Archives for November 2010

Who Are A Little Wise, The Best Fools Be


I was once told by an extraordinarily forthright young lady at university that I dressed “as if I were 50.” She sneered at my varsity uniform of burgundy penny loafers, green cords, blood red jumper and green wax Barbour jacket and said; “Maybe you should dress like that when you’re middle-aged. But not now, you’re only 20!” As a statement it affected me more than it should have; after all, there were a number of others dressed in a similar fashion. But at such a tender age, the remarks of the opposite sex – however ill-informed and lacking in taste – echo relentlessly in memory. When I reflect on it, the value of the experience was that it served as a strong example of sartorial ageism.

We all know the phrase “mutton dressed as lamb” and how it is applied. Although middle-aged women are usually the target, men are often criticised for attempting to appear younger than they are by dressing after a fashion that is said to ‘belong’ to the young; a 46 year old in a hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans and Converse All-Stars will attract ridicule from his own age group and those of others – particularly the group to whom such a uniform is so relevant. But this also applies to a 19 year old in a fedora, tweed suit and college tie cycling along Oxford High Street. It could be generalised that this is simply another example of the populace disliking things that are unusual and suggest individualism, or that the young don’t know anything and are slaves to the compass of popular culture. What is certain is that casually ageist points of view on clothing are tossed around frequently which serves to maintain the clear division between the young and the old.

“There is nothing that ages” a wizened, port-soaked chap once told me “like a hat.” He had gestured to a young man in our midst wearing a trilby with his overcoat and mumbled that if he took it off he’d look ten years younger. I regarded the young man with interest and realised that this wisdom had a greater depth than the dispenser had imagined; put a beanie or a flat-cap on the subject and he’d look younger – replace the trilby with a homburg and he’d look even older. Perceptions of age have a great deal to do with preconceptions about social escalation; the young man is just starting on his journey and so belongs in ‘beginners’ clothing, the middle-aged to elderly man is well into his stride and so is expected to reflect the fruits of his experience and success in his dress, hence, society’s intolerance of precocity in the young and overt preservation of adolescence in the middle-aged.

These two oddballs are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum and often have conflicting views on life; one has never wanted to be young, the other has never wanted to be old. One believes in looking to the past for aesthetic guidance, the other ties themselves to the perennial fashion of youth – whatever that fashion may be. Personality, however, is the guiding star for both; the former reaches out from his rock, the latter clings to it as it crumbles. The question that remains is: which one is the fool?

Guilty Pleasures: Black Socks


In my last post I confessed to one of my guilty pleasures being loafers with bows on. This week I confess to another guilty pleasure. This one may seem rather plebeian by comparison, but I can’t help that.

On matters of men’s dress I’ve probably read the same books and surf the same websites you have.

So we should all be familiar with the gospel of matching the colour of your socks to your suit or trousers, right? The aim is to create a faultless line of colour along the leg to the shoe.

The funny thing is that no matter how many times I read this advice it just doesn’t seem right to me. As far as I remember I was always taught the opposite truth: socks should match ones shoes. That was what my father told me, as did all the old tailors I worked with back in my retail days. I should say that in this we are chiefly referring to business dress. When it comes to the weekend jeans and chinos far greater latitude is permitted.

On the face of it what I was taught makes perfect sense, to me anyways. The most basic business shoe in a man’s wardrobe is a black oxford. Likewise, the most common business attire is a Navy Blue or Grey suit. Well, I don’t know about your part of the World but over here if you enter any retailer you’ll find row upon row of black socks. And should you have a mind to, conduct a straw poll on the tube ride home and you’ll find the black sock is confirmed as king. It stands to reason, therefore, that if the contrary were true then the most common sock to be seen would be either navy blue or grey.

But regardless, and as plebeian as it may sound, I actually really like black socks with my suits and black shoes. I like the continuation of colour from the shoe up the calf, particularly if the sock is taut and the legs crossed –reminiscent of the long black riding boot of the Brummell dandy. I also have to confess that I like the contrast of a matt black sock and polished black leather. All of which puts me beyond the pale.

Notes On A Meeting


I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently about ‘correct footwear.’ The occasion was my brother’s recent wedding, we had changed into black tie for the evening after the wedding breakfast and he had noticed I was wearing opera pumps with what is technically ‘informal evening wear’ – ‘formal evening wear’ being white tie and tails. He had expected patent Oxfords, which I do own, and asked me why I did not conform to the age old dress-codes; “Surely, opera pumps” he observed  “are only worn with white tie?”

In the grand surroundings – amongst the gilt, marble and giant crystal chandeliers – the encounter reminded me instantly of the character of Larry Lefferts in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence;

“As a young admirer had once said of him: ‘If anybody can tell a fellow just when to wear a black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it’s Larry Lefferts.’ And on the question of pumps versus patent-leather “Oxfords” his authority had never been disputed.”

The connection was not an irrelevance; the particular antiquity and social position of this character was crucial to my riposte. A great deal has changed since the Gilded Age – some for the good, some for the worse – and the ‘dos and don’ts’ of Larry Lefferts and his ilk are but the echo of the last waltz: billionaires now wear trainers and jeans and care little for the costume-perfections of a society aping the grandeur and propriety of royalty and aristocracy. The tightrope of ‘high society’ was dismantled long ago.

Consider also PG Wodehouse’s eponymous hero, Bertie Wooster, a character who inhabits a world of relative fantasy – without the nettles of pain, hatred or betrayal – and yet one drawn from characters that the author had known as boulevardiers of the metropolis; the laissez-faire, silver-spooned ‘bright young things.’ Bertie’s social existence lacks credibility in the modern world; gentlemen’s club by day, parties by night, enormous country houses for the weekend.

And yet this was the life of many a wealthy lounge-lizard of the era. A never-ending carousel of fumbling drunkenly out of tailored tails into tailored tweed for visits to country cousins; social distinction required adherence to such dress codes. To act otherwise was to occasion shock amongst hosts. By contrast, wearing tweed and brogues to a friend’s country house today is considered ‘cute.’

The ‘correctness’ of dress is not based on an Act of Parliament but on the codes and fashions dictated by a social class. I personally follow most of these rules because I agree with them aesthetically – tweed in the countryside makes sense, it isn’t ‘just’ a rule – but some rules I defy because I don’t see the sense in being guided by them. I picked the pumps on a whim, which is how I like to choose things. Avoiding them because my tie was black and because my jacket hem did not descend lower than my thigh seems ludicrous. I am no parvenu seeking approval of superiors; doors will not be closed to me because of incorrect dress. I vow to always maintain standards but those of my own, not those of others.

A Classic Style Book: Eminently Suitable

eminently-suitable-cover-coFor the modest sum of eight dollars, I recently snagged on Ebay a copy of G. Bruce Boyer’s classic style book Eminently Suitable: The Elements of Style in Business Attire. Boyer is a recognized expert on men’s style, having written on the subject since the early 1980s. He is formerly the fashion editor for GQ, Esquire, and Town & Country. Although published in 1990, Eminently Suitable still has relevance today. If you can find a copy, I would recommend adding it to your style library.

Boyer argues that to be successful in the business world, a man must look and dress his best. Eminently Suitable is a 206-page guide for those businessmen who wish to dress for success. The book includes eight chapters of history and advice on menswear, a glossary of style terminology, and a now somewhat outdated reference appendix on men’s clothing stores.

The first chapter is on Politics, Dress and Image. In this chapter Boyer discusses the history of dress in politics and the image that is portrayed through the attire of politicians. He provides some explanation for the bland American political uniform that I complained about in a recent post. It is through this discussion of political dress that he highlights and stresses the effect a man’s attire has on the image that he portrays.

The second chapter is on The Business Suit. In this chapter Boyer provides some history on suiting and dispenses advice on the appropriate types, colors and patterns of cloth for a proper business suit. In Chapter Three – Drape, Zoot, Drape – Boyer continues the discussion of the business suit by giving some background on the silhouette. The next chapter, Suiting the Man, covers the advantages and disadvantages of ready-to-wear, made-to-measure, and custom suits. In the fifth chapter, Fitting Everyman, Boyer discusses some of the problems associated with fitting clothes to a variety of body types.

In Chapter 6, The Art of Dressing, Boyer discusses the manner in which clothes should be worn. He argues that a man should strive to dress with sprezzatura, a purposeful nonchalance. To that end he advises that “there is no such thing as being ‘accidentally’ well dressed,” that “nonchalance most often depends upon the smaller touches” where subtlety is the key.

The next chapter, Contemporary Design and Designers, provides some interesting history on the development of mens clothing through the 20th Century; however, much of the chapter about designers from the early 1990s is a tad dated (though many of the names are still recognizable).

In the final chapter, Finishing Touches: Grooming for Business, Boyer provides some perfunctory advice on fragrance, shaving, and nail, skin and hair care.

As you may note from this review of the content of Eminently Suitable, the topics covered are ones that we still discuss today on Men’s Flair. The book may be twenty years old, but the content is still relevant. Is there better evidence that classic style is timeless?