The Agony Of Choice

I’m going to have a suit made soon. Naturally I’m considering what I’d like to have. Not suffering the burden of excessive wealth this is a rare happening, so some care must be taken with the selection of style and cloth.

Now, there are two schools of thought on this issue. These can be defined as my school, and everybody else’s.

Everybody else, probably wisely, argue that if you’re going to invest in bespoke or made to measure tailoring then get the basics sorted first. Those keystones of your wardrobe, the blue and the grey suit in classic styles, are by far the most versatile options, and you can always build in more interesting elements later. Sound fatherly advice.

My theory goes something like this; working one to one with a tailor opens up a world of possibility that the high street just can’t match. Why not have something a bit special, a bit different, something you’ve always wanted but which the high street isn’t offering. Keystone suits will be worn regularly and wear out, unless supplemented with high street offerings. In which case what’s the point?

So, here are my contenders…

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First up, a suit I wrote about some posts ago. Referred to as the Kent style it wasn’t popular judging by the comments. But I’ve seen one or two more and I really like them. But as the previous article made clear, you can’t afford to buy this off the peg.

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The single breasted peak lapel suit with a double breasted waistcoat. The fact that I couldn’t find an exact picture of what I want is the reason I’m considering getting one made. The pictures give a rough idea of the aesthetic I’m searching for, the lovely sharp lines and series of V’s. One to be done in a navy worsted cloth I think.

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A large box check, ever so slightly reminiscent of Victorian dandies. Popular with the Duke of Windsor, here in the UK it went through a bit of a revival 10 years ago and was done to death. An ideal candidate for revival.

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A subject I have written about ad nauseum, I continue my love affair with patch pockets.  I’m toying with both the single breasted and a double breasted option. Interesting scoop by fellow columnist Simon Crompton here, shows I’m not alone in my thinking. I have it mind to go for Navy needle cord or grey flannel for the double breasted option.  Alternatively, something similar to this.  But I want to see the cloth books.

The agony of choice.

Be A Rogue Like The Big Bad Wolf

cinderella-and-other-storieMy two-year-old daughter has a book called Cinderella and Other Stories, by Stephen Tucker and Nick Sharratt. Reading it to her yesterday, I noticed that Sharratt (the illustrator) dresses the Big Bad Wolf in a purple suit with yellow windowpane check, yellow bowtie and tan-and-cream spectator shoes. The implication, whether conscious or not on Sharratt’s part, is that this is a figure of ill repute. Only the roguish dress in such an ostentatious way.

That feeling about loud clothes can be seen throughout the development of menswear. The Duke of Windsor, when Prince of Wales, favoured checks more than his contemporaries (hence his popularisation of a variation on the glen plaid) and took to wearing spectator shoes. The latter were deemed by his father, George V, to be the footwear of a bounder and a cad.

His father, Edward VII, also pioneered clothing that was stronger as well as more comfortable. He favoured tweed suits for the races, rather than formal daywear, and took to wearing velvet jackets as well. Interestingly, though, Edward VII quickly dropped the latter when they were popularised by Oscar Wilde and became associated with homosexuality. The Duke of Windsor, by contrast, continued to wear suede shoes despite their associations with homosexuality.

Bounders, cads, rakes and rogues are often those that have stepped outside society’s ideas on respectability. This is communicated through clothes as much as through their actions or the company they keep. Indeed the nickname for suede shoes used to be brothel creepers, suggesting one place these men liked to hang out. And the American term for spectators is co-respondents, after a figure in an infamous divorce case.

So there has always been this association between loud clothes and roguish characters. (Golf clothes and the ‘go-to-hell’ leisure wear of American upper castes might be seen as a deliberate casting off of respectability for a certain period.)

One thing I find interesting is that throughout this history of innovation, the trend towards comfort has always been accompanied by one of personal expression. Colours, patterns and contrast are a deliberate step outside the norm in order to become more individual.

What’s depressing about menswear today is that the two trends have become divorced. Comfort has lost its twin, expression. Jeans, chinos and trainers are not the result of any individuality. A suit is more individual in most parts of the US or UK.

Perhaps not a purple checked suit. But men need to be a little more rakish now and again.

Maintenance: The Cotton Bud – A Mans Unlikely Best Friend

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When I talk of cotton buds I’m referring to those little plastic sticks with cotton wool on each end; most of us use them to clean our ears, despite the box telling us not to and they having no other conceivable use. Although, when I was a kid I remember they did make useful replacement lightsabers for Star Wars figures – provided you removed the cotton wool.

Anyways, two tips for why any well set fellow should have a couple of these in his kit bag.

Removing beer from leather

Wherever men gather there’s a good chance beer won’t be far away, and these two ingredients can make for the ruin of leather shoes. The other night I got a little beer on my Albam loafers, and having done a little research came across this tip, which works like a charm.

Mix a solution of warm water and washing-up liquid in a glass.  Then dip one end of the cotton bud into the solution and roll it across the stain. Leave it for five minutes and then use the dry end to dab up the excess moisture. Allow it to dry naturally and the stain should have gone. Obviously test it first on a less affected area before going all out.

Removing blood from shirt collars

Before I picked up a beard in New Zealand it was often the case that having shaved I’d have a myriad of little nicks, this was most acute when using a new blade. Too numerous and too small for the old tissue paper gambit, invariably the blood would find its way onto my collar.

Take a cotton bud and dip the end in cold water, then roll the wet end over the blood. You should see the stain begin to fade and keep going until you no longer see it. Job done.

Why The Fuss? ‘Effortless’ Style

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“Yea, he’s cool” the girls nodded, glancing towards the unkempt, tramp-ish looking gent at the bar; a man so carefully careless in appearance and so studied, that the girls’ following remark (“He’s just so effortlessly stylish”) was a curious hilarity. On another occasion I was asked by a lady friend my opinion of her new boyfriend; an out-of-work actor of fascinating pretension. She particularly wished to know what I thought of his attire; “Don’t you think” she gushed, fanning her flushing face with her fingers “he’s just like, the BEST dressed man ever?!” Acknowledging her ardour, I provided diplomatic mutterings that conveyed a disingenuous approval. My true feeling was more of pity; for the gentleman was merely another example of a style which, once aligned to a greater art of sartoria, is known merely as ‘effortless.’

George Clooney is apparently the archetype of this style. His ‘ability’, according to his rather star struck columnist proponents, is ‘to look like the best dressed man in the world whilst seemingly making no effort at all.’ While Mr Clooney manages, armed with his considerable fortune, to look vaguely presentable at occasions which require a modicum of formality, he can scarcely be considered the best dressed man when he and ‘dressing’ maintain only the slightest of nodding acquaintanceships.

This ‘effortless cool’ has less to do with dressing and a great deal more to do with sexuality; sartorial sexuality, which for much of the Twentieth century, replaced propriety and ornament in female dress, is now the pinnacle of style for a great many men. Clooney is a desirable and attractive man who, apparently, manages to transform seemingly ordinary clothing into style choices of sudden and magnetic genius. The reason why is because Clooney, though outdressed in all styles by more ‘anonymous’ gentleman across the world, is smothered gracelessly in Hollywood’s secret sauce: sex.

‘Effortless’ cool used to be about a lot more than sex. It used to be about the way a gentleman could pair the casual with the more formal, largely for reasons of comfort or practicality, and still achieve elegance; the way he would close his dressing gown and knot the belt; the way he would quickly roll up his trousers when wearing loafers in the summer; the way he would tip back his hat to allow the sunshine to warm his face, or use a tie as a belt when feeling in a jaunty mood. The new ‘effortless’ cool offers no such invention or attractive pragmatism. It is not about ‘effortless’ dressing but simply avoiding dressing; shirts unbuttoned to the chest, contrivance of simplicity, avoiding details and shunning innovation.

The most important thing to note is that it only appears to ‘work’ on men of a certain physical appeal. If you are on the books of Storm, are the tall silver-haired totty of the boardroom, got paid $12 million for your last acting job or tend to make girls weak at the knees with the merest flutter of your eyelashes, you’re laughing; a slovenly ‘style’ will not distract from your other charms. If, like the rest of us, you are not so genetically blessed; feeling rather short, awkwardly made or simply lacking in what might be termed ‘looks that can kill’, there’s precious little of the superficial to recommend. Wandering around in an open white shirt, clumpy shoes and a suit of average aesthetic and ubiquitous style is not likely to make others confuse you with Mr Clooney. Making an effort, for the majority of men, is far more attractive, rewarding and interesting than appearing not to have made an effort at all.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Of all the events about which there is much ballyhoo and hullabaloo, the Academy Awards really takes the biscuit. 41 million people tuned in this year, equivalent to the population of Argentina. For an event that has so little bearing on the lives of those watching, it is certainly extraordinary; film industry back-slapping and back-handing is hardly the bread and butter of a meaningful existence. However, the punters seem drawn to the spectacle year after year, not least for one of its early sequences – the famed ‘red carpet arrivals.’

Thousands of people are squeezed into the street outside the ceremony’s venue, screaming for the stars – come rain or shine. Security staff fiddle with velvet ropes, cameras flash in expectation, reporters hyperbolise and finally the limousines, which have trundled along at a funereal pace, release their hand-waving celebrated passengers to a cacophony of noise.

The apogee of this anticipation is the sight of silver screen stars decked out in glittering gowns and borrowed gems; a catwalk of prom-dresses that range from the sleek and chic to the truly absurd. In between the teeth-flashing females are the dark figures of Hollywood masculinity; most wearing black tie, the odd few favouring outfits that belong at board meetings.

The women are, naturally, the focus of the camera lenses; having spent hours preparing for the rigours of the red carpet, they make the most of their moment. The men, though not neglected, are merely asked “Who made your tux?” It is a matter of sad predictability that the answer is invariably “Armani.” The male models on the world’s most watched catwalk show are no uniform group of ‘boys.’ They are one of the most representative collections of men; from the short and fat to the tall and lean, the impossibly attractive to the downright ugly. And the variation does not end there. Whilst it seems, from the glossy photographs in my compendium on the Academy Awards, that ‘old Hollywood’ ceremonies were occasions at which nearly all men and women dressed with a considerable level of elegance, these days, the right thing is done by fewer and fewer men.

Red Carpet Winners

And the Oscar goes to… Tom Ford

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Tom Ford was, unsurprisingly, one of the most elegant gentlemen on the red carpet. Not only sporting a subtle hint of pocket square, but also a tasteful buttonhole, Mr Ford was a splendid advertisement for his own brand. His jacket was shawl collared, perfectly tailored and was worn buttoned which accentuated the quality of its shape.

Nominated: Ryan Reynolds

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While not as recherché as Mr Ford, Ryan Reynolds was comparatively dapper in a single-breasted peak lapel number. No accessories adorned the actor but he cut a sleek figure on the carpet thanks to his physique and a decently cut, and buttoned, dinner suit that, mercifully, avoided vulgarity. A small bow tie that appeared to be a clip on was the only let down.

Nominated: Colin Firth

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It was fitting that Tom Ford’s leading man, though evidently not ‘single’, represented the designer as well in the sartorial stakes as in the theatrical. His dinner suit, Tom Ford naturally, was similar to his directors. Firth looks good in a properly cut suit – his tall frame is flattered by a properly accentuated waist. His bow tie, undoubtedly hand tied, was charmingly imperfect. The subtlest ‘old Hollywood’ hint of white poked out of his breast pocket.

Red Carpet Losers

And the Razzie goes to… Jason Bateman

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I had expected to award the Razzie to someone with a sheeny necktie like Zac Efron or Jeremy Renner. The former is too young to judge too harshly and, like Taylor Lautner, made a decent effort considering his unremarkable, teeny everyday wear. It would be too cynical and somewhat unfair to criticise those youths who were, no doubt, feeling extraordinarily lucky to be pacing the crimson pile.

And so the award goes to Mr Bateman for one of the laziest ‘dinner suits’ I have ever seen. If he were a penniless student who did not possess black tie and could not afford rental, he would be excused. As it is he is a successful actor with plenty of money and time on his hands. His suit, for it is certainly no ‘tuxedo’, has a skinny notched lapel, oversized arms and has a disturbingly tacky sheen. His bow tie, evidently a clip on, attempts to out-sheen the suit and though his inclusion of a pocket square is to be applauded, his shoes look like they’ve been borrowed from a sixth former.

Nominated: Robert Downey Jr

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It’s sad to include Downey Jr as he is clearly having fun with his clothing; for the premiere of Sherlock Holmes he wore a fedora and a three-piece suit. However, as much as he is to be applauded for such a triumphant return to form, this celebratory outfit is awkward and, though interestingly whimsical, clownish in this context. Had the bow been smaller and self-tie and perhaps instead of wearing what appear to be Vans, he could have worn evening pumps (now that’s a real statement Downey) with light blue silk socks, he could have run away with the Oscar.

Nominated: Matt Damon

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Considering the bucks at his disposal, you’d think that Mr Damon could afford to purchase a suit that actually looks good on him. As it is, he is attired in the sort of thing people who don’t care about clothes hire from Moss Bros to jeer, jest and vomit in. The lapel is sheeny-shiny, the suit is distractingly boxy, the tie is a satin clip-on and he looks like he picked up his clumpy dress shoes from GAP. Unfortunately, though he is rather different from them in taste, he looks a lot like the rest of the anonymous Hollywood-hunk crowd; uncomfortable in black tie.