Online Shirt Experiment and Review [Part Four]

Back in August and September I wrote about my experience ordering dress shirts online from Cottonwork, My Tailor and Modern Tailor. I am writing this follow-up article now that I’ve had a chance to launder and wear the shirts a few times over the past two months.

Starting with Cottonwork, you may recall that I liked their website, was impressed with their customer service, and was satisfied with the fit of the shirt I ordered. However, I was unable to recommend Cottonwork because I felt the fabric was of poor quality. One reader suggested that I should return the shirt to test their customer service/return policy. As it turns out, this effort on my part was unnecessary. After my comments were published on Men’s Flair I received an email from a Cottonwork customer service representative offering me a replacement shirt free of charge. The representative explained that they typically only replace shirts due to workmanship deficiencies, and not simply due to choice of fabric, but that it was understandable that the actual fabric could vary from a customer’s expectation. I found that this unsolicited offer supported my impression that Cottonwork provides excellent customer service; however, I also recognize that being an online author on men’s style may give me an advantage that the average customer may not have. In other words, I am not certain that this replacement offer would be extended to the average customer. I did order a replacement shirt from the Luxury Collection (two ply, 180 thread Sea Island quality fabric), and was quite pleased with the final result. In sum, over the past few months I have found the Cottonwork customer service to be excellent. If anyone decides to order from Cottonwork, I would suggest sticking with fabrics from the Executive or Luxury Collections.

You may recall from my previous article that I had a mild complaint about the fit of the My Tailor shirts; the neck was cut much looser than I expected. The shirts were shipped with a poorly written note indicating that the shirts would require several launderings before shrinking to the correct size. After several launderings I have indeed discovered some shrinkage – in the sleeves. It seems now that the sleeves are slightly too short and the neck is still too big. This result is unfortunate because in my opinion My Tailor has the best selection of fabrics of these three companies.

Since Part Three of this series ran on September 8, I have placed two additional orders with Modern Tailor. Of the three companies reviewed, I have found Modern Tailor to have the fastest turn-around time, to provide the most reliable fit, and to be the most economical. I say most economical because I have discovered that one of the fabric filter options is “on-sale fabrics.” You can find some great deals if you watch those sale fabrics. One of the shirts I ordered was in two ply cotton (avoid the lower quality single ply and cotton/polyester blend fabrics) blue Royal Oxford for a base price of $19.95 (plus the obligatory $5.00 for thick MOP buttons). In addition, you can often find discount codes on some of the online men’s style forums that will further defray the cost of shirts from Modern Tailor. It’s hard to go wrong with a made-to-measure shirt that is cheaper than most off-the-rack dress shirts you will find in your local department store.

Is Classic Style A Myth?

At the end of last week’s review of G. Bruce Boyer’s Eminently Suitable I suggested that the current relevance of a twenty-year-old style book is evidence that classic style is timeless. This statement unintentionally sparked an interesting debate between two readers.

“Dave” argues that classic style is not timeless. He believes that “proportion and silhouette are subject to the trends of the era.” He suggests that what we consider classically stylish today has been influenced by fashion-forward dressers like Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. In his opinion, the only reason that Boyer’s book is still relevant is that it describes business clothing that evolves more slowly than streetwear. He asks that I stop spreading the “classic style is timeless” myth.

On the other hand, “Kai” argues that classic style is timeless. In his opinion, “trends are only important if you are interested in looking trendy.” He argues that “to say that classic style isn’t timeless is to negate the very definition of the word ‘classic’.”

I’m sure you know the proverbial saying about opinions. Well I have one too. But first I think it is important to define our subject matter. What is “classic style?” It could be readily argued that “classic style” is not just about clothing. It may include attitude, personality, manners. Writing a thank you note on personalized stationery with a nice fountain pen is pretty classically stylish. However, when it comes to clothing, I think the first step towards becoming classically stylish is gaining an understanding of your body and what clothing is flattering to your shape and complexion. Consider Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who wore jackets with built up shoulders to offset his wide head. That was a choice made to flatter his body and had nothing to do with the “trends of the era.” The second step is to learn the style “rules” that have developed over the past century. I do think “Dave” is correct that certain individuals have influenced the evolution of those rules (think brown suede shoes and gray flannel suits). In my opinion, one who has learned to follow those rules and apply them appropriately to his own body will be considered classically stylish regardless of the current trends.

As an example, think about Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 classic, Wall Street. His wardrobe, created by Alan Flusser, is still often hailed as being very stylish. Gordon Gekko could walk into any boardroom today and look perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, think about the power suits of the 1980s. Those suits had a proportion and silhouette that were subject to the trends of the era. Those suits are now outdated. Why? Because they were trendy, not stylish. Look at old pictures of men like Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, or Fred Astaire. Their clothing looks more current than those power suits from the 1980s because they knew how to dress to flatter their bodies, and they knew how and when to apply the rules. When I can look at a sixty-year-old photograph of Cary Grant, or an eighty-year-old Esquire illustration, and find sartorial inspiration today I must unequivocally state that classic style is timeless.

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?

Waistcoat Weather

waistcoat-weather

The thing I like best about colder weather is the opportunity to add layers of visual interest to my attire with sweaters, overcoats, scarves and the odd tailored waistcoat, an item that has reemerged in popularity in recent years.  In addition to adding visual interest, a waistcoat (or vest) adds some protection and warmth to an exposed shirtfront on cooler days.  Wearing a waistcoat also provides you the flexibility to remove your jacket in an overheated office, yet remain looking neat and dapper.

I do find it curious and dismaying that waistcoats have become popular at the same time that trouser waists are plunging ever lower.   Consider the image from the current J. Crew catalog.  Notice how the tip of his tie, his belt, and some billowing shirt tail are all showing below the vest.  This is the problem with combining a waistcoat with low-waisted pants.  Ideally the bottom of a vest should cover the top of the trousers so that no shirt, tie or belt is visible.  This helps to create a much more flattering and elongating line.  For example, consider the gentleman in the Laurence Fellows illustration from Esquire.  The vest is not any longer than the one in the J. Crew image; the difference is in the trousers.  Unfortunately, as I was complaining last week, it is quite difficult to find high-waisted off-the-rack pants.  I spent some time over the weekend in my local gentleman’s shop trying on different off-the-rack pants from Samuelsohn, Zanella, Hiltl and Corbin.  All were lower-waisted than I desire, and none would have paired well with a vest.

The most versatile and classic vests for wear with worsted suits are made from solid cream, light-gray or light-blue linen (as pictured in the Esquire illustration).  In these conservative colors a waistcoat would be appropriate in either single or double-breasted versions.  For a little more flash, a single-breasted tattersall vest pairs well with tweed and flannel.  I own a nice version from Ben Silver.  Finally, brown suede is another versatile option.

And the final rule when it comes to wearing a waistcoat:  always leave the bottom button undone.

In Search Of Good Tailoring

tailoring-tweed

Michael Anton (writing under the pseudonym Nicholas Antongiavanni) wrote in The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style that “since tailored clothing can make a man look either rakish or ridiculous, as well as shorter or taller or fatter or thinner, it is necessary for him to choose models, fabrics, and patterns that flatter his shape while minimizing its defects.” While the man of average height and weight can wear most anything off-the-rack and achieve a flattering result, I find that most ready-to-wear clothing is unflattering on me. I have short legs that are out of proportion to my long torso, some slight middle-age spread and a protruding posterior. Most of the ready-to-wear suits on the market in the United States combine a single-breasted, center-vented jacket with pleated, low waisted trousers. Low-waisted trousers sit under my belly and visually chop me off at the waist, accentuating both my short legs and extra weight. My protruding rear wreaks havoc with center vents. I have come to the inescapable conclusion that to achieve the look I desire will require bespoke clothing.

I made my first foray into custom-made clothing earlier this summer when I ordered a made-to-measure navy double-breasted hopsack blazer from Tom James. That jacket arrived with some serious fit issues that were (after cutting two new sleeves) eventually mostly sorted out. One sleeve is still a little longer than the other and the button placement is a little off, but both of those issues can probably be fixed before I put it back into the rotation next spring. Nevertheless, I have received numerous compliments on the blazer and think that it turned out reasonably well.

From my experience with the Tom James blazer, I came to understand the value of fittings during the  construction of tailored clothing, and the problems that can arise without such fittings. At a basted fitting a tailor will have sewn the basic parts of the suit together with white cotton basting thread. This fitting gives the tailor the chance to correct any major errors in your pattern. At the forward fitting the suit will be nearly complete. This fitting gives the tailor a final chance to correct any minor details before the suit is completed. Even after the suit is complete, minor tweaks may be necessary.

Armed with a desire for a custom suit and my previous dubious experience with MTM clothing, I made a road trip to Atlanta, GA, this past weekend to meet with a traveling tailor from Hemrajani Tailors. When I arrived in his hotel suite I saw an array of fabric books laid out on a large table.  We discussed the type of suit I was interested in having made and began to look at some fabric swatches. While we looked at the fabrics I inquired about the basted fitting. My assumption was that I would have to make another trip in several months to catch up with him on his travel route for the basted fitting. I was then informed that there would be no fittings; a completed suit based on measurements taken that day would be shipped to my door in six to eight weeks. I dropped back to punt.

The trip was not a complete waste.  I have for some time wanted to order an unlined shirt jacket like the ones often worn by the late French actor Philippe Noiret.  Those of you that read Will Boehlke’s blog A Suitable Wardrobe may have seen the linen and wool versions that he has written about in the past. I placed an order for a shirt jacket in the pictured brown tweed. It will have four bellows pockets, coordinating bone buttons, and a small slit at the bottom  of each side for easy access to trouser pockets. Mr. Boehlke’s shirt jackets are made by Hemrajani Tailors so I was comfortable placing a MTM order for that item. I will write a follow-up about the shirt jacket when it arrives in the next couple of months.

In the meantime, I am still in search of a tailor. Access to quality tailoring is a real challenge while living in a small town in the American South. Sometimes I envy those of you living in New York or London. Oh well, we have better BBQ.  On a serious note, if anyone has a recommendation for a good tailor in cities like Charleston or Atlanta, or knows of one that travels through the American South, please post a comment. I’d like to check them out.