Archives for June 2012

Rare Moment: High Cut Edwardian Waistcoat

Whilst visiting the tailor recently, I regarded with interest one of the younger artisans trying on a suit he had begun to make for himself as one of the senior tailors conducted an informal fitting for him, dispensing advice, pinning and pulling at his junior colleague’s suit shoulders. The scene illustrated perfectly the kind of apprenticed, on-the-job training that is at the heart of bespoke tailoring. Making mistakes is all part of it; the sooner advice can be passed on, the better the tailor you make.

However, it was not only the paternalistic scene that attracted curiosity for its singularity; the cut of the young tailor’s waistcoat was also rather distracting. It was cut in an Edwardian manner; very high, with peak lapels. This style of waistcoat is rarely seen in this day and age, despite the recent renaissance of a number of waistcoat styles. Unlike the lower cut waistcoat, this cut does not allow for much shirt and tie exposure; the most one can see of the shirt is the collar and only a small length of the tie is visible.

In an age where shirts and ties are more visible than they have been at any point in their history, the use of such a waistcoat does seem anachronistic. However, there is an appealing conservative elegance to this style. It’s the sort of thing I’d throw on if I was in a mood, less interested in my attire and, perhaps, less confident. It restricts flamboyance to a minimum, and calls for subtler ties and plainer shirts. It is the exemplar style of the quiet gentleman.

As such, it occurred to me that it would be spoiled by accessory counterbalancing; a puffy pocket square would ruin the aesthetic, so too would a bright buttonhole. One of the best ways to work with the small space that one is afforded with such a waistcoat, without being too boring or too gauche, is to wear a bow tie. Despite it’s dandyish image, the bow tie works well with this most reserved of waistcoats as it does not expose that large, somewhat awkward expanse of shirt. The example of Christopher Reeve in ‘Somewhere in Time’ illustrates this perfectly.

However, should you feel disinclined towards bows, a necktie will provide a more than adequate alternative. The key thing to remember is that big patterns will be largely hidden, therefore any patterning on the tie should be on the smaller side; the hint of a ‘pattern punchline’ that lurks beneath the waistcoat is remarkably frustrating. It is also sensible to avoid Windsor knots and stick to small four-in-hands; the former dominate the space to an unattractive degree.

Trouser Break: Yes or No?

One of the biggest debates I have with tailors when adjusting garments concerns the trouser break. In short: I don’t like them, tailors generally do.

My dislike of them stems from aesthetic considerations, whereas their support for a break is often a split between aestheticism and tradition; some tailors make an effort of describing why a break looks better, others simply shrug with resignation that they have been taught to cut trousers thus – anything that runs against this is either incorrect, sartorially repugnant or both.

The case for them is predicated on the aesthetic preference that the back of the trouser should touch the top of the heel; a trouser break is inevitable if this rule is adhered to. The case against them is, in my mind at least, based on maintaining the purity of the trouser leg; a break is an imperfection, an unattractive one at that, which could be avoided.

Other arguments for the break relate to the profile of the trouser on the shoe, which I can certainly appreciate; when a trouser has no breaks, the top of the shoe is not always covered and this can, if done badly, be unsightly. When a trouser has a fuller length allowing for a break, the top is covered.

However, other arguments against the break include the ‘fattening’ of the lower leg; the break makes the trouser look slightly wider at the break point which, if you are like me, is psychologically exaggerated when contemplating it in the mirror and is therefore enough of a reason to avoid breaks entirely.

However this is, as always, entirely personal. Most of my friends believe some of my trousers are too short. I believe their trousers are too long and their breaks too pronounced. It is also a matter of proportion. I think the wider the leg, the bigger the case for a break. Tapered trousers following the shape of the leg should end with little or no break; wider leg trousers on the other hand positively ‘swing’ above the shoe if they do not have a break. However, the break on wider-legs should be minimised as the possibility for lower leg ‘fattening’ is even greater.

Tradition is there for a reason; certain cuts of trouser do look better with a (slight) break. However, ‘tradition’ in the world of tailoring is a misleading term; the fluidity of trend and its influence on tailored clothing means that some ‘traditions’ end up being not only incorrectly, but also, unattractively applied.

Reader Question: Just One Suit

I’m in the market for a bespoke suit. However, I really don’t think I’ll be getting another one any time soon so I want it to be, above all things, useful. I was thinking of a blue or grey, maybe patterned (?) I want it to be adaptable for anything; city, country, dinner with friends, night out at the theatre etc. What would you recommend? What weight cloth should I get? Should it be plain/patterned? Waistcoat? I need advice!

It’s a wonderful thing, in a world facing severe economic headwinds, if you happen to be in the market for a bespoke suit. Embrace the moment, for you are fortunate.

Utility has never been fashionable, but it has recently become more appealing. Particularly in an age where ‘throwaway fashion’ is being treated quite as literally as it’s moniker suggests. The era of cheap clothing is bound to end at some point but at the moment, it represents a low bar for price tolerance. This in turn has led purchasers to question the high prices of designer and tailored clothing; “What you give me” they state “has to be so much better than what I can get elsewhere.” The demands on tailoring are increasing. This is no bad thing. The number of new tailoring firms opening has been healthy for the sector, despite the snobbery of the establishment against the ‘new kids on the block.’ Price competition, as coarse as it sounds to the pure aesthete, has been helpful.

What this change has meant, above all things, is that the new, wider market for tailoring wants more from bespoke suits. They might own a Reiss, an Austin Reed or a Zara suit to endure the swivel-chaired monotony of the office, but they want a bespoke suit for special occasions. They are often content to continue purchasing off the rack – if it represents value. Knocking people out of the habit of buying quantity for less is very difficult. And when they seek ‘the One’ bespoke suit, the crowning glory of their wardrobe, they want something that is going to work to their advantage. And then some.

In truth, it is difficult to think of a suit that would be ideal for all of the activities that our enquirer suggests. A night at the theatre suggests a completely different suit from a suit worn to the races in the country, if traditions are to be (loosely) adhered to. However, this is the new age of tailoring; frankly, it’s a new age entirely. People wear jeans to the theatre, and even to the office; a country suit may not be the purist’s choice, but it looks a darn sight smarter than a printed hoodie. This is why I would advocate the style of suit I consider to be of the greatest utility; the brown, mid-weight wool.

However, even as I write those words I can hear the peal of bells; the Church of Sartorial Purity ringing out in protest against the sacrilegious abuse of the holy (albeit hopelessly outdated) rule: “No brown in town.” It is true that blue and grey are more common, and certainly more traditional in town. However, they are equally strange and out of place in the country. A critic would suggest that brown in town is as much of anathema as blue and grey in the country, but I am not so sure. The brilliant thing about a brown suit is that it is far easier to dress ‘down’ for the country and ‘up’ for town; a man in a blue or grey suit in the country, irrespective of his carefully chosen accessories, would always look like a marooned City dweller.

My advice to our enquirer, if he is serious about adaptability to the country and town, is to plump for brown. A mid-weight wool in herringbone or subtle dogtooth, the colour of milk-chocolate would form a lovely background for blue, pink and white shirts – and Tattersall if the country mood is right. Adding a waistcoat, though not cheap, would increase utility further; three-piece for winter, two for autumn and spring.

In Defence of Black Jackets and Suits

Flick through the bulk of the literature on men’s dress and you’ll find little or nothing said in favour of black jacketing and suit – even with regard to evening wear you have the midnight blue brigade to contend with.

In the world of female clothing black is a necessity. You’d think similar rules would apply to men, but they don’t. The most common complaints against black include:

-the colour is just too overwhelming, too stark and too severe especially for suits;

-the contrast between skin and suit can be too great;

-you’re limited as to what shirts and ties sit with any harmony;

-black cloth can look cheap, unless it’s of the highest quality and inclined to reflect light as in the case of mohair and velvet or absorb it like Barathea.

So it seems that, as a rule, midnight blue is about as dark as a man is recommended to go. This advice I’d been content to follow and hadn’t felt deprived for doing so.

However, my antipathy changed not so long ago when I took a punt on a black, 1960s, unlined Hopsack J. Press blazer from An Affordable Wardrobe. Despite limited expectations and considerable doubts it has proved as versatile and necessary an item as any blue blazer. And it hasn’t proved half as difficult to match as all the advice had led me to assume.

So let’s begin by looking at shirts. While stark in contrast there is a place for white shirts particularly if you keep the collar soft and buttoned down to soften the look. Using this look for dress down Fridays I’ll combine my black jacket with grey wool and grey ground ties as well as black knits. However, I’m quite pale in complexion and my hair is going grey so cream and off-white works much better for me. If I wish to add more warmth and colour then pale pink and violet shirts work well. If anything the black jacketing gives these colours greater vibrancy. More conventionally, pale blue turned out to be a natural fit, and blue with a white collar and cuff adds a preppy note. As a rule if you have tanned skin you’ll find the process of combining colours just that little bit easier but I’ve managed perfectly well so don’t let the short comings of your tan put you off.

With regards to trousers, if we’re talking off-duty dressing then khaki in the form of chinos combined with white shirts and dark brown suede loafers has become my favourite combination – again, ideal for dress down Fridays. Related to that, I’ve always found black and brown an effective colour combination, particularly if it comes in the form of brown trousers or footwear. For those who want colour try burnt orange and cornflower yellow. These overripe versions of orange and yellow help avoid too stark a contrast between the black jacket and trousers. Last but by no means least, you shouldn’t overlook indigo denim.

For semi-formal partnering we have a classic pairing in the form of grey trousers, and black jacketing will take almost any shade bar the darkest. I have found that the more texture to the cloth of the trousers the better the combination works with the jacket. This is because it breaks up the blocks of colour by adding depth and contrast which makes the black jacket and the overall look far less austere and imposing. Flannel or worsted woollens in light to mid grey have proved my favourite combination.

Turning to the issues of accessories, and I’m counting shoes as well as ties here, I’ve said much already. But stick to muted and overripe colours with dark grounds and depending on your shirt choice you might want to give brown a try. I suspect like me, however, you’ll more often than not use black knitted silk or ties with black grounds. If you want splashes of bright colour then pocket squares are sufficient to add a dash without dominating your look.

On the matter of footwear black is the obvious choice, although my favourite by a country mile has been dark brown suede, particularly when combined with khaki chinos.

This is far from the definitive list of what does and doesn’t work with regards to black jacketing and suits, but the point is black has greater potential than the accepted wisdom would lead you to presume.

Photos: Exquisite Trimmings, Down East and Out , Guerreisms, Pure Evil, Bespokenn, This Fits.

Swap Jeans for Chinos

I consider myself a fan of denim. I love how a pair of blue jeans can define an outfit, adding something unique and immediately identifiable. I remember scrolling through Ralph Lauren lookbooks, admiring the way mustard brown soft corduroy blazers offset the hard utility of indigo denim and how a deep blue blazer lifted a pair of overwashed jeans from the commonplace to the attractively preppy.

I have never bought into the ‘I hate denim’ shtick. It never made sense that something so familiar, hard-wearing and useful as denim could be ridiculed as being ‘inappropriate for a gentleman’ or ‘only suitable for peasants.’ The crass snobbery behind such opinion is obscenely unbecoming and merely takes advantage of the dogma that plagues online forums. It is also entirely a matter of opinion whether a gentleman deems the garment appropriate for himself.

However, I have grown increasingly aware that denim is playing an ever more limited role in my own wardrobe. Gone are the default-days; the weekend days when denim is my first choice. Gone are the denim-evenings; the times when I would always choose a pair of jeans for a night out. And, crucially, gone are the denim-summers; as cool as Britain’s summers are, wearing jeans on a close June afternoon is simply unbearable. This is why, recently, I have been swapping my denim for cotton chinos.

I once wore a pair of heavy indigo jeans on holiday. For departing chilly Heathrow, they were fine, as they were on the flight (although chinos are marginally more comfortable when sat in for long distances) but when I arrived at my sunny and intensely warm destination, I began to overheat. Standing outside the car hire station, waiting for a vehicle to arrive, my legs were melting. Trying to tell myself that I was avoiding premature sunburn didn’t help; I gazed at fellow hirers, wheeling their luggage to air-conditioned vehicles in shorts, linen trousers and, yes, even cotton chinos. My jeans, and my unfortunate situation, felt like condemnation.

The worst thing is that a sense of relief does not occur until the jeans have been removed. Cooling down in air-conditioning still leaves a sticky, itchy and uncomfortable feeling up and down the legs. There is a sense of dirtiness, of imprisonment; the jeans at which I stare, so happy and well-servicing back in Blighty, were the jailors of my legs. Admittedly, the sensation of wearing jeans in heat is often so bad that the pleasure of removing them – and later showering and relaxing with a G&T – is improved; the sweet ain’t as sweet without the sour. However, the consistent coolness one feels with a pair of light, breathable chinos is vastly superior. Ditch the denim this summer; your legs demand it.