My 50-Year-Old Black Tie

I had heard ‘stories’ about treasures found in second-hand shops before. The way it goes, one day the author is browsing through the racks while his girlfriend tries on shoes, and all of a sudden he discovers an Anderson & Sheppard suit in exactly the right size.

It seemed a little unlikely.

Nevertheless, whenever I happened to be in any vintage shop (as second-hand has rebranded itself) I usually skimmed through the suit racks. For the sake of speed, I simply ignored any jacket where I could see a label, as a Savile Row suit will only ever have its label on the inside of the pocket.

A few years of (half-hearted) searching had turned up nothing. So my heart leapt when I was doing the normal skim in a vintage shop in York and found a tuxedo without a visible label. An exploration of the inside pocket found a tag bearing the name Lesley and Roberts, of Hanover Square. I’d never heard of them and passed on.

50-y-old-suitThat evening, some research online discovered Lesley and Roberts listed with the address 20 Savile Row. Turns out the firm was bought up by Welsh and Jeffries (famously of that address) in 1999. I should have known that really. And Lesley and Roberts has a sterling reputation – tailor to Bing Crosby and much of the UK entertainment business in the forties and fifties.

Two quick calls followed. One to the shop (Priestley’s, which I have written about before) to reserve the suit and ask what name was written on the label. Then a second to Welsh and Jeffries, to confirm the Lesley and Roberts heritage and, as excitingly, to inquire whether the firm had ever made suits for UK film director Michael Powell.

For that was the name on the tag – made for Michael Powell, Esq. in March 1955. Given that only a precious few could afford Savile Row bespoke in those days (a smaller proportion than today, which may surprise some) and the firm’s heritage with the entertainment industry, it was worth asking. And yes, Michael Powell was a client. Welsh and Jeffries couldn’t confirm that he was the only client by that name, because the full book wasn’t inherited with the takeover. But close enough.

(For those readers not familiar with British film, Powell is one of the most famous English directors, authoring a series of films with Emeric Pressburger that included A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Unfortunately, though, it turns out this suit was made after he appeared at the Oscars, in 1943 and 1949.)

So, the suit. The first thing you notice is the weight of the cloth. Heavier than even my winter flannels or tweeds. Then you notice the facings on the lapels of the jacket and waistcoat: silk rather than satin, which actually seems rather matte compared to modern suits but has greater texture and depth to it.

The trousers are very wide with a very high rise. With a fishtail back, they are designed to sit on your natural waist (around the belly button if not above) and be worn with braces. Once you put them on with the waistcoat, you realise the real point of pleats. Four elegant pleats enable the trousers to get up over the hip bone and come to a very narrow waist – you just couldn’t do that with flat fronts.

Combining that silhouette with a short, cropped waistcoat creates a very exaggerated shape (indeed, in Brideshead Revisited the heroes have suits from Lesley and Roberts with a “wasp waist”). As the natural waist is the narrowest part of most people’s bodies, having your trousers there produces the biggest contrast with the width of the shoulders.

It doesn’t half make you feel buttoned up when you wear it though. The trousers are all-encompassing and my shirt has a strip of elastic to button into them. Plus, the tailor that altered them for me (Graham Browne) added another strip of elastic behind the waistcoat to button into the trousers, to make sure no white shirt ever peaked between the two.

Oh, and of course you have to take your jacket and waistcoat off in order to go to the bathroom, as the braces are hidden beneath both.

Quite a palaver. But then £150 for a bespoke-quality suit (plus alteration costs) is pretty impressive value. The hand detailing is impressive, particularly around details like the buttonhole. Sewing a neat buttonhole in corded silk is not easy, particularly when the slit is not parallel to the cords. Indeed, that is one reason many tailors do not put them in today.

The only thing I would change is the lapels, which are notch rather than peak. Having emphasised to a reader named Paul last week how the peak harks back to the tradition of tails, this feels like a failure. But I’ll just have to swallow my pride and accept that fashions come and go, even on Savile Row.

Tips From Jeeves

jeeves-tipsAs regular readers will know, the search for truly old-fashioned craftsmen is one of the purposes of this blog. And while I would never recommend or compare services I had not personally experienced (an area where some of the style forums fall down), it is worth mentioning that Jeeves dry cleaners has a sterling reputation.

The services are apparently excellent, but then for the prices it charges they should be (£31 to dry clean a suit, £50 to replace half of a sole). The advice it gives clients is also worth highlighting. The more unique recommendations are:

– Hang your suits up in the wardrobe with just the shoulders covered, to prevent dust. Cut off the top of a dry-cleaning cover to do this. Do not hang fully covered. [I would prefer to use breathable, fabric suit bags I have to say.]
– Hang your suit outside of the wardrobe for two hours before putting away. [Probably effective but something I’m unlikely to remember.]

On the technical, stain-related side, the helpful tips are:

– Never rub a stain. Blot with a paper towel, one on each side. In particular, rubbing silk, wool or linen may result in the permanent removal of the dye. This may be accentuated by dry cleaning.
– Equally, adding any liquid usually makes things worse. Water-based stains are harder for the dry cleaner to deal with, so adding water creates this and helps the stain spread. It will also loosen the dye. The same applies to wine, soda water and salt.
– Heat helps create a ‘developed stain’, which can be more permanent. So do not press, iron or otherwise heat it.
– Watch out for clear liquids like lemonade or champagne, which might not appear to stain at first but will develop a yellow/brown stain over time from the sugar they contain.

The interesting point for me on these first two tips is that they reflect what is easiest for the dry cleaner. If you want to self-treat the stain, the old tips about white wine on red wine etc. apply. But the cleaner would always want to have an unadulterated stain to work with. So no water or rubbing, no matter how tempting it might be.

Two last tips for skin products (leather or suede):

– A small stain on suede may be removed with a hard Indian rubber using a gentle circular motion.
– If you are buying a skin garment, make sure all the panels inside and out are the same colour and texture. This is the key way to tell a quality garment.

The Old School Tie

I remember my school days fondly. They were glowing, comforting halcyon days; the echo of laughter along the parquet corridors, the buzz of excitement at the end of term, the sun drenched summer days on the playing fields and the cool, dewy November fire drill mornings. Memory, however, is undoubtedly selective. Less clear are the hazy memories of romantic disappointments, feelings of insecurity and unpopularity, moments of alienation and punishment – the solitary hours of reflection and idleness.

The other fantasies of such nostalgic hypocrisy were the turgid beliefs of self-assurance, creativity and individuality; in particular, in the matter of uniform, my popular illusion that I was more artistically responsible, more aesthetic, in my manner of wear than all my classmates. A little browsing of photograph albums corrects these laughable assertions. The most that can be said for me, an awkward and rather gaunt teenager, was that I wore clean shirts and could tie a tie.

This last triumph of mine, my now ubiquitous four-in-hand, may well be something of a collector’s item in years to come. Clip-on ties, absolutely appalling mock ups of a made tie, are gradually replacing hand-knotted ties in UK schools. The Schoolwear Association claimed that 10 schools a week are switching from hand tied ties to clip-ons because of “fears of ties getting caught in equipment or strangling pupils.”

I’m not quite sure what has changed in schools, but its clear the days of the five minute education on tucking ties into shirts when working in the science and technology labs, are over. I never experienced an attempted ‘strangulation’ with one of our regulation ties, and I am glad for it, but I do think that worrying about such a sad fatality says more about the loss of control over school children than the supposed health and safety risks of a tie one ties oneself.

The other more intriguing, certainly more convincing reason cited is that a ready made tie, mocked up in a very conventional way, will prevent pupils from customising the size of the knots in their ties. For years now, rebellion in schools has taken many forms; swearing, chewing gum in class, teacher abuse, hair that defies regulation and, particularly, uniform alteration.

When I first attended school I was shown a picture – then about 10 years old – of some pupils at my school in the uniform I was to buy. “This is how” the school outfitter muttered “your school wishes you to dress.” I was never a rebellious type and looking at the photo, rather disinterestedly, I acquiesced with a blink and a blank expression. There must have been those, however, who on seeing the well-cut suit, tightly tied tie and clean white shirts ignited what I refer to as ‘graffiti thoughts’; the willingness to rebel, no matter that such rebellion makes worse what was first there.

The strange thing about this plan of action is that the Schoolwear Association sees no issue of rebellion in the issuing of a tie meant to counteract the very thing that pupils collectively cherish; creativity. As far as aesthetics go, the awfulness of the fat knot and short tail is without question but at least, in manufacturing such stylistic rebellion, the pupil is able to tie a tie.

Although school uniform is a great social leveller, the hypocrisy of a clip-on tie is the schools attempt to keep pupils on an equal footing by collectively removing from them the opportunity to wear a proper tie; how could they ever feel they belong in the darkest corridor, or on the coldest, frostiest winter run if the school deems they don’t even belong in a tie? For a clip-on tie, is not a tie; it is an oxymoron. The world of clip-on takes education and development away from the child. It places before the child arguments for soulless homogeny, a denial of an opportunity for expression. By all means, discourage the child from the fat knots and short tails worn by the protagonists of the teen dramas, but educate in doing so.

Looking smart can, and should, be in the interests of all. The resources are there for everyone to wear clean, well-fitting clothing to school – the real failure is not the necktie but the hold that we have lost over the younger generation; to clip on a tie is to throw in the towel.

Reader Question: Suit For Work And Play

Hsin Qin Tang: I have been following your blog for over two years now. I have learned many things and I would like to know your opinion on what to wear for an upcoming occasion. My eldest sister is getting married this August and the wedding dinner is going to be held in Singapore.

I am looking to purchase my first suit and I was hoping you’d be able to help me out. I will also be going to Brighton, UK this September to study. I was hoping the suit might be able to come in handy there as well. I would appreciate it if you are able to get into the details, down to the smallest one. I realise I have not included my budget. I’d like to hear what you say first.

This question from Hsin Qin was far longer in the original, and requested information on everything from material for buttons to belt loops versus braces.

Hsin Qin, I will try to be brief and so fit in as much advice as possible – but as a regular reader of the blog I’m sure you realise many of the things I leave out are questions of personal taste. And there is more extensive advice elsewhere on the site (use that search function until it breaks!).

Broadly, there are two options for a wedding as a member of the general party: traditional and summer. Today, most men wear linen suits, checked suits, loud suits. They wear suits that used to be worn for leisure – except that no one wears a suit on the weekend any more.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but traditionally a wedding would be a lot smarter than the working week, not less. So the lounge suit would be swapped for tails or a three-piece suit, perhaps a nice peaked-lapel stroller with a buff waistcoat. If these were not available, a man would wear the single smartest thing he had from his work attire. This would probably be a dark navy, single-breasted suit, with a crisp white shirt and a satin tie in silver or bronze. Top it off with a white linen pocket square and a boutonnière.

If I were you, Hsin Qin, I would go for this last option. Then you will also have a navy suit to wear when you move to these great British Isles. With a blue shirt and dark, striped tie, it will be perfect for interviews and such.

As to the other details, have it made bespoke in Singapore if you know somewhere good. Go for two vents, two navy horn buttons, notch lapels, dark lining, medium weight, side tabs, uncuffed, slanted pockets, one break, matching socks and no tie bar. These choices are all for versatility and the maximum in time-proof style.

Reader Question: Covering The Black Tie Waist

MC: Simon, I’m interested in your thoughts on a waistcoat pairing for my upcoming wedding. My tuxedo is single button, peak lapel (grosgrain). I have flexibility on the shirt style (wing or standard collar) and the waistcoat. Would you recommend a particular style to complement the single button, peak lapel jacket? Would a double-breasted waistcoat be out of the question under a single-breasted jacket? What about collar type and colour (black or white pique)? If you think a particular style of waistcoat would be best, I’d be interested in the style of shirt you’d pair with it as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

formal-waistcoat-shirtRight, let’s start with the easy points. Most black-tie jackets have one button. So there is no specific style of waistcoat that is going to suit this style of jacket – they all will. The only thing to bear in mind is that you want the waistcoat to just peak over the top of the fastening of the jacket – not invisible but not protruding either. That will affect the height of the waistcoat you pick.

There is nothing wrong with a double-breasted waistcoat. A single breast is more conventional and normal, and a double is more formal – as it harks back to the waistcoats on full fig, or white tie, which were often double breasted.

As to the colour of the waistcoat, the normal and more conventional colour would be black. In the same material as the jacket, with the same grosgrain on the lapels (usually a shawl collar ending in squared-off ends). There is, however, a lot of flexibility here. The waistcoat could be collarless and it could be entirely in grosgrain. It could also be backless or not.

A white piqué waistcoat would be more formal and unusual. Nothing wrong with it, but generally white waistcoats were worn with white tie and black with black tie. But then, strictly speaking you could wear a white bow tie with black tie, as counter-intuitive as it seems. Personally, I would rather like a white waistcoat as it is not incorrect and is a little different.

However, the most important thing is the relationship between the waistcoat and shirt. The waistcoat is made to fit and suit a particular shirt, and this must be born in mind. So a white waistcoat, being very formal, must be worn with a stiff-fronted shirt and wing collar (also formal). Some may argue that the collar should be starched and detachable (very formal). With a black waistcoat you have a little more freedom – fold-down or wing collar is fine.

Also bear in mind the shape of the shirtfront – an oval front best suits a waistcoat with an oval neckline. And a straight up-and-down, pleated shirtfront usually suits a cummerbund best – both being less formal than the options just mentioned.

So the key is balancing the formality of your outfit. And match the waistcoat to the shirt, not to the jacket.