Thursday, November 20, 2014

Be Bold, But Softly

My stepfather’s wardrobe, mainly assembled in the 1980s, was typical for a businessman of his era, filled with mini herringbone, baby houndstooth, faint pinstripes, and muted glen plaids, all rendered in clear-finished worsted. In the immediately post-Herb Tarlek era, subtlety was a byword for taste -- a vaguely Reaganite reaction against the seizure-inducing liberties of pattern taken by 1970s permanent press. Suits like my stepfather’s were the bland, joyless, semi-solid uniforms (often framing the brittle rictus of a “fun” necktie) that augured the end of the tailored era, and to this day they fill the mournful racks of thrift stores and various other men’s warehouses nationwide.

Patterns so shrunken or diminished that they’re virtually invisible across a table simply aren’t worth having. They don’t communicate tasteful refinement so much as timid repression, wanly worn for fear of being either too boring or too brazen, conveying neither the elemental confidence of solids nor the playfulness of bolder patterns. They are, in short, everything that most people have in mind of when they think of tailored clothing: zzzzz.

Setting aside the more esoteric Scottish tartans, the classic menswear canon acknowledges only a handful of distinct patterns for cloth: stripes, houndstooth, herringbone, windowpane, shepherd/district/gun check, Glen and Russell plaids. (Nailhead, birdseye, barleycorn, and a few other patterns are generally so fine as to appear solid at all but the most intimate ranges, and are thus more usefully regarded as weaves rather than patterns.) If this is a somewhat arbitrary collection, it is based on centuries-old weaving techniques and technology, and sanctified by tradition (or perhaps more to the point, sanctified by most men’s traditional aversion to novelty). For the most part, these patterns all have a geometric simplicity that lends itself to combination without clashing (in interesting contrast to womenswear’s virtually limitless design palette and stubborn aversion to pattern mixing). There’s really no rocket science to this. The principle variable is simply scale: patterns can peaceable coexist when their relative size and density differ.

As previously noted, the most common and least interesting combination is a tiny pattern against a merely small one. Americans have generally been willing to be a bit bolder with their neckties, and city boys in London tend to let their shirts do the talking, but dressers with moxy know that pattern’s most exciting canvas is cloth. A patterned tie or shirt gives a flash of visual interest, but a patterned suit or jacket envelops one in it, and the larger field encourages one to go big. When unapologetically visible, stripes flatter figures, textural patterns like houndstooth and herringbone soften formality, and any sort of box check accentuates the movement of curvaceous tailoring.

Personally, I don’t buy the received wisdom that shorter men should avoid patterns; one need look no further than the Duke of Windsor himself to see that a confident dresser can wear what he likes, whatever his stature. There real pitfalls of pattern are less often noted. One must be careful, for example, not to mix patterns of differing formality; urban stripes and rustic plaids are never happily paired, whatever their relative scales. A somewhat related corollary is to mind the relative hardness of any given pattern. Traditional weavers understand that the most beautiful patterns should generally be somewhat softened, playing to the woolen texture of the country cloths that tend to carry them; not necessarily muted, but fuzzed around the edges, like the imperfect edges of ribbon type on good paper when you really zoom in. Pinstripes and laser-like windowpanes on worsted city suits may convey a certain professional precision, but I’ll take my lines chalked on flannel every time.

Be bold, but softly.

Words by Andrew Yamato

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Indulge Yourself

Ah, silk. It hangs beautifully and feels wonderful on the skin, which is why it is used for the finest underwear. Or, in this case, for silk dressing gowns.

What, you may ask is a dressing gown? It is a long robe worn over pajamas or shirt and trousers for breakfast and lounging around at home generally. It is also (along with the oversized v-neck cashmere sweater and the oxford cloth shirt) one of the three things a man should have in his closet in case someone special unexpectedly stays overnight (the height of self indulgence would be to own a second gown for that purpose so he can wear his while his partner wears the other). Executed in fine necktie silk, the feel of a dressing gown will put a smile on the sleepiest face.

Dressing gowns have been worn by stylish men for hundreds of years, and though most of us no longer dress in the company of various staff and acquaintances there is no reason to deprive ourselves of the feel of silk. After all, as W. Somerset Maugham observed in The Outstation, the most important time to maintain standards is when we are alone.

Pair a dressing gown with a pair of our leather or suede house shoes and indulge yourself.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review(s): Mode Men And Choupette

A few years ago a friend and I used to joke about Karl Lagerfeld, the theatrically bizarre German-born designer prone to fanning himself and making demotic pronouncements. There’s no underestimating Karl’s talent; at one point he designed for five different names, including Chanel and Fendi, a season. However, he’s obviously cultivated a somewhat inhuman, sterile persona over the many, many decades since he came to prominence as the award-winning scion of a German condensed milk manufacturer. We speculated about him owning a cat, something fluffy that he would pamper and give a twee name to like “Herr von Argelsdorfer” or “Frau Bittner” . This was before Lagerfeld was filmed incongruously doting on Carine Roitfeld’s granddaughter and before the launch of the Karl Lagerfeld teddy bear, a stuffed Steiff facsimile of Lagerfeld in ursine form, clad in his trademark severe high-collared white shirt, slim black suit and sunglasses. A request to my mom for one as a Christmas present met with bemusement, perhaps because I was over 30 at the time. And, of course, all this was before Lagerfeld out-trolled all of us and adopted a Birman cat he named Choupette, on whom he dotes more than we could have imagined, who tweets [@ChoupettesDiary] and who has now come out with a book.

Choupette’s book is the most important book by a non-human fashion icon since Les Mémoires de Chi-Chi le Chow, by the dog of “King of the Dudes” Evander Berry Wall. French caricaturist Sem immortalized Wall with one of his chows, each in immaculate collar, at Charvet demanding “a Chinese neck-tie for my dog!” It certainly would not be out of place for Choupette, who has her own bodyguard, to patronize French shirtmakers with Lagerfeld, who likely single-handedly keeps the Paris branch of Hilditch & Key in business.

Obviously, Choupette: The Private Life of a High-Flying Fashion Cat is fluff, but of the most innocuous, sweet-natured kind, and as such many times better than the soul-deadening idiocy of recent publications like Luxury Fashion or the specious pornography of One Savile Row. There are no pretensions to single-handedly creating gentlemen or heritage branding, nomercenary bloggerblaggers vomiting press relseases, just the life and loves of a cat, along with her favorite recipes (by Lagerfeld’s personal chef), descriptions of her favorite haunts, and cat quotes from favorite authors, including decadents like Pierre Loti and poets like Baudelaire. An amusing and perhaps tongue-in-cheek testament to what seems to be Lagerfeld’s very real love for his cat, and that emotion has a depth and veracity most other clothing-related books lack.

Mode Men, by the French blogger, caricaturist, dandy and scenester Julien Scavini, is perhaps more accessible to the clothing-interested reader. Its goal should be familiar – to acquaint the reader with the basics of the male wardrobe and how to coordinate them – but few clothing books accomplish it with the verve and charm of Scavini’s writing and illustrations.

From its title we can guess that Mode Men is is aimed at capitalizing on the zeitgeist, the supposed vogue for dressiness epitomized, rightly or wrongly (wrongly) by Mad Men and cosplay pageants like Boardwalk Empire or I Am Dandy. Indeed, Scavini is currently appearing on Cousu Main, the French version of the tailoring reality show The Sewing Bee. Nonetheless, Mode Men is not some cynical and superficial cash grab. Instead, it’s a genial compendium of Scavini’s clothing knowledge, a faithful reflection of his encyclopedic grasp of advice and trivia. Mode Men accompanies a clothing novice named Antoine through the stations of the crux of dressing: shirts, sweaters, trousers, jackets, suits, shoes and accessories. Not only is it accessibly written, but Scavini’s charming illustrations appear throughout to provide visual aids. His illustrations are a feature of Scavini’s blog, which delivers, in the same good-humored and informative manner, somewhat more involved clothing discussion: a page on the different types of French lapel notches (Camps de Luca versus Arnys (bespoke separate from ready-to-wear) versus Smalto) is a revelation. Mode Men does not drill down to that level of esotericism. That’s not what Scavini is trying to do here. The reader will still find a dizzying amount of information intended to cover fundamentals and where (in France) to buy them. One might quibble with a few of the details, but the broad good sense, the accessible tone, and the immense charm of Scavini’s drawings make this perhaps the best French-language clothing guide, certainly better than anything in recent years, and a rival in any language for the best of Flusser or Roetzel, whose clothing books influenced so many of us. Scavini is a worthy addition next to them on any bookshelf.

Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Monday, November 17, 2014

Just Add Color

Blah day? Add some casual color. Last week a Kelim patterned silk scarf and lightweight cashmere polo shirt brightened an otherwise sullen afternoon.
Words by Will Boehlke

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Aspirational Dressing

“Clearly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were.”

I’ll wager that most of you know exactly where that line comes from. A slender, well-printed volume, filled with winsome illustrations of empty clothes that invited you to imagine yourself in them, perhaps even living out the little Hemingwayward fantasies of provenance cooked up by its copywriters. Today, when the internet has made it easy to find everything and difficult to discover anything, the J. Peterman catalog is perhaps even beneath the contempt that made it such a laughingstock on Seinfeld, but I remember a time when its monthly arrival was cause for a pause (and not solely because it tended to be perused in the bathroom).

Sartorialism wasn’t anyone’s birthright in my small midwestern hometown, particularly in the style-allergic 90s. Excesses of greed and shoulder padding over the previous decade had tempered the already waning enthusiasm for classic clothing, which in any case was now largely neutered by Business Casual or cast off entirely for more grungy alternatives -- both of which misbegotten enterprises aimed to strip clothes of pretense, romance, pomp & circumstance.

What a shame. Clothes are inherently, gloriously transformational. They have always been a means -- particularly for those without many means -- to punch above one’s weight, to jump tracks to a different life. This is of course why they’ve been so closely regulated throughout history, subject to review by ecclesiastic authorities for decency, sumptuary laws for impudence, fashion editors for taste -- all efforts to restrict the potentially dangerous power of clothes, to reserve it for elites, be they medieval royalty, industrial aristocracy, Oxbridge/Ivy undergraduates, or simply the cool kids at school.

Dress, in this sense, is analogous to that other richly nuanced and closely monitored mode of daily expression: speech. Late nineteenth-century advances in manufacturing and education made fine clothes and fine accents attainable for a much wider swath of the population, and a highly-wrought precision in both became more or less universally aspired to as indices of good upbringing, if not necessarily of good breeding. We have a tendency today to patronize such efforts as quaintly gauche, or worse: the slavish imitation of one’s supposed betters, predicated on an unhealthy disregard for one’s own humbler origins. They are, however, nothing less than embodiments of Culture as originally conceived by Matthew Arnold: the cultivation of thought, habit, and art -- usually through great, even proud, effort -- toward evermore perfect ideals.

Culture so defined sought improvement, encouraged aspiration, validated dreams. Little surprise that two existentially devastating world wars pretty much knocked the stuffing out of it. Not for nothing do we tend to see the popular apogee of both eloquence and elegance in the interwar decades, when radio and cinema came into their own, carrying high diction and high style to the masses. It was a fleeting era of Hepburn and Murrow’s delightful mid-Atlantic accents, of midnight blue tuxedos tailored for trade banquets in Milwaukee and Boise, ultimately all swept away as artifacts of artifice by a disillusioned new countercultural ethos claiming to worship Authenticity, whatever that may mean.

Our is not an elegant world. It is perhaps more liberated, more inclusive, more convenient, more comfortably distracted, but we have lost much of the romance that once made it so beautiful and pleasurable. The clothes we choose to wear might not have much effect on our larger reality, but they can dramatically affect our experience of it -- a stalwart first and last line of aesthetic defense. Good ol’ J. Peterman understood this before most, and if the marketing of his merchandise is easy to mock, the sentiment behind it is familiar to anyone who loves clothes not because of how they fit our world today, but how they can defy it.

Words by Andrew Yamato and illustration by J. Peterman