custom shoes quickly reach into the thousands. Though a sharp hit up front, good shoes will always being in style and when properly cared for, can last a lifetime. Though they may seem an extravagance, custom shoes will also help keep your feet healthy, so it behooves you to keep them in top notch shape.

In addition to protecting your dress shoes’ leather by keeping them polished, make sure to always use shoe trees. There are many variations, but the best are full-sized and made from untreated cedar. The shoe tree will absorb moisture and help maintain your shoe’s shape. Fancy varnished trees are fine too – the kind with heavy brass knobs or pull rings – in fact I’m looking for some myself.

Be careful to not overuse your good shoes. Don’t wear the same pair day after day; they need to rest and dry out. At the end of the day, give your shoes a quick brush down, insert the trees, and give them a few days off. Should you get stuck in a rainstorm or have to tramp through snow, do not try to dry out your shoes quickly; it can permanently damage your fine footwear. Stuff them with newspaper, set them in a room-temperature place and leave them alone. Change the paper if it gets damp but don’t rush the process. Also, make sure to brush off road salts or dirt immediately. Once the leather has air dried, insert your shoes trees and give them a good polish and waxing to recondition the leather.

I don’t view this as work; quite the opposite in fact. To me, looking after my clothes is a pleasure and since I put real thought into my wardrobe, taking care of it all is a happy ritual.

The Pleasures of Traditional Dress

Oman has not been anything more than a small fishing and trading hub for long. Although historically a powerful port – crucial for the route between Europe and India – it only began to grow significantly this century with the discovery of oil and gas in commercial volumes in 1967.

Which is why the dress remains so refreshingly consistent; there hasn’t been the same exposure to frivolous or fleeting western tastes.

The men wear a white, ankle-length robe referred to as the dishdasha, which buttons at the neck, and a round, patterned cap on the head. They take great pride in both items. For white cloth in a dusty country, the dishdasha is remarkably clean and pressed. And the caps stick to a small range of geometric Islamic patterns that offer enough variation to encourage interest without being showy.

I was on holiday in Oman last week and was impressed with both this pride and consistency. Unlike Oman’s neighbours in the United Arab Emirates, there is a self-respect that comes with this costume that elicits an attachment to clothes largely absent in cosmopolitan Dubai or stringent Saudi Arabia. Men actively admire each other’s choices in material or pattern, without seeing the traditional dress as in any way constrictive.

Jump back a few decades, and this attitude is not that different from the passionate yet restrained attitude many British men had to their clothes – in the days when Victoria station was crammed every morning with dark suits, briefcases and bowler hats. It was the British love of a simple yet elegant style that created a love of good tailoring – fit was all important, cloth second and pattern a fair way back.

It is easy to assume that traditional dress, especially in a relatively conservative country like Oman, is an imposition, a stricture that is part of life’s implicitly religious framework. And indeed there are some aspects of dress that are forced on people: government employees have to wear a turban instead of a cap, and airport officials equally are controlled in what they can wear.

But there is a genuine attachment to this form of dress here – one that can be seen in the markets as men pick through potential materials for a new dishdasha, or select a new embroidered cap.

It is the kind of pride that is missing in much of British dressing today. If only there was the same recognition of the values of tradition, an interest in examining their heritage and a concentration on substance over form.

Sartorial Love/Hate: The Flat Cap

Many a time I have felt the wind nipping keenly, I have turned to accessories to shield my skin from the cold. Scarves, gloves and upturned collars have provided sweet respite. I have also turned to headgear when venturing out for extended periods. It is well known that covering the head is a very efficient way of retaining warmth but as a practice it is rather overlooked; on a recent day, particularly blustery, I encountered countless men, of all ages, trussed up to their necks in coat and scarf whilst the harsh wind blew through their hair: the equivalent of turning the heating up whilst leaving the front door open.

When I do wear headgear I am most grateful for the comfort and warmth. So much so that I am taken to wearing headgear that is considered inappropriate, particularly for town, and more than a little unusual. One type of hat I am rather fond of that seems to attract as much derision as admiration is the flat-cap. Yes, sadly, the flat cap appears to be yet another example of sartorial love/hate.

“I don’t know what it is” someone told me “but they just look wrong.” Another acquaintance ventured to inform that the problem with the style is that it looks so dreadfully ordinary; “It’s a farmer’s hat, nothing more.” Saddened by such beastly reproaches, I am not yet discouraged. I think that although there are grander, better shaped and more appropriately metropolitan forms of headgear to be had, the flat cap is versatile, easy to store and travel with and excellent value. However, the hat does have inevitable limitations. To begin with, it is a casual hat. Flat caps worn with suits do not make for a graceful outfit; there is the vague air of an obnoxious Fleet Street reporter about a gentleman who wears his pinstripes with a ‘flatty.’ It’s a weekender; a hat for more relaxed ensembles. It need not always be accompanied by tweed jackets or Tattersall shirts either. A grey herringbone version would look splendid with a blue blazer, light grey roll neck and charcoal trousers or perhaps a shawl collared knit cardigan and jeans. The difference in wearing a flat cap informally is that it brings dignity and grace to simple ensembles.

For many, this is nothing more than a country casual and so tweed is an appropriate material of manufacture. Indeed, some of the best flat caps money can buy are available from Lock & Co on St James Street, but they do tend to cater for the country set; wool and cashmere tweeds with bright checks. The same can be said of many milliners. The solution, for those inclined towards the flatty, might be to purchase a more metropolitan-friendly blocked felt cap.