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.

The Sartorial Season: Henley Royal Regatta

Second in the series – after last year’s introduction to Royal Ascot – Henley is the most famous rowing regatta in the world.

It takes place in Henley-on-Thames, approximately 1 hour from central London on the banks of the same famous river that flows through the capital. The regatta was established shortly after Queen Victoria assumed the throne, in 1839: the year in which Belgium, as a kingdom, was officially created.

Taking place over five days at the beginning of July, the Royal Regatta is smack bang in the middle of the Season – and the middle of the summer. Despite Britain’s reputation for its euphemistically named ‘mild’ warmer season, this is still the time of the year most likely to experience temperatures above 80 degrees Farenheit. This has some bearing on Henley, as soaring Mercury is the greatest catalyst for Britons to adopt a state of undress.

As it was established long before rowing federations existed, Henley has its own rules and its own way of hosting rowing races. Each race is a knockout draw, with only two boats racing in each heat – a rather uneconomical and laborious process, but one which enables the consumption of Pimms to be prolonged.

In many ways, watching a series of rowing races is very much like watching a series of horse races and, like Royal Ascot, there are ‘enclosures’ for elite spectators; much in the same way that the Royal Enclosure at Ascot dictates the attire for fellow racegoers, the Stewards’ Enclosure sets the tone for the rest of the Regatta.

The dress code for the Stewards’ Enclosure states:

“Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers, with flannels, and a tie or cravat.”

Of all the qualifying garments, it is the blazer that recalls the spirit of Henley most vividly. Rowing teams all wear their team blazer whenever they are not out on the water. In many cases, this blazer has a very colourful striped pattern, with the rowing club crest emblazoned on the breast pocket. Many ex-rowers bounce along in rowing blazers too, as well as those who are members of rowing clubs, school and university affiliations or even private members clubs.

As such, it’s difficult not to feel left out if you aren’t wearing one; few are the times a man would yearn for a jacket he would never use on any other occasion. And general etiquette dictates that a man should not ‘adopt’ a club’s colours simply because he likes the pattern. For corroboration, you have only to ask the nearest Scotsman his opinion of non-Scots wearing tartan.

However, it is possible to ‘do Henley’ properly without resorting to wearing what the rowing fraternity are wearing.

Firstly, it should be clear that this is no occasion for City suits. Those dark grey wools, charcoal pinstripes, and natty Glen Plaids are not appropriate, even if they are accepted. This is an English summer sporting event in the countryside.

If you choose to go for a full suit, then summer fabrics should lead the way. A crisp linen (or wool-linen) suit in mid-blue, navy, caramel or creamy white would sit perfectly against the preponderance of three-button rowing blazers to continue the theme of charming, antiquated Edwardian design.

However, the easiest solution may be a simple navy hopsack blazer with patch pockets, worn with cream or light grey flannel trousers – a summer stroller, very much in the spirit of Henley.

To achieve the full inter-war Henley aesthetic, accessorise using a light blue shirt with a contrasting white club collar, a repp tie and a brass tie pin. Henley is no place for black shoes. Instead, wear Chestnut Oxfords or – even better – semi- or full brogues.

Should you be inclined to millinery, this is the ideal opportunity to wear a straw boater from Olney – pretty much the only serious boater you can find. They are made of proper, multi-ply Coburg straw rather than simple wheat straw. Those squeamish of skimmers might prefer a Panama.

 

Underrated Assets: Suit Texture

I’ll probably get ridiculed for saying this by die-hard classicists, but navy suits are vastly overrated.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dislike them. I will always feel obliged to own one; in certain situations, both professional and personal, nothing else will do.

But their proudest owners are so doggedly attached to them, so reluctant to wear anything else that they have begun to irritate me.

“They’re the smartest suits, and the most flattering” one acquaintance argued.

“Precisely” chimes another “you can wear any colour shirt or tie with them. They’re faultless.”

It’s true that navy is an excellent border for colourful shirts and ties. The darkness of the tone brings the brightness of other items to the fore.

But the real problem of navy suits is that the fabric always looks cheaper than it actually is. Particularly on a bright, sunny day.

I met some professional acquaintances recently on a warm, clement day in Mayfair. The women were strutting the streets in oversized white sunglasses; the Gulf-plated Rolls Royces had their roofs down, and were wafting through the streets like Rivas down the Grand Canal.

It was an idyllic day. However, it was also a working day and unfortunately, we were obliged to talk shop, so decided it might make it more bearable to lunch al fresco.

Both men were wearing navy suits in fine super wool and neither of them lost any time in telling me that they had them made at the same bespoke tailor. They were obviously well cut; the shoulders smooth and well-shaped, the waist sculpted and flattering.

However, aside from the cut, you couldn’t tell these suits cost in excess of £1000. In the bright sunshine, the smooth texture of the super wool reflected the light, making them look shiny. The navy, which in darker interiors and on a cloudy day was richly saturated, looked washed out and the fabrics – which were, they informed me, decent quality VBC – looked far cheaper than they actually were.

On the way back from the lunch, I walked past an elderly gentleman in a hopsack navy suit. The shoulders on his jacket were a little off, and he was about two chest sizes smaller than the garment, but somehow, the rougher texture married well with the bright sunshine. There was no shine, just a deep, matte blue.

In short, the super wools that proliferate and dominate the inventories of entry level online tailors aren’t as sophisticated as they sound. In fact, they can make a beautifully made suit look rather cheap. The fineness of the weave creates a smooth surface that is more reflective and under the harsh scrutiny of a midday sun is distractingly glossy.

There are two solutions I would advocate; wear a light grey sharkskin or Glen check – which look far superior when the sky is blue and the sun is high – or only purchase navy suits with a texture. A textured fabric also has the added benefit of utility; looking less like a suit orphan, it can be deployed as a blazer.

 

Silly Suits

“That’s a silly suit!” a client exclaimed to me recently, observing a long-haired rake, reclining languorously in a chair in a light grey suit with a thick white window check.

We had been looking around to capture the attention of the overworked waiting staff, and the rake was difficult to ignore. The rest of the room was a forest of dark grey and blue, so uniform that it looked like a gigantic canteen for household staff.

In the early spring sunshine, they looked like moody grizzly bears; unprepared for the end of their hibernation. The rake, by contrast, looked like a flower, poking out from dull rocks.

“I don’t dislike patterned suits” the client qualified “but that’s just too silly.”

Extravagantly patterned suits seem to evoke such responses. Men are naturally sartorially conservative. And when it comes to suits, this conservatism is amplified.

Men may happily smirk roguishly in a pink shirt or a Madras tie with the confidence of a Parisian dandy, but bring on a bold chalkstripe or an aggressive Glen check and he turns into a Victorian accountant.

Such a dour retreat has no place next to the daisies and tulips of springtime, the season of optimism. This is the time to bring out the spectacular in suiting. It’s time to get silly.

Giant Houndstooth

The giant houndstooth suit is one of the most aggressive suit patterns.

Unlike smaller houndstooth patterns, which look like a solid colour even from a short distance, the giant version is visually arresting, even dazzling. It brings to mind E Berry Wall and ‘dudism’; it’s the sort of pattern you imagine seeing on an Edwardian racing trainer or a latter day Sherlock Holmes. It has a snappy, cheeky quality that – in the impressive quantity of a three-piece suit – gives one the appearance of a dandy academic.

The best combination is brown with navy blue, as worn by Instagram overlord DanielRe. Wear with plain shirts and plain or club stripe ties. Add a pair of chestnut Oxfords and a cream silk pocket square to finish.

Bold Window Check

There’s no point in beating about the bush with a “subtle window check” – you need to boldly go where no check has gone before.

Bold window checks aren’t just the preserve of Tom Ford models, either. Sure, you are going to be as unusual and unexpected as an article listing celebrities who look better after plastic surgery, but there’s a particular art to wearing such a creation.

Firstly, pick a conservative background colour such as mid-grey or navy. Also, try and choose a fabric that has a double check, or an overcheck.

Next, get the trousers tapered and shortened so they have no break, provide a glimpse of ‘mankle’ and then wear with plain or tassel loafers – but not driving shoes. This is a fun, sunshine-and-laughter suit that should be served with Negronis and worn with Persol sunglasses. As such, traditional treatment (trouser break and covering laces, worn with Oxford shoes and a stiff upper lip) will create a slightly embarrassed, overly eccentric impression.

Indulge in plain white, pale pink and light blue shirts. Keep the tie and pocket square patterns small and colour blend with the suit.

Big Chalkstripe

“Pinstripes are for boys, chalkstripes are for bankers” a chap once told me.

Of course, he was a banker. I actually think the opposite is true.

The pins and chalks are a very English affair, and many people strongly connect them to the City, Wall Street and banking. But it is pins that have taken over as the uniform of the Square Mile – despite what the banker chap told me – as they are, even from a close distance, barely distinguishable from a plain weave. Few upstarts working for the elite of financial services have the cajones to wear chalks in the boardroom.

Chalks are often mistakenly referred to as pins, due to their being visible from a safe, Pitti-pap distance. And they can be very thick indeed.

Navy and charcoal are the most common backgrounds for chalkstripes, but the key to chalks is to wear them wide; the narrower the stripe, the more conservative the suit. I am personally not a fan of narrow stripe suits, and prefer at least half an inch between the stripes, but the really outrageous stripes that are likely to produce scoffs of “Silly!” from my client are at least an inch thick.

Wear carefully, with small check shirts and small patterned ties but, on occasion, go mad on the pocket square. Paisley always looks sensational next to stripes.