The Line on Linen

Seeing that everyone in this Buzzfeed generation is addicted to lists, I thought I would generate another easily digestible seasonal tasting menu, this time on the subject of linen suits.

I recently included linen suits as one of my Ten Style Commandments of Summer, as one of the underworn and underappreciated joys of warm climate attire. However, before you prepare yourself for more eulogies on the merits of linen, this will not be some deep, detailed treatise.

In my view, enough has been written about ‘why linen’ to last several years at least.

Instead, I think it is sensible to write about ‘what linen.’

The Business Linen: Navy blue, Double Breasted, Peak Lapel

Navy blue is one of the smartest colours of suit you can wear. Along with dark and mid grey, it is the one colour that is entirely beyond reproach in the context of a boardroom. It’s all very well for those in creative positions to turn up in royal blue and sage green, but for many, the business uniform must comply either with a formal policy, or with an implied expectation that you won’t embarrass yourself, or the company. A shame? Maybe. But it is better to be safe than sorry.

One of the compromises of linen is that it is markedly less formal than wool. One of the consequences of this is that many are unsure of deploying it in a business context – attending meetings, conferences and the like. Double-breasted suits have a more military formality than single breasted variants, which counteracts the informality of the fabric.

The Travel Linen: Khaki, Single Breasted, Notched Lapel

Khaki linen is the classic linen. It is the Hollywood linen. It is the fabric of Somerset Maugham novels, Old Havana gangsters, the British Raj and the Happy Valley Set. The word itself is Urdu and roughly translates as ‘dust coloured’, and it has its roots in 19th century military camouflage.

Not as impractical as white or off white, and not as heat absorbing as darker colours, khaki is one of the most resilient colours for linen, which makes it an excellent choice for a travelling suit in the summer months. I find linen one of the most comfortable things to wear on a plane, being very breathable and very low maintenance compared with wool, which needs to be well pressed in order to be remotely acceptable. A khaki linen allows you to go from gate to guestroom without humiliation.

The Party Linen: Brown, Peaked Lapel, Waistcoat


Picture the scene: a summer terrace party, mojitos are being served; attractively groomed ladies flit back and forth in floral printed dresses. A golden, early evening sun warmly illuminates the scene. This is the perfect occasion for that special rarity: the brown linen suit.

Linen is often seen as a utility fabric: need to keep cool? Wear linen. Need to wear something less precious for travelling? Linen looks good even wrinkled. But it can also be marvellous as a material for contrasting with other fabrics, like cotton and silk. Brown linen has a wonderful lustre in the late sun, like a delectable chocolate truffle. It also contrasts deliciously with light blue, white and pink, and it seems to work very well with silk ties. This makes the brown linen suit the most arresting choice for a party. It has a vintage air to it, lending itself to the kinds of cocktail party environments so popular today, and has a distinctly more formal, evening quality than the aforementioned, utilitarian khaki.

The Ten Style Commandments of Summer

In honour of the fact that summer is upon us, and that I haven’t written a thing since the spring, I thought I would rant vigorously and bitterly about summer attire, in the gloriously contemptuous style of the Old Testament.

Summer is, officially, the worst-dressed season in London as far as men are concerned. Men in the city slop around, slack-jawed, scratching their posteriors, wearing the wardrobe of teenage boys. The crass Americanisation of our summer attire reduces the steely grace of a winter’s John Steed into a theme-park-going cretin.

The time for calm, cautious advice has long passed. The time has come for indignation and commandment.

1. Thou shalt not wear socks

Socks are entirely optional in summer. There is nothing so ridiculous as the sight of a grown man insisting on wearing hosiery in hot weather. The most absurd example of this is clearly the socks-with-sandals aberration, but it also rankles when I see people wearing shorts, penny loafers and socks pulled up over their calves. Socks on their own are unattractive. They look awkward. They are only desirable in winter because they are largely invisible when worn with lace-up shoes and long trousers.

2. Thou shalt not covet flip-flops

Flip flops are the second most anti-social and degenerate footwear you can buy (the leader in this regard are Crocs). I’m not against exposed feet per se; if someone takes care of them properly (no surprise that male pedicures are on the rise in the summer months), then exposing footwear like sandals – a design that harks back to the civilisations of the ancients – is actually the most appropriate in certain conditions. But flip flops are a cheap con; a scruffy, filthy, lazy symbol of humanity’s decline.

3. Honour thy pastels

Grey and navy are the dominant forces in winter. When light levels are lower, and precipitation greater, these sobering colours make sense. But in summer, when the sunlight lasts till a few hours before midnight, it is time to make more use of nature’s desaturated tones. Pastel suits are the ultimate expression – think of Jay Gatsby’s pastel pink suit in which Daisy considered him “wonderfully cool” – but they require daring, with which most men are not blessed. Less of a stretch is a pastel summer jacket in linen, cotton or seersucker that works well with both white and off-white trousers, as well as strongly contrasting deep blues. For the most risk-averse, pastel trousers are the mildest expression of the pastel faith.

4. Thou shalt wear linen suits

I can’t count the number of times someone has worn a wool suit on a hot day and has complained ad nauseum about the heat and torn their jacket off in disgust: “too hot for suits.”

No, it’s not. It’s just too hot for that suit.

Too many men wear the wrong material in the wrong season. Wearing the same midweight wools in winter and summer is nonsensical. There are lighter weight wools that are better suited, but too few men wear linen in the summertime. Lighter coloured linens are more common, but navy and grey linens are more elegant for summer business attire. It should always be remembered that though the wrinkling of linen is to be embraced, it is advisable to press a linen suit for the boardroom.

5. Short-sleeved shirts should never be worn with suits and ties

Short sleeved shirts are never high on my list come the time of the summer sales. Men with biceps the size of beer barrels seem to love them – it’s one of the unofficially acceptable methods of ‘showing your bod’ on Tinder – but I have never got much utility from them. They are especially odious when worn with ties (with the added insult of a pen clipped to a breast pocket) as ‘work attire.’

6. Be ye not afraid of hats

When I wore a panama hat to a polo match on a cloudless day, I could see the ranks of smirking, sunglass-wearing luvvies looking at me as some sort of fragile relic. I had the last laugh come six o clock when the more auburn of the bunch gently tapped their crimson foreheads, their smiles quickly collapsing into a frown. More so than in winter, summer hats have a distinctly protective purpose. Not only do they keep the sun off your face but they are also remarkably good at keeping you cool.

7. Thou shalt stop dressing down

It isn’t a summer holiday. You are at work. Simply because the temperature is three degrees higher than it was four months ago does not mean you shed clothing, wander around the office without shoes, come to the office in polo shirts (it’s not goddamn golf day) and act like it’s all a barbecue. Summer slovenliness is on the rise – and it is risible.

8. Remember anti-perspirant, to keep it wholly pleasant

It is 2016. And yet the amount of wet armpits you see around the city on a summer’s day would make you think we were living in the pre-penicillin era, where quacks dispensed brandy and leeches as cure-alls for our ills. Deodorant is not a new thing, and it should be your constant friend when the sun is out and the Mercury is high. An elegantly assembled ensemble is pointless if you smell of day-old cheese soaked in vinegar.

9. Thou shalt not wear shorts over the knee

Do you remember being a teenager? It wasn’t great. You were insecure, spotty, awkward physically, sexually inexperienced, financially dependent on your parents – so why are you so desperate to be one again? There is nothing more pitiable than a grown man wearing the same long shorts as his sons. In a rash attempt to fit in and ‘be cool’ (whatever the hell that even is), he conveys to the adult world that he is a man-child, lacking interest in full maturity. To women, let alone other men, nothing is more likely to result in a severe recession of respect.

10. Stop wearing jeans

Jeans are an amazing marketing coup. Relatively uncomfortable, not warm enough for winter and too hot for summer, yet they remain a robotic essential choice for most men. For mild days, jeans are fine. But when the temperature soars, jeans are a disagreeable option; wear linen trousers, or cotton chinos instead.

Odd Trousers That Every Man Needs

I don’t really know many men who wear odd trousers.

Most men have a wardrobe of suits and denim: the former is the anchor for the working week, the latter the weekend default. However, any moves to expand beyond this can often leave many stumped as to the most suitable options.

“What the hell is an odd trouser anyway?” you might ask.

Simply, odd means to stand alone. The theory of sartorial oddness is aligned with individuality. Odd jackets need to be worn on their own without appearing that they need to be worn with matching trousers. Very fine wool suit jackets, for example, are not suitable as they look as though they have been forcibly separated from their lower halves. Tweed suit jackets on the other hand don’t look out of place as they are naturally less formal and are therefore expected to be worn as separates – particularly when they are distinctly different to the colour and material of the trousers they are worn with.

Similarly, odd trousers require distinctive qualities and these qualities are best achieved through a combination of colour and texture.

Mid-grey flannel

Number one on any list of odd trousers, grey flannels were the uniform of the marvelous Fred Astaire. So connected was he to this material that Audrey Hepburn gave him a picture frame lined in the same grey flannel of his trousers.

A solid, mid or heavy weight is best. Grey flannels are very versatile and can be worn with casual corduroy and tweed jackets for countryside informality or navy hopsack blazers for a working week Friday ensemble.

Light grey

For spring and summer there is no better trouser than a light grey, lightweight wool. Again, the flexibility of grey’s beautiful neutrality means they can be worn with practically anything – and to anything. Worn with a silver grenadine tie, blue summer blazer and sockless tassel loafers for a slick, summer formal ensemble; or, with a white polo shirt and white plimsolls to a casual picnic. Wear slightly shorter, and tapered at the ankle.

Cream cotton drill

White trousers don’t sound like the most practical suggestion, but there are few better options when the occasion calls for crisp chicness. When the sun comes out, there are few more pleasurable things to wear than a cool pair of cream cotton drills; you feel at once sporty and elegant, slightly retro and yet also timeless. Wear with burgundy penny loafers, blue linen jackets, unlined summer blazers in grey and navy and cosy cricket jumpers for cool summer evenings.

Mid-grey large check

Everyone needs a pair of ‘wild’ trousers. The Victorians, before Queen Victoria’s mourning started the fashion for black, were noted for wearing nattily checked trousers, following the fashion for the writings of Sir Walter Scott and Scottish tartan – a trend which the Queen and her husband Albert had also led, due to their love affair with Scotland and acquisition of Balmoral. Tom Ford’s collections have recently revived this look and they are perfect for wearing to break the formality or stiffness of a look. Navy blazers and velvet jackets benefit the most from their playfulness.

Brown tweed

A single pair of odd tweed trousers goes a long way. Proper tweed is heavy and hard-wearing, but also elegant. Out of town, when wearing cashmere crew and v-neck sweaters, men utilize few options except denim and corduroy. And yet tweed has far more place on casual weekend jaunts to castles and tea rooms than a pair of jeans. Appropriate for both pub and drawing room, tweed is considerably more flexible, not to mention warmer and more comfortable. A rich brown tweed looks glorious next to smooth navy cashmere sweaters and cardigans, deep green wax jackets and burgundy brogues.

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.