Archives for March 2009

Remembering Inspiration from Christmas

Eveningwear is not what it used to be. Had you been a gentleman in the 1930s (the decade when all of today’s traditions and ‘rules’ reached their apex), you would have had several options for what to wear at an evening function – such as a Christmas party.

Your closet would have contained a range of outfits for every scale of formality, from that suited to a ball (white tie) through to entertaining friends at home (dinner jacket).

This range has come down to us over the years much the worse for wear. Only two items are still worn: black tie, for almost any formal evening event, and white tie, purely for state dinners and Oxbridge balls.

The rest of the range has been disconnected from its original purpose. Velvet jackets, mohair suits, separate dinner jackets and more formal black tie (patent pumps, two trouser stripes, shirt bib) have all lost their meaning through persistent misuse.

They are floating in the sartorial ether, the preserve of rakes, dandies and ‘characters’; they are picked on as fashion items, or as a means to be a little different. Few really understand what they are wearing.

Yet it is precisely this ethereal lost-and-found that contains the best options for a modern Christmas or New Year’s party. The most fruitful choice is the velvet jacket.

Wear velvet

Gentlemen used to go to a lot of parties. Most nights would bring an evening function of some sort, so men needed clothes that could be versatile and hard wearing.

White tie and tails would be saved for only the most formal event. Black tie as we now know it would be worn more often but certainly not all week. The combination of black jacket with satin or grosgrain revers, trousers with a stripe that matched the revers and a bib-fronted shirt that buttoned into those trousers was not one that could be worn often. The whole ensemble required cleaning and pressing each time. Instead, the gentleman wore an odd (or separate) jacket to many functions.

This odd jacket could be worn with any number of trousers, though most usually plain worsted black, and a range of shirts. Normal day shirts with a folded-down collar and plain front could extend their wear into the evening. The outfit could then be brought up to standard with the addition of a pocket handkerchief, boutonnière and patent Oxfords.

The jacket itself might be double-breasted worsted (considered less formal than single-breasted), mohair (black or, better, midnight blue) or velvet (black, forest green or burgundy).

Wear it with Converse

Mohair and its shiny lustre has associations for many people. Velvet is not without associations as well, but is more versatile and timeless. So let’s take a dark-green velvet jacket as our staple for the modern Christmas party – a nod to tradition, but a tradition we are updating and thus celebrating.

That velvet jacket can be worn to a formal party. Just combine it with black suit trousers, black (preferably patent) Oxfords, a white shirt and a harmonious handkerchief (classic white or perhaps orange/yellow to go with the green). The tie is up to you – bow, necktie or open collar, depending on the event.

The velvet jacket can also be worn to an informal party. Combine it with dark jeans, Converse trainers, an open-necked blue shirt and a more ostentatious silk handkerchief (perhaps paisley or multicolours, rather than the more formal polka dot or plain handkerchief).

The trainers could equally be anything casual and slim. The reason Converse work here and Nike Dunks don’t is that the former have similarly slim lines to a formal shoe, and sit well under lightweight trousers. Adidas Gazelles work, also, for the same reason.

And there you have it. A Christmas party outfit that is adaptable to any occasion and echoes the eveningwear traditions of old. If anyone comments that your black tie doesn’t match, give him a withering and superior look.

Cad & The Dandy – Part 2: Perfecting the Suit

“Your suit is now in” were the words; from that point, my anticipation was that of a debutante attending her first ball; excitement and wonder in equal measure. It had been some weeks since my fitting, at which I had been questioned, measured and analysed – and at which I had made selections, um’d and ah’d (albeit briefly) and visualised the perfect suit of my imagination. Regular readers will be aware that my first encounter with Cad & The Dandy had been in January. I had a pleasurable experience with the genial, determined and passionate co-founders Ian and James. Since that day, my suit had been through the same process that many Cad & The Dandy suits had been through – through the turmoil of January and February, the unexpected snowfalls, the not-so-unexpected Dow falls, a tailor had been cutting and sewing my cloth. In many ways, it would be interesting to offer an insight into this in-between period; to shine a flashlight into the tailors world. However, part of the Cad & The Dandy experience is learning that essentially, tailoring is about trust.

It is perhaps apropos in these times of cynicism that there should be such beacons of sanguinity; James handles and comments on their burgeoning collection of fabrics as an enthusiast and not a tradesman. This approach is remarkably reassuring. It is a much more intimate experience to entrust a fabric choice with like-minded fellows who then entrust their business with yet more like-minded fellows – the continuity is satisfying.  Almost as satisfying as the glorious weight that I held in my hands when first presented with the blue double breasted suit I had been measured for. When I put it on, it was clear to me that this was quite simply the best suit that had ever been secured around my slender frame.

The trousers are perfect. I opted for double pleats and cuffs; not because this is the conventionally correct style of trousers to wear with a double breasted jacket but because this is the best aesthetic, in my view, for the pair. “We get a lot of comments on our trousers” James remarked when I voiced my satisfaction. Unlike the rest of the double pleat trousers in my collection, the excess material at the back beneath my rump has been disposed with; a much more elegant finish that compliments my thin form.

The jacket at the first fitting was very well fitted on the whole, although some adjustment was needed because of some fabric ‘rucking’ that occurred when I fastened the buttons. Unlike most of the off-the-rack double breasted jackets I have tried, this jacket actually surrounded my torso in a flattering fashion and is completely devoid of that awkward and objectionable boxyness that accompanies the ready to wear option. I should have expected as much, considering I had been measured for the suit to fit me and not a generic person of my size, but it was still thrilling to turn in the mirror and admire that, from any angle, the fabric surrounded my form perfectly – unpinned – and could not have been bettered except for that one slight adjustment.

I opted for slanting pockets and an additional ticket pocket, both unusual on double breasted suits, as I considered that slanting pockets better compliment the fitted fashion of this particular suit. They also appealed as they are a little bit ‘different’ and stepping away from convention is part of the amusement and, for me, part of the purpose of made to measure clothing. It should go beyond the initial thought to purchase a suit that fits; the choices available mean that, to an extent, the only barrier to a suit of complete uniqueness is your own imagination and creativity. Choosing an interesting lining, or perhaps a peaked collar, or even an unconventional number of kissing cuff buttons is not only an entertaining process, but a collection of carefully considered additions that make the garment the splendid piece it is.

Tips for Steve’s First Visit to the Tailor

A colleague of mine in Hong Kong recently asked to come along when I visited my tailor, Edward Tam. Steve has only just moved to Hong Kong and was interested in a recommendation as well as learning about how the bespoke process works.

After the visit, I kept remembering little tips I would have for him when he goes for his first proper session with Edward. For his benefit, and hopefully for yours, here they are.

Go to a store first
Browsing in tailors is not easy, as only a few suits will be hanging around waiting to be picked up. And most of us are unused to buying something that is going to be made to order rather than sitting in a shop for us to try.

So before going to the tailor, I recommend going to a menswear store with a broad range of suits and trying some on. Work out what you like: Do you like the texture that herringbone gives to material? How wide are your preferred pinstripes? How strong are they? Do you prefer two or three buttons? Cuffs on your trousers or not?

Note down all these things as you try on each suit. Then take that list to the tailor.

Get familiar with terminology
You need to be able to tell the tailor what you want. He will never give you every single option available on your suit. Some, such as a full lining or the number of sleeve buttons, will be assumed. And there will be some things he wouldn’t be expected to know – the average temperature in your home country, for example.

So work out what the difference between herringbone and hound’s tooth is. And between pinstripe and chalk stripe.

Look up material weights
A quick bit of research will tell you what weight of wool is average, heavy and light. Three-season worsteds are usually around 250 grammes per metre. Flannel is heavier, usually 380-400. Odd jackets will be made in heavier materials, often around 350 grammes. Tropical-weight suits will be 230 grammes and lower.

And take along this guides in both grammes and ounces. Material from different countries will use different units.

Start small and build up
Have a shirt made first. That will only cost you HKD350 and you will learn a lot about the bespoke process during the process. Wear it two or three times, think about what you like and dislike in fit, and then order a suit. Start with the lower end of the range on materials, so it is less of a risk. Wear the suit three or four times, and again you will learn more about what you like and don’t like.

Best to start with conservative colours and pattern, a navy or a grey in a plain colour or subtle stripe. On fit, best to start with something that is not too close-fitting. It’s easier to make something smaller than make it bigger, and the adjustment is likely to be free.

Talk to others
Ask others that have had suits made at this tailor what they liked and disliked, and what options they went for. My guidance is always going to be from one point of view, to one person’s tastes.

This could also give you new ideas. I prefer trousers with side-tab adjustors, for example. But these won’t necessarily be offered unless you ask for them. Plus I dislike the labels in the jackets, so I have mine without any label and just my initials sewn in instead.

I hope these points are useful, Steve. As always, feel free to add any other questions here in the comments section. I will answer them there or in a full posting if the topic is big enough.

Also, for ease of reference, here are the previous posts on tailoring in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong tailor report

Hong Kong: The unmade suit

Hong Kong: The final suit

Reader question: Going to the tailor

Reader question: Examining the fit

Reader question: Edward Tam

Collar Issue – Part 1

 Shirt selection is undoubtedly one of the most baffling clothing choices to the merely curious or “just getting into it” clothing aficionados. As soon as you start to take the shirt seriously, as soon as you open your mind to the possibility of variation and alternation, the dazzling prospect of a Jermyn Street afternoon can become a sorry and frustrating experience; if one were interested in price alone, one could choose from several manufacturers who sell good standard formal shirts at or around the £30 mark ($43). Even then, the sheer volume of shirts tipping from the shelves is enough to make any gentleman not experienced to the perils of shirt shopping retire from the field of battle long before the assistant has reached for his tape measure.

So what is the problem? Well, in these days of permissibility and choice (a deadly combination) even the conservative arena of formal shirts is open to exploitation; small checks, large checks, wild checks, stripes, wide stripes, houndstooth – all fair game in the shirt business. The only thing that seems to have been lost in the melee of pattern hunting, barrier pushing and tradition shirking is that the collar – the poor old collar – receives comparatively little attention from buyers. The spread collar is now the norm, allowing for the growing legions of Windsor knot fans to properly display their silk. “They’re also good” a friend informs me “for wearing without ties – just a jumper and jeans.” Why? Well, apparently, in comparison to the ‘sad’ looking old English collars which were popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, the spread collar looks more robust and stands very well under v and crew neck knitwear. I would tend to agree with this. The contrast of formal shirts with far less formal jumpers is actually rather satisfying.

However, there are so many options for collars than the stock in evidence in our stores. Ralph Lauren, the eternal paramedic of fashions past, often pays homage to collars and styles of yesteryear with his Polo and Purple Label collections and tab, bar and club collars have all featured. Here are some examples of the rarer collars, most of which have vanished from the bread and butter clothing stores of the high street.

The long way down

The ‘Goodfella’s’ collar is a particularly extreme version of this type and is rarely seen but even the classic ‘pointed’ collars are increasingly hard to find since the spread became king. A good litmus test for the popularity of a collar type is to examine the intentionally trend ‘conscious’ clothing decisions of national leaders – i.e. the decisions of their image consultants. The pointed collar was scarcely visible at the last EU summit; nearly all collars were at least slightly spread. It’s true that the pointed collar leaves far less space for an extravagant knot, which happens to be the favoured knot of the moment – a decisive factor in its decline.

Club members only

The club collar is one of the nattiest collar designs, also known as the Eton collar due to its association with the once-upon-a-time uniform of the school. I think it deserves a revival. Often worn in the French collar style – white collars and cuffs – it is remarkable how much a little curve can change the effect of a garment. It looks, at once, boyish and antiquated. It has character and, among the masses of spreads, individuality. Appropriate for casual prep or formal elegance, with a bow or standard tie, the club is statement of a quiet determination to be unique.

The tie supporter 

The tab collar is a cousin of the pin collar – both secure the pointed collar beneath the tie knot, thus allowing the tie to protrude properly from the confines of a pointed collar. This type of collar was popular in the 1920s and 30s, and again in the 1950s with, among others, Frank Sinatra. It appears a little grander than the plain pointed collar as it encourages tie display, and promotes a good tie profile by securing it in place.

Are You Pretentious? Take the Test

On more than one occasion in the past, I have been accused of being pretentious in the way I dress. Presumably, that means those people think I was pretending to be something I was not.

Sometimes, whether accused of it or not, that may be true. After all, it is a fear of appearing pretentious or out of place that makes one feel self-conscious about wearing particular items. It is the reason I don’t wear a trilby, braces or a cravat.

I’d love to, but I don’t think I could ‘pull them off’. In other words, I would be afraid I was pretending (so being pretentious).

But how do you stop pretending and become the person that can wear those more extravagant clothes? I think the important link here is to another group of words: affected, conceited, self-conscious. Style should be casual, easy and unforced.

It is linked to the Italian concept of sprezzatura. It was captured by Hardy Amies’s edict to forget all about your well-chosen clothes as soon as you step out the door. The tendency not to do it was expressed by Coco Chanel’s recommendation to look in the mirror before you leave the house, and take one item off.

If clothes are affected, it means they are false and do not suit the personality that wears them. That person could be conceited, and will probably be self-conscious, because they do not suit him and his character.

But we’re left with another phrase to define: that which suits someone’s character. I suggest this breaks down into three areas:

Comfort and habit

Men that are at ease in their clothes have dressed that way for a long time.

Yesterday I was wearing a pair of bright white trousers that, having never worn anything similar before, made me a little self-conscious. Then I saw a man coming the other way, wearing similarly blazing-white trousers, a double-breasted blazer, co-respondent shoes and a cravat. On its face, his outfit was more pretentious than mine. But he had obviously worn similar clothes for years and felt entirely at home in them. He was not pretending to be anything.

So youth and a changing wardrobe are a disadvantage. But this does not mean you should not wear anything daring. It means you should take it one step at a time.

I’ve only been wearing pocket handkerchiefs in my jackets for around two years. At some point in the next 10 years I will probably start wearing formal hats – it will feel odd the first time, but not as odd as if I started today. I rarely wear both a tie and a handkerchief, but recently I have decided I like to wear a white linen square on more formal occasions – when I am on stage at a conference or ceremony, for example.

Being ill at ease and self-conscious in your clothing often results in adjusting it constantly – tugging at the pocket handkerchief, adjusting the tie and glancing in every reflective surface. Equally, this discomfort can be caused by clothes that are just too tight, or restrict you.

To avoid pretension you must be comfortable in your clothes. This is a result of both mental and physical comfort.

Knowledge and rule-breaking

Knowing the history of the clothes you are wearing, what they were originally intended for and what rules were formed as a result is a big plus.

A man that wears a strongly pinstriped jacket with pale jeans would usually be viewed as crass and ignorant. Possibly pretentious.

But if that man is Alan Flusser, and you know that he knows every rule and guideline there is, you pause and reconsider. He is breaking those rules on purpose and with an aim in mind. You may think he fails, but you can’t argue that he is necessarily wrong.

Equally, wearing unusual clothes with the propriety they were intended for stops you pretending to be anything you are not. Knowing and applying the rules well stops you looking affected. It should also help with the first point – making you more at ease.

Freedom of expression

As with the Flusser example, your dress will not appear affected or false if you constantly adapt rules to your own taste. If you mimic another man exactly you are being false; you are trying to affect him. If you mimic a man or group from the past, you are being false, for those men are not you.

Take the knowledge that enables you to tick the second point on this list, and then twist it to your own personality. You then cannot be false because you are you. And you’re much more likely to feel comfortable and not check your reflection in car windows.

These are my instinctive ideas on what stops a man being pretentious, and allows him to deny that accusation. I think you need all three to qualify. And I am not suggesting by any means that I have always qualified. Any man with any interest in clothes has memories of ill-considered clothing that make him cringe today.

But we live and learn, and without experimentation we would never learn what inspires us, what we want to mimic and what we want to twist to our own personality.