The Humble Pocket Square

It has always struck me as odd how something as small and innocuous as the pocket square polarises opinion. Oft-maligned, I think this fairly esoteric accessory deserves a little more respect. The problem – as with so many less commonly worn items – is that, on the few occasions when one is worn, it is worn egregiously thus tarnishing quite undeservedly its image.

A simple Google search suffices to make this point. Before us we observe a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of gaudy white silk, violently clashing colours, and oversized ornately folded silks which, combined, would be enough to make the most thrusting of peacocks blush at all the attention.

pocket-square-wrong

Worn thoughtfully, however, pocket squares are almost wantonly recherché. They allow the wearer to add a dash of individuality and flair to their outfit, through a flash of pattern or colour, without ever being overbearing. Too – and this may just be me! – it feels like there is a sort of ‘insider club’ element to wearing a pocket square: in the same way that Mini drivers always flash their lights at each other on the road, I always appreciate seeing another pocket square devotee.

pocket-square-improve

I think the above is a pretty good example of how a square can improve an outfit: there is not too much on display; the colour compliments that of the suit, shirt, and tie; and it gives the appearance of having been thrust into the pocket as opposed to having been artfully arranged. Indeed, in the above picture, I think the suit would look ‘naked’ without the pocket square.

I suppose what I am saying is that, worn well, pocket squares look fantastic; worn poorly, they look awful – far worse than not wearing one at all. Insightful analysis, I’m sure. It is, however, extremely frustrating to observe how many men there are who believe that simply by virtue of wearing a pocket square, they radiate Agnelli-style cool; it is one of those cases where a little knowledge is worse than no knowledge whatsoever!

As ever, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

The Importance of Being Louche: Serge Gainsbourg

One of the highest compliments one can pay a man of style is to say he wears his clothes well; that is, however tasteful and interesting each individual item he is wearing might be per se, the overall effect is that much greater for his having worn them with such panache.

It is interesting therefore to consider certain men who have attained lofty cultural status and are recognized as style icons despite – or perhaps because of?!? – sloppy sartorial habits.

serge-gainsbourg-1

Exhibit one:-  French singer-songwriter,  actor, and director and all-round flâneur, Serge Gainsbourg. With long lank hair, shirts unbuttoned almost to the waist, the signature cigarette smoke framing his disreputable-looking face, and his favourite accessory, English model, Jane Birkin, serving as arm candy, Monsieur Gainsbourg always oozes cool.

serge-gainsbourg-2

He has really mastered the art of looking good without giving the impression that he has made an effort. It is not simply that he makes no effort – for he clearly does. His clothes fit him well, compliment one another, and act as good ambassadors for his persona: any unacquainted observer would be bound to say that he has something of the aesthete and rake about him, whatever else they might pick up upon from his dress sense.

serge-gainsbourg-3

Most of the time I do not even like what Serge wears: his jacket may be too short or the stripes too loud but this does not detract from my admiration for his style because he always looks like he is having fun with what he is wearing.

It reminds me of a book I read a while ago (Height of Fashion: Lisa Eisner) which was a collection of photographs that people had nominated of themselves to show the moment when they were the brightest spark in the room and felt like they were the height of fashion. The pictures varied hugely in terms of what people were wearing, how old they were, and their location; most of the people looked objectively awful in clothes which mostly served to illustrate the difference between fashion and style i.e. the former does not age well! Yet each of the subjects makes a great impression because they radiate confidence and are having fun with what they are wearing.

Too often stylish men are effete: overly fastidious in choosing what to wear, preening themselves in the mirror or worrying unduly about how a pocket square sits in their jacket et cetera. Far better to throw clothes on and forget about them, confident in the knowledge that you do look great. That is what seeing photos of a guy like Serge Gainsbourg says to me: clothes can only do so much, you have to wear them with attitude, too.

Getting the Length Right

Since my first bespoke suit, several years ago, my tastes have evolved through a process of trial and error, making it very clear what suits me and what does not. I found an old Moleskin diary the other day and there, sandwiched between a retrospectively embarassing, studenty attempt at a poem and a rather short and unimaginative list of possible careers upon graduation, I found an interesting entry.

It was an bullet-point list (alongside a fairly impressive – if I do say so, myself! –  freehand sketch) of all the features I wanted in my very first bespoke suit, excitedly written in advance of meeting my tailor for the first time.  Many of those features – waisted jacket, charcoal grey fabric, working buttons etc. – have not changed; but a couple have and each has a dramatic effect on the overall appearance of the suit. One such example is the length of the jacket – an area that is utterly crucial to get right and doubly so for those noticably above or below average height.

jacket-length-tb

Short jackets are very  much in vogue with many of the menswear designer labels at the moment and have been for the last two to three years. Thom Browne (above) is perhaps the most famous proponent of  this ‘shrunken jacket’ look but, even on the highstreet, most jackets are cut short. The idea is that it makes you look taller: the jacket finishes higher on the trouser, leaving more leg showing which gives the illusion of lank. This probably works – to a degree: an overlong jacket will certainly render its wearer shorter to the average eye. The other idea behind this look is that it gives the jacket a casual air.

Yet, when I tried on my original bespoke jacket, after re-reading my diary entry, even the opiod cloud of nostalgia was not enough to blind me to the fact that my jacket – although not without merit – was probably not something I’d want to wear today.  You see, the trade-off with a short jacket is that, by shortening, you invariably make the jacket boxier as a result of its being shorter in length whilst the shoulders remain the same width as they would on a regular-length jacket. This is not a flattering aesthetic and – especially if you go very short as Thom Browne has above – is one which can imbue the jacket with the slightly clownlike quality of an awkward schoolchild wearing clothes they’ve outgrown – not the look most of us desire.

The oft-written rule-of-thumb vis-à-vis jacket length is that, with your arms hanging loosely by your sides, your fingers should curl up naturally around the bottom of your jacket. Of course this is just a rough guide and the best solution will vary from person to person. The one inviolable rule – which is, of course, violated oh-so often and with eye-catchingly vulgar panache – is that the vents on the back of the jacket should completely cover your posterior. I think that’s a must.

jacket-length-tf

Also from ‘that’ side of the Atlantic, of the same Christian name but a graduate of a rather different school of thought, as far as the suit goes, I give you Tom Ford (above). In this photo, his suit looks just the right length to my humbly observing eyes: the broad shoulders are counterbalanced by a medium-long jacket whose length permits the tailor to give the item more shape and definition without ruining the trouser-jacket proportion.

As with most things discussed on this website, it is simply a matter of taste: but I find myself having most definitely changed camps on this and consider it very unlikely that I’ll ever start asking for short jackets again. Indeed, I often see men at work whose jackets are clearly bespoke and think to myself that they’ve ruined what is otherwise a very fine jacket by having had it cut two inches too short!

What are your thoughts? Have I missed something?

Bespoke But Bland

bespoke-bland

There are things I utterly love about the bespoke clothing ‘experience’ and there are also areas which think leave a lot of room to be desired. A throbbing, temple-grindingly painful example of the latter category is service. The naïve amongst us might imagine that, given the cost involved, the level of service that customers receive from bespoke artisans would be far superior to that proffered by the sartorial sirens in the oh-so chic, bijou-till-it-hurts boutiques (you know, the sort of shop that unselfconsciously claims to ‘curate’ its merchandise). Certainly, you would expect the bespoke experience to be better than the treatment we receive at the hands of the obsequious and effete young chaps – as eager to please as they are lacking in individual style and opinion – so favoured by the major luxury goods houses for their flagship stores. But you’d be wrong – kind of.

Let us start with what’s right about the bespoke experience.  It is the absolute antithesis of the luxury goods brands’ anonymous and coolly detached emporia. The workshop or shop looks like a real person works in it with evidence of their presence and trade present in the objects and ephemera scattered around the (usually untidy) room. When you meet your tailor or shoemaker he (maybe she, but not often) will shake your hand and introduce himself. He or she will not be wearing a name badge and, after a visit or two, you will probably have built up a pretty decent relationship with the person whose hands provide the conduit through which your designs will be brought to life.

You can rely on your artisan’s honesty, too, when asking for an opinion on this or that: with a mountain of experience and no incentive to push a particular style they will be able to honestly appraise the way something looks on you, helping to both improve the end product and harmonise the way you view yourself and the way others do. It is also a real learning experience; assuming that, like me, you are fascinated by the finely honed skill that these superb craftsman utilise in order to produce what seems a very simple garment, you will enjoy getting to know your tailor and learning from them – equally, it is not unlikely that they will enjoy explaining what they do to a eager pupil. Finally, if you want to think in terms of value, you are not (at least for with most tailors) subsidising marketing campaigns and flash stores at the expense of quality clothes and, of course, you can keep modifying and tweaking your product until it more closely resembles the image you had in your head: the aftercare service is peerless.

Sounds great. So why am I whining? Is it because these old-world craftsmen can be a touch rude or standoffish, at first blush? I can see how that would bother some people who have a certain preconception of the customer-salesman role but it does not keep me awake at night. Would I perhaps prefer a more salubrious showroom, with complimentary drinks and a plush leather couch on which to sit my now handsomely attired derriere? Well, perhaps; but I can well see the benefit of going without as I described above when discussing value. The real problem is the refusal of some artisans to deviate from their time-proven methods in order to create exactly what the client wants.

This is the very definition of bespoke and the primary characteristic which allows bespoke to soar mightily above ready-to-wear and, like a disrespectful pigeon, relieve itself upon its poorer relative from a great height: you can create exactly what you want, however weird, wacky, or idiosyncratic that may be. Yet, in practice, this is often not really the case. Often a tailor will refuse to play with convention or genuinely put his skill to the test by cutting a daring shape or marrying one feature with another in such a way that requires a touch of daring and a good dollop of artistic sensibility to pull it off correctly. In some (admittedly rare) cases, I have had a tailor tell me something is flat-out impossible to do – something as simple as slimming the arms on a suit whilst still having broad shoulders, for example.

I have some sympathy for the tailor who knows that something his client has requested will look ridiculous on him; anyone who has seen some of the bespoke monstrosities lauded on certain internet fora by their proud owners will attest to the fact that bespoke does not always look better. The thing is, though; I think these people are great. One of the main things I like to see in other people, as far as dressing goes, is them enjoying themselves; that is feeling good about how they look in what they are wearing and, perhaps, using their clothes to express their personality in some subtle way or another. Anyone who fulfils these two criteria is, in my humble opinion, far more interesting an aesthetic artefact than someone trendily attired in the latest Prada suit (even if my personal taste were to err more on the side of the latter than the suit they had commissioned).

I quite understand that there is a tried-and-tested formula which works pretty well for most suits and would not like to see this bastardised or mutate too deviously but I also recognise that the vast majority of the suits flooding out of the London tailor shops are almost identical in style, covering only a minute corner of the overall spectrum, and this is boring and lazy. It is not what bespoke should be. Suits can respect certain fundamental rules whilst still being interesting and individual: consider that a book such as Musgrave’s Sharp Suits fills over a hundred pages with attractive and diverse images of attractive and diverse suits. Going bespoke affords us a lot of possibilities and what annoys me most is that so few customers take advantage of this and that so few tailors truly encourage them to do so and this is something that I would argue should be intrinsic to the service.

I suppose it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the bespoke industry’s level of service is anything other than better than that of ready-to-wear but, like a smart schoolboy whose natural ability allows him to keep pace with his peers without effort, it needs to be encouraged to take strides forward and not rest upon its laurels so that it can truly differentiate itself and offer us something really special – we all complain about how few people partronise the tailoring houses these days and here is a way to ensure that the numbers do not dwindle further.

Historical Prescriptivism: The Awkward Bedfellows of Tradition and Evolution in Menswear

historical-prescriptivism

But,
 erm,
 what
 exactly 
is 
Historical 
Prescriptivism? 
The
 term
 relates 
to 
the 
linguistic 
notion
 that, 
whilst 
language 
is 
constantly 
evolving 
and 
changing 
form, 
certain 
styles
 (often 
those 
that 
were 
popular
 in 
the 
past) 
are 
considered 
‘better’ 
language 
by 
a
 majority 
of 
speakers, 
at 
any 
given 
time. 
For 
example:
 the 
subjunctive 
in
 English 
often
 goes
 unmarked,
 these
 days, 
meaning 
that
 many
 people 
would
 say
 or 
write
 ‘If 
I
 was rich’ 
instead 
of
 ‘If I 
were rich’
 – 
just
 the 
sort
 of
 thing
 your
 secondary
 school
 English
 teacher
 would
 have
 pulled
 you
 up
on. 
Leaving 
aside
 the 
subjective
 argument
 as
 to
 which
 version
 is
 more
 pleasing 
to
 the
 eye 
or
 ear,
 it
s 
not a
 wild 
suggestion 
to
 say
 that, 
in
 the 
future, 
the 
‘If
 I
 were’
 construction 
may
 be 
completely 
obsolete, having
 been
 superseded
 by
 ‘If
 I
 was’
 which 
will
 then
 be 
considered 
standard,
 ‘correct’ 
English
 of
 the
 sort
 spoken 
by 
BBC
 presenters.

The 
point
 is 
this:
 change 
is
 natural 
and
 unstoppable 
but
 the 
majority 
will
 always
 resist
 change
 and
 look 
longingly
 to 
the 
way 
things
 were 
in 
the
 past
 as 
a 
sort 
of
 golden 
ideal.
 This 
linguistic
 example 
is
 allegorical
 for
 menswear,
 too,
 where
 innovation
 and
 evolution
 are 
often
 criticized 
for
 departing 
too
 far
 from
 the
 map
 drawn
 up 
by
 their
 historical
 forebears.

This 
issue 
came
 to
 a
head 
for 
me,
 recently,
 because
 I
 was
 asked
 by
 a 
friend 
who
 has
 her
 own
 clothing 
line
 to
 design
 some
 menswear 
for
 a
 bridal
 line 
she 
is
 working 
on
 at
 the
 moment. 

In 
the
 process
 of
 collecting 
images
 for
 the
 moodboard, 
I
 did
 some
 research
 online,
 reading
 some
 of the
 men’s
 style
 blogs
 and 
fora
 in
 order
 to
 get
 a
 sense
 of
 the 
mood
 vis‐à‐vis
 morning
 dress 
and 
what

one
 ought
 to 
wear 
to
 a wedding. 

I
 was 
struck 
by 
how
 rigid 
and 
dogmatic 
the 
majority
 of posters
 were
 with 
respect 
to 
what
 precisely 
constituted
 acceptable
 wedding 
attire!
 When 
I
 came 
to
 sketching 
the 
pieces, 
I
 found 
myself
 wanting 
to 
make
 subtle 
changes 
to 
the
 clothes 
but
 feeling
 almost
 guilty
 for
 doing
 so.

Some 
degree
 of 
change 
is 
to
 be
 expected:
 as
 we 
live 
and
 work 
in
 centrally 
heated

or
 air‐conditioned 
houses 
and 
offices 
and
 are 
thus
 less
 exposed 
to 
the 
elements 
it
 is
 only
 natural
 that 
we 
should 
change
 our
 clothes.
 As
 body
 shapes 
change 
and
 new
 textiles 
are 
developed,
 we
 should
 expect 
this,
 too, 
to
 have
 an 
impact.
 The
 real
 difficulty 
for 
us 
lies 
in 
assessing 
how
 much
 modification
 of
 existing 
styles 
is
 possible 
without
 the 
clothes
 losing 
the
 essence
 of
 what
 they
 originally
 were 
or
 appearing
 ersatz.
 For
 what 
it’s
 worth, 
I
 believe 
that 
change 
for
 the 
sake 
of
 change
 is
 pointless;
 but
 I 
am 
all
 for
 tweaking,
 personalizing,
 and
 making 
more 
relevant
 the 
classic 
items
 and
 designs
 that
 have
 served 
us
 so well
 in
 the 
past.

I’m
 curious
 to 
hear
 your
 thoughts.