Stocking Stuffers: Part I

Things have gotten a little heated around here lately. Would anybody mind if I talk about clothes? I should apologise in advance to our Jewish, Muslim, Druid and non-faith readers as this article makes reference to the Christian religious celebration of Christmas. No offence meant.

I read Andrew Hodges’ post full of useful suggestions for Christmas stocking fillers. Jumping on the bandwagon I thought, for what it’s worth, I’d provide a few suggestions of my own. You still have time to put your orders in and have them arrive in time for Christmas.

It’s a bit of a stereotype that standard issue Christmas gifts for the men of a household should be socks, ties and handkerchiefs. Funny really, as a sartorialist I honestly don’t mind such things, provided they’re the right socks, tie and handkerchiefs.

sto-cashmere-socks

Pantherella Cashmere and Possum Socks: Pantherella are well known for their fine hosiery, and I’ve been loving their cashmere socks during England’s recent snowfall. With a mix of 85% cashmere and 15% Nylon (which increases endurance and helps the sock keep its shape) they’re warm and beautifully luxuriant. Short of sticking your foot in a baby Chinchilla nothing could be softer. Possum socks are bit harder to get hold of, on account of the critter from which the fur comes on residing in NZ and Oz. New Zealand was where I first happened across them, and they’re a joy to wear. Just as soft and warming as cashmere, experience tells me they’re a little more durable. Ideally worn with boots and heavy brogues. As to sources, A. Hume for Pantherella and ShopNewZealand for the Possum socks.

sto-knitted-wool-tie

Blue Wool Knit Tie: This is the single most useful tie a man can have in his wardrobe. It suits either blue or grey suiting and sits with just about any shirting option. Any man that doesn’t have one should do. But I’ve mentioned all that before. Now,  a £90 Drake’s of London silk knit is not a stocking filler in my household. Cheaper, serviceable versions are readily available. I picked one up from Michelsons of London, who also make ties for other people.

sto-thornback-peel-handke

Thornback and Peel Handkerchiefs: These Individual and unusual cotton handkerchiefs are hand printed by Juliet Thornback and Delia Peel, whom I met once at their Cockpit Arts studio space in London’s Holborn. A pack of three costs just £15, although I got mine for £10 at the Cockpit Arts open day. I wear one in my suit top pocket every day and love the fact that most people will never know the pattern is there. The ultimate in understated. They have a fully commercial website and deliver all over the World.

sto-big-hankerchiefs

The Enormous Handkerchief Company: If you’ve ever read ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ you’ll know that a towel is the most massively useful thing in the galaxy. For those that haven’t read it see here . I’d argue that the big handkerchief is the second most useful. At 21inchs square, I use these as neckerchiefs under T-shirts in the summer; a bandana to keep the sun off my balding head when surfing; they suit the top pocket of linen or cotton jackets; and if the need arises you can always blow your nose on it. Scottish outfitter A.Hume sells them online.

More original ideas in the next posting.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Black Tie Tartan

sartorial-love-hate-tartan

The Christmas party season is in full swing and for many gentlemen this means one thing and one thing only; the exquisite pleasure of alcohol consumption on the company’s tab. All those afternoons of pressure and deadlines, those lonely evenings working in an over-lit office till ten o’ clock, the irritating Blackberry ‘bing’ of emails at four in the morning, squeezed into a tuxedo and, fuelled by champagne and vodka, exploding spectacularly with Vesuviun vigour.

Christmas parties are a brilliant tool in convincing employees that they are valued; “It’s all for your brilliant work!” an insipidly cheerful CEO flashes at a group of bemused and tipsy admin clerks who cornered him to ask “’ow much it all cost!” For anyone not privy to the financial meetings, Christmas parties look like extravagant and expensive Bacchanals; those who oversee the budgets know they are but a drop in the ocean but that it is best for the morale of the office that the minions believe big money is being spent on them.

The Christmas party is also an occasion for staff to let loose and cast off the shackles of workplace. The irritatingly flirty colleagues sneak off for a snog, the boozers prop up the bar and find common ground in gin; as contrived as it is, it is an occasion which releases tension and unites people who interact in a primarily professional manner. One of the most freeing aspects of the night is the opportunity, particularly for women, to wear things one would never wear in the office; sequin dresses, feather boas and glittery heels.

Men are also often encouraged to dress for the occasion, often in black tie, but so many are loathe to donning such prosaic costume year after year for the same audience when the women strut around in their latest Louboutins and so they seek to add ‘touches’ to the classic black tie ensembles. One touch, which instigates as many yelps of disgust as oohs of envy, is that of wearing tartan plaid trousers instead of the classic black wool with an otherwise conservative black tie ensemble.

I happen to like the look and think it particularly appropriate for the festive season (after all, they are hardly appropriate for the summer) given the autumn/winter predilection for patterns. It takes bravery and a good sense of humour – no one should take themselves too seriously in such trousers – as there are a significant number of people who fail to see the charm or attraction in such a garment. While those in favour lobby that they offer a beautiful break to the monotony of monochrome and a dash of festive punch, those against suggest that no self-respecting non-Scot would wear tartan of any house – chiefly because they have no right to – and that the ‘Rupert Bear’ was never an option in the Gentleman’s Handbook on Evening Dress.

On Fashion, Gender, And Society

Right out of the gate I want to make two things clear: First, this is not an indictment of individuals, but of ideas. Second, everyone is entitled to their ideas and beliefs, and I am just expressing my own.

I have been troubled by a recent discussion taking place here on Mens Flair regarded the supposed differences inherent between men and women. A fellow columnist asserted, casually no-less, that “women tend to be led, men tend to choose,” and when questioned about it defended himself by suggesting in the positive that “being guided by fashion has given women an advantage in a heightened sense of aesthetics.” While I do not think these comments were meant with any malicious or consciously misogynistic intent, it would almost be better if they were. The very fact that they reside as seemingly-benign, condescending assumptions about a gender difference with natural, easily traced causes makes them all the more dangerous. It is only in acknowledging our assumptions, questioning them, and then making distinct and purposeful judgements of them that we can ever hope to express truth.

Another perfect example of this is the assertion that “the markets for womenswear and menswear respond to market demand,” with simply no regard for what might cause or influence those demands. The power of the market is not top down, and certainly not bottom up as it would seem here, but rather dialectical. We want things because of unconscious motivations and desires that stem from much broader concerns than whether we wish to be fashionable or classic. And, while due to additional social forces these concerns may impact men and women to different and varying degrees, no person exists outside of them. To think so is a delusion.

A commenter pointed out the absurdity of some of these assumptions and was quickly met with the philistine maxim “Embrace boldly your masculinity, your sword of discrimination, your natural proclivity towards choosing. Do not prostrate yourself to the fashionable altar of politically correct feminism, or its facsimile. Stand up, my good man.” I’m almost speechless. While we are at it, you know, taking up our violent implements of barbaric masculinity and keeping the progression of ideas about gender politics (and anything else for that matter) suppressed and in the kitchen where they belong, why don’t we just go all the way and take the vote back as well? Such a disgusting, ignorant depiction of subordinate female intelligence and action is the exception to my above clause granting everyone the right to their opinion.

Such an attitude’s companion, the condescending, self-righteous brand of faux-gentlemanly behavior that includes soft-voiced references to “the fairer sex” does nothing more than champion misogyny under the guise of paternalistic protection. I know it sounds like a crazy idea, but imagine actually respecting a member of the opposite sex, not as a woman but as a person. Seditious seeds these suggestions should not be.

Lastly, the powder keg that began all of this, the paragraph regarding classic men’s style as different from blind female consumption, in fact should have had nothing to do with gender at all. As people interested to varying degrees in style, fashion, craft, &c., we should all be aware of the myth of “classic.” Yes, I like classically inspired garments and accessories, but to ignore the fact that this category of design is influenced by trends, past or current, is to miss the mark. All design and aesthetics in general are relative. Absolute beauty is only one thing: absolutely false. Whether male or female, we do not design fashion or style, nor do they design us. We design each other. The debate here should be about things like menswear/womenswear, classic/fashionable, not about men vs. women.

A Tweedy Trend

tweedy-trend

One of the most gratifying things about reviewing menswear is that the ‘finger on the pulse’, ‘trend alert’, ‘this year’s MUST have’ nonsense that womenswear requires is unnecessary. Reviewing menswear is not about ‘IT’ bags or ‘HOT heels’; it is, broadly speaking, about style and individual taste. Whereas women tend to be led, men tend to choose. Men might wear a fashion ‘thing’ of the moment because their “mate had it and looked pretty cool”, but they won’t prostrate themselves at the altar of fashion for the sake of it.

However, there was a recent trend report which caught my eye. It pointed to the increase in sales of Harris Tweed, the famous Scottish fabric most associated with the country dress of British aristocrats. Business is currently booming for the Isle of Harris which sold 630 metres of tweed fabric this year – a massive 40% increase on last year’s sales. And according to the report, demand is even building beyond British borders from Germany to Japan.

Why the demand?

The report made the tired and predictable stab at the origins and traditional uses of Harris Tweed; the word “staid” was mentioned, and there were some naïve undertones of criticism of its “associations with the landed gentry” as if this has been anything but a boon to the economics of demand. The real point is, people are connecting with their environment more and are looking to traditions in a time of great uncertainty. Harris Tweed is a high quality fabric that is made in Scotland using traditional methods.

What are they making?

Apparently, there’s been a great demand for tweed suits. Now, we all know someone with a tweed jacket. A tweed jacket is expected and is a certain staple of any self-respecting modern gentleman’s wardrobe but a suit? A whole suit? A three-piece? I can’t remember the last time I saw a gentleman below seventy in a tweed suit. To many, they are the uniform of the House of Lords, although it seems they might now be worn by members of that House as a proverbial ‘middle-finger’ to Government by the hereditary peers who disapprove of the recent measures to remove fellow Lairds, Dukes and Earls from the crimson benches.

Whatever the reason, tweed suits are being seen more and more in town. The strict town/country rules are fading quickly, despite the admirable efforts of traditionalists to uphold them.

What kind of tweed?

Tweed is woven in many kinds of colours and patterns but there are, essentially, three common ‘types.’ The first type is a plain coloured weave, often herringbone, in various tones of rust and green. The second common type is a plain weave with a coloured window-check pattern again in various tones of rust and green; my own tweed jacket is pale green with a sky blue window-check. The third common type is a houndstooth tweed, which sometimes has an overcheck but often does not, and has always been known to me as ‘teacher’s tweed’ due to the fact that it was commonly worn by school teachers. This is generally a light brown/dark brown houndstooth combination.

There is no ‘definitive’ tweed although the plain coloured herringbone option is far more subtle and less outré than a loud window-check. For those that want something in between the dull plain weave and the terrifying window-check, the herringbone is probably the ideal compromise.

Little Obsessions

It’s a solitary business listening on the radio to England’s cricketers’ battle for the Ashes down-under. In a bid to stay awake in the small hours of the morning I’ve been flicking through my extensive archive of sartorial photos.

For the most part these are what you’d expect; sartorialist style photos, look-book shots and the like. And then there are the oddities. Photos of a cuff, a weave of cloth, a button or buckle, all in preparation for when I can have my wardrobe made bespoke. They also provide an idea or two for items for my own label, which is slowly progressing.

Amongst the numerous bits-n-bobs in the archive are two recent obsessions: the sweeping curve and the sloping heel.

The Sweeping Curve: There is a beauty and elegance in a curve, as an amateur artist that was the thing I loved most about life drawing classes. Collars and jacket hems are the ideal place for a sweeping curve.

curved-collar

In the picture above on the left is my favourite coat collar so far seen. It comes from a design by English independent label Folk Clothing. The shirt pictured is by Italian shirt maker G. Inglese Sartoria (which translates as G. English Tailoring) for which this sweeping backward curve to the collar is a staple. Around the face a sweeping curve softens and frames the face in an elegant, almost organic, way.

curved-hem
When I posted some time back on my enjoyment of the film ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ and early golfing dress it was the sweeping curves of the jackets that interested me most. And it seems I was not alone. As the picture above shows, label Mountain Research have produced just such a jacket this season. The beauty of the sweeping curve is also highlighted in the picture of Winston Chesterfield’s dinner jacket. Here the curve emphasises a narrow waist and lengthens the leg.

The Sloping Heel: Not something you see very often, except perhaps on deck shoes, but it’s a shape I’ve been thinking about for some time.

curved-heel

The loafer is in part based on the English house shoe, so to me a low angled heel with that beautiful sweeping natural line is the perfect accompaniment to a loafer. It’s lazy, languid and louche, all the things a loafer should embody in my view.

There’s lots more cricket to be played before England clinch the victory that has eluded them for 25 years. Provided I’m not reduced to a nervous wreck, who knows what inspiration I might find by then.