Lone Nuts, Suits, and Assassinations: Should Seeing Be Believing?

This is guest post by Dean Balsamo.

Media masters, public servants, teachers and other official shapers of public attitudes tell us it’s taboo. Officially it doesn’t exist. Never applied. No matter. It acts like the persistence of memory with a serial life force. Biological? Genetic? A survival strategy we can’t shake? Profiling is big again. Out of its cage, box, the Deep-wherever we store it when not in use.

Everyone does it. Men with strong sartorial interests are active practitioners. Captoe. Check. Top button-buttoned, bottom unbuttoned. Check. Natural shoulders. Check. Non-matching pocket square – tie mix. Check.  The subjects of the sartorial once-over are prosperous, dandies, poseurs, douche bags, fashionistas, sophisticated, genius. Always judging. Always comparing the world of appearances to a canonical baseline of acceptable combinations and uses. When violated it’s as if a crime has been committed.

Taking this sense of the criminal a step further, channeling McLuhan in the process – what can our sartorial insight yield when profiling actual criminal events? For example crimes involving the Lone Nut, an iconic staple of American culture. He’s Modern and Post-Modern, Psychopathic. Good media fodder. A perfect subject for our times. Straddling now some five decades, purists look at dividing the phenomenon into two camps. The Classic and Contemporary with Classic covering the deaths of JFK, RFK, MLK and Contemporary encompassing the activity of Lone Nuts ever since.

A purist’s reasoning for the division sees the Contemporary manifestation as debased in its intentions. “Any dumb ass on oxycodone can wear a technical vest. But what’s their cause? What do they want? Are they anti globalists? Marxists? Right Wingers? Nationalists? Where are the big ideas behind their violence? How does a Virginia Tech compare with the murders of national figures in the past?” They have a point, only the rustic-looking, cabin dweller called Unabomber – technically more of a “terrorist” than Lone Nut – has a philosophical underpinning to his methods.

That said in exploring the world of appearances and criminality of this type what kinds of markers in appearance can help us form a picture of said nut and in the process generate an insight or two about these characters? Looking at the Lone Nut of today we see permutations on work wear, military kit, and athletic looks with some Goth elements. There’s the ubiquitous T-Shirt with or without logos, band names or slogans imprinted. The baseball cap, Levis, heritage and generic outwear in the Cathcart, John Woolwrich and Dickies vein, shirt-jackets, plaid, sweatpants and their mainline variations on basics – think Russell from Wal Mart, K Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Target and a dozen more retailers with similar demographics. But does the resulting data paint a picture of a Lone Nut mowing down nobodies in work places and campus’s or point a finger at a sizable portion of today’s American male population?

Oswald in a shirt at the news conference.

Hmm. Okay. Well then. What about the Classic Lone Nut? What does someone who single handily makes a national government do 180 degree turns, traumatizes an anti-war movement, and throws the actions of a non-violent organization out of focus dress like? He’s got impressive economies of scale, using the sparest of means and super powers like magic bullets, sniper expertise, and daring (crazy) point blank assaults to making a killing. He’s got a name rolling off the tongue, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan B. Sirhan, James Earl Ray. The magnitude of the events screams professional killers, Good Fellows and agents. But their appearances don’t quite measure up to those standards do they? We’re still looking at style threads embodied by T-shirts, Levis, short-sleeved shirts, Chinos and skinny ties. There’s Oswald led through a crowd of reporters wearing this kind of garb. Ditto dazed and confused Sirhan B. Sirhan. And Mr. Ray? Murder Inc or rural gas station owner? “Pro” or ‘patsy” as Oswald described himself. Mr Sad Sack pinned with the crime.

Oswald in a skinny tie.

The uptick in stylistic leanings occurs in the guise of significant others making brief but puzzling appearances in the classic assassination dramas. With JFK you get the Three Tramps picked behind the infamous Grassy Knoll moments after the shots were fired. Caught. Released. No statements, no nothing. Researchers say Tramps are connected to the hit. Googling the usual candidate reveals entities with spook connections and pictures of them in suits and ties. As Tramps they’re not to shabby either with ensembles echoing casual work wear and a tweed thing. Today we might see it as Tramp Wear – the new working man’s brand.

Tramp 1
Tramp 2

The night of RFK’s murder the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles has a young lady in a polka dot dress with a young man in a cardigan and chinos yelling something like, “We got him!,” right after the senator goes down, as they run towards a hotel exit never to be seen (or after some initial media reports – talked about) again.

Of course Suits are everywhere but to paraphrase a well known Sufi saying, the Suits are in the middle of everything but not part of it – so the official accounts tell us. We see men from all the alphabet agencies, Congressmen sitting on commissions with the pro-scribed DC look to their suited attire, a nattily-dressed New Orleans business man, and even Mafia Dons and their colleagues – a little Dean Martin, a little Palm Spring eventually thrown into the mix. Cannons followed check. They preside over assassination related events with the kind of impressive command you’d expect from those clothed this way. Not a patsy or pussy among them. Even Jack Ruby is dressed in a suit and hat when he executes Oswald in the Dallas police station. Both victim and shooter are then hustled out by Suits.

The RFK event also has a Suit intimately involved in the guise of the bodyguard ushering the senator through the hotel’s kitchen. While much of the forensic evidence is destroyed, lost, or mishandled by the LAPD who oversee the investigation into the chaos, some things are clear. Maybe the most telling concerns the entry points of the fatal shots. Under his right arm and behind, not in the front of his body-where no bullet entry wounds are found even though Sirhan B. Sirhan the accused killer stands some three feet away. Subsequent study centers on the Suit behind RFK who admits using his firearm but recites the mantra of “not me.”

As for the patsy-looking Ray, even the King family doesn’t believe he’s the killer while others murmur something about a uniformed member of a Memphis police force.

Three Classical Lone Nut events, thee open wounds that’ll never heal-spawning endless conjecture and endless story telling. And the same can be said for any of the sartorial profiling we might put to use. Normal expectations from attire don’t seem to compute with the kinds of certainty we usually attribute to our observations. If  fundamental rules of attire are simply applied we’re still left wondering about our conclusions. When it comes to experiences with lone nuts, seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Profiling and interpreting the supposed actions and roles of those involved from Lone Nut to supporting players isn’t mathematics, it’s more akin to art. Sketches and paintings, not equations and algorithms, are used to get a handle on the players. Seen in this light, profiling is, like any useful tool only as productive as the level of information and insight it’s used with.


Dean Balsamo is in the magazine industry and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Some Thoughts on Late Icons of Despot Style

Despots come and despots go but how they apply the adage “dress for success” may not only support, but if not applied correctly, also undermine their reign in ways they may not imagine given the limited feedback loop that typically surrounds men wielding their brand of power.


For instance while Kim Jong, limiting his sprezzatura to variations on military kit and designer shades, presented a predictable and dependable no-nonsense air that displayed no visible chinks in his armor, his polar opposite, Muammar Gaddafi, in his exotic tribal mashups, coming at a time when historical frictions between tribal fractions were being exploited, could have subtly and irreparably caused his romantic appeal to an ancient lifestyle to tear at rifts in the psychic foundation of Libya as a nation state, provoking long-standing tribal resentments and hastening his demise.

despot-saddam-suitOf course, despots, like everyone, develop personal attachments to articles of clothing and accessories, but unlike most they can give full reign to their obsessions. For example Sadam Hussein (like Stalin) had hundreds of pairs of shoes. But what he really needed was an Italian tailor to give his sartorial presentation the kind of signifiers it needed to serve notice he was an international player on par with all the other ones in the Anglo-American orbit he thought he was a part of for a longest time.

But outside of military garb – the universal go-to vestments for rulers outside of “old” Europe and North America, he had the look of a functionary or a diplomat from a Bulgarian consulate circa NYC in the 80s. His tailoring never matched his ambitions so when the New World Order architects finally got around to publicly calling him a thug, it was too late for a good suit to save him. He had been in solitary confinement as prisoner of regional standards of power dressing for too long. He couldn’t view himself from the outside, like say a European head of state, or one of the usual characters acting as Western envoys to troubled capitals might do, and without a trusted media consultant never got the kinds of media friendly advice his counterparts in the West get.

Suits never really “suited” Mummer Gaddafi either. It’s simply a mis-match of garment genre and his particular personality. His aspirations were larger than life, mythic. But they seemed squished in a conventional suit. It’s less a tailoring issue than the fact that Gaddafi’s image projection to his people and the world was of an active – always doing something for the country or Africa – leader. Pictures suggest Gaddafi was more himself in military uniform, conveying order, command, and vision. One only has to look at the pictures of him in a uniform early in his reign: confidant and energetic. By the end, he was sporting the look of the patron of a nomadic tribe or mystic in the desert with rags and skins (though costly) on his back.


Because he was a self-made man, tribal birth surroundings to colonel to coup to ruler – and not subject to the conditioning that an heir like Jong received – there was no playbook for him to follow except for the verses he heard inside his head. It was obvious in his evolution of dress over the decades that Gaddafi felt an affinity for the archaic, but given the nature of the job and the public attention to its holder his changes in costume – especially in light of the challenges that developed to his rule – suggested something akin to the kinds of public melt downs Hollywood and music personalities are seen to have. Over the years his over the top combinations of materials, patterns and colors, his signature tent-dwelling desires and his female retinue of body guards read more like the lifestyle of a tribal potent so far from the usual stylistic conventions held by most of the worlds leaders that it was easy in the end to publicly isolate him and paint him with the colors of a mad man.

Unlike his African contemporary Kim Jong never gave the North Korean subjects anything to doubt with his attire: it was always military uniform and it’s variations on it. His stylistic allusions in this vein had an Eisenhower-in-his-headquarters-peering-over-maps-with-a-drink-the-night-before-a-battle-look, with the short jacket and high waisted pants usually in his signature khaki color. He and the country may have inhabited something of a time warp, but it was his time warp – a socialist state that appealed to images of an emperor.


Throughout years of Western antagonism he managed to keep the country intact and prevent the intrusions Iraq and Libya suffered. And while North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons (and probably stealth technology) helped, in the end it may have been the unchanging consistency of Kim Jong’s public persona that made as much a difference if not more in his country’s defense. Though he was known to spend upwards of $600,000 on Hennessey behind closed doors, in public – whether in work or in leisure – Kim Jong always portrayed the military leader.

And while he didn’t court his countryman’s love or good relations with other countries as ends in themselves, he managed to create the authentic air of the inscrutable Asian leader whom no one could quite get a handle on. Hell even his lone sponsors the Chinese had fears of what he was actually capable of, especially if backed into a corner. Simply put Kim Jong had cajones. And in the end it can be seen that his unwavering devotion he had to image of the military leader, Spartan, in command, there to protect the country, combined with actually producing weapons on the order of the scale he did, instilled the kind of fear and respect that he needed to continue.

True in death as in life, Kim Jong was buried in the uniform of a 4 star general. While “kudus” might not be the appropriate word, Jong certainly knew how to deftly play the game with the powers that opposed him.



Two years ago. Late at night in a hotel bar in midtown where various dignitaries are staying for the annual UN gathering. Two figures at a table having a nightcap.

Silvio Berlusoni dressed immaculately in a dark navy suit next to Muammar Gaddafi in an ill-fitting medium gray suit grimacing as he looks down at it saying:

“I can’t stand this, I feel like a fool.”


“You made an effort; that’s the important thing. Look, you go see my guy in Milan and he’ll fix everything.

Leaning towards Gaddafi, lowering his voice he adds:

“Now listen to me Mummer, bunga bunga… good. But (shaking his head) this Gold Dinar thing and the Pan African Union…”

Dean Balsamo is in the magazine industry and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Le Cercle Rouge, a Visual Reminder of the Essence of Men’s Style


French Director Jean Pierre Melville’s 1970 film Le Cercle Rouge, is among the most highly regarded, little seen stealth influences on some of the most well known directors of the last 30 years. The starkly costumed looks of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction read like homage to what must be considered the crown jewel of Melville’s multi-picture exploration of American style gangster flicks, with Le Cercle Rouge being likened by some to the idea of westerns shot with a Paris backdrop.

This is a movie you can settle down with a drink, scotch would be perfect, and study. After a while maybe you find yourself thinking heady thoughts. Maybe it’s time you think, to give the pendulum a push, maybe things have gotten just a little too precious when it comes to the opinions, lessons and injunctions you get about what you should be wearing. It’s all this moralistic relativity and lack of standards in general that’s eating away at you. All of sudden all the colors, combinations and volumes you’re seeing from Pitti or New York are suggesting surrealistic or circus clown inspired movements. “Outfits” not “clothing” anymore you’re thinking. Mixed in the dark or under the influence or both. Not inventions or expressions of true style growing from one’s personality and being  but pea cocking, surface but no content, no direction,  throwing things – anything – against the wall. Me Me Me. And the sunny, unstructured, yet codified modes of display, brown, Italian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You’re quick to add.

By contrast Le Cercle Rouge stands as an apotheosis to the stream of inspiration that resulted in the  bench-mark looks of classical clothing seen through the lenses of the 1960’s. It’s got a stellar cast, no pretty boys or prima donnas. No posers.  This is Alain Delon and Yves Montand and every person in the film personifying their character’s role to the tee. This isn’t a period piece; it’s a Document of its times where the height of the decade’s stylistic invention is showcased. This film’s a reference library for the viewer’s stylistic vocabulary. There‘s little here that couldn’t be incorporated by any man today. Cuff links, 3 piece suits, rich navy suits and top coats, white shirts, narrow ties, charcoal gray – and because it’s France, a naked woman and some dancing girls.


Some might view this film as an “antidote” to fashion waywardness and poseurs in general. In Le Cercle Rouge men are men. They wear suits, not costumes. Everyone looks impeccable, but the hue, cut, and forms never dictate what the men do nor how they do things even though what we see are uniforms both figuratively and literal. No one is constrained from acting in the way the fundamentals of character and circumstance evoke.  Men are running, rolling, shooting, fording streams, smoking, stealing, fighting, sleeping in and working-living in their clothes with utilitarian gusto. And this association with work should be stressed because unlike most of the stylistic mentors and films normally mentioned online, the figures depicted here are not those of the upper strata, the elites of the society normally associated in our investigations or imitation-worthy style but figures from the gray underbelly with its own codes and standards of behavior but with everyone adhering to an almost mannerist depiction of stylistic mores.

The film’s title is derived from a teaching by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who used a chalk-drawn circle in red to suggest that those men whom fate has decided should come together, will invariably do so regardless of the diverse paths and individual personalities. And so we see in this film a mélange of different personalities yet though there’s a “good and bad guys” theme, there’s a moralistic, ethical backbone and an anti-hero bias that permeates the story. They struggle and question life – the life they’ve been dealt. They do it with a sense of personal honor.  No matter which side of the line they occupy, they carry on with a dignity and sense of regard for both themselves and those whom fate has brought into their individual lives.


There are no black hats to clearly identify the villains. The principals are ultra chic in a somber way. No self-consciousness. No parody. None of our simplistic irony. Yet all involved understand the lines separating the different sides are constantly moving and yet their choice of attire clearly demonstrates they are all operating on a similar level. The lines might be shifting on constantly moving sands but the uniform-like exactness of their clothing indicates they’re ready and willing to deal with the fates that are dealt to them. Watch it and learn.

Dean Balsamo is in the magazine industry and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Micro Labels and Brand Longevity

In the words of the late Steve Jobs, “Real artists ship.” To this we might add, “Over and over and over again.” I found his quote coming back to me as I prepared this piece on “micro brands.” What began as a survey and review of various micro brands whose creations I’d acquired over the last few years ended up being a meditation on the challenges to a micro-brand’s business sustainability as I noticed how some of the brands involved  in research don’t appear to be active anymore while others went on to much bigger things.

It got me to thinking that those micro brands with a desire to grow their business and stick around for a while might be able to use an additional strategy besides direct sales to help them keep their business going. Here I’m specifically suggesting the micro brands think about using their skills and creativity to look at working with some of the more active independent retailers who get involved with capsule collections under their own label.


It’s a fact of any creative area that sometimes even the most talented creations fail to take hold. For instance pictured is a military styled jacket in heavy Melton wool created in a limited edition (each piece is numbered) by a brand out of San Francisco called Distilled. I remember they got some blog love a few years back and given they were an American company whose creativity was promoted I went ahead and acquired the jacket. It has excellent craftsmanship and over time has become my go-to everyday jacket in the winter. But where is Distilled? It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything about them.

At the same time, years ago before their own stores, before their web site, before they were carried by major retailers, many of us were acquiring Rag & Bone. Once-upon a time, almost everything they made was made in the U.S.A. and had price points that a number of smaller retailers around the country felt comfortable with. While most micro brands don’t obviously have the connections R & B have, nor perhaps the same kinds of ambitions, the idea of doing something you love and making a living from it, is probably a reasonable assumption about one of the most basic desires those behind micro brands may have.


Today there are a number of micro-brands and brands a step up or two from there. The former might include a brand like Read’s Clothing Project, The Knottery’s hand made shoe laces “produced in a factory in the USA where a man, his children and his grandchildren all work to produce quality shoelaces,” or the pocket square from Michael James Milton out of a medium weight Japanese cotton in gray with crow’s feet design (pictured), while the latter might include someone like Brooklyn Tailors whose success with their hand made and hands on suiting and other clothing has allowed them to expand from their apartment to an actual retail space.

Of course only a relatively few micro brands will make the transition to prolonged success with their offerings, with fewer still able to open a retail establishment let alone get picked up by larger establishments – presuming they want to.

However, for those micro brands seeking to sustain their business and still preserve both the passion for their creativity and supplement or even replace their day job while growing their brand there’s perhaps another avenue they can take, taking on the manufacturing of pieces in retailer-branded capsule collections for the likes of an Odin, Epaulet or Freeman’s in NYC, Blackbird in Seattle or Context in Madison to name a few of the more innovative stores in this respect. These are retailers involved with creating small runs of clothing, shoes and accessories at reasonable price points and fine levels of quality.

Like the supermarket industry whose stores have come to appreciate the value in having the higher margins and brand recognition in having private label lines of food made for their particular stores, the above named retailers are sourcing micro brand like entities to create clothing in their name, at an attractive price point when compared to similar articles with similar materials and manufacturing standards found elsewhere and manufactured in far off lands. For the most part, the retailers have as their regular partners in the private label manufacturing process either established manufacturers who have supplied many in the trade in a timely and dependable manner and/or brands themselves that have reached a certain level of quality and performance in this regard.

However, for a micro brand who may feel this is a difficult area to move into, I’d say things are always in flux. What was profitable for a store to do with a manufacturer in the past may not be now due to any number of factors, or perhaps the normal sources just don’t provide the certain “spark” said retailer may be looking for and just possibly a given micro brand might have that.

There would seem to be a number of advantages for both the micro brand and the retailer in collaboration. Aside from the hopefully helpful financial input for manufacturing involvement with the retailer the micro brand has the possibility of using this contribution to help fuel their own brand directed creations. And the dialog needed to work with the retailer means the micro brand learns more about the “bottom line” considerations needed to provide a foundation for continuing the business apart from the actual creative ideas that come about through collaboration. Here we’re talking about things like the importance of margins, looking at material costs, logistics against the background of how to preserve the unique features that give the retailer and interested direct buyer an interest in acquiring creations from the micro brand in the first place.

In the end it’s this middle way that may offer an avenue for micro brands to not only survive but excel over time and make their contribution to the resurgence in desire for the kind of clothing with the kinds of stories and authenticity many of us are fueling with our buying habits helping brands who are passionate about their creations and their desire to continue doing what they love to do.

Dean Balsamo is an executive in the magazine industry obsessed with sartorial matters around craftsmanship, heritage, and personal style. He lives in Santa Fe, NM.