Friday, July 25, 2014

Oxford


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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

RJ's Alternative Style Icons: Christopher Lee


The original version of The Wicker Man is not the one featuring Nicholas Cage screaming about bees, running around in a bear suit punching women, or otherwise engaging in what genius film critic The Outlaw Vern has termed “mega-acting.”  Those are the associations the film evokes nowadays thanks to its ill-famed Internet meme-spawning remake.  Similarly, for decades Christopher Lee’s name has conjured up his Hammer Horror Dracula roles, or for Bond bores his turn as, ironically, the sun-worshiping Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun.  More recently, Lee’s appearances in his grizzled great age in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies may mean that to younger viewers he is simply robed in menace, not elegance.

Lee has been typecast in marginal roles, often ethnic villains (such as the archiracist stereotype Fu Manchu) when not playing the undead, perhaps the most marginal human figures of all.  In contrast, he was born into the establishment, to parents from British and Italian upper-class families in London, and is a relative of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.  His role as the polished but diabolical Lord Summerisle in the original 1973 The Wicker Man, thus, may be closer to his background than most of his other work.  Certainly, Summerisle’s lovely wardrobe appears natural to Lee.  Just up from London when we first encounter his character, he greets Edward Woodward’s fatally frustrated police sergeant in a well-cut hacking-style sportcoat in shepherd’s or houndstooth check and a light green shirt with dark tie, as perfect for today’s dandies practicing rus in urbe as for practicing human sacrifice in the remote Hebrides.  Although Lee appears to swap out his shirt and tie for a violently orange-yellow pullover of some kind later in the film, he keeps the tweed.  Perhaps the inhabitants of Summerisle should have switched to weaving tweed cloth like some of their neighbors, instead of trying to harvest crops with the life of a virgin.  Lee’s character seems to wear enough of it, anyway.  Then all the unpleasantness in The Wicker Man wouldn’t have had to happen. 

We can chalk the goldenrod sweater up to the 1970s and, probably, the need to appease the old gods with some pagan fall colors.  (Lee’s hair, too, looks like he might have borrowed Dirk Bogarde’s wig from Modesty Blaise.)  In real life, Lee appears to have dressed with similar elegance to that of Summerisle’s country squire, to judge from his appearance hosting Saturday Night Live later that decade (and if we pay no heed to the bizarre mustache he was sporting): more tweed in a handsome pattern too tasteful to be either dated or FU, beautifully cut and well enough proportioned not to be immediately categorized as of its decade, as well as a gorgeous navy suit of similar cut.  It’s also interesting to note that the role Lee is most proud of is that of Pakistan founder and infamous Savile Row customer Muhammed Ali Jinnah in the biopic of that name.  To be sure, Lee’s tall, slender build and bearing mean that he can wear many clothes well, including the safari-style shirts and tropical wear of the assassin Scaramanga.  But Scaramanga’s clothing would not a style icon make.

Other reasons to watch:   Lee reportedly considers The Wicker Man his best film, and the film consistently ranks high in lists of the best British films or best horror films.  However, it’s easy to conclude that much of this adulation may be retrospective and relative – that the film’s cult status is based on its unusual premise and the performances of three stars that helped define their reputations if not their careers: Lee’s Summerisle, who finishes the film dancing to “Summer is Icumen In” (setting a high bar for randomness he would not reach again until 1994’s The Rainbow Thief) ; Edward Woodward’s dogged and repressed Sergeant Howie, plodding thanklessly to his own doom, and Britt Ekland’s nude seduction dance (with some assistance from a body double).  Part of the initial difficulty I had liking The Wicker Man was a main character who is intentionally unlikable:  Woodward very effectively telegraphs the stubbornness and priggishness of a character who refuses to let go of his chastity or his quest, even in the face of Britt Ekland’s gymnastic gyrations.  Perhaps that unbelievability makes the denouement of The Wicker Man some little bit more plausible.  For The Wicker Man’s slow burn can still inspire genuine, if bemused, shock in its last moments.  Lee’s style inspiration – and the freshness of seeing him portray a non-magical contemporary human being – make it a must see, even for those of us who are not fans of horror (sartorial or otherwise).

Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans and photo copyright British Lion Films


Monday, July 21, 2014

Boning



Shoes used to be polished with blacking (all shoes before the 1940's were black) applied with a stick and then rubbed with a deer bone to polish and smooth the scratches in the leather. It was a near-forgotten technique that still has value, with the caveat that it should only be used on cordovan and thicker leather like that used for hunting and riding boots. Regular calf will not stand up to it.

About three years ago, ASW produced this video on polishing cordovan using a deer bone. The 240,000 views it has received had a great deal to do with the wide availability of deer bones today but we realized only recently that we had never posted it. And so here it is.