To Cuff Your Pants or Not?

The other day, I had an interesting question posed to me by one of my readers. He had recently purchased a pair of pleated trousers at Brooks Brothers and it was recommended that he have them hemmed with cuffs.

His wife, who is German, objected to this approach and cited her and her European friends’ opinion that stylish men do not cuff their pants. In a quandary, he called up the store and talked to another associate who said that pleated trousers demand cuffs and that their added weight help the pant leg hang properly.

Unsure if this were the best advice, my reader asked the same question of me. I understand the confusion because this tricky issue that is one that’s both sartorial and personal. By that I mean the question of cuffing one’s trousers is partially based on a cultural perspective and partially on personal taste.

For starters, his wife is correct that in Europe cuffed trousers are less common. The fact that his wife is German certainly explains her dislike of cuffs. The German aesthetic, when it comes to function over form and elegant austerity over lively embellishment, is fairly well known.

Across Europe though, as with anywhere else, fashion preferences change. I purchased a pair of wonderful Incotex pants in Venice and had them tailored there as well. The salesman and tailor both recommended cuffs, the execution of which had some of the most beautiful finishing work I’d ever seen.

That these immensely stylish and opinionated Italians recommended cuffs caught me off guard because the pants were in fact, flat fronted. Flat front trousers are pretty much the rule in Europe and I began to think that to my reader’s wife, therein lay the real issue.

I suspect that she wants her husband to embrace a more Eurocentric wardrobe, sans the pleated trousers. Generally speaking, pleated trousers are far more common in the United States than in Europe. The only caveat to this generalization is England, where you’ll still see pleats a little more often than elsewhere on the Continent. It’s also still fairly normal to see pleats on both American and English suit pants.

Anyway, to get back to the original question; when it comes to tailoring, pleated trousers should always have cuffs, period. The weight of the cuff will help the trouser leg hang and both physically and visually balance the peats up top. On flat front pants it’s more of an option dictated by personal preference.

For example, my Incotex trousers are a very fine gray worsted and the cuff help keep the lighter fabric from riding up my calf. Also, since Italians like their pants legs cut so darn high (barely touching the top of the shoe) you need that weight to keep them in place. Had wished to do so, it would have been perfectly acceptable to have gone with no cuff and have the hem cut longer.

So, here is where it all comes together: if you like pleated trousers, they really need to be cuffed. If you’re working with flat front trousers than it’s a preference thing and either option is just fine.

Another way to look at it is from a cultural perspective. Pleated and cuffed trousers just look American, especially with the fuller cuts favored by American brands like Brook Brothers. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a truth. How do you want to look; American or European?

Personally, I tend to like classic American casual clothing and European tailored clothing. When I go to Europe, I try to dress less American; not for any political or self-conscious reasons, I just enjoy the change.

My ultimate recommendation is always to go with what you like and what feels right, because in the end you’re the one wearing the clothes. Still, as someone with a wife who has a killer eye for menswear, I never discount what she has to say.

My Father’s Shoes

As a young child, I remember sitting in my parent’s room, watching my dad get ready for the day.

As a physician, and one who felt that dressing well shows respect for others, he almost never went to the office in anything but a coat and tie – often a suit, sometimes a sport coat and gray flannels.

I would sit and watch as he picked out his clothes, running his hand along the ever growing collection of repp, paisley and woven ties until he found just the right one for that day.

After the jackets, shirts and ties had been sorted through, out came the shoes. Dad’s shoes were not handmade or exotic. They were however solid footwear of very good pedigree: Johnston and Murphy (the good line), Brooks Brother’s Peal & Co., and Barrie, Ltd., of New Haven (sadly, now defunct).

It still amazes me that for someone who wore dress shoes almost every day of his life, his footwear wardrobe was not particularly large. As I recall, he had a pair of each of wing tips and cap toes – black and brown; a lovely pair of shell cordovan brogues, brown tasseled slip-ins; a pair of penny loafers and a pair of white bucks.

Dad always kept his shoes in excellent condition; religiously polishing them to a deep, jewel like gloss. Of course each pair had its own cedar shoe trees – if you don’t have them for your shoes, stop reading now and go buy some. The sense of personal satisfaction I still get from shining my shoes, looking after my wardrobe and getting the closet in order after a busy week was surely instilled at that young age. There is a certain rhythm and comfort in the ceremony of assembling your personal possessions.

What actually brought these memories back to me was the never-ending rain that blanketed Washington earlier this week. Normally when the weather turns like that I dress down a bit and wear some heavy shoes and khakis, but I had meetings this week and needed to wear a suit.

Since I metro into the city and would be exposed to the elements for more than enough time needed to soak through shoe leather, this was an issue. I found my solution in the most practical of footwear accessories – rubber shoe covers. These waterproof shoe covers turn your well shod feet into pedial all terrain vehicles.

I never actually thought that I would own a pair of these things; they were to me about as un-cool as you could get. I still see my dad pulling them on before he walked out the door on rainy mornings and recall how, in my youthful ignorance, I thought he looked silly. As a working adult however – and one who enjoys assembling a good wardrobe in the morning – I know now how invaluable they truly are.

Taking care of your shoes does not always have to be an elaborate or overcomplicated exercise. Keep the soles in good condition, give them a regular polish and each pair should have their own shoe trees. And, as my dad taught me a long time ago, keep them dry.

Visiting in Horse Country

My wife and I recently took a little vacation to the heart of Virginia horse country. Middleburg, ground zero for the moneyed portion of Virginia’s horsey set, is exactly what you expect an exclusive equestrian hamlet to be. With beautiful rolling green hills, dotted with heart-stopping estates and crisscrossed with white fencing, it easily evokes visions of Ralph Lauren ads.

We stayed at a wonderful country estate named the Goodstone Inn. I say estate because that’s really what it is. Set on 265 acres, the Inn is an award winning collection of residences, barns and stables spread across the property. There are actually five buildings in which to stay, each with its own distinct theme. The original carriage house serves as the Inn’s living room and also houses their exceptional restaurant.

If you happen to be in the DC area, make sure to stop by for a few days; it is a different, more genteel and refreshing world. A warning though; you’ll quickly want to become the landed gentry.

In fact, visiting horse country often inspires one to dream of misty morning walks to the stable and a rambling family house stocked with giant oil paintings, antiques and sterling silver knick knacks. You might also feel a strong desire to ditch your current wardrobe for something more earthy – heavy on the leather and waxed cotton.

The storied anglophiliac horse culture of Maryland and Virginia can easily bring these feelings to the surface in almost anyone. But before you go galloping off after crafty foxes (or, nowadays, pre laid artificial fox scent trails), you’ll need to look the part.

Dressing for this kind of an environment is a balancing act because good horse country style is really a blend of bespoke and stable boy. One of the best suggestions I heard for getting the right mix came from a local: think of Prince Charles, then put him in a pair of jeans. Not 7 For All Mankind or anything like that, just plain old jeans.

And that really is the style guide I would suggest. Most of the Middleburg horsey set is very well off – horses are not really a poor man’s accessory – and they revel in their earthy, down home English/American lifestyle.

When we visited, it was transition weather; warming days and cool evenings. Barbour jackets, sans liners, and leather paddock boots tended to form the core of many folk’s ensembles. Jeans or trim khakis, paired with simple merino or cotton sweaters or well tailored shirts, added to the dressy casual vibe.

Most of the people I saw had on clothing that looked nice but not necessarily new. To me this was very refreshing and appeased my New England aesthetic for worn-in classics over of-the-moment flash. Several of the women I saw around town were wearing jodhpurs and lovely riding boots; just back from an afternoon cantor I guess. The men were more Ralph Lauren-ish, but in a practical way. They often looked as though their clothing was tossed on without thinking, but from a wardrobe that had only great clothes in it. I think we all need a good hacking jacket in the closet.

That’s a good lesson for all of us; if you only choose things that are of high quality, great style and good material, your wardrobe should always yield a great outfit for any occasion. I recall one gentleman who had on a slightly muddy pink hacking jacket, white cotton oxford, old jeans and barn boots.

Stepping out of a dark green Range Rover he looked elegant and natural, not at all contrived. I think that’s a personal goal most of us aspire to.

Summer Footwear

When things start to heat up outside, one’s wardrobe pares down as well. Tweed and flannel gives way to linen and cotton; sweaters go back in the drawer and polo shirts make their seasonal debut.

The same holds true for footwear. Down south where your feet hit the pavement, changes are afoot.

It’s a given of course, that in the great scheme of things men do not have the incredible variation in style, functionality, materials and colors that women do when it comes to shoes. While some bemoan this situation, I find it a blessing. Without the need for a separate shoe closet, men easily have enough choice in their footwear wardrobe to create distinctive, classic and signature warm weather looks for every day of the week.

As I see it, there are four broadly defined categories on which to focus when getting dressed each morning. Each one dictates your overall choice of clothing and corresponding footwear.

Business Wear = traditional suits, formal office wear, important meetings, conservative blazer and dress trousers.
Traditional laced business shoes / slips-ins

Business Casual = general office wear, professional but not necessarily formal, wider range of sport coats paired with dress and casual trousers, finer polo shirts and dress khakis or chinos.
Lighter colored dress shoes / loafers / suede bucks / rubber soled casual shoes

Social = going out, lawn parties, social but not necessarily casual events
Driving moccasins / casual loafers with contrast stitching / boat shoes / canvas tennis shoes

Weekend Wear = casual, relaxing, friends and errands or chores
Boat Shoes / Camp moccasins / Birkenstocks & sandals / canvas tennis shoes

To me footwear is a component of an overall wardrobe; shoes should both stand out as your outfit’s foundation and also work with that outfit to tell a unified story.

Business wear and business casual do not really change much during warm weather. If wearing a business suit, traditional black, brown and cordovan footwear are still your best choices. These cap toes, oxfords, balmorals and slip-ins will also work with brighter shirt and tie combinations you may want to try out.

Some men like to switch to light colored dress shoes in warm months. This can be a difficult trick to pull off because softer colored leathers – creams, pale tans and other earth tones – can look both affected and aesthetically unsettling. It takes a very specific kind of outfit to provide the same level of professionalism and balance that traditional darker colors offer.

Mixed media footwear, cap toes done in leather and linen for example, can be elegant but should be paired with equally stylish tailored clothing and not necessarily a business suit. The mix of summery élan and boardroom sobriety usually don’t work together.

Linen, cotton and seersucker suits are a different story. For these classics, white or tan suede bucks complete the prototypical summer suit. Jaunty and timeless, white bucks in particular are the perfect match for the warm weather dressy/casual appeal of summer suits. Dark brown or cordovan lace ups and slip-ins can dress the outfit up a notch but I think that black is just too formal.

I have also seen white bucks paired with a dark navy linen suit. The effect was wonderful – very Great Gatsby, but not all a costume. The suit was extremely well tailored and the shoes were of a very high quality. What made it work though was the pairing of a linen “business” suit with the equivalent of summer “business” shoes. While still a little adventurous in a traditional office, it’s very natty.

Dressing for a business casual environment brings in a different class of footwear. When pairing your shoes with lightweight chinos, linen or other summer fabrics, penny loafers and boat shoes are traditional options that reduce the formality while still not straying into weekend territory. While loafers are widely accepted as a less formal dress shoe, boat shoes and their outdoorsy brethren are seen by some as an office interloper.

My fellow columnist Simon Crompton devoted a recent article to his distrust of the boat shoe in particular. While I almost always agree with this sartorial viewpoint, here I must dig in my sockless heels and revert to New England roots. Boat shoes, best embodied by the original Sperry Topsiders, are a staple of most East Coast wardrobes. They are, in my humble opinion, a classic all purpose casual shoe.

Where canvas trainers would be inappropriate, the boat shoe, aka “docksider”, strolls in without a second glance. I would never say that they are correct for all business casual environments, especially those with an emphasis on Business, but for most offices with a relaxed dress code they are just fine.

Part of the issue boils down to one’s personal casual style. Clothing-wise are you by nature formal or relaxed? My father, for example, has never owned a pair of jeans in his life. His weekend attire often consists of a button down oxford shirt, neat chinos and deeply polished Brooks Brothers loafers – or in the summer, docksiders. That’s just who he is.

I however, may wear old khakis with frayed cuffs, a faded polo shirt, ribbon belt and well worn canvas tennis shoes (or docksiders; without socks of course). When clothed for business I naturally gravitate toward a formal European sense of style and prefer English made footwear. But when dressing more casually my American genes take over. And truth be told, that is more of who I am when push comes to shove.

For some men the space between formal and casual is much tighter – like Simon or my father. Footwear is a good indicator of this personality trait. There is no wrong or right, it’s just personal taste as far as I’m concerned. For some, warm weather means only slight variations in the shoe department. For others, it is a celebration of the additional, often casual, options that lighter, brighter and less formal attire brings.

Environmentally Conscious Timekeeping

I am a watch guy; not dedicated to one particular style or maker, my tastes run the gamut. Vintage, brand new, elegant complications or chunky dive watches; I like them all. I have become a bit of an evangelist about one thing though – I think people should wear mechanical watches or watches that don’t need traditional batteries, if any.

With all the talk about going green, we should each take along hard look at ourselves; at our wrists, specifically. Are you still wearing one of those battery powered timekeepers? Well, shame on you. Just think about what it takes to manufacture, ship, store, replace and throw out millions of those little batteries each year. It’s enough to make a Swiss master watchmaker cry.

These days we have some great high-tech and low-tech options for marking time in an environmentally friendly fashion. Mechanical watches in particular have made a big comeback in recent years and they are the perfect investment if you’re looking for something to pass down to your kids. You can find quality mechanical timepieces in a range of prices, from $500 to $50,000.

Leaving aside the $25,000.00 Patek Philippe that most of us will not be acquiring in the near future, there are many affordable mechanical watches that will last a lifetime and remain stylish through most any trend.

The Rolex Submariner is a classic sports watch and at around $5,500.00, while not exactly cheap, it is a possible choice for many professionals. If you are looking for one “good” watch, you can’t go wrong with at Submariner. A very affordable alternative is the $375.00 Seiko “Orange Monster.” Yes, I said Seiko; watch aficionados know that they make some of the most reliable mechanical movements in the dive industry and the Orange Monster has its own cult following.

Want microsecond accuracy without having to shake your wrist? Citizen’s Eco-Drive technology transforms your watch into a big solar collector. The watch’s face and crystal absorb all types of light and convert it into the energy that runs your watch indefinitely. One of the most popular is the Citizen Skyhawk Black Eagle which lists around $475.00. It’s tough enough that no one will make fun of your social consciousness.

If you’re a fan of the unstoppable Jack Bauer from the TV action drama “24”, check out a favorite of mine, the Blackhawk by MTM. This is the very one Jack wears and it has a cool illumination feature that can be used to signal commandos, blind an assailant or just track down your car keys. The company’s revolutionary rechargeable lithium ion battery is good for 10 years and the watch needs only an overnight recharge every three months or so to keep it running strong. And don’t worry; the Secret Service and Delta Force have already tested it for you, so it’ll survive a rough afternoon on the back nine.

These are just a few of the hundreds of watches that can help you look sharp, telegraph your values and interests, and take a small but important step to reducing you personal carbon footprint. They also give you an excuse to add to your own collection.