Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mackintosh Season


A cold autumn rain is falling as I write this. It’s the kind of dark grey September morning that's never stopped reminding me of sad little marches to elementary school, the last long shadows of summer having given way to the harsh fluorescence of an overheated classroom. I took what solace I could from puddle-jumping in a stout pair of rubber boots and a vinyl raincoat, clammy yet cozy, wonderfully impervious. Like most boys, as I grew older I eschewed these very sensible items, along with the maternal diligence they implied, walking cool in wet clothes and squishy shoes.

Raincoats have historically been rather joyless, utilitarian garments, rendered in shapeless taupe to keep one dry on a commute, almost disposable in their anonymity. The famous exception is of course the classic British trench, but after several generations as a cultural and countercultural icon, its once dégagé military chic now seems both over-engineered and overbearing. Well into my adulthood, I had little interest in raincoats of any kind, preferring to rely on an umbrella and a brisk pace to keep me (relatively) dry between lobbies and subway stations.

That changed a half-dozen years ago, while trawling eBay, when I happened on the sort of discovery that makes high-end bottom-feeding all worth it: a full-length, raglan-sleeved, belted riding mac, made in the 1980s by Mackintosh for Polo Ralph Lauren in a rich mustard yellow. The classic details were all there: fly front, slanted flap pockets, deep box-pleated center vent, wool tattersall half-lining, rubber gussets at the sleeves, hooked stand-and-fall collar with a detachable storm tab, straps to buckle around the legs while in the saddle (as one does), and -- critically -- ventilation grommets under the arms.

You need those grommets because the material itself -- a heavy rubberized cotton first patented by Charles Mackintosh in 1823 -- breathes about as well as a dry cleaning bag. In temperatures north of 70 degrees a riding mac is literally a sauna, condensing moisture along its taped and glued seams. Surely this was the reason for Mackintosh’s decline and fall from interwar public prominence, supplanted by Burberry, Aquascutum, and any number of more supple and lighter weight raincoats.

In the sartorial strike zone between 40 and 70 degrees, however, Mackintosh cloth is uniquely sensuous stuff. It doesn’t drape so much as it sculpts the shoulders, tucking into crisp folds under the cinched belt before flaring out into a wide skirt that’ll keep your trousers dry even without an umbrella. As you move, it rustles like a gently luffing sail. It smells profoundly good -- an atavistic aroma of rubber, canvas, and glue that conjures reliable old camping gear.

And reliable it is. Where most cloth raincoats are at most water-resistant, subject to saturation in a heavy downpour, a mac is entirely waterproof -- an artifact of a slower, more bucolic world in which getting caught in the rain might actually take a while, and so much the better. Like any piece of good outdoor equipment, a riding mac makes you want to be outdoors; you don’t wear one to avoid the rain so much as revel in it. Add a pair of wellies and I guarantee you’ll be splashing through some puddles.

Although rustic in origin and romantic in appeal, the riding mac is well-suited for metropolitan business wear. For all its aforementioned interior features, the exterior silhouette is clean, almost minimal: the flair of the trench with none of the fuss. While more conservative dressers may shy from the signature yellow color for fear of evoking Dick Tracy, the lizard-brains of even the least sartorially-inclined onlookers will be tickled with the sudden realization that this, finally, is what raincoats are supposed to look like.

Words and photo by Andrew Yamato

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On The Spread Of Custom Part II: And Low


In my first post on the topic, I discussed the spread of high-end custom clothing by brands eager to exploit the allure of custom, which has come to mean so much because so few are now familiar with it. As promised, we started out high and end low: custom is fashionable and now broadly available, although it means different things at different sources. They, too, are exploiting the myth of something made for you.

As in that last post, I refer to custom and bespoke interchangeably, treating bespoke as custom’s British English synonym, defining both as made using an individual pattern or last created based on a customer’s measurements and specifications. I refer to made-to-measure to mean clothing made based on alterations to a stock pattern, and made-to-order to mean clothing made to a stock size at a customer’s order. While I hope these distinctions are clear, many others don’t observe them.

15 years ago one Savile Row tailor of good reputation (since folded into Davies & Son) hedged its bets. Full bespoke being expensive and a bit of a hard sell at the time, it struck at both the low and ultra-high ends of the scale. While retaining its normal bespoke offer, it launched a made-to-measure service for a few hundred pounds where a factory on the Continent created suits based on the customer’s measurements and basic specifications. The tailor’s website even offered a self-measurement form for potential customers who couldn’t visit but wanted to order a cheap, nominally Savile Row, suit. At the same time, it also publicized a new completely hand-stitched suit service for the completely insane sum of 20,000 pounds, including helicopter visits by the cutter for fittings. I suspect that tailor intended to raise its profile with the notoriety around its super-expensive suit service and to try to survive by using its cheap factory-made service to subsidize its normal custom work. In other words, create cachet around a service so unattainable as to be nearly mythical, and use that cachet to sell its lower-end services.

Nowadays, a brand doesn’t need to create cachet around custom clothing. Custom itself has become the selling point, in large part, I suspect, because custom has been nearly invisible, if not unattainable, for some time. Thus, there is little popular familiarity with what it really is… and is not. Its recent rarity has meant that marketers and writers have built custom up so that it implies (wrongly) not just handmade, but perfect: slimming and rejuvenating the wearer, fitting him like a (custom-made?) glove and reflecting every whim and every quirk of his personality. In reality, experience shows that even the best custom clothing cannot transform the wearer – although I have the impression that fashion writers often promise that, no doubt assuming that something so generally expensive must have such talismanic power.

Sellers of cheaper custom clothing also take advantage of that myth. While writing this, I remembered the old saying one forum member applied to custom a decade ago: “Cheap, fast, good: pick two.” Frankly, the custom clothing customer is lucky to come away with even one of the three – even expensive bespoke is often slow, and sometimes not particularly good. However, now that custom is fashionable and supposedly magical, a profusion of new relatively inexpensive custom clothiers have emerged to join the thousands of dry cleaners and alterations tailors whose front windows advertise “custom tailoring” and feature the prop of a suit jacket festooned with baste stitches, a symbol as abstract and meaningless to the general public as the barber pole or the pawnbroker’s gold balls. (I wonder where they get all those fake basted jackets from?)

Where have these new custom clothiers come from? Some are actual visiting tailors, usually from areas with lower costs of labor. However, I believe many are businesses founded by trend-hopping salesmen who take orders and send them to factories or contracted tailors, usually in Asia to judge by their pricing. Competent tailors, like good chocolate makers, can be located anywhere – as can incompetent ones. But salespeople, particularly those fairly new to the custom clothing business, don’t necessarily know how to take measurements right or how to recognize what needs to be fixed at a fitting. In any event, at the prices some are charging, they may have a strong incentive not to identify problems or to fix those a customer identifies, and just move on to new customers. This appeared to be the strategy of one well-known new cheap tailoring company until it went belly-up a year or two ago. The customer needs to be careful that he’s receiving a suit that fits him, but that’s not necessarily easy to judge without experience. To say nothing of whether he can tell if the suit is well made – the suit guts won’t be on display and bad quality trimmings (buttons, sewing thread, internal pieces and so on) sometimes take some time to reveal themselves.

Because the fundamentals of what make a good custom suit (good individualized fit and good construction) are neither easy to get right nor flamboyant enough to get the attention of new potential customers, the new breed of cheaper custom tailors often advertise the availability of things like colorful linings, customized labels with the wearer’s name on them, cuff buttons that undo (sometimes with contrast-colored buttonholes), and other details that will stand out. This is part of the phenomenon of mass customization, the creation of a perception on the customer’s part that he is getting something individual, even if such individualism is superficial (or the important but boring stuff, fit and construction, mediocre).

Mass customization is not new: Former Rolling Stones manager and fuckup Andrew Loog Oldham recalls in his memoirs having to order clothes for school through the multiple tailors, the chain clothiers for men who had made-to-order clothing services, and how he punched them up by ordering all the craziest patterns and details that were available in the catalogs but never used. Finding a decent custom clothier, expensive or cheap, is often a matter of trial and error. Unfortunately, even with cheap custom, multiple trials can be expensive. One alternative is finding an off-the-rack suit maker or brand whose styling, quality and dimensions are a suitable compromise with your own needs and desires, and a good alterations tailor to carry out any final adjustments. For an item can be made to your measurements, but clumsily, and still fit badly and not last long. A decent off-the-rack suit will at least be made to a block pattern intended to approximate some set of human dimensions. From my own experience with bad custom, I know that’s not always the case. Until the grail of a good and reasonable custom tailor is reached, better the approximation of an off the rack fit than the distortion of bad bespoke.

Words by Reginald-Jerome de Mans

Monday, October 27, 2014

Civilized


One of the useful things about wearing a knitted slipover or waistcoat under a jacket is the way the additional texture increases the approachability of the ensemble. Knitwear is is considerably more textured than a cotton dress shirt and generally less formal (think worsted vs. woolen or wool necktie tie vs. silk). If your goal is as it should be to always look appropriate, even in front of those who may not know what they are looking at, then being able to dress down a blazer and gray flannels adds flexibility to that part of your wardrobe. Away from the office, relaxed wins more points than stiff.

Blazers are of course one of the more challenging things to wear in a correct context. They are neither fish nor fowl - not formal enough to substitute for a suit or informal enough to wear for knocking about. One description of when to wear one is in an old etiquette book which recommends Sunday luncheon, but that is only occasionally useful in today's world (I am certain that somewhere there is at least one group of people who regularly meet for Sunday lunch wearing blazers but I have never met them). Wednesday lunch in the city is considerably more likely.

In addition to their usefulness for off duty lunching, I was recently reminded that I also like a blazer for train travel. Unlike flying where even in the forward compartment you may look like a (wrinkled) fish out of water, wearing a jacket in business class on a high speed train feels particularly appropriate to me. A blazer and a waistcoat says 'I am traveling from one city to another but I am going to check in to my hotel when I arrive rather than go directly to a business meeting.' It's really quite civilized.

Words by Will Boehlke

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Man In A Gray Flanneled Suit


It is a vestige of my years in temperate climates that I think of changing out my summer wardrobe for fall each September, only to find that little of it can be worn before November. Each autumn I stare wistfully at the 14 and 16 ounce (420 and 480 gram) flannels in my closet knowing that they can contribute nothing but heat stroke until the temperature dips below 60 (15C or so). Though those days are coming.

Flannel, as regular readers know from reading similar posts every fall, is a woolen cloth that is technically similar to tweed. It has a nap to the finish, which makes it interesting to look at and traps heat so it wears warm (a good three piece flannel suit, a pair of gloves and a scarf will keep a man warm without an overcoat even when temperatures dip a little below freezing). One of its reputed characteristics, softness, is not necessarily true. Some of it wears a bit, for want of a better word, harsh, though my old solid gray from H. Lesser's Golden Bale of years ago feels like cashmere. The stuff also tends to rumple easier than worsteds of the same weight (Mr. Bogart probably donned his trousers thirty minutes before the photograph was taken), not nearly to the extent of linen but it does look comfortable in every meaning of the word.

In keeping with the cloth, when a man wears flannel he should look relaxed. That can make the stuff less well suited for some boardrooms than a worsted, though I will wear it anywhere. A London Cut jacket is more in keeping with its less formal look than anything with a military heritage, and oxford cloth shirts are a particularly good pairing. Just eschew Mr. Bogart's silk stripes and wear yours with a grenadine or cashmere necktie.

All this is leading up to the impending visit of English Cut's Mr. Thomas Mahon who has a length of Fox Brother's Classic Grey Glen Check with my name on it. This one will be single breasted, three roll two with a ticket pocket and it is intended for wear with an odd vest or a Fair Isle slipover. I shan't be able to wear it in September but he probably won't deliver it before next November anyway.

Words by Will Boehlke

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lounge Life


I suspect there comes a time for many a recreational dresser when he surveys his classically balanced wardrobe of suits, sportcoats, odd trousers, shirts, knits, neckwear, shoes, outerwear, hats, and accessories, and feels a slight pang of existential anxiety. It is at this point that he usually invests in a tuxedo, but this only delays the inevitable reckoning: Is this all there is? Is there nothing more? Here, surely, one should start saving in earnest for the higher education of one’s offspring, but chances are that there remains a final frontier of finery to explore, a last sartorial summit to climb, one more herd of haberdashery to hunt. I speak, of course, of loungewear.

While its female analogue has emerged from the boudoir to find mainstream acceptance in and out of high school classrooms, the past several decades have not been kind to classic men’s loungewear. Where once sumptuous pajamas*, slippers, and dressing gowns were the trinity of tasteful domestic leisure, conjuring the dry martinis and drier wit of Noël Coward and William Powell, they are now largely icons of tastelessly decadent sleaze, infamously associated with Hugh Hefner and his sniftering acolytes. Loungewear. The very word oozes lubricious intent.

It’s high time to rehabilitate this maligned genre. When it’s all but axiomatic that classical dressers dress today for our own pleasure, more or less restrained only by the degraded sartorial standards of our society, what better context than the home in which to indulge one’s inner dandy? Why should a man who (to paraphrase Hardy Amies’ famous description of a well-dressed man) has chosen his clothes with intelligence, and put them on with care, truly forget all about them once he gets home in the evening?

Indeed, the 18th century origins of classic western loungewear reflect the notion of the enlightened domicile as a civilized refuge from the world, an aesthetic sanctuary in which one was free to indulge in comfortable Orientally-inspired clothing considered too exotic for more formal functions. Founding Father, pioneering physician, and dedicated robe-rocker Benjamin Rush observed that “Loose dresses contribute to the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind. This remark is so obvious, and so generally known, that we find studious men are always painted in gowns, when they are seated in their libraries.” Such is the case with Rush’s contemporary, Bostonian poobah Ward Nicholas Boylston, portrayed above by John Singleton Copely wearing an “India gown” or “banyan” (a term derived from the Hindu word for trader) along with a dégagé turban of the sort worn at home in lieu of fussier wigs. Particularly in the sartorial backwater of the American colonies and the early republic, this flowing garment would even emerge onto cobblestoned streets as sophisticated undress. With the exception of the fur collar trim seen on winter banyans that would persist on men’s topcoats, however, such louche liberties did not survive Victorian austerity. The dressing gown has endured only as something to be worn in digs among family, close friends, and other intimates -- and therein lies its greatest appeal.

Entertaining in high style at home may be a nearly lost art, but along with cooking, brewing, mixology, and other pleasures being rediscovered by today’s DIY aesthetes, it’s one we’d do well to revive in our tightened times. To greet one’s inner circle wearing a dressing gown is more an extravagance of ego than expense, conferring upon the occasion a delicious decadence when understood to be the endearing eccentricity of the wearer, and why wouldn’t it be? These are your people, after all.

The dressing gown can of course be worn simply over the day’s shirt and tie (once again demonstrated by Mr. Boylston), but for full effect, don’t shy from pyjamas (another comfy legacy of colonial adventure in Asia) or foppish slippers (excepting those embroidered with “RL” or “BB”). If it all seems a bit much on a Saturday night, even for you, remember that it is only in the clear hard light of a Sunday morning -- when various other indulgences may be only regrets -- that loungewear achieves its highest transformative promise, evoking not roguish cad, but rumpled dad. There is no more perfect ensemble for making the coffee, perusing the paper, and piddling the dog.

Thus, truly, is the good life.

* I prefer the alternate spelling, in part in deference to the garment’s exotic provenance, but mostly out of sheer, silky pretension.

Text by Andrew Yamato