Archives for 2008

Evening Scarf

The suit is cleaned and hung, the shirt has been starched, the bow tie neatly laid on the dressing table; all of this perfection is reflected in the dazzling shine of the patent shoes. At this time of year, aside from an appropriate overcoat, there is one more accessory worthy of accompanying the classic evening dress (dinner suit/tuxedo – depending on your nationality) and surprisingly, this is an accessory which does not receive universal approval. For the wearer of the evening scarf is not always in company; even on bitterly cold nights, it is rare to see the stark splash of white or ivory, fluttering in the winter wind.

Perhaps it is because the silk scarf is considered effeminate, or perhaps it is that, aside from wearing with evening dress, a white silk scarf is unlikely to be used. Or perhaps it is that white is too impractical a colour for boozing bachelors; “One splash of port” coughs our hypothetical reveller “and it’s five quid at the dry cleaners.” This is certainly a consideration, although what our reveller was doing wearing the scarf when quaffing port – evidently well into the evenings entertainment – unless he happened to be outside is a mystery. It is true that those ill-used to the trappings of ‘black tie’ – unsure of how to tie bows, not in possession of patent shoes – are likely to avoid too much paraphernalia but on the other hand, should they adorn such items, they are loathe to part with them for the point of etiquette. The argument being that if they’re going to ‘spend that sort of money’ they’re not going to ‘leave the bally thing stuffed in a pocket.’ Scarves should really be left at the door with the overcoat and umbrella, but many choose to keep them draped over their shoulders theatrically; etiquette would suggest this is incorrect, but I have little issue with it. At least they are being worn.

Despite their decorative appearance, silk scarves can be effective in keeping you warm. Wrapped tightly around the neck, it is as efficient as wool whilst being as comfortingly soft as cashmere. It is also far smarter than both those materials. The shame of it, as previously mentioned, is that gentlemen of today generally feel that silk is too effete a material for a scarf. However, for those who consider themselves discerning, and brave enough, if you are reticent to purchase the ivory or white evening scarf, perhaps you will consider something that is useful in other ensembles; something appropriate for black tie, but also for less formal outfits: the patterned silk scarf.

Purists might sneer at the use of a patterned silk scarf at a black tie function but I believe they can add zest and spice to the monochrome simplicity. They also come in handy doubling up as an elaborate cravat-cum-neck warmer; the method is to tie once around the neck, create a single knot and then fold in place behind the shirt front. The other benefit, or annoyance (what you will), is that other halves are keen to borrow said scarves – as they are sufficiently elegant for feminine wear – when they are at a loose end for such an accessory.

Density of Pattern

Before you decide anything in the morning about what you’re going to wear, consider density of pattern.

Ok, maybe select your suit first. But then, before reaching for the shirt, look at the pattern of your suit and consider it. Is there a pattern? What is its density? How might that density harmonise with, clash with or simply stay a good distance away from other patterns in your outfit?

Ok (another backtrack) maybe you wouldn’t obsess quite like this. But you should think about how a suit, shirt and tie relate in terms of density of pattern before you consider anything else – colour, knot vs. collar size, blade width vs. lapel width.

Having patterns that are too similar next to each other is the biggest way men go wrong with their morning dressing.

It’s simple. If patterns are next to each other, make sure they are of different sizes. If you are going to wear a striped suit, make sure you don’t pick a striped shirt. Or if you do, make sure the stripes are at opposite ends of the size spectrum – a wide chalk striped suit, say, with a fine hairline striped shirt.

It would be safest to go for a plain tie at this stage, but if you insist on going for stripes again, make sure they are wide also, to differentiate them from the shirt – a club stripe say.

This still isn’t ideal, as the stripes of tie and suit will still be next to each other where the jacket closes. This could be ameliorated by trying to find a third, intermediate width for one item, or (better) by making sure one stripe is rather pale (probably the suit).

Right. Now, one way to differ patterns further is to swap stripes for spots. Pin stripes that are, for example, a half-inch apart, could work fine with spots that are the same distance apart. Obviously, the more different they are in size the safer.

Other patterns provide similar relief – a large paisley, for example, against a stripe (probably tie on shirt). Or checks. Ideally a checked shirt should be matched against a striped suit of different density, but the very fact they are different types of patterns provides the minimal difference.

The image illustrates this well. The checked shirt works against the striped suit because, thought they are similar densities, they are different patterns themselves. The spotted tie is then clear on two fronts – because it is a different pattern itself and because it is a different density to its neighbours.

I’m sure the pocket handkerchief in wide blue paisley is just off-screen.

And that’s how to mix patterns.

The Lawyer Background

British lawyers have a penchant for a particular suit/shirt combination that allows them to sport brightly coloured ‘fun’ ties. It’s an object of derision but holds lessons for all of us.

A while ago I wrote about the Italian background: the tendency of Italian men to wear a plain blue shirt and dark blue tie as a neutral support to more outlandish suits or accessories. This neutral, conservative combination is an easy fallback for the stylish man. If you’re not sure what will go with a particular suit, just opt for blue and blue.

The English lawyer’s background is similar, but transposes the blue/blue from shirt and tie to shirt and suit. This is practical combination to support a certain type of tie, namely that of a pale, light colour.

This tie is often from Hermès. It often has small characters printed on it (hippopotami, say, or squirrels). But most important is the fact that it is a light yet pale colour.

This is not an easy shade of any colour to wear. A white shirt makes the lightness of the tie too stark. The contrast is too great and both can end up looking cheap. A blue shirt is much better able to support such lightness, being a more muted colour itself and so creating less contrast.

However, being a pale version of this light colour, it could easily fade into nothing if worn with a pale or mid-grey suit. So a navy suit works perfectly – it provides a solid base for the tie’s colour, and also harmonises with the shirt to produce a single background block. There is little contrast, but still a solidity in support.

Consider the tie on the far right of the picture. It would be washed out against a white shirt; so wear blue. It would be washed out against a pale suit; so wear a dark one. It also needs to minimise contrast everywhere, so wear a blue shirt and navy tie – similar tones that become pure background (exactly like the Italian shirt/tie combination).

If you are ever stuck for what suit and shirt to wear with a pale-coloured tie, this is your answer.

I won’t comment at anywhere near the same length on the images used on these ties. Suffice it to say that there is a correlation between lawyers generally being dull, introverted people, and a compulsion to display childish animals. I will also mention in passing that some accuse these lawyers of wearing their entire personality around their neck.

Suited Up

A reader recently contacted me because as a newly graduated attorney, he wanted some specific advice on what to look for in a suit. He also wanted to hear about a few specific brands.

The gentleman indicated that he is based in Chicago and his work environment is a more formal one. That is, he is not asking about those two or three times when he needs to pull out a good suit. Rather, he needs to be dressed for business most of the time if not all of the time.

As this young man is starting out on his career, I have decided to focus on a couple of classic and readily available brands. While bespoke and made-to-measure are the favorite topics of the armchair cognoscenti, in reality, this fellow is looking for practical advice on building a realistic, starter suit wardrobe. So, do I like Oxford? Yes. Will we discuss Oxford right now? No.

Generally speaking, when it comes to tailored clothing like suits, you get what you pay for. I can attest to this through personal experience as I suspect many others can too. A suit for $199 will be serviceable at best, have a lower grade of fabric, fused seams and a boxy fit. For some guys, that’s OK; they don’t need the finer details, they just need a suit for occasional wear. I am certainly not going to pick on these men because for them wearing a suit is a necessity to be suffered through. Who am I to judge? My only comment is the perennial argument that you should treat clothing as an investment and buy the best quality you can afford. Over time, value tends to outlast fast fashion or convenience.

In my reader’s case, he is looking for details and quality within an affordable range. So, my first point is that there are many suit makers who produce very good clothing and a few that are excellent. My second point is that the focus should always be on what makes a good suit more than who makes it. So, right off the bat I’m contradicting myself, but I’m doing so for expediency’s sake.

The Classic Suit Makers

To see what’s out there, let’s now highlight some of the better known traditional American makers and what they bring to the table. For good suits that will carry you through most business or legal situations, you cannot go wrong with Brooks Brothers or J. Press. Of late, Brooks has expanded its styling to reflect a more global aesthetic that is in line with its Italian CEO: tapered darting, leaner lines, higher armholes and double vents. But even with these refined touches, Brooks’ suits are still very much a first line resource.

J. Press on the other hand is about as traditional American classic as you can get. The suits one can pick up at a Press store today basically look like the ones in my father’s closet from 25 years ago – accounting for slight variations for lapel width and button stance.

Joseph A. Bank is a national middle market name that carries good suits. Back when I was a youngster and Banks was an East Coast local (it’s headquartered in Maryland), the company was known as the poor man’s Brooks Brothers. My first suit was a dark grey chalk stripe in a medium weight flannel. I loved that suit – no idea what happened to it. The company’s Signature line uses better fabrics and detailing, but for workday suits, the regular Executive line is quite good.

Polo/Ralph Lauren suits are, as a whole, of excellent quality and some of the nicest off-the-rack suits you’ll find. They are also ridiculously overpriced. Most of Ralph Lauren’s suits are manufactured in Italy by Belvest and will likely last a lifetime. Ralph Lauren is a company that long ago mastered multi-brand niche marketing and emotional retailing. It has product lines that touch all over the pricing spectrum, even with its suiting. The core line of Blue Label suits includes the aforementioned Polo/Ralph Lauren line as well as the Ralph Lauren line. Black Label harkens back to slimmer mod design influences. The bespoke level Purple Label line is something to check out when you make partner.

If your budget is already at the Purple Label level, head directly to Paul Stuart, the very definition of exacting quality at exorbitant prices. Paul Stuart clothing has a certain earthy anglophile feel, but make no mistake, it is unambiguously traditional classic American. Very Manhattan CEO – though right now that isn’t saying much.

Outlet Shopping

Many people, me included have turned outlet shopping into a blood sport, so let me comment on this often fruitful alternative to retail. Both Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren have factory outlet stores all over the place. While outlets used to be the place where overstocked items and factory seconds reigned, today most companies manufacture clothing specifically for their outlets.

So beware; if you are looking for quality than avoid the “Lauren” line at Ralph Lauren outlets and “365” at Brooks outlets. They are not bad clothing per se, but they are of decidedly inferior quality and workmanship. Instead, be on the lookout for retail store clothing that has been moved to the outlet store.

Dedicated outlet stores can harbor good deals, but you need to pounce when they arise. I recently found an exceptional cashmere blend Ralph Lauren odd jacket at a Polo outlet. It was regularly $1,500, and I snagged it for $199. The deals are there if you keep an eye out. I am reminded of a favorite saying of my father: chance favors the prepared mind.

To that point, not too long ago I discovered a $1,700 Canali suit for $399 at Filene’s Basement. Canali is an excellent Italian brand that happens to fit me quite well. There was one 44R and I grabbed it. The suit then went to my own tailor for adjustments.

I cannot stress enough that when you buy a suit, I don’t care where it comes from, take it to a tailor to be properly fitted to your body. This is nonnegotiable. If the store has a good tailor on staff, fine; otherwise find and a good tailor on whom you can rely. The most expensive suit in the world will look bad on you if improperly fitted.

They Make Suits?

Let me comment on fashion brand suits. While companies like J.Crew, Tommy Hilfinger, Banana Republic, or H+M are wonderful resources for casual clothing and sportswear, I do not recommend them for suits.

First, it’s just not their thing. They are not tailors or craftsmen, they are casual wear retailers whose primary goal is to move seasonal inventory. That’s not an admonishment, just a fact.

Second, clothing with a capital “C” requires at the minimum staff who understand the difference between tailored clothing and a stack of pre-sized khakis. Just as I would never send someone to Brooks Brothers for a great pair of jeans, I would not send my readers to J. Crew for a high quality suit. Yes, it may be passable for that first “out of college and I’m too young for J. Press” suit, but for the money you’ll spend it’s not worth the expense.

A Final Thought

Lastly, make sure your suit suits you. It should feel right when you put it on and comfortable throughout the day. You should look and feel natural in your own suit and building that kind of rapport is not always quick. Sometimes it takes a while to find a suit maker whose general shape best fits yours. Not everyone is a suit person and that’s fine by me. I’m not a suit person every day of the week either, but on those days when I am one, my suits feel and look great.

And so should yours.

Christmas Presents: Buy the Luxury You Can Afford

Anyone out there trying to find a Christmas present for myself or gentlemen like me should bear two things in mind: buy the best you can afford, and buy pieces that last.

No matter how little you have to spend on someone’s Christmas present, you can afford luxury. It’s merely a question of scaling down the size or complexity of the item.

You probably can’t afford to buy someone a luxury tie, at least until the January sales – they often cost up to £100 after all. Equally, a top-end shirt is likely to be beyond most people – these also cost upwards of £100.

But then a shirt or similarly fitted item is worth avoiding. It is hard to get something that fits precisely, even if you know the gentleman’s neck size, for example. Better to go for accessories that are not size-specific.

And you can afford luxurious accessories if they’re small. The best socks money can buy are likely to be within your range, as are the best collarbones (also known as collar stays or collar stiffeners). Even the very best handkerchiefs are likely to be affordable, at least for that special someone.

So here are my top three recommendations, for three different budgets.

1. Price bracket: £10 to £20
Berluti cotton socks

I’d love to pretend that I can afford to shop at Berluti regularly. But I can’t. I can afford their socks, though, which while expensive at £20, are the softest and best quality of any I have tried. The full-calf versions are sufficiently thin that your upper calves never feel too warm – a frequent complaint of those that prefer short socks.

And they come in a very snazzy Berluti drawstring bag. Which I know I’m paying for, but love anyway. I put my iPod in it and it means I can pretend I shop at Berluti regularly.

2.Price bracket: £20 to £30
Mother-of-pearl collarbones, TM Lewin

Every man should own a pair of collarbones, which are the inserts that run to the corner of your shirt’s collar and keep it stiff.

Most shirts come with their own, plastic versions. But these are easily bent, lost or snapped. The most important adjective there is the first one – although it is possible to not lose your collarbones and to keep them safe from the washing machine, they will never be as reliable as more permanent ones in a metal or other hard material.

Go for silver over steel. Although no one but you will know what they’re made of, you know and that’s all that matters. Just like the monogram hidden away on the tail of your shirt.

Right now at TM Lewin, both silver and mother-of-pearl are half price, £25 down from £50. Being an individualist, I would recommend mother-of-pearl of those two.

3. Price bracket: £30 to £50
White handkerchief, Hermes

All three of these items are pretty much the best you can buy for your money. A little touch of luxury. But the second two stand out in another way: you really only need one of each. Your luxury collarbones can be taken out at the end of the day and put into your new shirt the next. And you really only need one white handkerchief.

This is for show rather than blow, remember, so it will rarely need to be washed. It simply sits in your breast pocket and makes your jacket look dressed.

And if you only need one, why not go for the best? The Hermes handkerchiefs are luxurious, as you’d expect, and my favourite is the cotton/linen mix that looks as crisp as linen while retaining some of the flexibility of cotton – it doesn’t need to be ironed every time you rearrange it.

Hermes handkerchiefs are £45. Which is a lot of money for a handkerchief. An awful lot. But then if you wear it a couple of times a week for a good couple of decades, I’d say that’s good value.

Three presents, three items of luxury that also deliver value. Happy shopping.