The ‘White’ Dinner Jacket

“The only person who looked good in a white dinner jacket was Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. And that’s only because it was filmed in black and white.”

The above comment was made to me by an acquaintance when discussing a wedding I am due to attend later this year at a palm-treed, sandy-beach resort hotel in a particularly warm part of the world. The occasion, seemed to me, to suggest the use of the ‘white’ dinner jacket instead of black; the ‘summer’ or ‘tropical’ option. It won’t be oppressively warm, but the idea of wearing black barathea in such a place is unthinkable.

I say ‘white’ but the proper versions are actually cream or ivory and an entirely different tone to the white dress shirt underneath. There’s very little cause to use them in Blighty, unless Glyndebourne (or other summer events) happen to be particularly warm, and the practice of wearing formal dress in tropical heat has, understandably, declined. This has resulted in the white dinner jacket becoming a ‘non-essential’ component of the European gentleman’s wardrobe – unless you happen to be an intrepid cruiser.

If you Google ‘white dinner jacket’, or some variation thereof, you could be excused for thinking that fashion has abandoned this sartorial option. Most of the images are of chiselled catalogue models, looking into the distance, wearing weak wing collars, clip on satin bows and an off-white dinner jacket, by companies with names like Fullers Formal Wear, that looks several sizes too big; the sort of image that appears in the very back pages of a little-read weekend newspaper supplement, advertising half price formal rental.

Occasionally, there is an image of a dapper Tom Ford or Roger Moore wearing appealing versions, but these are rare oases in a desert of poor examples. It’s no wonder that men considering the white dinner jacket, already apprehensive, return to their trusty black or midnight blue vouching never to wear anything but.

Personally, I think this is a great shame. Firstly because there are too few options as it is for men to choose from for formal evenings. Secondly, because the white dinner jacket is an iconic garment that recalls an era when adjusting dress to climate and occasion was second nature to well-dressed gentlemen; a quality that is, unfortunately, on the wane. I believe it is possible to pull off the white dinner jacket effectively, it just requires consideration of these priorities:

1. Fit

This is the single most important element. It matters not how finely constructed your jacket is, if a white jacket looks too big – or indeed too small – it will appear so to a greater extent than your black or midnight blue jacket. This is simply because lighter colours reflect light. I would always err on the side of wearing a white jacket smaller (narrower shoulders and shorter) than a darker one for this very reason. If at all possible, get your jacket bespoke, MTM or at the very least get a RTW adjusted by a professional tailor. Take photographs from all angles; it is easier to drown in white than black.

2. Lapels

There are two options for lapels: shawl and peak. Ignore the pictures of Roger Moore in a notch lapel cream jacket; this jacket is still formal and notches are not appropriate. Shawls are very smooth and the default for the white dinner jacket, but can look rather Rat-Pack-band-leader. My preference would be for peak lapels.

3. Colour

The jacket should never be truly ‘white’ but rather off-white. In my opinion, the more ‘off’ the better; there is a more satisfying contrast with the white shirt and it is subtler.

Summer Etiquette: A Matter of Exposure

Picture the scene: it’s a hot and hazy summer day, the sun is baking the grass to an uncomfortable crispness and there’s no cooling breeze to blast against your sunburned face. The heat is such that the only thing you have any effort to do is rip off your sweat-saturated clothes and hug the nearest iceberg. You feel filthy, smelly and infuriatingly itchy. In such circumstances, etiquette is probably the furthest thing from your mind.

And yet, etiquette is actually one of the most important considerations in such conditions. This is not about excessive propriety. This is simply about not imposing yourselves on others or exposing yourself in a manner that brings about the discomfort or displeasure of others.

Skin exposure is one of the most controversial issues in fashion. In Victorian society, showing any skin apart from the face and hands was seen to be improper. Well-to-do women and men in the mid to late 19th century would have been fully buttoned-and-collared up, irrespective of the temperatures, their faces shaded by a wide brim hat. Thankfully, neither sex is compelled to follow such a punishing sartorial regime in the 21st century.

However, some exposure is getting rather out of control.

Torso exposure is not acceptable in any environment other than a swimming baths or beach. It doesn’t matter if you have the body of Michelangelo’s David, you should never take your shirt off in another public place. This is not about human beauty, it is about decorum.

Even if a few women ogle you, the truth is that you are showing your lack of regard for others, which is ultimately an unappealing trait.  Women don’t walk around with naked torsos and neither should men.

Leg exposure, though often frowned upon by purists, is acceptable but men, unlike women, often fail to take proper care of the extremities that are so forgotten in the colder months: feet.
The male foot may not be the most appealing body part, but men often make their peds worse by not taking care of them. Nails should be clean and clipped. All fungus infections should be treated with lacquer or VapoRub; if not, get a pedicure. Subjecting everyone else to cracked, calloused, fungal feet is not acceptable.

Lastly, removing items of clothing should be approached with caution. There’s nothing wrong with taking off a sweater or discreetly unbuttoning a shirt but it’s wise to avoid the temptation for ‘sneaky sunbathing’: rolling up shorts or removing a pair of loafers when you’re ensconced in some streetside café.

Three Shoes to Survive Summer

Brown suede loafers

There is something special about brown suede shoes. They’re not in the least bit practical, largely because suede is so high-maintenance. Get them wet at your peril; drop anything on them and they’re nigh-on ruined. They’re the Zsa Zsa Gabor of footwear; you can’t treat them like any old pair of kickers/entitled, self-obsessed diva. You have to encase them in fur and shower them with…protective spray.

One of the best things about brown suede is the way the light catches them and brings out the rich colour variations in the material. They have a beautifully matte, truffle-like appearance, which is a fabulous contrast to linen and mohair alike. As a shoe of texture, there are few better options.

Don’t listen to the purists, who insist that suede is only to be worn in the autumn/winter period. They look positively edible when worn with camel linen or mid-blue chinos. Keep away from barbecues.

Off-white plimsolls

One thing is certain about the summer and that is that someone, at some point, will drag you to some kind of competitive, but still ‘jolly friendly’, casual sporting event (probably involving bats or racquets), after which arguments will persist about individual prowess, fine margins and the quality of the refreshments.

What this means is that you need a pair of shoes which are not going to land you at a  sticky wicket. You can’t wear formal leather shoes, and all big-brand training shoes (sneakers) are aesthetically vile, so you need a pair of off-white plimsolls. Think of it this way: if Jay Gatsby had been invited to your little tournament, what would he wear?

Don’t fret, plimsolls aren’t trendy any more. You don’t need to keep them pristine for ‘that really important gig in Camden.’ There simply isn’t a sporting shoe with a better profile. So just roll up the bottoms on a pair of chinos and bowl already…

Red driving shoes

No one’s trying to turn you into Dorothy or anything, but red shoes are ‘where it’s at’ this summer. I recently saw an excellent execution of an ensemble featuring red driving shoes, worn with slim-fitting French navy linen trousers and a crisp white shirt. If the shoes had been any other colour, the outfit would have been unremarkable; that pop of Ferrari red made all the difference.

One of the great things about driving shoes, aside from their wonderful slipper-like comfort, is that they are useful for both casual jaunts to the beach and sampling the catch of the day in some overpriced hostelry on the marina. Warning: may cause stares.

The Denim Blazer

A half-French colleague of mine recently gave me an efficient lowdown on Nîmes: “Easily the snobbiest city in France – outside of Paris, of course.”

“It’s not really a proper city either” she said  “it’s just a town. I think the people of Nîmes want you to think it is a city though, to think it is important.”

It’s not hard to see why local residents might think a lot of themselves. Nîmes is an ancient place, civilised since 4000BC. A mere few thousand years later, it became an important Roman settlement and remains of the Roman Empire, including an amphitheatre and a Roman temple, are the main reason why Nîmes is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France.

However, Nîmes is most famous for it’s creation of the fabric that is worn by millions of people around the world; serge de Nîmes, now commonly known as ‘denim.’ It is continually amusing that something which is largely seen as an American working-class fashion invention actually has it’s origins in a snooty town in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Though it is largely used, in a variety of styles, for making ubiquitous ‘jeans’, real denim is a beautiful fabric which is perfectly suited to other sartorial creations, notably the shirt, but also, the blazer.

I must admit, when I began to assemble my ideal wardrobe, I did not expect that it might eventually include a denim blazer. Corduroy jackets, yes; navy flannel, yes; denim? Hmm. It was always one of those ‘maybe later’ choices for me, something to consider once the big pieces were in place. However, recently, I have realised how fabulous and adaptable to modern fashions a denim blazer can be.

A lot of prejudice against denim ‘beyond the jean’ originates with the craze for all-over denim outfits and the matching denim twinsets that plagued the fashion world throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, denim ‘beyond the jean’ has largely been banished by fashion, with the effect that denim jeans are now replacing cotton and wool trousers to be worn with wool blazers, corduroy and tweed. However, there has been a bit of a backlash against blue denim jeans – not least because of their somewhat depressing ubiquity. Those who are of a self-conscious sartorial bent are wont to criticise the continuing craze for jeans citing their relative discomfort and inelegance.

I am somewhat ambivalent. I still like wearing jeans on occasion, but I do see the argument that the convenience and appeal of jeans is overrated. Consequently, there are simply hundreds of occasions on which a denim blazer is now an appropriate choice for an ensemble, considering the fact that I am not encumbered by the requirement to contrast a varying shade of indigo.

What this means is that the indigo denim blazer is now a wardrobe ideal, to be deployed when the character of the beautiful serge de Nîmes fabric sets a fitting contrast to a pair of polo-white jeans or straw coloured linens. The thing about denim blazers is that they have that lovely, faded character around the edges. The heavy stitching and patch-pockets are indicative of the casual origins of denim garments but, their presence on a blazer – which, as a cut, is still the most elegant item of clothing in a gentleman’s wardrobe – is a perfect marriage of that hearty, smoky American working-class and the haughty nobility of the grand ville of Nîmes.

Sartorial Love/Hate: Back Blading a Tie

When my father taught me to tie my tie, I remember how he would fiddle with my meagre attempts; shaping the knot, positioning it in the exact centre of the collar, standing back to inspect. I was a rather impetuous little scamp in my youth and did not sufficiently appreciate the lesson he was providing, the result of which is that I have not altered my method of tying ties since childhood; a simple four-in-hand with as small a knot as possible.

My idea of ties is that they should be artistic but precise. A bright, patterned strip of material hanging down from the neck sounds like something wild and bohemian, but it actually represents the ultimate in formality in today’s dressed down world. For years, the tie has been tied by everyone (differences in knots aside) in much the same way; the back blade is concealed behind the front blade by utilising the ‘keeper’ – a loop of material that secures it in place. However, there is a curious fashion developing for displaying the back blade of the tie. And, like many fashions, it has an army of critics – and a cabal of supporters. Some call it contrived, others – interestingly, usually those who can’t speak a word of Italian – call it sprezzatura.

Sprezzatura, or ‘sprezz’ as the iCrowd now efficiently refer to it, has become somewhat of an excuse, rather than a reason, for much of the Tumblr-originated fashions that now dominate elite menswear. If something looks messy, it’s just sprezzy; if something looks out of place, it’s sprezzatura, which means it’s in place. It is this kind of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ reasoning that so infuriates the Hercule Poirot-esque perfectionist crowd who lambast the Pitti-inspired taste for contrived imperfection.

“What on earth are they doing with their tie?” they cry, as the back blade flutters in the wind, as though they were an errant schoolboy snapped on their way to a chiding from the housemaster. “It looks so contrived” they sneer “the rest of the outfit is perfectly tailored and his hair is absurdly groomed but, for some reason, his tie just happens to be out of place?” As a point of consistency, it is a fair one.

However, the fans also have a point. “It’s not contrived” they say, confidently “the tie is an expression of artistry in an outfit; it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Again, a valid observation. To say that the back blade should never be seen, simply because there is a keeper tab sewn into every good tie is nonsense. Why, if we obeyed the implied instruction of all garments, we wouldn’t have any room for invention or creativity, and it is likely that aestheticism would suffer greatly.

I’m on the fence on this particular trend. I don’t think I will be adopting it any time soon, but it’s nice to see that there are some who are prepared to dabble and break convention and create argument. Doing sprezzatura for the sake of it is contrived; about that, there is no question. Affecting imperfection is still an affectation. However, there are some who have grown bored of the necktie in all it’s combed, tamed formality, and this method of wearing ties offers another, lest I say ‘creative’ approach to cravatting.