The Rules And How To Break Them. No.7

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Rule 7: Wear a white linen handkerchief with your suit

Of all the colours and materials available for a pocket handkerchief, white linen is considered the smartest and most formal. Why? Well it’s a question of two factors – complement and contrast.

A silk tie is definitely smarter than a wool or linen one. The shiny lustre of the silk and the way it contrasts with the rougher texture of the suit creates a pleasing distinction. So why isn’t the same true for handkerchiefs? Why isn’t silk smarter than linen?

Because the contrast between silk and wool has already been achieved with the tie. More silk would be too much. Instead, the white linen echoes the sharpness and matte texture of the suit – it complements it.

This is also the reason that a wool handkerchief would be too casual. Yes, it is matte and rough in texture like the suit, but it is not sharp like the suit. It only shares some of the characteristics.

So this is the rule. Or rather, this the reason that men of taste over the ages have most often worn a white linen handkerchief with their wool suit and silk tie. Why it has become convention. Complement and contrast.

So how to break the rule? Well, many men don’t wear a tie every day. If you don’t, there’s no silk to contrast with your suit – which is a pity. So wear a coloured silk handkerchief instead of a linen one when you are tie-less. This is my rule of thumb most of the time, though I will also wear linen when I feel smarter.

Another way that the rule is broken: tweed jackets. Men of style will often say they like silk handkerchiefs with their tweed jackets because of the contrast in texture. But they weren’t saying that about their suit were they? Then it was all about complementing. One reason may be that woollen or casual ties are often worn with tweed. Another may be that the sheer roughness of tweed needs greater silk to balance it. Certainly, a silk handkerchief is often worn when tie-less with tweed.

Having understood why the rule, or convention, is there, it is easy to find creative ways to make use of its wisdom without necessarily following it.

In this case, be aware that all decisions with accessories are about complement and contrast. That is why a white silk handkerchief with a tie always looks a little effete. And it is a good argument for wearing woollen ties or handkerchiefs with modern, shiny worsteds. Just not both, probably.

Consider complement and contrast.

My Favourite Things: Materials

I have always been fascinated by material. It has consistently amazed me how many variations of texture, weave and tactility can be conjured from tiny strands of fabric; not only how one weave might be superior to another, or one construction stronger than another but also how those fabrics, like all good things designed for practical purposes, can be so different in effect. I like many fabrics but there are some that I simply adore for their aesthetic quality; certain materials are like art – they can summon the same feeling that a painting or a sculpture can, they can provoke reactions and approvals similar to a fine piece of music or a touching moment in literature. For me, material is the poetry of an ensemble.

Well-worn linen

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Linen is one of those materials that acquires a beautiful character as it is worn and ages through use. Unlike other materials, which are arguably at their best when new, linen can often look too raw and naïve when fresh; a little wrinkling and wear, particularly on the sleeves of a linen jacket or around the knees of a pair of linen trousers, add to the aesthetic appeal of the fabric.

The most important point about the texture of linen is that it should gain an ever so slightly oily patina, like an old canvas as it ages. I once had the privilege of viewing some vintage 1930s biscuit coloured linen suits that had been collected for a student play; though a little frayed at the sleeve and hem, the character of the linen was remarkable. I am looking forward to seeing my own linen suit advance in character this summer.

Wool flannel

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Is there is a more elegant or subtle fabric for a suit? Wool flannel, the favourite of Astaire, has a discreet grace that gives a gentleman an air of undeniable sophistication. The matt texture, mellow reflective quality and warm touch also make it one of the more friendly fabrics; pleasant to touch as well as to behold. When crisply pressed, and worn with a brilliant white shirt, the wool flannel lords it. The slight flecks of wool, detectable in the light, add a pleasant imperfection that saves the fabric from appearing anything other than natural. In a sea of shiny suits, the wool flannel stands out as a distinguished choice.

Cotton seersucker

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Like well worn linen, cotton seersucker looks splendid when it has been, as they say, ‘around the blocks a few times.’ The beauty of it is that it is so casual a fabric that almost nothing added to it can make an ensemble look overdone; silk handkerchiefs, bow ties or waistcoats, the ‘bumpy’ seersucker, though certainly not a scruffy material, manages to downplay any attempt at overdressing. The bunching together of the threads, which causes the rippled texture, has an aesthetic as well as a practical value. It roughens the overall texture of the cloth, eradicating any ‘sheen’ the cloth might have. This means that seersucker has a dull, almost dishcloth texture; while this sounds dreadful, it is actually a positive thing, providing the perfect foil for silk ties and fine weave shirts in the summer heat.

Knitted silk

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When I was a lad, I used to think the fabric for my father’s knitted silk ties came from some kind of gruff, rough-haired wild animal – the last fabric I would have suggested would have been silk; a fabric I generally knew, from my mother’s scarves and hair ribbons, to be a smooth and glossy material that I loved to press my cheek to. The beauty of knitted silk is precisely that; that it doesn’t look like silk a lot of the time. When it is an especially bright day, and the little strands of silk are caught in the light, it is unmistakable but I prefer it for it’s slightly coarse and naïve construction, particularly when patterned, that contrasts wonderfully with smooth jackets and creamy shirts.

Shoe Stereotypes

The Sanders buck shoe

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The Sanders buck shoe man was quietly insistent that his daughter inform her class that her father was not, as she had previously speculated, a ‘ship builder’ but a ‘yacht designer.’ He flicked open his Macbook Air and explained to her, in an insipidly patronising tone of voice, that ‘daddy doesn’t bang nails; daddy draws aft cabins.’ His daily life is one of constant exposure to the world of the have-mores; as such his own lowly existence, though relatively civilised and fortunate, is a point of constant chagrin. One of his first clients commented that his Sanders bucks looked very much at home on his 150 foot long teak decks which inspired him to purchase three more pairs; in green, blue and grey. The clean, sporty style of the model and their lack of chintz appealed to the minimalist in him although his blue pair particularly, with the orangey-red sole and the substantial blue ‘hull’, brought to mind of some of the larger commissions he had the misfortune to miss out on.

The Church’s Tenby

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The Church’s Tenby man, an irritable antiques dealer, was one of the original ‘Walnut Mafia’ who once occupied a choice position on the Fulham Road and sold, at great profit, Queen Anne and Georgian lowboys, armchairs and bureaux to City moneymen for their mansions in the Boltons. Times have hit the Church’s Tenby man hard however, and he is now selling from a smaller address in Ladbroke Grove. The money men have wised up and now send droves of experts and fearsome bidders to the auction rooms to pick up the sort of thing the CT man would rely upon flogging in order to purchase his tailored suits and his Church’s shoes. Hand burnished, his Tenby’s are starting to look a little worn but he gives them as much attention and skill as his highly priced antiques and buffs them to an incredible shine on a Sunday afternoon, where he can be found in his sitting room with an ale, his semi-brogues and the Antiques Roadshow which he enjoys by guffawing at the ‘small fry,’ exacting his snobbery with great delight.

The N&L Russia calf

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The N&L Russia calf man is an effete Upper East Sider who collects purple cashmere socks and summers on The Vineyard. This dealer-turned-collector made a fortune selling his collection of Picasso sketches, mostly pornographic, to a Picasso-mad Bermudan billionaire for nearly eight times their market value. Ever since, he has been able to skip down Fifth Avenue from his co-op apartment, fancy-free at every 10.30am, to enjoy his favourite meal; champagne eggs Benedict. Being an incurable Anglophile, the Russian calf man makes regular and unnecessarily fabulous (large suites at the Ritz with a purple Rolls Phantom from the airport) sojourns to the English capital for, he says, the ‘art culture, the dynamism and…just the quirkiness of it all.’ Insiders say he goes for the suits, the shoes and the hunky Brit bartenders.

The John Lobb monkstrap

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The John Lobb monkstrap man is a Milanese banker, terrified of being taken for: a Milanese banker. Unfortunately for him his flowing locks, pronunciation (‘Jon-a-Lawwb’) and continental minimalism give the game away within a minute of introduction. Ever since the ‘Bail of PIIGS’ issue, he has played down his Italian connections and has made efforts to convince colleagues that he is essentially European and does not hold the same views as some of the amusing politicians in his home country. He recently married an English rose ten years his junior who, again rather unfortunately, loves all things Italian as much as he does himself and often has to beg to be taken to Zafferano on a Friday night. His John Lobb shoes were an effort to make himself appear more English; his wife pointed out that they made him look more like Sartorialist favourite, and classic Milanese, Lino Ieluzzi.

Bespoke But Bland

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There are things I utterly love about the bespoke clothing ‘experience’ and there are also areas which think leave a lot of room to be desired. A throbbing, temple-grindingly painful example of the latter category is service. The naïve amongst us might imagine that, given the cost involved, the level of service that customers receive from bespoke artisans would be far superior to that proffered by the sartorial sirens in the oh-so chic, bijou-till-it-hurts boutiques (you know, the sort of shop that unselfconsciously claims to ‘curate’ its merchandise). Certainly, you would expect the bespoke experience to be better than the treatment we receive at the hands of the obsequious and effete young chaps – as eager to please as they are lacking in individual style and opinion – so favoured by the major luxury goods houses for their flagship stores. But you’d be wrong – kind of.

Let us start with what’s right about the bespoke experience.  It is the absolute antithesis of the luxury goods brands’ anonymous and coolly detached emporia. The workshop or shop looks like a real person works in it with evidence of their presence and trade present in the objects and ephemera scattered around the (usually untidy) room. When you meet your tailor or shoemaker he (maybe she, but not often) will shake your hand and introduce himself. He or she will not be wearing a name badge and, after a visit or two, you will probably have built up a pretty decent relationship with the person whose hands provide the conduit through which your designs will be brought to life.

You can rely on your artisan’s honesty, too, when asking for an opinion on this or that: with a mountain of experience and no incentive to push a particular style they will be able to honestly appraise the way something looks on you, helping to both improve the end product and harmonise the way you view yourself and the way others do. It is also a real learning experience; assuming that, like me, you are fascinated by the finely honed skill that these superb craftsman utilise in order to produce what seems a very simple garment, you will enjoy getting to know your tailor and learning from them – equally, it is not unlikely that they will enjoy explaining what they do to a eager pupil. Finally, if you want to think in terms of value, you are not (at least for with most tailors) subsidising marketing campaigns and flash stores at the expense of quality clothes and, of course, you can keep modifying and tweaking your product until it more closely resembles the image you had in your head: the aftercare service is peerless.

Sounds great. So why am I whining? Is it because these old-world craftsmen can be a touch rude or standoffish, at first blush? I can see how that would bother some people who have a certain preconception of the customer-salesman role but it does not keep me awake at night. Would I perhaps prefer a more salubrious showroom, with complimentary drinks and a plush leather couch on which to sit my now handsomely attired derriere? Well, perhaps; but I can well see the benefit of going without as I described above when discussing value. The real problem is the refusal of some artisans to deviate from their time-proven methods in order to create exactly what the client wants.

This is the very definition of bespoke and the primary characteristic which allows bespoke to soar mightily above ready-to-wear and, like a disrespectful pigeon, relieve itself upon its poorer relative from a great height: you can create exactly what you want, however weird, wacky, or idiosyncratic that may be. Yet, in practice, this is often not really the case. Often a tailor will refuse to play with convention or genuinely put his skill to the test by cutting a daring shape or marrying one feature with another in such a way that requires a touch of daring and a good dollop of artistic sensibility to pull it off correctly. In some (admittedly rare) cases, I have had a tailor tell me something is flat-out impossible to do – something as simple as slimming the arms on a suit whilst still having broad shoulders, for example.

I have some sympathy for the tailor who knows that something his client has requested will look ridiculous on him; anyone who has seen some of the bespoke monstrosities lauded on certain internet fora by their proud owners will attest to the fact that bespoke does not always look better. The thing is, though; I think these people are great. One of the main things I like to see in other people, as far as dressing goes, is them enjoying themselves; that is feeling good about how they look in what they are wearing and, perhaps, using their clothes to express their personality in some subtle way or another. Anyone who fulfils these two criteria is, in my humble opinion, far more interesting an aesthetic artefact than someone trendily attired in the latest Prada suit (even if my personal taste were to err more on the side of the latter than the suit they had commissioned).

I quite understand that there is a tried-and-tested formula which works pretty well for most suits and would not like to see this bastardised or mutate too deviously but I also recognise that the vast majority of the suits flooding out of the London tailor shops are almost identical in style, covering only a minute corner of the overall spectrum, and this is boring and lazy. It is not what bespoke should be. Suits can respect certain fundamental rules whilst still being interesting and individual: consider that a book such as Musgrave’s Sharp Suits fills over a hundred pages with attractive and diverse images of attractive and diverse suits. Going bespoke affords us a lot of possibilities and what annoys me most is that so few customers take advantage of this and that so few tailors truly encourage them to do so and this is something that I would argue should be intrinsic to the service.

I suppose it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the bespoke industry’s level of service is anything other than better than that of ready-to-wear but, like a smart schoolboy whose natural ability allows him to keep pace with his peers without effort, it needs to be encouraged to take strides forward and not rest upon its laurels so that it can truly differentiate itself and offer us something really special – we all complain about how few people partronise the tailoring houses these days and here is a way to ensure that the numbers do not dwindle further.

First Fitting With Toby Luper

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Having met Toby Luper of Hemingway Tailors, I was invited recently to try his bespoke service. Toby is rather cynical about the number of fittings Savile Row tailors insist on, and bet me he could get the fit right in one (forward) fitting.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I was impressed by the attention to detail Toby showed in analysing my body shape. That impression continued with the fitting this week.

The trousers were a good fit across the waist and shaped beautifully down my lower back, falling in one nice straight line from my bum to the floor. I have a rather pronounced seat, despite being slim, and this can be a hard thing for tailors to get right.

The seat itself was a little tight, as shown by the trouser pockets gaping about an inch. But that was the only alteration needed to the trousers – everything else was perfect.

On the jacket, Toby had discussed previously throwing the balance a little further back, so that there was room to cover by prominent shoulder blades and fall cleanly over my bum. The suit I had been wearing at our first session (an old one of Edward Tam’s) hollowed out a little between the blades and in the small of my back, meaning that the skirt kicked out.

After he had raised the back by around an inch and a half all the way across – from one armhole to the other – he did achieve that clean finish on the back.

There was no sleeve roll at this stage, which meant the sleevehead folded in under the shoulder pad. While this is a little off-putting, the finished effect could be seen by tautening the sleeve. The shoulders were also taken in an eighth of an inch.

The right sleeve appeared a little shorter than the left, so it was lengthened an inch and the left sleeve just half an inch. The waist fit perfectly.

Elsewhere the fronts were fine except for one small detail – it had been made up as a single breasted when I asked for a double. I say small detail because while this will necessitate replacing the fronts entirely, I have confidence in Toby’s attention to figuration and I’m sure the final product will be a very good fit.

It does mean we will require a second fitting; so Toby lost that bet, though on different grounds to those we were really exploring. The truth of Toby’s skill will be seen when the suit is complete and has been worn several times.

In the meantime his passion for hang and drape is undoubted. I’ve tried a few visiting tailors over the years and too many saw the fitting as a time for me to tell them what I disliked, rather than for them to analyse the minutiae of fit.

For those that are interested, I had a nice discussion with Holland & Sherry about their upcoming remnant sale – big reductions on a range of cloths, April 22-23 10am-4pm in the fitting rooms at 9/10 Savile Row. All welcome.