Blast From The Past

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For me, history is one of the most important and meaningful benefits of existing. There is a lot of idiotic tripe spoken about the Past, Present and Future as though the latter two were as distinct from each other as they are from the former; in reality, the only Future we know is the immediate Present. The Future is not predestined. We don’t have to ‘wait until it comes around’ like some kind of vessel of Time. It happens with every ticking moment; the Present is simply the slow but sure unfolding of the Future.

The Past however is distinct because we know that it happened. We know that Shakespeare existed. We know that the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 and that JFK was assassinated on the 22nd November 1963. It is the only certain thing we know. It is for this reason that it holds such fascination for the intelligent beings that inhabit the earth. Wondering about the Future is a daydreaming exercise but analysing and studying the Past is not only productive but rewarding.

One of the most useful things about the past, as far as fashion is concerned, is that its records enable creatives to adapt styles that not only looked acceptable but were popular too. When fashionistas claim the new craze is precisely that, “new”, the chances are it is simply an older style that has been altered for a modern market. A vintage knock off.

The vaults of fashion are chock full of frills, pleats, cuffs and buttons that are constantly recycled though the decades and centuries in which these dusting glories once shone, like the newspapers, are long gone.

Perusing the racks at a vintage store, I flick through items of age and residual humanity; for people have lived in these clothes, loved in these clothes and very possibly died in these clothes. Though rigorously cleaned, they still retain that uncommonly musty smell. I am given to understand that it is the thought of such unpleasantness that guides certain cultures that second-hand living is unacceptable; for them vintage clothing, whether Savile Row or C&A, is off the list.

For the particularly squeamish there are solutions to the barrier of second-hand living. Personally, I am not interested in second-hand shirts, underwear (for obvious reasons), socks or shoes. They are items too intimate to adopt as my own; no matter how clean, I cannot wear another man’s Club collar. Even if I could overcome such squeaky reticence, finding a decent vintage shirt is very difficult, particularly one of a style that has long vanished. The Vintage Shirt Company, based in Lewes, Sussex, are the saviours for gentlemen who crave un style ancien. Producing everything from 18th century lawn shirts with frilled cuffs and fronts and early pleated linen Victorian shirts to boiled front Edwardian evening shirts with detachable collars, they are an index of forgotten styles.

Their inventory does not stop at shirts either. They provide an extraordinary range of collars, some of which are washable, as well as an impressive array of neckwear – 18th century cotton cravats, Regency bows and Victorian silks – as well as an inexpensive collection of headgear that betrays the theatrical custom of the store.

Yesteryear also reigns at Old Town clothing, an aptly named Norfolk based retailer of vintage style jackets and trousers. The aesthetic is more utilitarian; a collection of working-class classics from the late 19th and early 20th century. Utterly frill free, patch pocketed jackets are a throwback to the era of shipbuilding, terraced houses and Bovril billboards. Fabrics are sturdy rather than refined and there is a definite solidity to the appearance of the garments. A breath of fresh air for those with a taste for recreating the Hovis man, most of what Old Town produce is not available to purchase anywhere else; their niche is the offer of a practical, sensible style of clothing that the world rejected with the decline of the traditional working-class. The deep irony is that these £200-£300 items are more likely to be bought by gastropubbing design executives with Range Rovers and cottages in the Cotswolds. Nothing like a bit of proletariat panache.

Across The Pond: Adrian Jules

As you’ll know if you occasionally cross the ether to BespokeMe, my main preoccupation is London’s hidden gems and lesser known retailers. However, my curiosity and love of finding interesting and anonymous sources extends further than the shores of England.

Other than reading blogs based abroad, I occasionally receive press releases and unsolicited info about foreign merchants – occupational hazard once you start writing a blog. For the most part these are just dross and spam, quickly making their way to the junk folder. However, I recently received one on a company called Adrian Jules that sparked my interest.

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According to the blurb, Adrian Jules is America’s best worn secret – quite a claim. Founded in Rochester, New York, in 1962 by Adriano Roberti and Julio Volantere, Adrian Jules now ranks as the oldest, and largest,  family-owned maker of men’s custom-bespoke, made-to-measure and RTW clothing in America. Apparently, each bespoke coat is still cut, pressed and shaped by hand, and features hand sewn top collars, under-collars and shoulder linings; even buttonholes are first cut by hand, sculpted, then hand-stitched. (I have to say these people are pushing all the right buttons with me).

I’d be prepared to bet a year’s salary – which isn’t very much –  that I never set foot in Rochester, and my asking you about Adrian Jules may be as facile as an American asking “has anybody heard anything about Anderson & Sheppard?”

But I’d be interested to get the lowdown from Mensflair’s worldly audience.

The Belted Cardigan

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“If there’s one thing that women find unattractive”, so I have been told, “it’s seeing the vanity of women reflected in men.” Women are apparently happy to admit their own vanity. After all, they claim quite correctly, it’s hardly their fault. For the fairer sex know full well that they are continually judged on the way they look, the way they appeal to the male. What truly irks them is when men enter their domain; “Babe, can I borrow your eyeliner?” is surely one of most dreaded questions for a happily smitten woman. Such a hammer blow can permanently fracture the respect and admiration she had for her beau. She might still love him as a human but her respect for him as a man may be irreparably damaged.

Goodness knows women love a well-dressed man, though not an overdressed one. A mirror gazer is emasculated by his own self-obsession. However, it is not only vanity that women recoil from but also the idea of men borrowing from the feminine style book; for many women, skinny jeans on a man are a deal breaker (no matter how good he might look in them). Women who borrow from men, by contrast, are not only acceptable but actually encouraged and enshrined as examples of modernism; the ‘Boyfriend Fit’ jeans in GAP are a classic example. Part of this has as much to do with the masculine idealisation of men as well as the feminine; broadly speaking, women can be boyish and yet attractive whereas girly men are not only unattractive to the female but also vilified by the other males.

I once posited by instant messenger the idea of purchasing a long-belted cardigan to a distant female friend who replied abruptly; “Lol! Woman!” From an aesthetic point of view, I liked the three-quarter length, the cabling and the lazy way in which the belt was tied; I could see it with jeans, smart trousers, crisp shirts and even a merry bow tie but, alas, the only ensemble in which it was ever suggested was, even to me, vaguely feminine – a low v-neck and casual trousers. It seemed to suggest some kind of sartorial cross-dressing Stars In Their Eyes; “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Gwyneth Paltrow!” Imagination was required to really sell this item as a possibility. In all the pictures I was copying into the messaging window, the men seemed to be wearing a shrunken dressing gown. It was no wonder that the girl who looked at these chiselled, stubbled men was in fits of laughter; they desperately trying to be masculine in a woman’s outfit.

Warm and low maintenance, these cardigans are perfect for lazy Sundays when a man might wish to relax at his homestead, but they need to be taken at face value – a cable cardigan is not a standout item, it is no ‘look-at-me-in-my-Prada-knitwear’ garment. That is the sort of thinking that summarises modern women’s fashion; attempting, in vain, to make the ordinary extraordinary. The deep V for men, by way of example, is something of anathema since it is a design that flatters those with breasts. Instead, the belted cardigan should be thought of as the sort of thing he throws on over a shirt and tie when he gets chilly. It is first and foremost a practical garment of no especial elegance. Everything else a gentleman wears can express his masculinity, such as his tie or his well-ironed trousers. The femininity or masculinity of an item such as a belted cardigan is not inherent; it is in the way it is worn.

Forgotten: The White Jacket

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If there is one aesthetic I have no interest or skill in adapting it is that of the 1970s Martini Cinzano man. The gigantic open collar, the hideous golden necklace resting in the unspeakable mound of chest hair and the tacky pastel suits; I find it all disturbingly ugly. Naturally, I recoil from anything that I see that indicates such an aesthetic – including items in my own wardrobe. A recent wardrobe carousel revealed to me my collection of summer jackets. I brushed the sleeves in a satisfied manner, like the admiring hand of a collector testing the tangibility of his treasure. However, one item caused my eyes to widen and my hand to slip. It was stark, shocking and rather cheap-looking; a bright white two-button cotton jacket that I had once considered an essential part of my wardrobe.

I took it off the hanger tentatively, slightly blinded by its reflective capabilities in the early May sunshine; “Can I even wear this?” I thought anxiously. When on, it washed all colour from my face and accentuated the uneven blemishes on my late-spring untanned skin. It was too powerful a contrast with the trousers I was wearing, so I took out my selection of paler summer trousers and tried to produce a tasteful ensemble that would avoid vulgarity and banish all thoughts of the nightmare of Martini Cinzano. A pair of navy blue linen trousers, a natural choice, looked undignified and tacky with such a jacket; “Christ!” I thought “Backstreet’s back!”

I then tried black trousers, which looked cheap, red trousers (which just looked vulgar) and finally settled on avoiding brights and moving towards paler and pastel colours; I had avoided them thus far as I associated pastels with the sweaty nemesis of hairy Martini man. A pair of light blue trousers softened the starkness of the white jacket, particularly when wearing the two with a pastel yellow shirt. Likewise, a pair of light stone coloured trousers quietened the contrast; the problem, I could see, was that white is simply too noticeable and too ‘in yer face’ to wear elegantly with dark trousers. It has the effect of shortening one’s legs.

The other problem is that bright white cotton is associated with the clinical. A bright white jacket, if worn incorrectly, could look just like a doctor’s coat. To avoid all medical connections, any ‘isolation’ of the jacket must be avoided – a white jacket is isolated when its luminosity is all too evident. Pairing it with pastel shirts and trousers as well as carefully chosen accessories should avoid any connotations or suggestions that the item is intended for the strip-lit corridors of the nearest hospital. The other thing I discovered, through experimentation, is that wearing white shoes with the jacket, whilst sporting odd coloured items across the rest of an ensemble, has the effect of splitting the vision between the torso and the feet, to the expense of any detail or colour variation in between.

Finally, the importance of buttons on a white cotton jacket cannot be stressed enough – white is the perfect ‘blank canvas’ on which to show off fine horn. The most important thing to remember when selecting is to choose paler, smaller buttons – dark, oversized buttons are distracting; think peanut butter not mahogany.

On My Soapbox: Over-Branding

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The failure of the UK’s summer to get off the launch-pad required that I buy a mid-weight coat on Saturday. I selected a rather nice heavy twill cotton Pea Coat from UK retailer Jaeger. I loved the design and the price was right. However, what wasn’t so agreeable was the additional £20 I had to spend on replacement buttons – that’s not including labour.

Sadly, Jaeger had done what so many brands appear to be doing, which was to over brand their own products. The buttons, perfectly serviceable in all other respects, had the company name all over them. Not so noticeable from afar, it was too obvious up close and personal. They had to go.

This disagreeable trend for retailers to plaster their name and logos obtrusively over products has in recent years become a pandemic. Society in general has moved to a position where style is prized more than substance. And in so many ways much of the public and the mainstream media accept the mere wearing of brand names as a substitute for both. I suspect too that the culture of ‘Bling’ has had much to do with it. This being a direct result of the popularity of Rap, R&B and their like amongst the middle classes; with all its in your face, splash the cash, ‘how do you like them apples’ attitude to money and wealth.

As to the labels themselves, you would have thought they’d know better. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that bloody great labels and logos ruin the aesthetic of a garment, one of the requirements of exclusivity and glamour is subtlety and discretion. It’s the key difference between nouveau and old school. Savile Row tailors are famous for hiding their labels inside the inside pocket of their jackets, and for not advertising. And yet we are in no doubt as to who they are, what they are and their pedigree.

There is another factor to consider and that is the prevalence, even amongst exclusive labels, for outsource manufacturing to low wage economies. Such practises make the high prices charged for their goods ridiculous – if not damn dishonest – in my view. Over branding is perhaps a means for labels to sooth their own consciences, as though it were adequate compensation to the poor trusting punter; “Here you are Sir. Have a little more style by association, on us”.

Curiously, in an age when most brands worry about the ready availability of counterfeit goods, over-branding increasingly makes the real thing look like the fake. The controversy sparked by Ralph Lauren’s dressing of the US Olympic team for Beijing is well known. Those jackets looked like cheap knock-offs in my view.

For another example take Ray-Ban Wayfarers, the ultimate pair of bins in my view. But unless I want to pay inflated prices for a pair of vintage glasses I have to have a silly – and quite possibly irritating – ‘Ray-Ban’ scrawled across the lens. So, I buy the fakes instead, or rather an interpretation by a more subdued retailer.

Time to draw stumps on this rant, but I’ll end by saying I object to the fact that having paid for a garment I am then expected to provide free advertising as a human billboard.

The great irony in this particular case is that I really love the phase that Jaeger is going through at the moment; and if anybody were to ask I’d happily tell them where I bought the coat.

I suspect that is true of most people in most other cases.