Country Weekends

One of my professional acquaintances recently told me over lunch they had taken my advice and secured a private country house for post-Christmas celebrations and New Year’s fireworks and champagne.

“We’ve taken a place up in Scotland. It’s a massive castle-y thing. Looks spectacular. Probably going to be freezing.”

For anyone curious enough, they had done so through Landmark Trust, which is one of the most splendid and useful causes in the land. With a powerful and unsurprisingly supportive royal patron in Prince Charles, the Trust is a unique blend of heritage preservation and hospitality. Imagine visiting a small stately home and wishing you could have it for the weekend only – without the maintenance, heating bills and crumbling roof – and that you could do so in style, with tasteful furniture of the period and not a flatscreen or wifi router in sight.

Having taking Landmark Trust holidays myself, I enthusiastically told my acquaintance of the gentleness of such an experience; an escape to nature, to an older time, to natural, log-lit warmth, board games and simple pleasures. If holidays are ultimately about escaping everyday life, then Landmarks are the most accurate example.

However, I digress.

My acquaintance had planned to take a few leaves from the book of country gentlemen and actually dress what he termed as ‘the part of squire.’

“I don’t want to be one of those awful Chelsea people who turn up in brand new Range Rovers with Moncler gilets and iPads.”

For him, such a weekend was an escape to the textured, layered, regimented routine of the past. There would be, he insisted, no gilets at the dinner table:

“I want people to wear tweed to breakfast, go on walks through the hills in shooting socks, dress for dinner.”

His guests, he insisted, would surely find the sojourn into a forgotten age fulfilling. It was a world away from BlackBerries, from childcare and the school run; from double-glazing, computers and management-speak.

“It’s like Downton Abbey I suppose!” he spluttered “and that’s why dressing is so important. How would you do it? I’d be fascinated to know…”

An Active Morning

One of the treats of staying in the countryside, particularly in a grand manor house on acres of grounds, is the great plethora of outdoor pursuits that could even be as simple as a “walk to the folly.” However, for such activities, the elements often get in the way. Waterproofing and layering is required when staying out in the cold for extended periods, and a hat is often useful to battle against harsh, cold winds. As such, combining a little formality (a tweed waistcoat) with a practical jacket (a waterproof waxed Barbour), with the addition of a scarlet silk scarf and a tweed flat cap is just the right combination of country elegance and sensible clothing. A pair of Wellington boots would complete the look.

Waxed jacket: Barbour
Tweed waistcoat: Ralph Lauren
Boots: Hunter
Silk scarf: Woods of Shropshire
Tweed cap: Lock & Co

A Gentle Afternoon

Although weekends in the country can be rather outdoorsy affairs with rain, mud, Wellington boots, wet dogs and reddened cheeks, there is always the promise of some refinement; a quiet card game by the fire, some 3pm champagne in the drawing room or reading by the gentle tick of the long-case clock in the hall. Therefore, a tweed jacket (houndstooth is ideal), a crisp white cotton shirt, a pair of grey flannel trousers and brown Oxford brogues would help to keep up the stately atmosphere.

Tweed jacket: Ralph Lauren
Houndstooth trousers: Gieves & Hawkes
Shoes: Meermin

A Refined Evening

Pretending to be the squire of some old castle is enormous fun, particularly when you dress up in evening gear in the accepted ‘code’ of a host. With black tie, whereas guests are expected to don formal evening jackets and shoes, hosts ‘at home’ have often chosen to wear a more relaxed velvet smoking jacket and velvet Albert slippers instead of shoes.

Green velvet jacket: Kingsman
Velvet slippers: Leffot

Instant Upgrades

“How do you make cheap clothing look expensive?” is one of the most common questions I am asked.

The belief is that there is some trick afoot, some skill through which you can conceal ‘cheapness.’ The truth is that cheapness can never be concealed; it can only be removed.

Similarly, expensive items can often look cheaper than they are when worn poorly, with little style or coordination.

The incorrect assumption in both situations is that all expensive things fit properly and look good and that all cheap things don’t fit and look bad.

I can’t count the number of times I have wandered down Savile Row from my office to get my lunch, bump into friends who work there and then watch them admire my inexpensive jackets from Zara or Massimo Dutti; “This is nice!” they say “Which tailor is this from?”

I believe that what people really mean by ‘cheapness’ and ‘expensiveness’ is actually tastelessness and tastefulness; the standards by which all anthropogenic things are judged.

‘Good taste’ is a nebulous concept, prized for its incorporation and representation of the quality of human thought. It has therefore no consistent relationship with expense. Tangerine silk suits and garish gold taps may be extremely expensive but look cheaper than materials available at a fraction of the price.

Suit fabrics

Texture and pattern are the most important considerations beyond the cut of the suit. Quality of finish is, of course, highly desirable but the best of it (Milanese buttonholes, hand sewn linings etc) come at a very high price.

Texture

Matte, flat texures are best; flannels and birdseyes. Weaved patterns are also good – think herringbone tweed and cavalry twill. Flannel is the easiest to find (Massimo Dutti, Uniqlo). Herringbone tweed is also widely available (J.Crew, Hackett).

Pattern

Subtle patterns are often better than plain colours, particularly in lighter shades; a Glen Urquhart (Prince of Wales) check is, I find, a more tasteful option than a plain light grey worsted or twill suit, which can look rather like a pair of Farah trousers. Similarly, a subtle stripe or check often works better than plain fabrics in darker charcoals, which can look too funereal.

Tweaks     

Tweaking RTW garments to make them unique is one of the best ways to improve them and eliminate any cheapness.

Buttons

Plastic buttons are easily replaced with shell or horn buttons. Though brands like J. Crew and Massimo Dutti now offer decent quality buttons, many high street brands still use poor quality stock. Natural is always better than man-made when it comes to button material.

Trousers

I think one of the best tweaks I have employed is with trousers; giving long trousers a healthy-sized turn-up and tapering them to the ankle whilst retaining the size in the thigh down to the knee. Even discount trousers from brands such as River Island and H&M.

Accessorize

It sounds so simple but accessorizing properly makes a huge difference to inexpensive garments.

Pocket squares

The nasty ‘pocket lining’ decorations they stuff into high-street blazer pockets should be discarded upon purchase. Instead, venture into the seasonal sales on Jermyn Street (e.g. TM Lewin, Fortnum & Mason) to pick up some fine silk twills. Alternatively, though a little more expensive, Augustus Hare and Drakes offer artistic pocket decorations that will liven up the most basic of garments.

Ties

Ties should not be ignored. Too many men spend large sums on suits and shoes and ignore the aesthetic of the tie. They buy shiny twills, not insignificant in price, but entirely lacking in artistry. Instead of splashing on garish, gilded neckwear in uncomfortably thick silk, go vintage and get on eBay. It requires patience but you can end up with some beautiful, and sadly neglected, neckwear.

Modern Bertie

“Pip pip” he would say as he skipped out of his Mayfair club ‘Drones’, tipping his fur felt trilby (probably from Bates) at his bemused chums.

He would advance into the London sunshine wearing a daring chalkstripe flannel suit, undoubtedly from a Savile Row tailor, a foulard silk necktie bought in the Burlington Arcade would adorn a fashionable bar-collar, and the merest hint of a cream silk puff would poke from his chest pocket.

Turned-up trousers would flop onto dark brown, hand-made English Oxfords. And, after a charming word and an extravagant tip to a passing flower girl, a fresh rose or carnation would adorn his lapel.

The year is 1924. Bertram (Bertie) Wilberforce Wooster is in his mid-twenties. A privileged, pleasure-seeking clubman.

This is the Bertie that everyone knows. From today’s vantage point he seems, aside from the charmingly aimless existence and complete avoidance of seriousness, to be the picture of elegance, tradition and maturity. This is the way aged peers dress in the House of Lords. This is the inter-war aesthetic so beloved by The Chap magazine. This is the commonly-called ‘classic menswear.’

And yet, Bertie was really at the height of fashion.

In fact, some of the gentlemen who were still wearing black and grey Victorian and Edwardian frock coats, striped trousers and top hats would have thought him something of a rebel. Some of the more traditional members of London’s clubland, those from White’s or Brook’s, might even have considered him inappropriately attired – the equivalent of wearing a black necktie to a black tie event.

However, it is clear that it is the influence of his invaluable valet Jeeves that prevents Bertie from ever being considered ‘badly’ dressed. Ensuring Bertie is correctly attired is a daily task; clothes must be kept clean, pressed and mended at all times. Also, Jeeves often has to battle with his employer over items that only Bertie considers to be of value; white mess jackets, alpine trilby hats and extravagant plus-six golfing trousers.

But this is the harmless, cloud-cushioned world of Wodehouse, and so clothing is bound to be amongst the more serious matters.

The question is, if Bertie were around today, how would he dress?

One valid argument would point to his youth and state that Bertie’s conformity is only ever to his class and his age group. Therefore, the attire of the male Sloane Ranger is likely to be the major influence on his wardrobe. It’s a hideous thought, but it’s perfectly possible that were a 24 year old Bertie around today he would wear Sebago deck shoes with Abercrombie & Fitch chinos, an Oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt and a Moncler gilet.

However, some might say it would be unlikely that Jeeves – who is far more of a snob and a conformist than Bertie – would stand for such disregard of standards of elegance. We mustn’t forget it is Jeeves who maintains Bertie’s sartorial principles and removes unnecessary experimentation from his employer’s reach.

Therefore, some would suggest that Bertie may not dress that differently to the way in which he dresses in the books’ original setting. Jeeves, scrolling through the pages of Styleforum and The Rake, may see that the menswear of the 1920s-30s has, by and large, remained the ideal and is the clothing of taste for the gentleman about London. And, rather than let Bertie be influenced by the recklessness of current fashion or corrupted by his friends’ poor taste, he may cocoon him in an aesthetic closer to that of a city gent; pinstripes, waistcoats and double-breasted suits.

My own thoughts are that Bertie’s social conformity would play a great role. Yes, Jeeves would prevent him from becoming a hoody-wearing Mockney Old Etonian whose style icons are Stanford-educated tech billionaires, but I think that he would stop short of being preserved in a former era, no matter how evergreen the aesthetic. Modernity was evidently fascinating to Bertie. He lived in a fashionable area, in a fashionably decorated – and very modern – flat.

My own views are that he would wear a blend of English and European styles that would ape the prevailing aesthetic in both high-fashion and avant-garde tailoring. He would never embarrass himself in dress – he is too high-born for that – so would always be a subtle version of a trend. He might shop in Massimo Dutti, Paul Smith and Berluti.

He would, unfortunately, probably lose his taste for neckties, instead wearing elegant open shirts with soft-shouldered cord jackets, woven blazers and soft flannel and moleskin trousers. Both he and Jeeves would seek to mark him out as a man of leisure, albeit a smart one, by avoiding suits. His daily attire would appear as something an elegant hedge-fund manager might wear on the weekend. Plain and possibly tasseled brown and black loafers would be on his feet. He might wear cashmere from Loro Piana at home. His pocket watch would be replaced by a Panerai.

Home for modern Bertie is unlikely to be Berkeley Square. He is most likely to settle in Chelsea, where his old school and university friends might be. Although, with many of them not as wealthy as he, Battersea might be more realistic. A modern pied a terre overlooking the river, packed with technology and expensive, modern furniture.

Bertie’s club ‘Drones’ would not be of the Pall Mall type. It would likely be similar to the Dover Street Arts Club, although less commercial. The ranks of tweedy, English public school members in their 20s and 30s will have been reduced greatly, replaced by scions of Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes wearing Tom Ford.

However, there is one very likely consistency: Bertie’s avoidance of matrimony would remain true. And even the modern Drones would be unlikely to admit female members.

Tailoring Fads I’ll Be Avoiding

“You can only be brought up with taste” a professional acquaintance of mine opined “despite what people think, you can’t buy it and you can’t learn it quickly. It takes so long.”

His opinion is worth respecting. He is mature of year and very well thought of in luxury circles.

“You see so many people copying something, but they always make a mistake, or they focus on the wrong thing.”

It was these words that stayed with me when thinking about how easy, to some degree, copying something is.

Arguments can be had till the cows come home about the differing quality of tailors, whether off-the-rack is better than cheap made-to-measure and which bespoke tailor produces the finest Milanese buttonholes.

The reality is, for the vast majority of those who aren’t Tumblr-addicted forumites that the co-creative process in menswear has experienced a renaissance. Not since before the turn of the 20th century have we seen such a capability to add our own touches, accents and identity to the pieces we buy.

Personalisation is now all the rage.

Of course, for some, personalisation is, and always has been, the name of the game. Tailors have long traded on it; something made for you, with your preferred cut, in your preferred cloth, with your preferred details. It has always been the great ego-rub, the only solution for a man who has conquered everything else. Chiefs, Kings and Sultans would only ever have something made to their specifications. Tailors are there to do their bidding.

However, personalisation is, ultimately, rather dangerous.

Which Chief, King or Sultan could be accused of being a ‘perfect ruler’?

For personalisation to be ‘perfect’ it assumes perfection in those making the command. Of course, a fawning tailoring brand, desperate for public exposure, would say that the pink stitching on your lapel is daring, inventive and brilliant on social media; secretly they think it’s hideous, and they kind of resent you associating their brand with your appalling taste.

“You can have thinner lapels” says the tailor to the client with square-toed shoes and an earring, but under his breath he is fuming that his far superior sense of design and taste is being ignored. An angry tailor is not a happy sight. And you’d wish to goodness they’d just send the non-conforming clients away with a flea in their ear, but they can only do this when they can do without the business. Otherwise the flattery must continue.

In order to provide clarity on my own views of ‘taste’, I have listed out some fads of personalisation that I have seen but will be avoiding.

Coloured buttonhole stitching

One of the laziest customization options from e-tailors is that of coloured buttonhole stitching.

It’s ‘personalisation’ for the sake of it. It doesn’t work and it looks cheap and, arguably, like the tailor ran out of thread of the correct tone.

How is having yellow buttonhole stitching on a charcoal suit ‘showing your identity and personality’?

Skinny lapels

One of the fads that came about through fashion’s adoption of 1960s tailoring (think Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme) is the demand for skinny lapels.

This rarely works. You usually have to be skinny and tall. It’s somewhat androgynous, and therefore won’t work with classic menswear, which is structured and masculine.

Double buttonhole on the lapel

This is one of those ‘just to be different’ BS ‘personalisations’ that has no heritage and no purpose. Like coloured buttonhole stitching, it’s distracting and looks like a blind tailor made a mistake.

Piping on the lining

This has long been controversial. The lining of a suit has been sold to those new to tailoring as the one place in which their taste and personality can be really expressed.

The problem is that vast multitudes seem to have absolutely no taste and a personality that suggests an aging portrait in the attic.

Most tailors that offered you the chance to choose your lining colour and piping to match – “Allowing you amazing colour combinations!” – have now retreated and only offer a select number of linings, due to the repeated horrors of aligning vomit yellow with toilet cleaner pink.

Grumbles: Luggage for Suits

This is a series of unhappy musings on the unfairness, unpleasantness and unsavoury aspects of menswear. The author is in a tender state when he creates these. Please have sympathy.

International travel isn’t a friend to classic clothing addicts.

The people it favours are style minimalists; light packers, anti-accessory activists. They waltz along to security, bypassing the bag drop, with tiny Rimowa cases containing what is probably three to four days clothing. Their insouciance and lack of ceremony is both enviable and fascinatingly irritating.

Carry-on luggage was built for these robots.

It was not built for the likes of yours truly, who even on a recent one night stay for business checked an entire garment bag (with a suit) as it was too big for carry-on.

Absurd? Maybe. But with one meeting to attend and one very well made suit to pack, the kind of cigar boxes they peddle as ‘carry-on size’ nowadays were entirely inappropriate.

In advance of travel, I attempted to find a suitable model of carry-on to alleviate this need for such excesses. So intent was I on discovering the potential of IATA-compliant cases,that I even went to the lengths of asking the salespeople to demonstrate whether a suit and pair of smart shoes could be packed into such cases.

The answer was; they can, but ‘good luck with packing and unpacking.’

“If you want to take a suit, you’re better off with a wheeled garment bag that is IATA-compliant” the Rimowa rep in Selfridges said. “Rimowa don’t make them, but Samsonite do.”

Unfortunately, Samsonite is one of the very few brands who do. Why unfortunate? Well, have you seen a Samsonite bag recently?

Luggage should be attractive. One only has to look at the rise of the now well-backed Globe Trotter to see that ‘pretty’ luggage has an important place on the carousel. Rimowa, with its retro aluminium grooved Classic Flight range has, particularly over the last few years, become a bit of a sensation. Consequently, Rimowa has raised prices and regularly re-Grammed posts from world-famous bloggers and celebrities wheeling their iconic luggage.

And, arguably, attractive luggage is most important to the sartorially conscious gentleman about town. Unfortunately, the only brands that make attractive cabin-compliant hand-luggage seem to have forgotten the man who wears suits every day; particularly those who wear them with pride rather than begrudging duty.

The way cabin luggage is made is to maximise internal volume whilst remaining compliant. The problem with that criteria is that the cases end up being perfect for stuffing sweaters, dresses, socks, underwear and casual trousers – and entirely impractical for finely made suits with hand-crafted shoulders and finely rolled lapels. “You’d need to get hotel housekeeping to press [a suit] as soon as you arrive” said the salesperson peddling a $900 carry-on.

But why can’t Rimowa, Globe Trotter et al make a wheeled garment carrier that fits (non-budget) airlines’ carry on restrictions? Why are the most suitable cases for the most beautiful suits the ugliest cases known to man? Where are the fine leather straps, elegant aluminium grooves and brass clasps for the man looking to make an impression with his fully handmade suit?

As Yoda might say: Methinks in the market a gap there might be.