Archives for May 2009

Navy Stripe: The Most Useful Tie

navi-stripe-tieFrom a purely logical standpoint, the most useful tie you will own is a navy-blue club stripe. Followed by a brown or burgundy in the same pattern.

The first reason is that a dark tie is more versatile than a pale tie. It is more sober, more business-like and, outside of work, can play the supporting role to more adventurous clothing combinations.

Second, the most useful dark colour it can be in is navy blue. As with suits, which are most practical in the base colours of grey and blue, ties in either navy blue or silver are versatile enough to produce an outfit for an interview or presentation (try the classic blue suit and grey tie, or vice versa) and to combine with other patterns and colours. Both go easily with every colour of shirt (white, pink, blue and others) and most colours of suit.

Navy, however, is more practical at anchoring adventurous patterns and colours in the suit or shirt. As explained in my theory on The Italian Background, a blue tie and blue shirt is often used by gentlemen of that country to accompany daring materials, such as tan gabardine, bold glen plaids and pale linens. Navy is more useful than grey.

However, as the third leg of my argument, I would argue that a tie with a bold stripe is more practical than a plain one. It can accompany three other patterns (shirt, suit, handkerchief) or none. It can rise above patterned shirts and fairly bold pinstriped suits, its strength of pattern and contrast being almost impossible to match. And it is reserved and therefore multifaceted. Some may argue that a large-pattern club tie, with crests for example, would be more practical as it will never clash with the pattern of a shirt or suit; I would argue its occasions for wear are slightly more limited.

For these reasons, a navy-blue club-stripe tie is most practical tie you can own. If you only own one tie, make it this one.

Of course, few men are likely to be in that position. This is a slightly pointless argument. But it amuses me and, I hope, convinces some of the importance of both navy and club stripes in a tie collection.

By the way, the English call it a club stripe because men wore it in the colours of their club to denote membership. A club tie normally means one with crests rather than stripes. In the US, these ties are normally known as repp ties. This, however, does not refer to the stripe but to the diagonal ribbing (from which repp is a corruption) of the silk.

The Boating Blazer

No matter how much I, or others, write about versatility; about the sensible purchases of high-quality multi-purpose garments, do not let it fool you into believing that each and every garment has to be one of year long utility. The ‘special’ garments are often the most fun to purchase and indeed wear and they are often items that you confine to a specific season, or a particular event. They are gratifying items to own, largely because they make the gentleman’s wardrobe more complete; many men would contend they could ‘do’ without owning tails or a top hat, but should the space and the budget allow, the very fact of ownership is immensely satisfying. There is a strangely indulgent and addictive luxuriance in being prepared for every occasion, however remote.

Henley Regatta comes but once a year. It lasts for a few summer weeks, although the weather in those weeks is notoriously unreliable; one friend told me when he dreamt of his getting drenched at the Regatta, he had ‘fantasised more of champagne than acid rain.’ It’s rowdy too. What was once a potentially boisterous but scarcely threatening social occasion has recently turned into a succession of dangerous routs; the last Saturday fireworks have had to be banned from this year’s events due to the ‘drunken…behaviour, culminating last year with the stabbing of one of [the] competitors on Regatta land.’ The probability is that I won’t be attending this year – a lack of fireworks and the boorish manners of socially inept heavies who always manage to invite themselves to events at which they have no purpose, place or welcome make for a dismal combination.

However, I can still keep the spirit of Henley alive. I recently purchased an inexpensive mock-boating blazer; creamy white with blue piping. It’s uncrested (unless you have a club affiliation, regiment or family crest don’t bother), simple and perfectly suited for one thing, and one thing alone: a sunny summer’s day. Considering my residence in England, this whittles down the probability of wear even further. However, despite my eagerness to wear it and consequent disappointment in being unable to, I am glad of ownership of such a singularly impractical jacket. I generally have no qualms about adopting many of my sporting or country looks into metropolitan wear but this jacket is very much an oddity. However, it will be a grand day when it is finally called into action.

For the more boaty and sporty of you, there will surely be further occasions for wear. Nautical naughtiness in the summertime, drinks on the dock, tennis on the lawn, not to mention the odd yacht party. The problem, it seems to me, is that boating blazers are frequently badly fitting and rather bulky. They can look boxy and overly long because of their garishness and are often paired with inappropriate trousers and shirts and accessories. In the picture, the model in the blue jacket is wearing the jacket correctly but the trousers, in my view, look far too full; this has the effect of making the jacket look shrunken when in actual fact, its boyish size is altogether appealing. The model in the white jacket is wearing trousers that are more appropriately slim. I would favour a much thinner trouser, with a slightly shorter leg to accentuate the schoolboy charm of such a garment.

The Rules And How To Break Them. No.6

Rule 6: Black tie must be bound by tradition
In my previous post, one reader commented: “You did a good job of pointing out common ‘sins’ of black tie attire, yet I feel you could explain better why these things are sins. I understand that you might call tradition the entire point of black tie, but I’d be interested in hearing what the actual downsides of breaking these rules would be.” The post can be seen here.

This is a great point. Yes, to a certain extent tradition is the point of black tie. It is one of the few last bastions of dictated dress, where an actual sense of propriety bounds one to wear certain clothes. Beyond some award events, balls and Ascot, nowhere is the modern man restricted one particular mode of dress by his fear of offence.

Whether that is good or bad is debateable. But like all the rules I have described in this series, the rules of black tie are there for practical reasons.

Black tie aims at two things. First, make the man look as smart as possible – to be appropriate to the importance of the occasion. Second, create contrast in material and texture – to create striking effects in dark rooms or under bright lights.

So what makes a man look smart? Well, custom has always been that a shirt is less smart than a jacket. And you can see why: thicker, less crumpled material in a darker colour.

So keep the amount of shirt on display to a minimum: keep your jacket on and wear a waistcoat or cummerbund to cover the triangle of shirt material that appears below the button. Plus, the messiest part of a man’s shirt tends to be around the waist, where it untucks, and the untidiest part of the trousers is the waist where they fasten.

It is hard to dispute that a long, clean silhouette created by a waistcoat and trousers is smarter than one without the top half.

Other things that make a man look smart are a stiff shirtfront (stiff being smarter than soft) and calf-length silk socks (a smoother texture and no wrinkles).

The second aim of black tie, to create contrast in texture, is achieved by a matte finish to the suit and trousers, contrasting with shiny lapels, trouser seams, bow tie and shoes. Hence the reason for patent pumps or Oxfords. (Also note that the seams to the trousers are covered as this is considered smarter: reveal as few of the fastenings and workings of a suit as possible. Also, this is why the buttons are usually covered in the material of the suit.)

As to my second sin, notch lapels, this holds no practical purpose other than to distinguish black tie from the lounge suit. It is sharper and more rakish. I think it is worth maintaining these differences, but recognise that there is little practical reason for it.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Buttoned Up Collars

One of the curiosities of modern times is that purposeless adornment needs explanation. Buildings with even the slightest hint of ‘decoration’ – nowhere near the gauche cherubs and unicorns of mish-mashed Neo-Classical – are considered too haberdashed, the wearing of bow ties and buttonholes prompts questions of ‘What’s the occasion?’ It seems any extravagance of design, any fanciful curlicues need an excuse superior to the ancient patrician partiality to prettiness; in fact, even for the heirs of the world’s gilded dynasties, ornamentation is rapidly losing its lustre. The feverishly maximalist Victorians may well be chuckling from their celestial heights should they be witnessing such an extraordinary about-turn; apartments of ‘luxury’ are nevertheless plain: no pictures hang from walls, no objects line the mantelpiece and ‘deluxe’ retreats are little more than native huts with plumbing.

In all this shedding of embellishment, some gentlemen have seen it fit to discard their ties. The most popular adjustment that occurs in this case involves an unbuttoning of one or two of the upper shirt buttons; the most important button being the collar button itself. However, some are not as willing to unbutton and prefer all shirt buttons to be fastened whether wearing a tie or not. My grandfather, quite oblivious to the trend, has recently taken to this practice; slender, luxe-beatnik chaps – a successful cross between a John Steinbeck and Marc Jacobs – employ it as their trademark. It has a certain ‘geek chic’ appeal, in the right context, and it takes a rare élan to make it work properly. However, it is not an aesthetic that has universal approval.

I remember a university friend remarking on a strangely violent anger that brewed inside him on seeing an innocent model of this particular look on the High street, an ‘indescribable and incongruous feeling of hatred.’ Another gentleman I met at a party shook his head in disbelief at the presence of the trend in our midst; ‘Why do they feel the need to do it?’ Some remark that it ‘just looks wrong’, that it is a case of irritating indecision;‘…either you wear a tie, or you don’t.’ Others suggest that it stems from a peculiar desire to alienate ties entirely; the argument being that an unbuttoned shirt is simply a shirt without a tie, whereas a buttoned shirt without a tie is a rejection of the modern purpose of the tie – to upgrade a shirt from casual to formal status, that far from being apparently conformist, the buttoned-up-shirt-without-tie is actually rebellious.

The truth is, and the pun must be excused, that comprehensive buttoning reveals nothing; the traditional charge of recently relaxed times might be that one who buttons all is a prim puritan. However, convention has little to do with why young men of the skinny denim persuasion feel the need to button up. It’s a quirk, and in some cases rather charming. It’s odd, which is probably why to those that employ it, it is so appealing. The norm is now to unbutton, whatever the climate and whatever the occasion. Not so long ago, men who considered themselves gentlemen wouldn’t have ventured out without some form of necktie. Unbuttoned collars, in the early part of the century, were rather uncivilized and only permissible when indulging in physical exertions – land work and sporting actitivies. Not the sort of thing we now like to pair with suits at evening soirees and matrimonial occasions. As improper as the buttoned collar may be to a contemporary eye, and as uncomfortable as it might be for the wearer, there is a sweet obedience to the practice. Unbuttoning is, frankly, quite lazy.

The Three Black-Tie Sins

Criticism of what people wear to black-tie events tends to focus on obvious sins: wearing a lounge suit, wearing a coloured tie and wearing a long tie instead of a bow (though this is less objectionable than one may think). These are some of the biggest sins against the traditions of the dinner outfit, and stand out as such. They also stand out because they are committed by a relatively small number of people.

For that reason, I don’t think they are the greatest black-tie sins. They’re big, but they’re rare. More important are the small sins committed by almost everyone. Those demonstrate how disconnected the ensemble is from its traditions, despite the apparent uniformity on display.

Sin 1: Cover your waist

dinner-brad-pitt-waistThis is the greatest sin, so it comes first.

Every black-tie outfit needs to cover the waistband of the trousers in some way. That is an indisputable fact. This covering can take one of three forms: a waistcoat, a cummerbund or a double-breasted jacket.

A waistcoat should be the standard. If you’re wearing a single-breasted dinner jacket, something needs to cover up your shirt – particularly if the jacket only has one button.

A shirt with a stiff, oval front makes this obvious: only the stiff part is meant to show, the rest is covered up by a waistcoat. But even a soft-fronted shirt needs a covering. Even though its pleats form a rectangle on the front of the shirt, and even though they go all the way down to the waistband, that waistband must be covered.

This waistcoat can be black or white. White is less common and more formal, echoing as it does white tie or full fig. It can also be full or backless. If white, it should be made of the same Marcella as the shirt front. If black, it should be the same wool as the trousers.

The cummerbund was invented in the subcontinent as an alternative to the waistcoat for hot weather. It was originally a sash simply tie around the waist.

But what proportion of men at a black-tie event have some form of waist covering? Twenty per cent? Fifteen even? That’s why it’s the greatest sin.

Sin 2: Notch lapels

Most suits have notch lapels; dinner jackets should not have them. At some point, the black-tie industry forgot, or simply got lazy, and conflated the two.

A peaked lapel is more formal, aggressive and rakish. It suits black tie where it wouldn’t suit the decorum of day-to-day business. All dinner jackets, single or double-breasted, should have peak lapels. Yet a significant number (40%? 45%?) of men at a black-tie event will have notch lapels.

(Eagle-eyed readers will notice that my own velvet jacket, worn as black tie, has notch lapels. What can I say? My wardrobe is far from complete and the jacket was a vintage piece to trial a look. It’s on the list to upgrade.)

Sin 3: Shoes

The best shoe to wear with black tie is a patent pump with a grosgrain bow. Second on the list is a patent Oxford. Third is a plain black Oxford, without brogueing and preferably wholecut. All three are acceptable but are less impressive further down the list.

Yet how many men wear pumps? Probably zero. How many patent Oxfords? Perhaps 10%. And of the remainder wearing black leather shoes, there is probably a healthy chunk (again, perhaps 45%) wearing brogues, Derbys, boots or monk straps. So another low-level but popular sin. Multiplying number by grade of sin makes it a greater offence than a long tie.