Archives for March 2009

The Style of Ordinary Americans

A rich vein of style runs through American men. It is a style that is partly imported and partly their own. But each part constantly and consistently informs how they dress, and gives them a little-recognised advantage over their peers in England and Italy.

Americans love their history – no other nation reveres and studies the events of its past with such fervour. Perhaps it is because they have so little of it. Perhaps it is because it is all so recent.

As with the Civil War or the civil rights movement, so it is with US sartorial history. Much examined and much loved, American traditions of dress are loyally pursued.

English men have lost touch with their traditions, by comparison.

Go to a city in the UK outside London. Ask an average man on the street about England’s sartorial tradition; he will draw a blank. Ask him what Northampton is famous for; he will not say shoemaking. He may have heard of Savile Row, but he will be able to tell you little about its fame.

And this is the country that stylish Americans usually hold as the source of the greatest style in the world.

Most importantly, there are very few English men that revere England’s traditions of tweeds, three-piece suits and brogues. By contrast, preppy style in the US is held in the highest regard. There are more blogs on that than any other aspect of men’s style.

A friend of mine grew up in Baltimore. (Remove the t and i for the local pronunciation.) He spent his childhood outdoors, camping, skiing and going fishing with his father and grandfather. Not a posh kid from the metropolis.

Yet he told me recently he never wears t-shirts, just polo shirts and dress shirts. They just look better on a man – or at the least flatter more men. This is the great preppy tradition filtering down: polo shirts are the casual standard, not t-shirts.

Equally, he apologised for wearing deck shoes into the office, sockless. Yet to English men, wearing loafers without socks like this is an element of fashion – something continental and stylish they seek to emulate.

One final example, drawn from my day job. During a trip last week to New York, meeting lawyers at the big American firms, I was struck by how well dressed everyone was. To a man they obviously spent more time (and money probably) on their dress. Crisp white shirts, elegant cuff links and a smattering of bespoke.

A rich vein of style runs through American men.

A Few New Gems at Leffot

Leffot, the shoe store I described as “a gem in New York” almost a year ago now, is going from strength to strength.

Back then it had only been open a month and was still finding its feet. Now it is expanding its offering (quite impressive for a luxury store in these straitened times) and has hosted trunk shows with likes of Pierre Corthay, Tony Gaziano and Denis Dwyer of JM Weston.

Part of that expansion has been the addition of a few new lines, including Church’s women’s shoes and a few models from American stalwart Allen Edmonds.

Church’s shoes for women only emerged in the UK in the past year, but they have already had a big impact. In the company’s financial statement it was reported that women’s shoes were a big success and almost flew off the shelves.

Indeed, I am slightly embarrassed to say that I have once or twice done a double take outside a branch of Church’s, looked lovingly at a pair of patent crocodile shoes, and only after a while realised I was admiring ladies’ shoes. Oh well. Perhaps they are just so slim they cannot help but look elegant.

Steven at Leffot says the patent crocodile-patterned shoes are the most popular, which doesn’t surprise me: womenswear tolerates a lot more experimentation and idiosyncrasy in this area. (That’s them, third from the left.)

The shoes are displayed on a leather Union Jack that Church’s gifted to Steven. Apparently a couple of sections for the new window displays were cut incorrectly, and they were offered to the store as a potential piece decoration. As it turns out, it couldn’t fit more perfectly on Leffot’s long slab of a table and does a rather good job of subliminally reminding customers of Church’s heritage.

The second addition is Alden, which is the first American brand for Leffot to carry. The chukka boots shown in the photo below are my favourites of the selection. Somehow the heavier tread of these shoes seem more suited to workmanlike boots to my eye.

But then what would I know? I like women’s shoes.

Apparently the cordovan is very popular with the Aldens, which isn’t surprising given its heritage. One Leffot customer is so obsessed with the material he admits he can’t look at a horse’s arse without seeing a shoe-shaped hole in it.

And finally, a bit of gratuitous shoe porn. For all those fanatics out there, a pair of derbies from my favourite shoemaker in Leffot, Pierre Corthay.

What Is Wrong With Men

“There go those rules again!” sang Connie Francis. And boy, have I felt her exasperation throughout my life. I am not a principal enemy of rules as I believe in their indispensability in an ordered society; rules are generally for the good of the majority. My ‘rule twitch’ is a physical and psychological event that occurs when I react to the proposition or promotion of a rule that displeases me; why the displeasure? Well, it is probably because the rule, though it benefits the majority, actually inhibits me. I prefer to think of the reason of rule rather than the rule itself; aside from the amusing and quirky, and often forgotten, ‘laws’ of society, most rules have a reason based on a belief.

Even in clothing, rules have their place. Most frequently cited, the use of black cloth in evening dress for gentlemen was based on the belief that it offset the magnificence of the women’s dresses much better. Anyone turning up to a ball in anything other than this well-regulated form of dress was shunned; the reason for the uniform remains, the rule remains relevant. However, as useful as sartorial rules are when the core reason for their being – the belief in an ideal aesthetic – remains, they are, I find, something that men hide behind far too often.

Compared to the energetic and aesthetic driven attitude of many women, men are shamefully reticent, reluctant and actually rather feeble. Whereas women embrace, where style is concerned, men are sceptical; where women hope, men often withhold. A woman trying on a rare and unconventional shoe style in a store attracts feminine eyes of admiration and envy; the minds behind those pairs of eyes are sometimes mired in self-doubt but rarely are they objectively critical of the possibility. A man in the same position usually attracts sniggers of insecurity and frowns of disbelief; men are often so self-confident in their own lack of confidence that insecurity often comes across as crass arrogance.

It’s no wonder in a society that assumes artfully clothed men and manfully attired women are homosexual that experimentation with clothing, among fellow men, is akin to a social faux pas. Men I have never initiated conversation with reveal onion-like layers of insecurity and ignorance with words like; ‘Dodgy ‘at mate, dodgy ‘at.’ I have met some relatively coarse women but, though they can still be rather unworldly, they are more likely to spring to my defence than join in attack. Is this something to do with the legendary female imagination? Are females simply more capable of appreciating difference than men?

Whatever the reason for this disparity in thinking, it exists. Some might cry that it ‘depends on the man’ others that it ‘depends on the woman’. Some might even suggest it has little to do with sex and more to do with personality, but this I do know; women applaud bravery ferociously, especially when it is converted into victory.

Wear Grey With Brights

I’m in New York and spring is in the air. To be fair, spring was in the air last week in London too. Suddenly everyone seems that little bit more optimistic, as they stand on the street with their upturned faces bathed in sunshine.

Sartorially there are many ways to celebrate this change of the seasons. Brighter light means brighter clothes or lighter clothes.

I tend towards the lighter colours in my wardrobe. Out come the biscuit-coloured linen jackets, the pale ties and the white trousers. For a precious day or so (or less than that, this is England after all) I can pretend I live in Naples and am sipping espresso or wandering boulevards in the sun.

But a colleague recently reminded me of the power of brighter, rather than lighter colours. Strong, fruity shades of orange, pink and green are pretty much impossible to wear in any other weather. They stick out like a sore (glowing) thumb.

Bright colours require careful handling though. The key to wearing them well is grey.

Grey is the most versatile and kind of colours. That’s why a mid-grey suit will flatter more skin tones than navy (the two standard base colours for men’s suits). Navy looks smarter, is perhaps more slimming and is usually the default choice; but grey flatters more people.

The contrast is lower. Those with pale skin are less likely to look washed out. It makes pasty skin and tanned skin alike look darker and healthier.

So a mid-grey or light-grey suit is the best accompaniment for bright colours. It provides a neutral background for the bright oranges and greens to hammer against. In fact, the Express website (where the images pictured are taken from) automatically suggests mid-grey or light-grey worsted trousers as the ideal match for its bright shirts. So someone there has obviously got their head screwed on when it comes to combinations.

The addition of a white handkerchief or a dark, striped tie enhance the effect, containing and controlling the vibrancy.

When I do wear bright colours, I tend to do so in a handkerchief or a tie. I have always been a big fan of green or orange ties, for example, worn with a Bengal-stripe blue-and-white shirt. Or a bright paisley pocket square brightening up an otherwise conservative grey suit/white shirt combination.

But if bright shirts are your thing (and you’re part of a long, distinguished history of men on Jermyn Street) then grey is the background you’re looking for.

Stop Only Fastening the Bottom Button

Ok, I’ve said it before. But it’s worth saying it again. And perhaps once more.

Men are still wearing their suits with the bottom button of the jacket done up. Only the bottom button.

On a two-button jacket this ruins its line, destroying the cut of every panel in the construction – panels that were tailored deliberately to emphasise the contrast between width of shoulder and narrowness of waist. The neckline hangs, ponderously, devoid of tension and meaning. On a three-button jacket it’s even worse: the jacket’s front actually balloons away from the wearer, creating a false stomach that wobbles around in front of him.

It’s bad enough when a man never does up his jacket. Then it hangs loose, but at least it isn’t distorted. It’s a little sad that he doesn’t appreciate the style and point of his jacket: I saw a group of young office workers walking out to get lunch yesterday, all in suits precisely one size too big, all with shirt collars undone and ties lolling dejectedly. And all with their jackets undone.

It’s a little sad, to me at least. Permanent Style was set up to try and explain to men how to take delight in their clothes – to help them appreciate the pleasures of chic fit, singing colour and lasting quality. Not appreciating your clothes is like not appreciating your mind or your body. It is how you express yourself; how everyone expresses themselves, whether they know it or not.

But at least these guys didn’t have the wrong button done up. The number of people I’ve seen recently doing this makes me mad. You might as well do up the first and third buttons – to each other. The line of the suit is equally distorted, pulled, unnatural and perverse.

There are very few steps I can take to correct this. One is to write about it on this site, again. Another is to try and express it vehemently enough that it is mentioned by you, by others, to other people. Like anything I’ve written about, it’s a gradual education for many people. It’s something that is passed around and passed on. Through word of mouth and the miracle linkage of the internet, it’s already something that has grown Permanent Style from nothing to 27,000 readers a month over the past year.

Here’s hoping that one more rant will stop people wearing their damned jackets that way.