Travelling Light

travelling-lightIn England this time of year is Party Conference season. As a newly enlisted member of the lobbying fraternity, for me this means attending all three big conferences -12 days in three different cities in under a month with meetings from early morning to late at night.

Few things are quite as undignified as travel, and modern travel even more so. Oh for the age when one could send one’s man on with the baggage in the style of Bertie Wooster.

But there is an art to travelling well, and it starts with travelling light.

I shudder to compare myself to any of history’s great dressers, but we do at least share a common bond. I, like many of them, abhor the idea of lugging heavy bags and suitcases around. Even the advent of the wheeled suitcase only marginally improves things.

Sadly a study of the manner in which these great men were able to waft elegantly and unencumbered across the globe yields few helpful tips. For example, the late Duke of Windsor got around the problem by permanently depositing wardrobes of clothes in his favourite hotels around the world.

Cary Grant was another of the great dressers who liked to travel light. His minimalist approach was certainly more practical than that of the late Duke. One trick of his that sticks in the mind was the habit of wearing women’s nylon knickers which he could easily wash at night and wear again fresh and dry next day.

I’ll confess that despite an abhorrence of travelling with vast amounts of stuff I’ve rarely managed to practice what I’ve preached. I invariably over estimate what I need and suffer the price on route to my destination. I’m determined to lick it, and in much the same why that I’ve cracked the art of simple dressing and a pared down my wardrobe, much of it is down to mindset and learned behaviour.

Suits and business wear

My conference jaunts are business trips so suits are the order of the day. One suit for a four day conference is a bit manky, but one suit jacket with two pairs of trousers I think is fine. In this regard the blue suit is your greatest ally, because it offers you the chance to take one grey pair of trousers and treat the jacket like a blazer, giving you an entirely different look. I know that some folk baulk at using navy suit jackets as blazers, but I think that’s just pickiness for its own sake. If it worries you designate one of your navy suits as a travel suit and have brown buttons fitted. Ultimately the success of your navy suit jacket and grey trousers combo comes down to how you wear it. Which brings me on to…

Shirts and ties

I’m afraid I draw the line at economising on shirts; one for each day is a minimum, unless you can be confident of a quick turnaround with regards hotel laundry services. However, when travelling your greatest asset is the navy knitted tie (wool or silk) which will set off your navy jacket grey trouser combo and make you look current and clean cut with a suit. The knitted navy tie will go with just about any shirt.

Nightwear

Business trips are not the place for leisurely breakfasts in your hotel room. Take a clean, tidy t-shirt and sleep in your boxers. You don’t need your Derek Rose jammies and robe. You’ll be working/drinking late and up early. You don’t have time for wafting around in nice nightwear, in which case it’s just dead weight. Get your arse in the shower and be down to breakfast before your boss so as to be found perusing the papers.

Footwear

This is a tricky one. Shoes ought not to be worn two days running, but they do take up space. If you only take one pair I’d personally go for black suede. They sit with the navy suit and suede adds a touch or the informal if you’re required to undertake an informal occasion.

Jumper

Pack one, either a fine navy blue merino wool or fine cashmere gauge. Not only can you substitute your jacket for the jumper if you’re required to engage in relaxed social settings while away but it allows you to ditch a heavy wool coat in favour of a rain coat.

Outerwear

A raincoat is a must for travelling. They will keep you dry and they dry far easier than wool coats. There’s nothing worse than wandering around a convention with a damp wool coat. Also, if you follow the advice above and take a jumper with you, you can wear it under your suit adding a layer of warmth if needed. Raincoats are also easier to fold up if you need to stick it in your case.

So that’s my kit list and as such I’ve managed only to be taking one small 17inch by 13inch case and the compulsory laptop bag.

RAF Blue

raf-blue

I’m continuing to dither over the choice of my next bespoke suit. I’d thought I’d settled on either a casual weekend check; a modern box cut suit in cotton or cord; and, finally, a grey or navy chalk stripe.

These choices, as you may remember, were causing me an ample sufficiency of headaches, in terms of coming to the point of decision. I guess this is one drawback to always thinking in pictures; you can too readily imagine how each suit would look and easily become enamoured of the picture.

This happened to me again recently with the idea of an RAF Blue suit.

The first official Royal Air Force uniform was made of a pale blue cloth and completed with gold trimmings. It’s rumoured that the cloth for those uniforms was originally intended for the Tsar of Russia’s household cavalry but became surplus to requirement after the revolution. A nasty and impractical colour it wasn’t popular with personnel and was quickly replaced with a uniform made of a blue-grey cloth that remains the RAF’s standard dress kit to this day.

That distinctive blue-grey colour, known for obvious reasons as RAF blue, has been a favourite of mine for many years. Even in the form of a standard suit in my view it conjures up images of rakish gents, open top sports cars, and polka dot scarves; the perfect caricature of a WWII spitfire pilot.

While you’ll rarely see an RAF blue suit on the streets (another reason for adopting it) it’s a far easier colour to match than you might think. It works well with white, cream and other shades of blue – particularly so in the form of a Bengal stripe. This allows an ample number of shirting options. It also suits chocolate browns and tobacco, which again provides plenty of diversity with regards to footwear. You might also consider various shades of green, which could mean wearing it under a Loden coat or as in my own case an M65 jacket – as discussed recently.

I used to be indecisive, now I’m not so sure.

Back Pockets

back-trousers

I was ascending one of London Underground’s escalators the other day when a chap passed me on the left. He looked smart enough in a well tailored grey suit, until I noticed what seemed an enormous and desperately unsightly growth emanating from his posterior.

I hasten to add I don’t normally spend my time looking at the rear ends of men on escalators, but this one was noticeable because said growth was so prominent. The chap suffered from a common and rarely acknowledged male affliction – that of shoving an overstuffed wallet into the back pocket of his suit trousers.

This deeply regrettable and extremely common habit destroys the line of a pair of trousers and silhouette of a well cut suit like nothing else. But joking aside, one of the first things I requested when having my first suit made was the removal of back pockets from the trousers, and it’s not a decision I regret.

I’ll confess I was slightly nervous about doing so. While I am yet to find a purpose for these pockets, it’s taken for granted that they’ll just be there, as natural and normal a part of trousers as a fly. But I’ve quickly become accustomed to the clean lines of an uncluttered trouser seat.

And herein lay the absurdity of the back pocket. It’s something that appears on all trousers and yet no one seems to question why. The moment you use it you destroy the line and silhouette of the garment, not to mention the fact that sitting on a wallet seems desperately uncomfortable. Factor in that it limits by how much you can take in and let out your waist and seat and they seem even more impractical.

In menswear many details are simply things we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Cuff buttons on suit jackets, for example, descend from the original cuffs on coats. This allowed riders to unfold the cuffs of their jackets when riding at night, or in bad weather, providing added insulation for their hands. Yet I can find nothing to explain the existence of the back pocket.

And so, if you’ll pardon the pun, I’m pleased to put back pockets behind me.

If – The Straw Boater

I vaguely remember reading a copy of The Chap magazine once which proclaimed that the straw boater was the hat of the century. This distinction was achieved by virtue of the fact it could be worn by both the gentleman and butcher’s boy.

straw-boater-gentleman

The straw boater is descended from the sailor’s hats issued to midshipmen in the Royal Navy near the end of the nineteenth century. The aim was a simple one, to provide protection to sailors from the sun in tropical climates.

These hats were later adopted by children in Victorian England and became part of their school uniforms wearing their school or house colours as bands. Anybody who watches those British dramas set in Victorian England will be familiar with the idea prevalent at the time of dressing small boys as sailors as part of their Sunday best.

Later, as a lighter and cooler alternative to the bowler, they became a popular form of summer headwear for gentlemen and costermongers in the East End of London – hence the butcher’s boy reference. Thanks to Lock and Co Hatters for that potted history.

Of course these days the Panama is the hat of choice for the summer, with the boater relegated to an eccentricity only seen at the Henley Royal Regatta. And there it seems to have languished for the most part. So, an odd form of head gear to discuss on these pages you might think.

But I’ve always had a bit of trouble when it comes to hats. I’ve tried many and purchased a few, but I’m never quite sure if they truly suit the shape of my face and head. In this I am not alone. Cary Grant gave up hats for similar reasons, and in so doing helped hasten its decline in popularity.

However, unlike Mr Grant, I’ve become folliclly challenged and the passage of time increasingly makes finding a hat a matter of necessity rather than luxury. This is particularly true of the summer when unguarded the top of my head is lightly grilled. Of course the classic summer hat would be the panama, but again I’m yet to find a shape that suits me.

And this brings me to our unusual and eccentric friend the boater. Recently I’ve seen it worn to great effect, in some rather unusual ways, which has prompted me to give it a second look. The first time was at a street party earlier in the year. One of the fellow organisers had one, which paired with a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, desert boots and sunglasses looked far cooler in the flesh than it sounds in the re-telling. I’ve also seen it used with great subtly and charm with jacket and jeans. In some ways I justify my interest in this hat based on my theory of contrast, as outlined in a previous posting.

But despite all this, I fear this wonderful bit of now ignored headgear will forever remain on my ‘if’ list – short for, if only I had the courage.

Contrast: M65 Jacket

rlbrogue-m65
Credit: TheSartorialist

Contrast is one of the most effective weapons in a man’s wardrobe arsenal, and I don’t just mean the contrast of colour or texture either. Some of the most successful looks I’ve ever come across stemmed from an alignment of two or more items which were the antithesis of one another.

For example, back when I was policy advisor to the Shadow Minister for Shipping we went down to the Southampton Boat Show as guests of the Royal Yachting Association. Needless to say we were climbing in, out and over yachts all day (all built by British companies in case you wondered what this had to do with politics). Despite this activity it was still a business day so I dressed appropriately: DB navy blazer, cornflower yellow chinos, shirt and tie plus deck shoes.

I thought I looked quite good – a bit clichéd – but good nonetheless. That was until a spotted a chap emerging from one of the sailing yacht stands in stonewash jeans, white polo shirt, a red Gill heavy duty offshore sailing jacket and a pair of chestnut cowboy boots. To my mind he looked as cool as the proverbial cucumber.  The boots and Gill sailing jacket had absolutely no business being put together, one was most definitely of the sea, and the other of the land. The boots were also impractical for use on a boat’s decks. But it just looked good, and right. This is the art of contrast.

It’s a hit miss affair of course which is difficult to explain. Though I’ve tried to rationalise the process of contrast I’m yet to succeed, and certainly not in any form that makes sense written down. In some ways it’s about taking all the rules you know, all the experience you have of dressing well and then just going out and trusting your instincts, with a healthy dollop of ‘oh, fu#k it’ thrown in.

green-blue-white-m65
Credit: TheSartorialist

The reason I mention all this is that my new obsession for the coming season is a vintage cotton M65 combat jacket. I’m sure former military personnel may resent my choice of garment, given that I’ve never served in the military, and certainly not the US military. But in this particular case I’d regard those objections as akin to someone telling me I ought not to own a Land Rover as I’d never served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. And while a few examples are out there complete with platoon insignia I’m not after any of that.

The jacket has a strong aesthetic and is, largely thanks to a succession of war movies, an instantly recognisable garment. Indeed, in England many people would recognise the aesthetic without necessarily knowing why. I’ve seen it contrasted with suits, blazers and tweeds to great effect and this is what I’m after.

In my own case I want to try it with an RAF blue suit, Tobacco brown half brogues, white shirt and black knit tie. This may not work as a look of course; but the fear of failure is far worse than failure itself.