Archives for September 2012

My Father’s Coat

One of the most pleasant ideas of buying clothing and accessories is that, after they have ceased to be useful for the purchaser, they find renewed purpose with another. We all know the Patek Philippe story about not actually owning something but simply looking after it for the next generation; it’s marketing bumf, certainly, but there is something enduringly appealing about being able to pass down something of style and value. After all, a product that lives two, three or four lives is of far greater physical and emotional value than a product that fails to live but one.

As corny as it seems, being able to pass something on is not only beneficial for the giver but also the receiver. In many cases, these valuable keepsakes are all we have to remind us of those who have passed on. History is littered with tales of possessions as remembrance. Vincent Astor, whose father John Jacob died in the Titanic tragedy, famously carried his father’s gold pocket watch – which he had worn at the time of the sinking – for the rest of his life. The hackneyed “it was my father’s and his father’s before him” line might have us groaning in the aisles but there is meaning beyond the sentiment.

I recently escaped London to visit my parents. After a pleasant, late-summer weekend in the countryside, I returned to the Smoke with some remembrances of my own; a lovely old Gieves & Hawkes Argyle sweatshirt and a fantastic navy, double-breasted wool overcoat from the now-defunct Studd & Millington, a tailor and overcoat specialist formerly of Conduit Street. Bought in 1983 for £180, my father wore it on his winter commutes to insurance offices in the City. Now, nearly as old as I am, it is about to embark on its second life. No one could have envisaged that the fragile infant he left each morning would grow up to wear the same coat in which he waved his daily goodbyes.

The marvellous thing about the coat is that it doesn’t look 30 years old. It has a beautiful, military cut with peaked lapels and a weight that is uncommon in even the highest standard of modern overcoat. Its length, though unfashionable, is entirely to my taste; though made in the 1980s, it could easily be from the 1920s. Beyond the appealing aesthetics, it also has a value that no newly-bought or vintage-shop-find coat could ever have. As I walk the streets of the Square Mile this winter, I will be wearing something that the ancient walls of the City have seen before, nearly three decades ago. I know exactly where it has been and, more importantly, I am the successor to the man who first wore it.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Public transport over a long distance can be a fascinating experience and so it proved when I recently took a long-distance train journey that provoked some interesting thoughts.

The first thought was that trains, for all their limitations, really are one of the most pleasurable ways to travel. Ensconced with a book about Ivar Kreuger, a G&T, a shuffle mix on the iPod and the unfolding sunset-lit countryside, I struggled to think of a more civilised way to decant my life to another part of the nation.

And then I turned to my left to see a fellow passenger, shoes and socks removed, stretching and picking his bare feet in the aisle.

It should come as no surprise that my second thought turned to the lack of etiquette on public transport. It is a disease that has spread as far as the premium cabins on international airlines, where many passengers mistake their seats for their own bedrooms. “So what?” some people say “if it bothers you, you’re the one with the problem.” Sadly, such knee-jerk high-horsing does not assuage me.

When you are on public transport, you are still in public; there is no dignity in attempting to attain the same comfort as a post-shower flake-out and in fact, more often than not, you are likely to be irritating a fellow passenger who, whilst paying the same price, has more consideration for the senses of others.

The bare-footed gentleman to my left had clearly taken great pains over selecting his clothing and accessories; expensively attired in a smart tweed jacket and iPadded to the gills, he was not one of those individuals who necessarily delighted in offending others with their playground manners and lack of concern for his person. But as he crumpled in his seat, spreading himself across the carriage, his deliberate method of relaxation began to come across as ignorant entitlement. The man could have been the best dressed in Britain and it wouldn’t have altered my impression.

The important thing to remember is that this is not snobbery; it is to encourage others to behave in a way that they would wish others to behave towards themselves. No one else in the carriage had engineered so luxuriantly inconsiderate a posture, no one was picking their bare feet with abandon and waving them near the seat of other passengers.

The experience actually reminded me of an occasion on a long-haul flight several years ago when the passenger next to me had decided to settle in to his seat by indulging in ear-picking; removing wax from his ears and placing it on the tray table in front of him. The fact that he was wearing a well-cut linen jacket and carrying an elegant holdall was irrelevant after such exposures of his character. Buying style is a wasted pursuit if you don’t have the foundations of style, and good manners, in your character.

Rare Moment: Bow Tie Morning Dress

“You’ve written a lot of articles about morning dress!” a friend exclaimed to me recently, as he scrolled through my column on his phone. “Is it your favourite topic or something?”

For reasons unknown, even to me, I do happen to write a great deal about my views on morning dress. For an ensemble that is used by fewer and fewer people on but a handful of occasions throughout the year, my persistence with the subject is certainly disproportionate, but, despite its lack of everyday importance, some of the most serious and earnest enquiries for assistance I have received relate to advice on morning dress. One of the reasons for this is that it is one of the most daunting sartorial prospects in modern menswear; an unfamiliar hotchpotch of historical clothing in which a man determines to look more impressive than usual.

Morning dress neckwear is a conundrum for the sartorially curious. The Moss-Bros-majority set a poor example, settling for the default option of a crumpled pre-tied ‘cravat’ that I call the ‘used napkin.’ Though a contemporary choice, I cannot advocate using them and find it immensely irritating that the planners of occasions of matrimony worry more about whether the awful thing is exactly the same colour as the balloons in the marquee than whether it is a wearable accessory for the groom and his party.

Neckties, now the Debrett’s default and the only acceptable neckwear for the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, are the other contemporary option. Though decried as ordinary and boring, the tie presents greater accessorising and stylistic possibilities, with precious metal and jewelled pins to add a detail of interest.

The ‘Ascot’ cravat, sadly no longer welcome at the racecourse of its namesake, is becoming ever rarer, despite its historical correctness in classic morning dress. It too presents an opportunity to accessorise with jewellery, though many I have suggested it to consider it too fussy.

Rarer still, in morning dress at least, is the bow tie. Though still relevant to modern wardrobes, the practice of using the bow in morning dress, which even in its heyday was a maverick choice, has almost entirely vanished. Personally, I think this is a great shame.
The bow is not only recherché, it is also perceived to be more formal and individual than the tie and yet, at the same, time more youthful and fun. Whereas the tie reminds many of the mundane working week, the bow is more symbolic of special occasions.

In my mind, the way to wear it is to do it in an ‘old school’ fashion; with a detachable wing (or butterfly wing or Imperial) collar and a plain white cotton tunic. Though a turn-down collar is the modern standard for neckties, it really doesn’t work with the bow in morning dress. It is important that the tunic is semi-stiff as a considerable area of it is seen, as with black tie. Semi-stiff tunics and detachable collars can be bought from Darcy Clothing or Budd in the Piccadilly Arcade. The best option for the waistcoat is double-breasted, as is shown in the left of the picture.

The colour and pattern of the bow tie is also important, although the options are far greater than those available for neckties. The crucial thing is that the bow tie needs to be subtly patterned and that the colouring needs to be, for smartness sake, fairly dark; bow ties are fun, but lime green wavy stripes is rather too much fun for sober and serious occasions.

The Odd Suit Jacket

A dear friend recently asked me what I believed to be the difference between a suit jacket and a blazer. “I know what the literal difference is” he smiled “I just want to know what their uses are. I mean, can a suit jacket ever double as a blazer?”

This is possibly one of the most important questions I have been asked. Chiefly because I have always advocated using clothing efficiently and flexibly; after all, we all have limited space in our wardrobes and wallets. However, despite writing about what colour and material of odd jackets and trousers are suitable together, I haven’t broached the subject of what jackets I believe are suitable to masquerade as a blazer.

‘Masquerade’ is the crucial word here. The primary purpose of any suit jacket is to be worn as part of a suit. However, it is a rare pleasure to find one that can be used with chinos, cords and even denim. The problem is that this popular pastime – pairing the smart with the casual – is very hit and miss, and more often than not it is the latter.

There are three crucial considerations for mixing and matching with suit jackets; pattern, colour and material.


Irrespective of the material and colour, there are suit patterns which work as odd jackets with casual trousers and those that don’t. A thick window check seems to; pinstripe never does. Glen Urquhart can work but the material and colour of the check needs to be right; a mid-heavy weight wool and a high contrast colourway. Louder patterns work better than smaller subtler patterns – think chalk rather than pin – as their relative coarseness makes them adaptable to casual clothing, the exception being houndstooth with which dedicated blazers are often made.


Although a mid-weight charcoal grey flannel makes a decent blazer with, say, a pair of cream cotton chinos, plain dark grey and black suit jackets are too suit-y to wear with odd casual trousers – but it is simply remarkable what a loud window check can do. Navy, mid-blue, brown and light grey are probably the most adaptable colours to work into a smart-casual ensemble.


The most significant issue I have with the use of suit jackets as separates is that, due to the popularity of lighter-weight suits, paper-thin wool jackets are being worn with thick casual trousers and it just looks wrong. Mid- or heavy-weight fabrics have the requisite denseness and lack the alien delicacy of lighter and Super Wools; if it’s casual, go coarse.

Brand Review: Doucal’s

When holidaying in Ravello six or seven years ago, I remember overhearing a conversation between a lacemaker and an American tourist in a little cobbled street between the town square and the Villa Cimbrone.

The beautiful Amalfi setting-sun, gorgeously orange, was floating lazily on the horizon and the tourists and residents of the cliff-hugging town were just beginning to fill the streets with their laughter, perfume and the echoes of clattering heels.

“The English men” the lacemaker began “they are not elegant, not stylish.” The American sat there listening attentively as her experienced hands gesticulated, an eager student. “You see the English at weddings here; they wear bad clothes and bad shoes.” “But I thought” the American began, as I paused to eavesdrop and admire the view down into the bay “that the British made the best shoes in the world?” “No” the lacemaker scoffed “they do not. The best shoes in the world are Italian.”

It was, of course, a predictable remark. She is probably right about the majority of the English people she has seen, even those who get married in a place as rarefied as Ravello. Elegance and style is not innate in Englishmen. However, it is a mistake to believe it is innate in Italians. Italians generally happen to be more interested in style, but they do not possess some deific gift for dressing. Rather, it is something that develops from their lifestyle, upbringing and surroundings.

Her second point, that the best shoes in the world are Italian, I regarded with scorn, as any pompous Englishman would. ‘Best’ in shoe language normally relates to quality of material and construction; in this, many English shoes are among – but do not exclusively dominate – the best in the world. However, considering her remarks about elegance and style, I doubt that she was necessarily thinking about the quality of the sole stitching or the excellence of the leather. I think she was simply talking about the way they look; in simple terms, the shape of the shoe.

I had recently purchased some high quality English-made formal shoes in dark brown. However, even when selecting a medium-narrow fitting, they appeared as rather large and unattractive bulks on my feet. I tried them on in the mirror and could not get past the fact that they looked ungainly, poorly shaped and – despite being of high quality construction – of inelegant form. I got rid of them, disappointed that I could not find – for a reasonable price – a pair of narrow, elegantly shaped and formed dark brown shoes. Foster & Son lured me with their well-out-of-budget beauties, as did Cleverley and I even flirted with the idea of whacking some savings on Crockett & Jones.

Enter Doucal’s. Found through scouring Yoox one evening, I decided to invest the reasonable sum of £90 (sale price) in a pair of calf leather dark brown lace-ups, having decided against a more expensive pair from Magnanni.

Waiting for the shoes, I must admit I had low expectations – my English prejudice shining through – but when they arrived I was overwhelmed with satisfaction and admiration. Despite a few niggles such as not possessing a leather sole, I was thrilled with my purchase and smiled as I realised they had passed the first test of shoe-love: I could not stop looking at them. The leather is of good quality and they are supremely comfortable, which is more than I could say for the English pair I had bought.

I had never heard of Doucal’s before purchasing and before I punched in my card details, I decided to do some research; Yoox has a tendency to mix the sublime with the ridiculous in their brand inventory.

Founded in 1973 by Mario Giannini, the brand was initially known as ‘Duca’ (Duke) “to identify a product which was developed for an elite clientele.” Almost straight away, Giannini set off for Northampton, the mecca of English shoes, to intern with Goodyear. After several months of training, and cherry-picking – at which the Italians are so adept – Giannini made his way back to Italy.

After anglicising the brand to Doucal’s in honour of his training, he began to develop shoes “that endured through time, but that were also comfortable to wear in comparison to the rigidity of English shoes.” This is something that even I, as a traditionally-minded Englishman, can relate to.

According to Doucal’s they are “conceived to look like the English whilst incorporating the comfort of an Italian [shoe].” I can see this, but there is something rather un-English about the shape of my shoe, something continental. More to the point, they represented a combination of shoemaking expertise from two worlds. I wonder what the lacemaker would make of the Goodyear-trained Giannini.