Style Icon: Michael Jackson

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In the last few weeks, about one particular person, there have been written such headlines, obituaries, paragraphs, bloglines, Tweets and tributes that, if piled all together in some mausoleum of dedication, would surely be visible from space. Superlatives have been exhausted; the end of an era has been marked. Michael Jackson’s passing has dominated the thoughts of all from the breakfast to the boardroom table. Of his status as an entertainer, much has been said. Of his unconventional childhood, much has been lamented. He has been praised and pitied; scorned and celebrated. An awesome showman, he could write and produce his own music; he danced like no other, inspiring a generation of Jackson-lite dancers. He was equipped with a unique voice, a taste for fantasy and an enduring Peter Pan personality.

What has received less mention is Jackson’s very evident, somewhat controversial, taste in clothing. By some he is cited as the last example of extrovert dandyism; in whatever theme of clothing he currently favoured whether it be creamy fedoras, glittering socks, diamante gloves, Napoleonic tunics, wing collars or sequinned blazers. Jackson dressed like no one else. In many ways his extravagance was a renaissance of fashion showmanship unseen in centuries. For while it was undoubtedly idiosyncratic, it was actually well conceived. To some it was predictably vulgar, but to many it was an appealing extension of the Jackson aesthetic; a taste that embraced antiques, classic cinema, exotic animal pets, theme parks and history. He was evidently a curious and eager materialist who found delight in the sort of bauble and bangle that the most outrageous fop would question. But it was not only a willingness to wear what others might not wear; Jackson’s wardrobe was a premier example of personal couture. If Mr Jackson had the taste for a suit of armour, Mr Jackson would get a suit of armour. Indeed, when interviewed, Jackson’s costume designers, in acknowledging that Jackson never wore the same thing twice, indicated that Jackson was always the final arbiter on his clothing choices. But he was not simply an isolated fantasist. Jackson even had method to his adoption of faux-regimental clothing, considering that they ‘demanded attention’ had ‘clean lines’ and ‘fit…almost like dance clothes.’

It was not only that Jackson created his own unique wardrobe. He also, due to his magnificent fame, manipulated the mindset of a generation. I remember adopting some of Jackson’s milder clothing curiosities, a small trilby or penny loafer, and receiving my fair share of the humdrum commentary; “Look, it’s Jacko”, “Hey, MJ!”, “Ow!” For as much as penny loafers belong to a generation of Ivy Leaguers, for many younger people they are the stage-shoe of the King of Pop, and try as contemporary celebrities might to consistently adopt fedoras into their everyday headgear, they cannot shake off the glitter of mid-career Michael.

Some outfits of his in particular stand strong in the memory. The Billie Jean outfit, throughout the years of stage performance, remained roughly the same; a simple white t-shirt, skinny black trousers, a black trilby, black loafers and importantly, white diamante socks and a black sequinned jacket. A stage look, no doubt but wonderfully effective; the eye followed the gleaming socks in the moonwalk, the trilby was a clever prop. And as stagey as it appears, Jackson actually adopted more outrageous ensembles.

On a visit to the Reagan White House, Jackson was auspiciously centre stage. With a white wing collar shirt, black trousers, trademark white socks and opera pumps Jackson wore a museum-worthy creation half cartoon, half regimental elegance; a glittering blue mess jacket with light blue-edged lapels, dazzling gold epaulettes, gold sash and gold buttons – on his right hand he wore the legendary white sequinned glove. Such brazen pomp had probably never before been seen at the White House. As bizarre as the costume sounds, Jackson cut a marvellous, and extraordinarily gilded, figure; striding out onto the lawn between Reagan and his wife. For others, it would be impossible to imitate – for Jackson it was natural.

The one outfit that I remember, as a child, I ached to imitate was the creamy, faintly pin-striped suit from ‘Smooth Criminal.’ With a blue satin silk shirt, cream knit tie, spats and white fedora it was practically a parody of the gangster element which Jackson’s video highlighted. And yet it was simply the most wonderful thing I had seen. It wasn’t the white knight poetry of it, the obsession with Jackson himself or even the fact that I adored the song; Jackson simply dazzled.

Sporty, Monochrome Wedding

Here’s a thought on wedding attire. It’s not really traditional and it doesn’t really fit with the rules. In that sense I suppose it is a way to break the rules.

Anyway. I’ve written before how the default attire at a wedding should be the smartest thing you have. If morning dress is not required or suitable, it should be smart, discreet and dignified. The best combination might be a navy blue suit in a smooth, worsted wool, white cotton shirt and satin tie. Single breasted. White linen handkerchief. Black shoes. It’s hard to think of anything smarter in a lounge suit; though perhaps a Macclesfield check in the tie would be a nice nod to tradition.

However, it does strike me as a shame that a man following this advice will end up wearing to a wedding pretty much what he wears to work.

It is a shame because today not many men wear suits casually. They don’t wear them at the weekend and they don’t wear them for sport. So the sporty end of the lounge-suit range is criminally underused.

Men don’t wear strong checks; they don’t wear cottons or linens; they don’t wear great weaves like hopsack. These patterns and materials are unsuited to the dignity of business, so they rarely make it into the office. And at the weekend jeans and sweatshirts dominate.

So social occasions like weddings are a glorious opportunity to wear these sporty combinations. At a wedding I went to recently a friend was wearing a bespoke tan linen suit, brown oxfords, a pink-and-white striped shirt, a sky-blue tie and a pocket handkerchief. He looked great – but it’s hard to imagine any other scenario where he or any other of my friends would wear a combination like this. The joy of rough cloths and bright colours would be lost.

monochrome-smartAs a defence to this flouting of the rules, I would also point out that weddings today really are more casual than they used to be. There are fewer formalities, there is less prescribed structure, hell most of them aren’t even religious. So while the sanctity of marriage certainly demands dignity in dress, people shouldn’t follow ideas of propriety derived from an entirely different occasion.

It is always good to draw in one or two ideas of tradition though, if only because they have created such beautiful archetypes for us. In this case I would highlight the use of monochrome as smarter and more formal. Paring down the use of colour immediately makes things more dignified.

For all these reasons my outfit to this recent wedding was: a pale grey Glen-check suit, white cotton shirt, dark silver tie, white linen handkerchief and brown shoes. Sporty in the pattern of the suit, but retaining formality through monochrome.

So this is one long self-justification, basically.

I did say someone else looked good though, right?

Reader Question: Planning The Week

ptw-calendar1John, Los Angeles: Many of my colleagues laugh when I tell them I often pick out five days worth of clothes on Sunday evening. But I find that taking the time to select outfits for the week on Sunday and actually hanging them in the closet makes my mornings much calmer.

It also allows me time to really explore and ‘shop’ in my closet, and to put together, even try on, new combinations. It also reveals possible repair or cleaning issues while there is still time to do something about it. If my schedule for the week changes, with certain meetings requiring different selections than I have already prepared, I still have the flexibility of moving days around.

I find that the whole enterprise keeps me from just reaching for my favourites and makes me look forward to getting dressed each morning. What are your thoughts?

I strongly agree with two of John’s observations. First, I never have time enough to think calmly about what I will wear that day, let along try on one or two options. Second, thinking about what I will wear in advance opens up many more possibilities. My imagination has more time to whir through its collective memory and the wardrobe permutations.

The first of these is a real pity. As Patrick Grant at Norton & Sons observed to me recently: “It is a real shame that men don’t take 10 minutes every morning to think through their clothing options. Even if it’s just to try on two or three different ties.”

But I have to say I never fail to know what I am going to wear in the morning. Such is my passion for all things sartorial, and my eagerness to experiment, that I have already put together two or three possibilities in my mind. The evening before is normally the time for this and, if I can’t decide, I lay out a couple of options to let them stew.

Indeed, such are the whirrings of my mind that I normally have more combinations than I need. This week, for example, was forecast to be bright sunshine for at least four days. To each of those days I therefore allocated one summer item I would like to wear – new unlined navy blazer; cotton/linen trousers in a strong blue from Florence; spectator shoes from Lodger; and a tan linen jacket/yellow tie combination. Except that two days later my mind had come up with more ideas and some had to fall by the wayside. How about those white trousers? Or the cotton jacket? You never wear those when it’s sunny.

To those without this near-obsessive bent, I recommend John’s approach. At least plan out two or three days. There will always be a day or two where you are out in the evening and don’t have time to plan, in which case you can reach for old favourites. But if there’s no time given to considering your clothes, there’s unlikely to be any joy in it either.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Denim Shirts

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The introduction of denim into our wardrobes was, make no mistake, a revolution. What was once an unremarkable fabric for the working class became a sought after fashion fabric that conquered the globe; denim was to the late twentieth century what Huddersfield cotton was to the 19th. Tough, hard-wearing and distinctively American, jeans particularly are the greatest reason for this material’s success. They were an American teenage trend in the mid 20th century, and by the end of that century, everyone was wearing them.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine life without denim jeans. They are such practical inventions of fashion – easily washed, tough and durable – that it seems our current mode of life, far more active and requiring ever more resilient clothing of the ‘wash-and-go’ variety, might not exist without them. Cotton and wool trousers are often too smart, and often too easily spoiled; I remember spilling cream on a pair of virgin wool trousers and making the mistake of rubbing away at the material vigorously, as I would on my jeans. The difference is that the jeans can take it.

Of course, there are scattered detractors of denim. Dandy ‘evangelists’ for example tend to hold denim in contempt writing that “…this age of stonewashed blue jeans and practicality through the T-shirt is not the age in which a Dandy can come to aristocratic fruition.” They maintain a genuine refusal to acknowledge “…anyone who wears…jeans to be a dandy of any stripe.” Lapo Elkann admirers will probably disagree. The workaday value of denim is doubtless the problem for such critics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the very value – something Yves Saint Laurent applauded – that explains their extraordinary success.

Aesthetically, they can be simple, even elegantly so. The material itself, no silk or velvet, is perhaps not the most lustrous or gorgeous of fabrics but pants rarely ever were the most glorious part of an ensemble. It is because of, and not in spite of, their supposedly ‘crude’ adaptability and relative simplicity that jeans, whether the detractors like it or not, are wildly popular and it seems, here to stay.

Other items of the denim family will look on in jealousy at the meteoric rise of the prodigal ‘denim jeans’; dungarees, though practical, are the old pretenders; the denim jacket is like a distant relative who uses the shine of the family name, so lacking in aesthetic and practical value is the product itself. The denim shirt, for some, is even worse. A friend once told me that while he adored denim jeans, he abhorred denim shirts; “They’re so ‘Me too!’ – what is the point in a denim shirt?” Not armed with a reason except the predictable and natural explanation that perhaps some people rather like them, I have often pondered the sartorial love/hate reception that meets the denim shirt. I myself rather like denim shirts.

Usually manufactured from a softer denim than jeans, they have a character and comfort all of their own. However, they are often very badly done in a manner that doesn’t suggest Fifties teenagers, milkshakes and Chevy-packed parking lots but beer guts, Stetsons and all-you-can-eat steakhouses. Denim should not be worn with denim – everything that ‘matches’ isn’t always a perfect ‘fit.’ Just ask Liza Minnelli and David Gest.

And while it is certainly true that the denim shirt is principally a casual item of clothing, it should not be treated in a slovenly manner. Denim shirts are boyish and as such, should be worn in a more fitted style. Baggy denim shirts, with clownishly voluminous arms, however comfortable they are, will make you look like a prisoner.

It is best to avoid overly ‘washed’ denim shirts. For one thing, indigo is a wonderful colour that should be displayed proudly and be allowed to age steadily. Secondly, there is something indescribably nasty about a denim shirt that seems to masquerade as an ordinary mid-blue cotton.

The context in which denim shirts are worn is rather unfortunate too. In their most popular habitat – the line-dancin’, country music luvin’ bone suckin’ states of the US of A – they seem to be predictably paired with denim, boots, and other items of rugged practicality. They could be better worn, as an item of intriguing colour and texture, with a club stripe tie, sports jacket, casual trousers and loafers to a booth at the 21 Club.

British Bespoke – Part 3

My first, baste fitting for my bespoke suit at Graham Browne today. While I’ve had fittings at this stage previously with my Hong Kong tailor, this is the first time I’ve been able to ask as many questions and probe the details of this process.

The first image shows what the chest area of the suit looks like at this stage – the wool folded over with a generous inlay, lined with just the body (horsehair) canvas. The fold is held in place with long baste stitches and the sprouts of thread at the edges show where the mark stitches were that were pulled apart (see previous post here).

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The second image shows the collar of the jacket. While there isn’t an actual collar attached, just over an inch of excess material is left above the neck (shown by mark stitches here) to simulate the collar when fitting.

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Sewing together the jacket panels for this fitting only takes a couple of hours – which makes you feel slightly better when they say the whole thing will be ripped down into its individual components after the fitting, repressed and entirely re-cut.

This is one reason the amount of inlay left over at the edges is so generous: it allows significant reworking of the shape to be done after the baste fitting. As it is an investment suit, though, there will also be inlay left in the suit after it is finished – so it can be altered in the future. Bespoke will nearly always leave greater inlay here than ready-to-wear (which is always keen to shave off any extra costs).

In the third image the jacket is on and the lapels have been pinned back into position. Russell is examining the line of my rather rounded and sloping shoulders. Note also that only one arm is attached – the left. Only one arm is needed to judge the length and pitch of the sleeve, unless the initial measuring established that the client had one arm significantly different to the other.

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The reason the left arm is attached and not the right is that it’s just easier. A sleeve is always sewn on starting at the front and working around to the back. This is because greater fullness (the difference in length between the sleeve and the armhole) has to be worked in at the front. A right-handed tailor works away from himself when attaching the left arm, therefore, but has to sew in reverse when attaching the right arm. So only the left sleeve is attached at the baste stage.

One of the most important things to discern in the sleeve at this fitting is its correct pitch (how it hangs in relation to your body – a little forward, a little back). If there is more material in the back of the sleeve, it hangs forward; more in the front and it will hang further back. The tailor makes a chalk mark on the jacket where your arm is hanging. Apparently my arms hang a little further back than average. Who knew?

It also hadn’t occurred to me that men tend to hold their arms unnaturally far back at the fitting – in the same way as they stand up too straight, as if they were on parade. The tailor has to make his customer relax in order to stand naturally, one of the favoured Savile Row methods being to tell a particularly ridiculous joke.

In the fourth picture that left arm has been stripped off and the shoulder seam is being uncut. Seeing the pieces being ripped apart is rather satisfying, and does make you feel like this length of cloth is being sculpted to your body; the measuring and cutting is rather abstract by comparison.

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The shoulder was re-cut because Russell was not happy with the way it was lying, creating a little too much excess material across the chest. So the back and chest panels were pulled up and pinned again. Note also that the shoulder pads are not sewn in, just inserted and held there underneath the jacket during the fitting.

In the last picture you can see how the shoulder has been re-pinned a little tighter. You can also see the original chalk marks, now rather faded after all the work that has gone into the cloth, and the edge of body canvas and shoulder pad sticking out in the foreground. There are also small folds in this new shoulder line – where a slight excess of material will throw a little more fullness over the back.

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The next (forward) fitting will be in two weeks time, where the largely complete jacket will be ready. Though it is still possible to alter a lot at the forward fitting, the tailor will try to minimise this as that construction takes around eight hours – four times as long as getting to the baste (or skeleton) fitting.

Oh, and I went for a deep green lining.