Tuesday, July 29, 2014

RJ’s Alternative Style Icons: Pierre Bergé

A given among lovers of classic menswear is to reject the cult of the designer.  No doubt we rationalize that we strive for a timelessness and quality that can’t be improved every six months by the whim of couturiers (the judgment of Paris), nor, I must suggest, could we afford to with such frequency.

In person, of course, even the most talented male designers dress to suit their own tastes, not those of the fashions they purport to dictate. Hedi Slimane favored his skinny APC jeans even while launching Dior denim; Karl Lagerfeld switched from Cifonelli in the 1970s to Slimane-skinny suits in the 2000s, retaining, however, his sculpturally high-collared bespoke shirts made to his specifications in France by Hilditch & Key Paris, and so on.  Indeed, a host of couturiers of Lagerfeld’s generation, like his direct competitor Yves Saint-Laurent, favored high-quality bespoke from classic makers rather than their own licensed menswear lines. 

L’amour fou is about Yves Saint-Laurent and not about Yves Saint-Laurent, whose phenomenal talents as a woman’s couturier were rivalled, even overshadowed, by insecurities and mental fragility.  It is, more concretely, about the crazy love that Saint-Laurent’s deeply pragmatic, down-to-earth business and romantic partner Pierre Bergé felt for him over the course of decades.  In Saint-Laurent’s absence, Bergé reminisces about his deceased partner and successfully evokes Saint-Laurent’s ethereal charm, while planning the auction of the contents of their rue de Babylone apartment, the works of art the two had amassed over the decades.  They had collected them out of love and affect – what appealed to them – rather than investment, but it becomes clear at auction that their value is many, many times the original investment.  The proceeds went to a charitable foundation.

Bergé was, is, a famously hard-headed businessman who ingratiated himself with the left-wing government of François Mitterrand in the 1980s and made himself and Saint-Laurent pillars of the French establishment. Given that establishment’s deep sartorial conservatism, it’s thus interesting to note that in this documentary Bergé sports without affectation a lovely brown suit.  On its face that alone would be enough to merit elevation to the Alternative Style Icon firmament, as the rebuttal to the anti-brown brigade.  As we look closer, we notice he also wears a well-cut tan-olive herringbone tweed sportcoat, with light-colored shirt and a tie whose deep olive color redeems his clothing from any claim of fogeyish boredom.  The lapels appear to have some version of the cran tailleur lapel notch that French tailors are supposed to use, so perhaps Bergé had patronized one of the bespoke tailors of Paris. 

Clothes like these allow Bergé to maintain an elegance of the same dignity and discretion he shows throughout L’amour fou. For it is not a documentary about clothes or even about designers.  It’s a film about how inexplicable love between two people can be, love when one partner is both demanding and devastated.  Bergé notes that Saint-Laurent was said to have been “born with a nervous breakdown” (depression nerveuse, which is the original French, is more than just depression).  Saint-Laurent’s stability declined after a disastrous conscription during the Algerian war.  L’amour fou retraces the different attempts Bergé made to help Saint-Laurent achieve a degree of peace, at country houses or their retreat in Marrakech.

Saint-Laurent himself remains enigmatic, with rare moments of lightness in a few clips showing a puckish sense of humor. The book The Beautiful Fall says more about his personality and evolution.  It is also telling that that book, which charts the parallel paths taken by Saint-Laurent and his contemporary Karl Lagerfeld through the 1960s and 1970s, makes Karl Lagerfeld looks like the more human and kinder of the two.  Nonetheless, Lagerfeld hates the book. Through threat of legal action, the French version was thoroughly expurgated.

Bergé and Saint-Laurent were not a model for love.  But L’amour fou shows the many crazy, irrational forms that love can take, one member of a couple trying his hardest to protect the other’s fragile being from demons that are all too internal.  As the contents of their apartment are crated up for auction at Christie’s, Bergé reflects that Saint-Laurent himself could not have borne to part with any of their vast selection.  As to Bergé, he settles on a few pieces with personal meaning to carry away, memories of a past, unreachable, trying time. 
Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Summer Uniform

Cold weather offers a near-infinity of odd jacket patterns, but for warm weather solids, seersuckers and the occasional Madras look best. Other prints tend to look like faux tweeds and that is hardly the image a man wants to see when temperatures are high.

If a wardrobe contains two summer jackets, a navy solid is a most useful thing for evenings. If it has room for only one the choice ought to be tan in either fresco or linen. A solid tan like the one in the Esquire illustration from 1936 (the beach suit on the left is another story altogether) is far better for day wear and still acceptable at night. Pair it with cream or light gray trousers, solid color or spectator style Norwegian slip-ons and either sunglasses or a Panama hat depending on your mood. Wear it out of town with a polo shirt or add a lightweight dress shirt and a linen or Shantung necktie when the occasion is dressier.  Add further formality by switching out the necktie for a black grenadine.

Esquire called a tan jacket and light gray trousers the summer uniform, and they were right.

Friday, July 25, 2014


There is perhaps no more contemptible species to an Oxford undergraduate than an American doing a Junior Year Abroad in semi-precious dress suggesting one too many Merchant-Ivory viewings. For most native students, the City of the Dreaming Spires is first and foremost simply College (or “Uni” in the native vernacular), their first taste of independence -- all subsidized beer, kebab vans, and midnight oil -- and rightly so. But having already cut my collegiate teeth back in the States, I had come for a different education, preferring to concentrate on the grand subject rendered all around me in Cotswold stone and a mythos of youthful languor.

And then there were the clothes. As one would expect from an institution long known as an aristocratic finishing school, Oxford has a tradition of sartorial trendsetting, of which the most notorious instance is the distinctly odd trouser to which the university gave its name. Conventional wisdom has it that “Oxford bags” -- high waisted, wide-legged woolen pants with cuff circumferences in excess of 24” -- were originally worn by undergraduate hearties to conceal sporting attire (shorts and plus-fours, presumably) in more formal academic contexts. This theory would seem supported by the photo above in which the university’s 1931 varsity rowing team wears extremely crude (or perhaps Casentino cloth?) examples that obviously portend modern sweatpants.

Personally, I’ve never been able to square this narrative with Oxford bags’ competing origin story-- that they were first conceived in 1922 by the undergraduate aesthete Harold Acton as a purely stylistic conceit: billowing sails of pastel flannel in deliberately stark contrast with the trim, dark worsted trousers of the day. Acton would seem an unlikely fashion influence on Oxford’s rowers, whom he infamously taunted from his balcony with a megaphone-amplified recitation of T.S. Eliot’s hot-off-the-press The Wasteland as they made their way down to the river. Nine years is an eternity in a fashion cycle, however, and it would appear to have been all that was necessary for the Varsity Blues to almost universally adopt the signature eccentricity of their erstwhile tormentor.

Acton’s performance was exactly restaged by Evelyn Waugh in his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, with the mesmerizingly cosmopolitan character of Anthony Blanche standing in for his obvious inspiration. No work has better captured -- perhaps even defined -- this halcyon era of Oxford’s history, with the possible exception of its 1981 television adaptation (which arguably betters the book by luxuriating in a running time longer than that required to actually read it). Waugh takes obvious and specific delight in clothes and their significance, at one point subjecting his freshman protagonist Charles Ryder to the starchy advice of his upperclassman cousin Jasper:

Dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed coat and flannel trousers -- always a suit. And go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit.

Although one suspects that Charles takes that last bit to heart (nobody confuses Oxford’s own Shepherd & Woodward with Anderson & Sheppard), the rest falls on deaf ears. Jasper is admonishing against precisely the casual modernity being advocated at the time by the Prince of Wales himself. 1920s Oxford was the very primordial ooze of the tweed jacket and “grayers” combination, which that generation of American visiting students would import to Princeton and thence to the rest of the world as the “collegiate” or “Ivy” look.

It’s a subtle but important distinction that Charles only adopts this relaxed, forward-looking style in his early incarnation as an earnest scholar; after falling in with Blanche and the decidedly dégagé Sebastian Flyte, he prefers suits (flannel, rather than tweed) more in keeping with a dandified and dissipated Arcadia in which “toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars.” Charles’ clothes return to sober propriety as he grows older and bitterer, and in the end are traded entirely for wartime battledress, auguring the hard facts of modernity rather than its once-hopeful spirit.

As the arc of Charles’ clothes traces the fortunes of early 20th century Britain itself, so too does Oxford’s attenuated sartorial inheritance reflect the torn sympathies of a nation both enthralled with and ashamed of its past. That strict dress code which backfired into Oxford bags has withered to the occasional ceremonial donning of subfusc -- a uniquely odd combination of dark suit and white tie worn under a medieval-ish academic robe. Those once-ubiquitous robes themselves are now relegated to formal dinner seatings at a handful of grand old colleges that do a particularly brisk tourist trade. College ties and scarves are sold everywhere and worn nowhere. In the spring Trinity term, Eights Week brings out a sprinkling of striped boating blazers over polyester cricket whites, and black-tie balls offer inflatable bouncy castles.

It’s been some years since I was there, but I imagine tweed and flannel sightings are still made, although I’m sure mostly on older dons and Americans enjoying their birthright Anglophilia.

Words by Andrew Yamato. Photo from hear-the-boat-sing.blogspot.co.uk

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Place Vendôme Bow

Tying a bow tie is one of the basic skills since a hand tied bow lets a man don his dinner jacket without looking as though he is off to his first prom. Trouble is, it takes practice to get a reasonable looking but obviously irregular knot without frustration. What then is an out of practice twice a year bow tie wearing guy to do?

There are of course, machine tied bow ties. Unfortunately these are generally unworthy of attention as they look artificially regular and are usually associated with a lesser quality of materials and workspersonship. The better choice is better materials and construction accompanied by an expertly hand tied bow.

Hand tied bows are to the best of my knowledge an option originated in a certain shop on Paris' Place Vendôme that offers its ties with knots that can be left in place or undone so that the wearer can do things himself. The key to this approach is that the tie must be two pieces with a clasp in back so it can be put on and removed without unknotting. Though not the best choice for winged collar shirts, under a turn down collar the two piece tie is otherwise indistinguishable from its single piece ancestors.

Having remembered the blindingly obvious and summer being the slower time of year we at A Suitable Wardrobe are busy tying our inventory of two piece bows so that we can offer them a la Place Vendôme.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Suits And Socks, Installment XXX

OK, the socks in question are accompanying a blazer. They do however illustrate two principles that will add interest to your tailored clothing sock selection. First, choose a pair that is somewhat lighter in color than your trousers a la Mr. Fred Astaire. And second, wear a contrasting texture or a bit of pattern (the more casual the occasion, the bigger the pattern can be).

In the photo, gray houndstooth patterned cotton socks combine with gray fresco trousers and Russian Reindeer cap-toed oxfords. Above the waist, the aforementioned navy jacket, white and gray checked shirt, a darker gray garza fina grenadine necktie and Rubinacci's cream and jade Cuccagna pocket square.