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.

Bringing Sexy Back

I recently read some clickbait nonsense on Buzzfeed. It was so provocatively titled that it reminded me of those appalling articles that are consistently recycled in women’s magazines, promising the reader the priceless secrets to “younger looking skin”, “endless love”, “indestructible self-confidence” and “mind-blowing sex.”

This particular title offered “25 suit hacks that will make any man look instantly sexy.”

Yes, I added the emphasis. I did so because the promise is not only wildly optimistic, it’s also inaccurate and utterly misleading. Further investigation of these hacks also reveals that they are not, for the most part, ‘hacks’ – which are meant to be lesser-known, efficiency-gaining strategies and peculiar techniques – but simply playschool guidance on how to put on clothes properly.

“Oh for crying out loud” I hear you yawn, “It’s Buzzfeed, man!”

That it may be, but in my view, it’s posts like these that infest social media and propagate so-called ‘knowledge’ in place of genuine advice that is less about ‘hacking’, flattery and overpromising and more about how one might work within the constraints of what is real, what is possible and what is not.

Besides, a lot of the advice is just plain wrong.

Exhibit A is Suit Hack 5; “Pinstripes on a suit should be subtle, unless you are going for the Halloween mobster look.”

Right. I imagine Michael Brown (pictured above) from Chittleborough & Morgan only wears his in late October anyway.

Exhibit B is the recommendation of Windsor knots (vile) and Exhibit C is recommending that braces be considered “if you don’t feel like wearing a belt” – and not the other way around.

However, the big problem with this shopping list of ‘hacks’ is that it has nothing to do with making ‘any’ man ‘instantly’ sexier; just how is precisely measuring the width of the tie to match the width of the lapel sexy?

Sexiness is a state of mind, but it’s also a state of body. To a much smaller extent, it’s a state of dress. It’s unfortunate, but if you don’t feel sexy, a suit isn’t going to magically change you, no matter how expensive and skilled a tailor you visit.

And dispensing advice regarding age-old customs of wearing tailoring – buttoning traditions, sleeve length, lapel width – is going to help even less.

For one thing, suits aren’t designed to be sexy. I remember a delicious comment by a fellow subject of the book I Am Dandy, Sean Crowley that decried how everything now was about ‘sexing’ things up. As a fan of traditional, interwar menswear – particularly heavy tweed suits – Sean is determined to keep his wardrobe ‘unsexy.’

However, it is possible to look sexy in a suit, it just has a lot less to do with the fusty customs of formal menswear.

Your body fills your suit – so keep it close to a size and shape you admire

It’s really very simple. If you want to look sexier in a suit, the first step is getting in shape. A suit isn’t a pair of Spanx, it’s not going to hide very much. If you don’t feel sexy out of a suit, chances are you won’t feel sexy in it. It’s possible, even probable, that you look sexier than you feel, but at the end of the day, suits look far better on a healthy man who is in fine physical fettle. It’s hard work, not a hack. Don’t expect miracles.

Go shopping with a girl (or man) who doesn’t find you attractive

This is more of a hack, but it actually works. If you’re clueless about clothing, and want to try on some suits that make you look better in front of someone you find attractive, take out a friend (not a partner) who has no emotional stake in your comfort and happiness beyond friendly familiarity. They’ll be honest with you. It helps if they are a bit of a dresser themselves or they like sharply dressed men. The main thing is that they will not be advising on the minutiae and technical side of the suit but the impression and image it creates; this is where you will find sexiness.

Go sockless in the summertime

Socks are about as sexy as a typewriter. They’re practically unavoidable in the chillier months, but you really don’t need to wear them when it’s 30 degrees outside, even with a suit. If you ensure your summer suits have tapered trousers and finish above your shoes (preferably loafers) with no break, a glimpse of tanned ankle strongly conveys sexuality; it looks breezy and confident and removes any element of stiffness that the suit may create.

Slim trousers and slimmer, shorter jackets

There’s a reason why Tom Ford wants Daniel Craig to hulk out of his suits. Full length suit jackets and wide-leg trousers might be elegant and traditional but they hide almost every element of sexual appeal. If you are attempting to convey greater sexuality with your outfit, go for a slightly tighter fit around the waist, shoulders and legs.

Make sure this isn’t laughably slim; Craig’s jackets are perilously close to looking absurd, so ensure that you can breathe and button the top button without much trouble. Slim down the sleeves if you can, too and wear softer shoulders; they look much more sensual than heavily padded ones.

When the jacket is slightly shorter, you look a bit taller and, some say, younger. Just make sure that your rump is sufficiently covered.

The trouser seat should be comfortable, but try not to go for the whole two-pleat, big-top balloon; slim trousers show your leg shape, which connects the look to your body.

Avoid too much frill

This is tricky to describe, but essentially it’s about crafting a look that is elegant but not overly frilly. I have often experimented in the past with interestingly tied silk scarves, very puffy pocket squares or fussy colour and pattern combinations but this tends to distract from the most obvious window of sexuality: your face. As soon as it starts to look like a bit of a costume, clownishness starts to creep in and you might as well be wearing a big red wig; you may appear ‘cute’ or even, dare I say it, ‘adorable’ but never sexy.

 

Cotton, Linen And Wool Suits

Casual suits are a summer staple for the well turned out man and with summer just around the corner for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere, I thought I’d talk about why suits made out of cotton and linen are considered to be more casual. Specifically, I want to run through some of the difference between suits made from cotton, linen and wool.

However, before we jump into that, have a look at the comparison pic below of me wearing linen blend, wool and cotton suits.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that my face is blurred in the left picture and the second thing is probably that I have no head in the picture on the right. And while I might be trying to be funny I am trying to make a point: aside from that you’re probably not noticing all that much difference.

All three pictures were taken from between two to five metres away and I really do believe from that distance the average person walking past you on the street won’t notice anything other than the fact you’re wearing a suit.

I mean sure, the cotton suit is a bit stiffer and the linen suit a little less structured, but the first point I’d like to make is that a suit is a suit. Suits present a particular image in the minds of most people and, walking down the street, chances are those who aren’t fashion nerds like you and I will probably not notice the difference between your navy, cotton blazer and your navy, wool suit jacket.

What I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind is that all three of my suits are tailored in a ‘soft’ way: lightly structured with unpadded shoulders; they’re also all in shades of blue. Something I’ll come to at the end of this post.

Finish

Despite what I’ve talked about above there are differences between the three cloths and the first and most noticeable is the finish. When I say finish I mean the way the fabric looks.

Wool is sleeker and shinier than the other two fabrics and adds that classic sharpness you expect from your suit. It also means it looks more ‘formal’ or business-like.

Linen is ‘slubby’. It’s got all these little lines and imperfections running through it so that it looks the messiest of the bunch. Having said that, some would say linen has more character, which basically means it looks more worn-in straight out of the box.

Cotton is generally quite matte and heavy looking compared to the other cloths; I generally find cotton to be woven the most tightly. It’s also the only one that ages gracefully in my opinion; that slight fading along the edges lends cotton suits character the more you wear them.

Drape

All three suits drape differently; drape being how the suit hangs off your body.

Wool drapes nicely and shapes to the body due to its elasticity. It will also pull back into shape far more than the other two cloths. Basically it’s just right for making a garment like a suit, and hence why it is the main fabric used in suit making.

Linen has poor elasticity and therefore does not stretch in the way wool does. It also tends to wrinkle – due to the lack of elasticity. Most people know linen as a wrinkly fabric and this is something to take into account when purchasing a linen suit. It is, however, often woven quite loosely and therefore is quite light and comfortable to wear.

Cotton also has poor elasticity and is generally the most tightly woven fabric. The combination of those two means cotton probably drapes the poorest out of all three fabric types – it just tends to be a bit stiff. Some tailors recommend cutting a cotton suit slightly larger to give you a more comfortable range of motion. Cotton suits also tend to wrinkle over the course of the day.

Why drape and finish suggest casualness

Imagine a business suit. You’re probably thinking of a sharp navy number or maybe a sleek grey one. Maybe you’re even thinking of a boxy, silky-looking, charcoal, power suit worn by a politician. You’ve basically answered the original question in this post: why are linen and cotton suits considered to be more casual?

Neither of those cloths have the same slick finish a wool suit has. Moreover, both types drape a little differently to wool with some wrinkling and some stiffness involved. Together these aspects differentiate cotton and linen suits just enough.

Some might even say that suits made from linen or cotton are sloppier than suits made from wool. I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative; perhaps you’d prefer to think of it as wool suits being sharper than suits made from the former two cloths. Either way, you’d agree that we’re moving towards what we might define as casual – clothing that’s a bit more relaxed.

Cut and colour

I haven’t forgotten the two things I asked you to keep in the back of your mind: cut and colour.

Regardless of the cloth used, a suit can be cut more casually by having natural or unpadded shoulders and being built more ‘softly’ using a lighter canvas or no canvas at all. These aspects again take away from some of the sharp lines that define a business suit; softening up that silhouette lends to casualness.

It should also be noted that bold colours and lines are also more casual. In the first picture in this post both my cotton and linen suit are in a brighter tone of blue and that will lend them an air of casualness.

My point here is that cut and colour can be as important as fabric choice when going for a casual suit or jacket.