Archives for January 2009

Menswear Myths, Fact and Fiction

How do I know that the Blucher shoe was developed by a German general who wanted to create a boot his troops could easily remove and still be sturdy on the march? How do I know that UK menswear outfit Daks is a compression of ‘Dad’s slacks’?

I know only because other people have told me. Several people, and I’ve read it in books. But I’ve never done anything to verify either of these facts independently.

In fact, I go one step further and actually repeat these facts in my blog and other features, purely because several sources say the same thing. Given that my blog and features are now one of those sources, this is a self-fulfilling exercise. It is circular perpetuation.

This reliance on scant evidence is highlighted when you are told two contradictory facts.

For example, the Windsor knot is named after the Duke of Windsor. As anyone in the UK will know, there are lots of Dukes of Windsor. This one was Edward VIII. The fact sometimes related is that the Windsor knot is named after Edward because he tied his ties that way.

This, I’m pretty sure, is false. He actually just liked a thicker knot so had his ties made thicker and tied them with a normal four-in-hand. It is called a Windsor knot because it looks like the knots he often tied, which did fit into Windsor collars (a wide spread collar), also named after him and more suited to the thicker tie knot.

Only one or two fairly trite sources will give you the first version. But there are more opaque myths. The four-in-hand knot, for example. In three separate books I have read that the name originates from: the tie knot worn by drivers of coaches with four horses, referring to the four reins they held; the tie knot worn by the four-in-hand club, which was connected to such coach drivers; and the knot itself, which looks rather like reins when hanging loosely from such a small, tight knot.

Now any or all of these may be true. It may be that coach drivers that used four horses formed a club called the four-in-hand club and thought their ties looked a bit like their reins. But then, only one of them may be true.

How do I know? What method do I have other than looking up lots of sources and relying on mathematics?

In one of these books I also read that the stripes on an American club tie go in the opposite direction to a British tie (a man’s right shoulder to his left hip in America) because those making ties in the US forgot to take account of the direction of the stripe when they turned the silk over to cut it.

This contradicts the story I am usually told, that Brooks Brothers launched ties with an opposite stripe to deliberately be different to British ties.

That second one is probably right. But how do I know?

My point is this: online journalism is an easy way to perpetuate urban myths through sheer repetition. It is something we have a responsibility to monitor, just like those volunteers at Wikipedia.

Style Icons: The Cincinnati Kid

“I’ll see your two thousand and raise you five thousand.” Gasps around the room. The Cincinnati Kid leans back in his chair, hand on chin.

Is that a knitted tie he’s wearing? It’s so hard to tell in black and white.

“Lancey’s got the jack!” “Nah, the Kid’s got the jack.” “Don’t be stupid, no one’s got it.” The crowd argues in whispers as Lancey leans forward, mockingly.

Look at how Steve McQueen’s grey shirt contrasts with the prim attire of Edward G Robinson and the rest.

The card is turned. Lancey has the jack; it’s all over. Fast cut from the Kid to Lancey to Christian to Shooter. End scene.

Lancey really has all the trappings of a establishment man – from the tie pin to the waistcoat.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I often have trouble concentrating on old films for all the wonderful tailoring on display. Brighton Rockwas the first described here. The Cincinnati Kid is the latest – another victim of my wandering attentions.

The Kid is a lesson in the virtues of standing out, and in how to do it well.

Steve McQueen is the outsider in a group of high-rolling gamblers. The gamblers have money, and silently, implicitly try to outdo each other in displays of riches. The kingpin, Lancey Howard, declares that money is merely a means in gambling, not an end; just like breathing is a means to debate. Money has to be seen to be unimportant, and so it is lavished on embroidered waistcoats, silk gowns worn over their suits around the house and tie pins that glitter around the poker table.

McQueen’s clothes reflect his status. They the epitome of downbeat cool. For much of the film he wears a shawl-collared sweater with his shirt, instead of a jacket. When he goes out to a cockfight he wears a charcoal, round-neck sweater underneath his grey suit. At the table, in the culminating game of the film, he wears a grey shirt and black knitted tie with the suit.

As the picture of the cock fight here illustrates, everyone else is in white shirts (often with pinned collars), silk ties and either waistcoats or double-breasted suits. He is the exception. The eye immediately goes to him (though Melba’s legs help).

To enjoy men’s clothing as much as we do, there has to be a willingness to stand out. You will be wearing something different to most men in the room. Better, in our opinion, but different. The Kid is the best example I know of how to stand out in style while actually being more casual. Well dressed, well fitted but casual.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Cowboy Boots

“Yee hah!” I think to myself when I see a pair of them, clicking around London’s cobbled streets; the pointed toes, robust and upturned, kicking into the cold English air. The wearer’s jeans conceal all except the foot but even then, their distinctive shape and unmistakable click give the game away; some look on in admiration, some hide chuckling faces of mockery and derision: the cowboy boot has admirers, but it also has enemies.

In the right environment, it would be daft to wear anything else; cowboy boots, I have been informed, are perfect for their required purpose. The attractive image of a rancher in a Stetson, checked shirt, blue denim and cowboy boots is timeless; and an image contemporary designers, such as DSquared, have partly plagiarised for their collections. Admittedly, this look owes a lot to Hollywood, particularly the popularity of personalities such as James Dean and Gary Cooper, who blazed across the broad cinema screen in dusty, cowboy clothing; the cowboy boots on their feet transformed from hick, Lonesville USA essentials into fashion items desired by many. Were it not for the motion picture Western, I doubt cowboy boots would be worn in the cold concrete towns of Eastern Europe; a tribute to the immense wonder of cinema.

I once tried a pair of cowboy boots in Texas, a state that seemed to me the home of the particular item, for they were worn everywhere; in the steak houses by smiling ol’ Texans in gingham shirts, by smartly dressed businessmen in downtown Dallas and by the ‘ladies who brunched’ at the glitziest hotels. Though the influence of European fashion is discernible in such a place, the stoic resistance and great Lone Star pride of their ranching past is more overt.

However, it is precisely this connection that has negative influence for those not Texan by birth. The cowboy boot is as alien to some Americans as the hot dog to a Moroccan; it’s part of a culture and a way of life that is somehow not their own.

The cowboy boot, with the distinctive angled heel, the pointed toes that make one’s feet seem trowel-like, and the rigid upturned profile, is to some a practical, even stylish item of footwear that recalls the glory of onscreen Westerns, the magic of the Wild West and the tough, unshaven masculinity of a bygone age. To others, the boot is graceless and entirely inappropriate for metropolitan wear.

When I walked around in the brightly lit emporium in Dallas that sold the pair, a large warehouse building that reeked of leather, testing my cowboy credentials in a very cowboy state, I realised that I was touching a fantasy; I could never have proper use for such footwear. I lack the languorous manliness essential to look appropriate. Even then, I would question the purchase for one such as myself. I don’t harbour hatred for them as some do, nor do I question their appropriateness and practicality in certain environments. It merely seems to me that the cowboy boot, rather like the state of Texas – delightful as it was – ‘‘ain’t for everyone.’’

The Galosh: A Traditional, Modern, City Shoe

Those with a passion for shoes often develop a love of browns in various hues – tan, chocolate, chestnut, oak. They also search for unusual colours and textures – red (oxblood) and green (olive), cordovan and crocodile.

Black calf can just seem so dull. Particularly if this lover of shoes works in an office, or has done in the past. Black leather Oxfords may well be associated with the dull, conservative middle management of such offices (men who probably have one pair of shoes they beat into the ground every day of the year, and then complain when they fall apart).

The shoe lovers are, of course, wrong. Black calf can be very exciting, as hopefully illustrated by my recent post on George Cleverley bespoke (my ‘dead man’s shoes’, as one colleague wittily calls them).

But there’s nothing to be done about associations. Only so much of style and taste is rational.

So for those who find black leather shoes boring, but probably need at least one pair for formal work occasions, not to mention funerals and black tie, I recommend a black suede/calf galosh shoe.

From the turn of the century until the 1940s, much of man’s formal footwear was of this type. A fairly normal looking black oxford or slip-on in the bottom half, but a grey suede or cloth boot in the upper half. The suede, often buttoned across the foot, would make a shoe generally more flexible and instantly comfortable. The higher rise would also protect the foot and ankle from fairly muddy streets.

The illustration from John Lobb bespoke shows variations on this boot. These are lace-ups rather than buttons. In the early days, the top halves would actually be separate spats in linen or boxcloth.

Will over at A Suitable Wardrobe commissioned Gaziano & Girling to make a modern equivalent, dropping the boot height of the shoes and just making the upper half of a normal Oxford in grey suede. While I like this look, it is a little too showy for what I had in mind. Instead, I would recommend to you the Gaziano & Girling Kent design itself, as seen on the firm’s website and shown here.

The black suede is unusual but not instantly obvious. It is subtle yet sophisticated, a throw-back to traditional menswear with a modern application.

Most bespoke shoemakers will make you something of this type, with the top of the galosh either contrasting calf or suede. But the best ready-to-wear options are probably G&G or Pierre Corthay – any eagle-eyed readers will notice that my Corthays are of this type (the Wilfrid) but in tan. They also come in black.

That’s the traditional, modern, city shoe.

Three Top Tips

“Piles and piles of useless information – that’s what the internet is.” This was the rather room-quietening remark made by a technology sceptic relative of mine when all surrounding were discussing websites, streaming video, YouTube and blogs. As daft and naïve as the statement may have been, it did provoke me to ponder the usability of the internet’s unparalleled resources; how much of what I read is actually necessary? How much of what I write is actually useful?

Good advice is rather hard to come by, so I feel I should at least impart the knowledge which I have attained through experience. The sort of advice some might call ‘old fashioned.’

The quick leg up

Of all the complaints about off the rack purchases, the trouser length ranks as one of the most frequent. As frustrating as it is for buyers of such garments, it makes perfect sense – a trouser that is too short is almost useless. The long trouser can always be shortened. However, putting off a visit to the tailor is common; some chaps don’t have enough time, are absent minded or are temporarily too low in finances to complete the vital ‘shortening’ of the trouser. Imperfection is infuriating, but so is a newly purchased suit gathering dust. As a temporary measure, simply turn your trousers up the required length, inside the trouser leg. Then affix small safety pins to the inside trouser seams to hold them in place. Iron over the trouser bottoms several times and be careful when slipping your legs into your trousers not to displace the pins. For an impermanent alteration, this is rather convincing.

The tie ‘clip’

Ties may be a physically small accessory but they are extremely important. And there is no point in wearing them weakly; they deserve to be worn with flair. One of the smartest ways to wear a tie is to wear them tightly knotted, pointing almost horizontally away from the collar; this creates a pleasant rumple of the silk and a pleasing profile. However, it’s difficult to keep the tie sitting in this distinguished position without constant readjustment. One of the best methods is to secure the tie against the placket of the shirt. A tie clip would do this admirably well, particularly when wearing two-piece suits. Three-piece suits wouldn’t necessarily require such an accessory; a large paper clip can secure the tie underneath the waistcoat. Simply push the tie up against the shirt towards the collar until the top third is protruding from the shirt, then slide the clip in to secure in this position.

The double scarf

In the recent ‘cold snap’ I found it rather difficult to remain elegant; the bitter, biting cold had me breathing into scarves wrapped tightly around my lower face. It’s very possible to look like an unfortunate hobo in such weather, despite the expense or sophistication of one’s wardrobe. Let’s say you have purchased a smart shirt and are tired of wearing the chunky roll necks that dominate your winter wardrobe; a little refinement is what your winter ensembles need. Simply wear a silk, or cotton, scarf wrapped around your neck rather like a cravat, add a v-neck jumper, a second scarf – preferably cashmere or wool – an overcoat, and hey presto; a little chilly chic. The layering of different textures is as arresting as the ensemble is warm; adding a chic fedora or Gatsby cap would complete the look.