Archives for December 2008

Style Icon: Sir John Steed

Of the most celebrated fictional secret agents, John Steed (later knighted for services to the country) is one of the most beloved. While Bond is the womanising, martini-swilling superman, Steed is loyal, gentlemanly and resolute. While Bond carries with him the feint musk of misogyny, Steed’s estimation of Emma Peel leads us to believe he has a rather different view. Of course, their similarities are many – improbable hand-to-hand combat skills, an irresistible charm and a reputation of sartorial elegance.

However, Steed’s style is far more decorative than Bond’s. Steed often wore strollers – a short jacketed version of morning dress – and in the television series, a bowler hat. His umbrella, slim and whangee handled, concealing a lethal sabre, was ever present. He sometimes wore buttonholes. It was Steed, far more than Bond, who was the picture of English elegance. Even Fleming’s idea of Bond, a dream that needed to be tempered for obvious reasons of credibility, was staid in comparison with the character so brilliantly portrayed by Patrick Macnee. “Englishness” I was told by my grandfather’s Resistance veteran friend, “is elegance and eccentricity. You are not afraid of the world enough to avoid being yourself.” Remembering this neat little statement put me in mind of many gentlemen; Prince Charles, the Duke of Windsor, Noel Coward – men who seemed to marry eccentricity and elegance with ease and grace. Steed is the textbook example of this type; he is the model of Englishness, to some the very idea of Britishness.

Though he was sometimes forced to work undercover in a variety of outfits, many of which were of decent cut but questionable aesthetic, Steed always returned to his Savile Row worsted and Lock’s bowler. It is interesting to note that among contemporaries, Steed has a reputation as a dandy. To me, Steed has always been too well-dressed to be considered a dandy. His metier could not permit too outrageous or too decorative a wardrobe (though he is certainly more ornate than Bond), his suits are representative of a bygone fashion and naturally, his bowler adds an antiquated Edwardian touch to his capers in and out of Swinging London, but he is far more conventional: Austin Powers he ain’t.

Anyone looking to ape, or plagiarise, the classic Englishman – in wardrobe, conversation and manner – could do far worse than Steed. Sadly, they’d be representing a category of gentleman in general decline; there are hardly any Steeds left. Cynics point out that Steed was merely a cartoonish nod to the George W Banks era of Victorian born gentlemen; that we should never see the likes of him again is merely a reflection on such gentlemen’s awkwardness and unsuitability for our modern world. I conceal pangs of regret when in audience to such slights; I am of the unfashionable opinion that gentlemen like Sir John, with their sense of duty, their optimism and elegance, are precisely what the world needs.

Reader Question: Fashion and Age

Nigel, London: How would you recommend that a slightly older man with an interest in youth-driven fashion incorporates this into his daily attire? Jeans, for example – some are so skinny they make you look even older than you are.

Men’s style is and has always been about subtlety. The wearing of suede rather than patent leather shoes to a black-tie occasion was enough to draw howls of protest in the past. Today, the best dressed men are often those whose clothes are simply well cut, well fitted or individual in small, subtle ways.

The individuals highlighted in my previous posting are a good example. These Italian gentlemen will use a sombre or conservative background as a means to express themselves elsewhere – in purple driving shoes, for instance, or an oversized watch.

Gianni Agnelli, pictured, is also a great (and well-used) example. His quirks, such as wearing his tie outside this sweater, his watch over his shirt cuff or his monk-front shoes unbuckled have become so adopted by others they have lost most of their originality. Yet they retain their appeal, and everyone wishes they had such individuality of their own.

These are the kind of subtleties one might take up to be more Italian. If one wants to adopt more youthful Anglo-American trends, the key is to do so again with subtlety.

Your suit jacket, for example. One with slightly narrower lapels, a slightly shorter body and just one or two buttons will be instantly more contemporary. Don’t go over the top: narrower, but not narrow lapels; a body that is a little less than half your height, but not on the scale of a ‘bum-freezer’.

These are the kind of things one will not notice at first glance. Certainly not the particulars. But they will notice a more youthful look, perhaps even trendy.

Ideally, the suit would be designed by yourself to these specifications. But you’ll have no trouble finding many suits of this cut or similar to it in the stores today. The key is to try and compare all, and to go for the subtlest you can find.

Another example. Jeans that are straight, not skinny; in a very dark indigo; an inch or so short of touching the ground. Perhaps even with a dark stitching. Contemporary but not extreme.

There are many others. Clean, new Converse trainers with a suit (the key is that Converse are just as narrow and neat as formal shoes. Most trainers are too chunky or rough.)

I hope this helps Nigel.

Reality Bites: Is It All Strictly Useless

I am not one for reality television. I hardly watch anything on television as it is; whatever draws me to the box has to be something one-off and unscripted (such as a football match) or a particularly good drama series. Following reality television is as alien to me as drum ‘n’ bass music or ‘installation’ art; and it’s certainly not old age, I have never understood these concepts, even in the flower of youth. However, I am not in the majority for there are many who follow, and value, reality television. Those who challenge my support of sport – the sense that you are following something real, that the outcome is unknown – often suggest that reality television, particularly competitive programmes such as Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!, offer the same kind of thrill. I contend however that reality television is in most cases, aside from the public’s input, to some extent ‘scripted’ otherwise it could never receive the financial backing from those who have facilitated its filming. Investors always like to know what they’re getting for their money and reality television is no exception.

I also believed that reality television contributed to our new zombie nation. That many viewers are actually susceptible to manipulation through performance should concern, or delight, all who are in positions of power. However, recently during a viewing (which I had to endure) of Strictly Come Dancing – a ridiculous title for a show – I realised that there might be some good to come of the format of reality programming after all. For despite the asinine opinions, garish lighting and levels of glitz and sparkle that would make Elton John blink, the show does have redeeming qualities. Dancing is an attractive and admirable activity to advocate; it’s good for health, promotes elegance and reengages the public with, in our current musical climate, what is really a dying art – moving in a complementary fashion to a melody and rhythm. It also has the benefit of reengaging the public with clothing that is often seen as fusty or (I despise the tag) ‘posh.’ Rugby players, admired actors of stage and screen and crumbling celebrities have all been seen in dazzling white tie, no doubt provoking comments of ‘Oh! Don’t they look smart?’ in many sitting rooms up and down the country. When such beloved and ‘humble’ figures are seen to dress thus, it is peculiar how acceptable and acknowledged it becomes. No longer is it something they ‘don’t understand’ – for they had seen it last Saturday on their favourite leading man.

The other benefit of this show is the presenter Bruce Forsyth who, despite the garish surroundings of the studio, manages to dress with a restrained flair. Much to my relief, the show advocates black tie like no other – and it demonstrates the impact of the practice, and its superiority, by its juxtaposition to the ‘modern’ black tie. The only characters who dress well are Mr Forsyth and one of the judges, Len Goodman. Their staple is black tie but they vary the style of their evening dress from week to week – colours of waistcoat, width of lapel, size of bow – all contributing to the likely positive acceptance by the public of the differentiations possible with evening dress, and the idea that elegance is desirable and achievable. Both achieve solid 8s and 9s. By far the most poorly dressed of the male quartet, Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli dress in that careless, ‘young Hollywood’ fashion; Tonioli with his ghastly, glittery tone on tone bringing back nightmares of a similarly attired Chris Tarrant, and Revel Horwood, though he has occasionally worn a bow, in his inoffensive but cheap and lazy ‘modern’ black tie. Both would be very lucky to receive anything more than 4.

Reader Question: How Stylish am I?

Rob, London: I’ve recently started reading your blog and am struck by the universe of style that I am totally oblivious to. On a scale of one to ten (one = no style, ten = very stylish), where do I rank and why?

I’ve known Rob and worked with him for a long time, so it’s simple to describe his general style. The task is also helped by the fact that Rob always wears the same thing.

Rob wears a navy suit, a blue shirt and a blue tie everyday. He wears black socks and black shoes. Sometimes the tie will be black, but it is certainly always dark. The shirt is occasionally white. A few years ago I remember one day he wore a pink shirt. It didn’t happen again.

Rob has a navy overcoat and a navy beanie for the winter. His scarf is grey.

Now there’s nothing wrong with dressing consistently, even to a point that to others might consider dull. Italian men famously wear consistent outfits like this in navy tones, often to provide a background for something more unusual, such as brightly coloured driving shoes or strongly patterned coat. (See my post on the Italian Background.)

But these tonally regular outfits are also used as a way to express the seriousness of business dress, with the focus being on fit and quality rather than colour or individuality. I present two examples here, Matteo Marzotto, CEO of Valentino, and Luca di Montezemolo, chairman of Ferrari. (Images courtesy of The Sartorialist and A Suitable Wardrobe.)

Both men always appear stylish, are even considered icons. Yet their dress is usually simple, unadventurous and classic. The key is fit and some slight variations in texture.

Rob has had a suit or two made for him in the past I believe, in Hong Kong. But most of his suits and shirts are off the peg. Equally, he has often invested in some good quality shoes, some made to order, but other accessories are not necessarily luxurious.

So a steady investment in fit and quality would make a big difference. Try and get back to Hong Kong for some suits, Rob, or read the posts here about getting suits altered when you buy them. The better fit will make a big difference. And given that your accessories are so consistent, it will be good value to invest in some nice ties. Perhaps one in dark blue silk, another in dark blue cashmere.

Which brings me to material. A little bit of variation here can make a big difference – exchanging the shine of silk for the matte of wool, or knitted silk, for instance. Perhaps getting a navy suit in flannel rather than worsted; or using the shine of a cream silk handkerchief or the matte of white linen. All these things are subtle ways to add style to a conservative outfit.

So are you stylish Rob? It would be hard to give you a big score based on present form, but there is obviously an instinctive sense of style there, and there is huge potential for improvement with a few small changes.

So perhaps four out of ten today, with the possibility of seven or eight if you take my advice.

And lose the beanie.

Glove Problems

There is no doubt that I prefer the sole trader to the chain. While I am a strong supporter of the much improved stores of the high street, there is a price to pay for the efficiency and economy of the offerings of large chain stores. For one thing, it’s unlikely that you’ll find anything that isn’t designed to appeal to a broad range of chaps; certain shops valiantly seek to sell taste but generally speaking, they’ll sell what they know people will buy. Although this is a central aim of any trade enterprise, large or small, the smaller the trader, the more unusual the wares. The trouble with homogeny is that certain subtleties of manufacture are avoided; the tragedy of off-the-peg or ‘ready to wear’ is that it is often not ready to wear at all. The trousers are cut too long, the jacket too roomy. Adjustments are often needed to really attain the best value from the economic purchase.

Sadly, there are certain items which cannot be adjusted. Being of an awkward shoe size can be a bother in stores that do not stock half sizes, particularly if the shoes are of one’s taste and budget, but the really disappointing thing about the high street stores, including the large department stores – so grand in reputation and scale – is that I can rarely find a pair of leather gloves that actually fit me. “We’ve got small, medium and large, sir” said the courteous young American girl on a recent visit to a department store. I tried a pair of the small. They were certainly the right size for my palm but my fingers looked like sausages. “They’re not quite what I am looking for – my hands look huge” I said, startled by my reflection in the mirror. The gloves looked more like the sort of thing snowboarders wear; the delicate subtleties of the human hand lost in the mass of leather that engulfed the fingers. “I guess” said the young girl, folding the gloves and placing them back onto the table “most guys don’t really care about that.”

The problem is that only a few stores, none of which were known to any persons I spoke to, actually offered gloves in more of a range than the generic sizes of small, medium and large. My research on the topic led me to discover that many see the sizing of small, medium and large as an alternative to the sizing in inches (6 ½ , 7 etc), the Zavier Jouvin method devised in the 19th century, and not as a homogenisation of glove sizing. However, despite the fact that Dents gloves are made in good quality leather, in a variety of colours, when I wear them I look ridiculous. Having experimented with ladies gloves, I now know that the problem lies with the particular style of gloves available to men. Women’s gloves reflect the daintier appearance of the hands that wear them; they are too small for my hands as the fingers are far too short, restricting my hand movement, but the way the leather is finished on the fingers is far more elegant. There is a delicacy lacking on most of the glove models available to men; they seem not to be made for fingers but tree stumps.

I discovered an interesting website, Gaspar Gloves which offered, from what I could see, more elegant dress gloves for gentlemen. Priced at $85, Gaspar are quite proud of their strong connection with Hollywood; on their home page, Angelina Jolie is pictured in fine leather period-style gloves, clutching a receiver in her latest film ‘Changeling.’ Gaspar is certainly the sort of trader I warm to but I dream of such availability in the real world, and not merely the virtual. I am unwilling to purchase gloves without first trying them on. I imagine walking into an independent glove shop just off Regent Street; a huge range of materials and colours, racks and racks of sizes on oak shelving, a crackling fire and a Sinatra soundtrack. “Formal black gloves for the evening, and would sir like some chestnut driving gloves for the country?” Sadly, such a shop remains a dream. I think I was born in the wrong century.