Friday, August 22, 2014

Indian Summer


The time for wearing summer togs grows shorter with the days. Whether or not you strictly observe arbitrary rules of propriety, recreational dressers define seasons with seasonal clothing, and Labor Day is the time to start furling the Nantucket reds, tennis whites, and marine blues of high summer. For most of us, this comes not a moment too soon: the bloom has long been off the roses of bold summer color, and we crave the leafier palette of fall. Only the most delusionally eager Anglophiles will be brushing down their flannel and tweed anytime soon, however; this is America, after all, and this is the 21st century -- you’d be lucky to need that stuff for another couple months. Indian summer awaits.

Sartorially speaking, this shoulder of the shoulder season should evoke the subcontinent more than our own native tribes. While its typically brighter incarnations are best reserved for carefree summertime, Indian madras is also loomed in more subdued colors -- rust reds, chocolate browns, burnt oranges, and moss greens -- more suited to a more suited season. Such schemes work particularly well as ties (which start working their way back around necks this time of year), contributing bold patterns to autumn’s more muted outfits. As always, an excess of Earth-toned richness can be cut with a spot of oxford cloth in light blue (or any other pastel shade you’re not quite ready to retire for the year).

This is also the time to actually wear all those "summer" sportcoats you’ve been carrying over your arm and leaving on your chair for the past few months. Chunky linen, sleek gabardine, and slubby silk jackets actually cool when worn in less apocalyptic temperatures. Set them up with cream trousers or white bucks (not both; that time has passed for now) as a jaunty nod to the departing season, or with tropical greys and brown suede if you can’t wait for the first frost.

Socks. You really should put them back on. I’m more indulgent of bare ankles than most traditionalists on this matter, and have myself enjoyed their cooling efficiency on real steamers, but once Labor Day rolls around, it’s best to stow the invisible hosiery in your invisible yacht, or else they won’t feel so transgressively liberating next spring.

Finally, the September 15th cutoff for wearing panamas and boaters should be absolutely respected in observance of the infamous 1922 Straw Hat Riot. The Youth are still lurking everywhere, and given what those things cost these days, one cannot be too careful.

Text and photo by Andrew Yamato

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How Little Has Changed


It may shock the modern reader to learn that writing on style predates the Internet. In fact it is as old as tailcoats. But dandy literature in the early 19th century hadn't yet matured into a hashtagged processional of how-to guides, product reviews, and sale announcements. You can't expect these things to just emerge from the silk-lined womb fully formed. Like the producers who founded the beaver picture industry, the early writers on style thought that they should at least fake a plot.

Benjamin Disareli's Vivian Grey was among the first and most popular of this genre. As a work of fiction, it is without value. Disraeli himself wrote in his diary several years after its first publication that it was “in short, the most unequal, imperfect, irregular thing that indiscretion ever published.” But it didn't matter. The book compelled because it presented an accurate-enough description of the London social scene, and some droll commentary on same, so that the reading experience is like sitting on the shoulder of a wearied aristocrat at a B-minus ball. It was also published anonymously, leading to months of speculation over the identity of the author.

Imagine the disappointment and embarrassment when it turned out to be Disraeli, a Jew who hadn't even gone to public schools. And yet, there it was, so Disraeli earned himself a viewing in London society. In retrospect, his position was a difficult one, if enviable. He had earned notoriety as a writer by feigning membership of a world not his own. His protagonist's rise and fall surely reflected Disraeli's own uncertainty about his place in the world. Vivian, Disraeli's titular hero and clear representative in this quasi-fictive world, spends the first half of the book trying to find his way to the top of London's political pyramid, and the second half atoning for the failure of his schemes by wandering through Europe, finally ending the story flopping around in the middle of a bridge-busting storm in rural Germany.

Would Disraeli repeat the hubris of Vivian or fulfill the role of grateful lackey? There is no right answer, but Disraeli chose the first. Henry Bulwer spotted him wearing “green velvet trousers, a canary-coloured waistcoat, low shoes, silver buckles, lace at his wrists”; a friend noted Disraeli impressing his “coxcombry” on all he met. He must have made a fine sight on his first campaign for Parliament in 1832, a sort of dandy pirate in his sumptuous clothes and long curly black locks. He lost the election.

Disraeli's story is not an uncommon one for those who write about – or even design and produce – clothing. Locked out of fashionable parties as an opportunity for sartorial exhibitionism, an aspiring dandy must imagine these scenes in his own mind and, if he is called to it, write about them. When fantasy becomes reality, the fantasist often gets overeager.

Balzac, whose Wikipedia page's “Family” section begins touchingly, “Honore' de Balzac was born into a family which had struggled nobly to achieve respectability”, began journalistic writing to satisfy his tailoring bills. Dandyism had recently taken off in France, swept up in a general Anglophilia following Napoleon's ass-kicking at Waterloo. The French were much less embarrassed about their interest in clothing, and saw nothing wrong with long treatises on elegance, even elevating dandyism as sort of a philosophy all its own. The most enduring of these essays was Balzac's “Treatise on Elegant Living”, which continues to inspire forum slogans and Rake articles to this day. Mostly it's a French translation of Brummell's unique blend of elitism and elaborately staged aloofness. “Anything that aims at an effect,” reads a typical passage, “is in bad taste.”

For Balzac's own wardrobe, however, the indispensable Ellen Moers (whose book The Dandy should be read by anyone interested in men's clothing) tells us that he “worked as hard at the dandyism of costume as Disraeli, for some of the same reasons and with even less taste. His affectations of dress – the monstrous cane, studded with turquoises, the elaborately carved gold buttons, the unending stream of new gilets and gloves (a different pair, in theory, for every day in the year) – were the subject of unending discussion, little of it flattering, among his friends.”

Balzac and Disareli might have been laughed at by their friends, but they have had a huge amount of influence on men's style, and not all of it even bad. How little has changed. Alan Flusser, whose Dressing the Man is at the top of every #menswear reading list (especially those ordered alphabetically by author's first name), these days dresses like someone trying to hitch-hike from Moscow to Newport. I saw him at Pitti this summer wearing a Madras jacket, track pants, and driving shoes with a racing stripe.

There are exceptions of course. Will, our suitable warlord, has been impeccably dressed every time I've seen him. Likewise my intrepid yurt-scavenging colleague Reginald-Jerome de Mans, pithy of both wit and helmet. But it must be admitted that those who have written on clothing have generally covered themselves with something less flattering than glory.

In any case, the condition need not be debilitating. Disraeli went on to become Prime Minister of England. Balzac became a seminal figure in European literature. I'm not aware that Flusser has any political aspirations, but there's always hope for another Wall Street sequel. To those of us still in the fantasizing stage, that sounds pretty damn good.

Words by David Isle

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Complementing Refinement


There is sprezzatura. There is refinement. And though the two are at odds, the well dressed man needs both.

The masculine version of dressing well as you know means giving the appearance of not trying too hard, something that is in conflict with a good suit let alone an obviously dandyish touch like a brown homburg hat. Nonetheless, better dressers emulate the Italians by, for example, mixing a knit tie and chambray shirt with their worsteds to simulate nonchalance.

Refinement on the other hand is the progressive polishing of a man's look over time. He acquires better shoes, begins having his shirts made, and may even dare the occasional statement by wearing a silk square instead of his usual white linen. And polishing pays off when the positive impression that it leaves is notable.

Just remember to leave your double breasted unbuttoned so your critics focus on the flaw rather than the perfection.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Curation


Of late the term “curation” has been bandied about on numerous websites that appear to promote fanciful verbiage over actual content. We have thus seen various webstores and physical stores praised for the exceptional curation of their merchandise. Heritage brands, another painful malapropism, sometimes announce the appointment of brand curators in order, I guess, to gently extract all that backed-up heritage they have yet to share with the world.

This is preciosity of the worst sort, a sort of term inflation that flatters the work of a fashion buyer, the person whose job it is to select the items that a shop sells. (In the case of a brand curator, the work often includes that of secondhand buyer of vintage pieces from a brand’s history that support the image it is trying to sell today.) For whatever its original roots (and curation etymologically derives from the concept of simply caring for something, medically or otherwise), the popular association of curation is that of the curator of a museum, the person tasked with the collection, interpretation and preservation of cultural heritage. It is no accident that heritage is another buzzword in fashion today. Heritage is usually applied to a brand which has found a way of selling out what made it distinctive in the first place. Curation implies that items in a store have been selected as worthy of collection – worthy of conservation beyond their time, appealing to today’s contemporary values of supposedly timeless style or enduring quality. In the end, used in this sense, curation is a fashionable euphemism for someone telling you what to buy, similar to how mixologist is a euphemism for tending bar.

The concept of a brand curator is something more bizarre still. Beginning a decade or so ago, a couple of brands decided to ape the example of Hermès, which has maintained a museum of sorts of some old designs and their inspirations on one of the floors of its flagship (by appointment only). Because the qualification to be a heritage brand is simply to have been in business for several years while referring to history and quality in one’s advertising, all kinds of brands were eligible to collect old merchandise and paraphernalia (ads, clothing and accessories made by other people but worn by style icons or which the brand would like to associate with itself and its image), and to task a brand curator whose responsibilities include that of ambassadorship, another new function that is a euphemism for marketing outreach, marketing with an aim to convey the historical image the brand wants to claim. Ideally, a brand curator will choose items from the past, made by the brand or not, that suggest the brand’s supposed image. Those items will then go into brand homes around the world, sophisticated window-dressing for expensive shopping.

While curation can thus be a retail concept or bugaboo, it’s also a seductive siren song for the enthusiast, a fig leaf for obsession and collecting. As suggested above, curation today suggests museums, rarity, enduring esthetic or artisanal value and conservation. A few of us sometimes embark on one-man missions to preserve items reflecting our obsessions. In the end, it is another foolishly fanciful fantasy, as may have been the case with the tie pictured, brilliant red silk woven with East Asian imagery, probably of midcentury vintage, made by Sulka during its heyday.

I’ve written earlier about the overthinking that accompanies our deep obsessions, along with the delusion that anyone else would care to hear us rationalize them. Collection is another pathology we rationalize, an observation inspired when I recently read this quote from the magician and performer Ricky Jay about his decades-long collection of illusionist memorabilia: "I think the only form of a rationalized greed is when you’re collecting something you are supposedly serious about."

Jay admits to rationalizing his obsessive collection with the pretext of centralizing and conserving old, rare and obscure items on the topic. As a professional magician (OK, “illusionist” – what were we saying about mixology?), he possesses the knowledge and experience to recognize their rarity and their value as part of the heritage of illusionism (I hesitate each time I have to type that word in any of its forms).

I am no professional conservator, nor even a professional iGent or bloggerblagger. But over the years, I pulled together items like this tie out of a desire to save things from the fire, as I melodramatically put it to some of my e-friends: items that feature craftsmanship, patterns, quality or materials that may not be available again. Such was the case with my dragon jacquard shirt or the enameled coral branch cufflinks Will won’t let me forget. As the reader may imagine, sometimes these items veer into questionable taste, or at least questionable wearability, as with the Hilditch & Key Paris cashmere-silk neckerchiefs I picked up for Will and myself, or Fred. And for the last several years I’ve mulled over whether to buy a double-faced silk evening scarf from Charvet that features an extraordinary amount of braiding (passementerie) in the tassels, similarly to their most complicated dressing gown belts. While it’s the last scarf they have left or can make with this feature, it’s black on one side and traffic-warning yellow on the other, so I know I’d never wear it.

So does this tie fall under that sort of overreaching, collecting for the sake of obsession, adding to a deluded museum of some personal idea of elegance that no one else will ever visit? The rationalizations rise up: It’s unlikely it would find a better home, as did some true ancient madder ties that another enthusiast far more obsessed with the old silks (an obsession I can respect!) managed to get me to sell him. The pattern is highly unusual, extremely precise, and very vivid. Another tie like this may never be made again: even if someone had a similar pattern woven up, who could tell if the silk, the colors and the weave were of the same quality as this? And there will never be another Sulka, as Mr Porter’s recent attempt to sell incredibly bland, incredibly expensive ties under that brand name has proved. The commercial motivation to combine the most creative and the highest quality just isn’t there. The path to redemption ‑ the cure for curation syndrome ‑ is clear: can I wear it unself-consciously (disregarding all the rationalizations above) and enjoy it?

My night at the museum is over, at least for today.

Text and photo by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Monday, August 18, 2014

Accessorize


Accessories make the man doncha know. A great suit with ordinary accessories looks ordinary. An ordinary suit with great accessories looks great. Just sayin'.

Slang aside, the classically well dressed French woman will wear her one great ensemble day after day if that is what the occasions call for and men would do well to emulate her. After all, the point of those frequently recommended toned down colors and patterns is that they can be worn often without drawing "didn't he wear that yesterday?" thoughts.

Not every accessory in a wardrobe needs to be of the highest quality but when choices have to be made there should be one or two of each type for important occasions.  A couple perfect neckties and a linen handkerchief are obvious. A pocket watch like the one Mr. McQueen wears in the original Thomas Crown is an example of an item that puts the day's clothing on a higher plane, but a good metal watch and a pair of basic gold or enameled silver cufflinks ought to be acquired as early in life as is practical. Similarly, a tailored man ought to have at least one pair of high quality oxfords with a complementary belt or braces, a couple of perfectly fitted shirts, and for cooler weather a cashmere scarf and a good pair of gloves in a color other than black.

Returning to that pocket watch, no more than one accessory in the day's clothing should stand out if a little strutting is appropriate (unless a man is visiting a gathering of dandys, more may create the impression that he is trying too hard). Watch, cufflinks, crocodile belt or patterned braces and perhaps a silk pocket square are the usual ways to express oneself, but when the weather calls for it a hat or umbrella are others.

Accessorize.