Favourite Ensembles: Ralph Lauren Fall 2006

Ralph Lauren’s stock has been downgraded by Goldman Sachs to a ‘sell.’ RL, though very resistant to the worsening winds of the mighty economic storm that has claimed some of the world’s most recognisable corporations, is apparently not resistant enough to withstand the changes foreseen in consumer markets – notably that change from ‘aspirational’ to ‘desperational.’ However, despite the evident fallibility of Lauren’s stock in these markets, the company still has a reputation for drawing sales from an impressive inventory and for controlling company expenses in a truly Buffetian manner; a small example is Lauren’s reluctance in laying on extravagant shows, despite the financial success of his company.

Ralph Lauren menswear, which many credit as the most successful – aesthetically and financially – part of his empire, was shown on a New York runway in 2006, but it had been more than 30 years since it had last received such an audience; wedged between rows and rows of clapping celebrities, socialites and fashion luvvies.

Cynics comment that Lauren’s masculine creations deserve less of a runway parade and more of an entry into the ever expanding volumes of ‘classic’ (i.e. uninventive) menswear. ‘Leave the runway to real fashion’ shrill the most ruthlessly anti-Lauren of this group. I am rather disappointed by such sorry treatment, for Ralph Lauren claims no creative or avant-garde decorations; not for him the faddish honours bestowed on Thom Browne. Lauren produces good, solid clothing for gentlemen and sportsmen, often in materials and with a creative quality time has forgotten. His collections are honestly derivative.

Pictured outfit, an all time favourite of mine, captures the Lauren ‘magic’; the magic of reintroducing elements of menswear so elegant, so refined, one finds it hard to believe they ever went out of fashion. The suit, wide chalk striped and double breasted is a lesson in construction to those who feel capable of tackling the DB problems of reducing ‘boxyness.’ The lapels are wider than most contemporary cut for any suit, double breasted or otherwise. They also peak very much nearer to the shoulder. As I have noted with differentiating new and vintage evening tailcoats, this type of lapel actually makes the waist appear slimmer and the jacket in question seem rather more fitted; even tailored. The illusion, it seems, is that the shoulders seem rather wider.

However, unlike most off-the-rack double breasted suits, this Lauren version cuts in very slim at the waist, enabling it to be worn open (most non-tailored double breasted jackets manage to lose their elegance when unbuttoned). The addition of the Fair Isle jumper, probably sleeveless, adds a playful, merry touch to the smart but severe suit. I love the tie; the width particularly, as it bursts from the restriction of the jumper. The fedora’s position on the model’s head, the barely visible pocket square and the checked overcoat, draped over the model’s arm, lend an idea of early twentieth century romance to the ensemble; as though he were not pacing the runways, but platform 9 at Paddington, the steam puffing at his ankles. Very Richard Hannay.

The Rules and How to Break Them. No.4

Rule 4: Always button the waist button of your jacket. And only that button

Let’s start by defining the waist button. This is usually the middle button on a three-button suit, the top button on a two-button suit and obviously the only button on a one-button suit.

I say usually because this is the custom – it is the button that is placed at the individual’s waist, the place where the tailor has opted to place the waist and measure it. There are a few inches of play there from the bulge of your rib cage down to the top of your hip bone. There are high-waisted and low-waisted jackets, just as there are high-waisted and low-waisted trousers. The height of the waist button varies accordingly.

The whole structure of the jacket is built off this button and the shape of the shoulders. The lapels curl down to this button; the line of the suit from armhole to skirt is determined by the placement of this button. It is the fulcrum around which everything else revolves.

This is why men are always told to do up their suit jackets when standing. If they don’t, they might as well not wear a jacket that fits. All the tailoring is built off the shape created when the button is fastened.

The only thing that makes less sense is only doing up the bottom button. But I’ve written about that at length before. It makes me mad.

One quick and easy exception to the rule: weather is the main reason to do up the other buttons. For cold or for wind, you can legitimately fasten the other buttons to keep in heat or stop the skirt of your jacket flapping. This is the main reason I dislike one-button jackets – you don’t have that option.

The main exception to the rule, however, is true three-button jackets. Most three-button jackets have a lapel that is soft enough to roll back when the top button is left undone, leaving a straight line running down from the collar to the waist button. This is often referred to as a three-roll-two or three-roll-two and a half, because with the top button undone the jacket line looks almost like a two button.

Some jackets, however, are built with canvas in the lapels that keeps them stiff to the point of the top button. When only the middle button is done up, the line above is kinked, angling inwards where the lapel begins. There is no clean line to the collar.

Here, the top two buttons should be done up most of the time. That is how the line of the chest and the waist is designed, and the jacket will sit more naturally when fastened this way.

This is why this rule exists. And that is how to break it.

Book Review: History of Men’s Fashion

History of Men’s Fashion: What the Well Dressed Man is Wearing, by Nicholas Storey, is a book evidently written with real passion for the subject.

Personal touches abound, such as Storey’s relation of the fact that Lord Nelson’s hat was stolen from public display “in a planned raid on the National Maritime Museum by some utter tyke(s)”. Equally, Storey suggests that the English taste for wearing red socks with a dark suit “always raise[s] a smile” because “a glimpse of the daring and dashing and dangerous lurking beneath the trousers suggest[s] that these qualities may lurk in the wearer too.”

This personal, and subjective, touch makes the book enjoyable reading. But it is also the book’s greatest weakness. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a primer on menswear, which is ostensibly what it aims to be.

Facts, stories and originations are the book’s strength. I did not know that originally soft felt hats were unacceptable for a man to wear before the end of the London Summer Season. Neither did I know that steel-ribbed umbrellas were invented in 1852 by Samuel Fox as a way of disposing of surplus corset stays.

His description of Beau Brummell is instructive. “Brummell’s ‘exquisite propriety’ was the reverse of foppery – which is generally (mistakenly) associated even now with Brummell’s name,” he says. “There was nothing remarkable about his dress except that it was modest, subdued and most proper to the occasion and of the best materials and making. Strictly, he was a Dandy and certainly not a Popinjay.”

Storey’s point is well argued. And it speaks to our loss of language over the years (or possibly of the people to describe) that few could separate those three words, fop, dandy and popinjay, with decent definitions.

The section of History of Men’s Fashion on evening dress and more formal wear is the most impressive for depth of research. Most people are familiar with black dinner jackets. The slightly more sartorial are aware that midnight blue is a perfectly acceptable and indeed more practical alternative (it looks more black than black under artificial light). But few realise it can be virtually any colour and that Noel Coward wore them in brown. With matching tie and pumps, made at the hands of Douglas Hayward.

Indeed, Storey tells us that “when Brummell began the process which eventually led to monochrome evening dress, his evening coat was…blue, the waistcoat was white, his pantaloon trousers…black and his stockings striped.” It’s hard to argue with anyone about the etiquette of black tie when that little get-up was its starting point.

However, the space allocated to evening wear speaks also of the relevance of this book. Of the 182 pages, almost half is dedicated to chapters four through eight – on formal morning dress, evening dress, leisure wear, sporting dress and hats. Unless the reader of this book goes to enough formal events to justify buying two white waistcoats, or requires hunting breeches, much of this will only be of academic interest.

Which is great, for me. I am probably in the early stages of being an academic on the subject and the facts here are riveting, fascinating, indispensable.

But anyone else will find the book frustrating. It is not really a history of men’s fashion. It includes historical notes and facts during a personal discussion of areas of men’s dress.

Neither is it what the well-dressed man is wearing. That sub-title is a quote from Bertie Wooster, in Right-ho! Jeeves. But what is described is not, despite what Storey might hope, what well-dressed men are wearing today. It is a description of what a very narrow band of British society should be wearing, according to the author.

Throughout the book Storey instructs the reader what he should buy and in what quantity. Under socks he says “have three dozen pairs of wool and nylon half hose” plus “say, six pairs of silk half hose evening stockings and the same quantity of woollen shooting stockings”. That’s 48 pairs of socks, without the ankle socks permitted on the tennis court. How many people do you know who need that many socks?

The recommendations for where to buy your clothes are equally narrow. The best of Jermyn Street and Savile Row is recommended, along with a few less-pricey options. But almost everywhere the reader is encouraged to go bespoke, often because, as is admitted with the riding boots recommended, you actually can’t get them ready to wear.

The attitude is best summed up by the section “the necessary hats to have,” which includes a black top hat, a grey top hat, an opera hat and a hunting-weight silk hat.

Indeed, one could argue that some of the outfits recommended in here would not be in the spirit of Brummell – they would neither be modest or subdued.

At Wimbledon he recommends you wear a blazer, white ducks, co-respondent shoes, a cravat and a panama hat. Even in the members’ enclosure that would hardly be subdued. At Twickenham, meanwhile, Storey says “one should wear cords, a jumper, the Barbour, a cap and stout country shoes.” In what sense “should” one wear that? Is it a tradition going back to the Edwardians?

This book is a treasure trove of facts about British menswear. But it talks as much about the history of tennis (from the Egyptians) as it does about the raw materials of suits. And gives even more space to a rant about the disappearance of country life in the UK, the EU’s agricultural policy and cynical real estate developers.

To the right man, I recommend it. But if you don’t own many books on menswear, buy anything by Alan Flusser first.