Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On The Monogram

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In what’s known as classic menswear, those of us who have acquired our pittance arrive at a position of extreme judgmentalness on the monogram: its presence on most items stands for pretense and mediocrity, because the wearer clearly does not know enough to feel the same way. My guess is that this position springs from the anti-logo, anti-advertisement current, almost a sort of snobbery, of recent years, as well as from the ease with which so many things can now be monogrammed, which undermines the implication that something with your initials in it was specially designed or made for you. I subscribed to this viewpoint for years, until I recently noticed a colleague’s shirt monogram in a tone-on-tone (white-on-white, to be precise) in a pleasant fancy italic font and found myself thinking it actually looked rather nice. Growing old, perhaps, I realize life is too short to use the presence of a monogram as a way to judge someone, even if the monogram was on his shirt cuff. Shoot, I’m doing it again.

Like my menswear brethren, I used to believe that monogramming needed to be discreet and actually useful. On most articles of clothing, monogramming serves no purpose. The legend is that monogramming (on shirts, in any case) came about to prevent shirts from being lost at the laundry. Today, however, no laundry would look at what’s stitched on the outside of your shirt to keep track of it, instead resorting to in-house methods like stapled tags, ironed on bar codes or (brace yourselves) a boldly scrawled Sharpie marker. And quite quickly, monograms became billboards for the wearer and later for the designer: old shirt makers sometimes show examples of the complicated ciphers and fanciful scribbles they could embroider for the wearer (done by hand, the cost could be more than that of the shirt itself). Their charts always include, to the fascination of us commoners, the complicated sets of coronets and such that various noble titles have rights to use, as well as the more gauche affectations of those who can afford (literally or figuratively) not to care what others think: the monogram of the King of Morocco, which appears to be his signature in Arabic; an EKG for what must be a dandified cardiologist somewhere; and so on.

While the most discreet shirt monogramming position is said to be the chest or slightly below it (because a jacket would cover it), obviously it would be more discreet still (and easier for the laundry as well, if they still referred to monograms) to have the monogram inside the shirt itself, where no one could see it while the shirt was being worn. Still, the classic monogramming location became the classic position for designer logos. Réné Lacoste’s crocodile, which he supposedly designed and wore on his own clothes, may have been the crossover point, as the Lacoste croc ended up on clothing sold to others for whom it wouldn’t have had his original personal significance (by legend, the crocodile had to do either with his luggage or his big nose).

Lisa Birnbach reminded us, if we needed reminding, that in their exuberant solipsism Preps monogram everything, from cushions to LL Bean backpacks. Outside that now artificial world, even the most prescriptive of us could accept monograms on plain silver or gold cufflinks and guilloche silver belt buckles (signet rings can only be worn by people who do not need to be told they can wear signet rings). And Anglophiles thrill to think of the monograms on the fronts of expensive evening slippers, generally embroidered to order from places like Tricker’s or Edward Green; the ones sold at Ralph Lauren of course already have “” on them. While still at Gucci, Tom Ford put a twist on the monogram I wish I could say I liked more, designing evening slippers with the initials “suc” embroidered on the right foot and “kme” on the left. Thinking back, he must have been one of those kids who entered naughty words for his name when he got the high score on an arcade game. And we should spare a thought for a last nostalgic frivolity courtesy of Alan Flusser 30 years ago, extolling cashmere socks from the old Beale & Inman that could be knitted to order with one’s initials in little diamonds on the leg. I was struck a few years ago to see that the Richard James Bespoke shop on Clifford Street in Savile Row was offering them again – my guess is that Corgi made and makes them.

I saw a bit of utility in having initials on one item, having Swaine Adeney engrave my initials on the collar of my travel umbrella. Looking back I should have had them engrave “Stolen from Réginald-Jérôme de Mans” instead. Nonetheless, I’ve frustrated would-be larcenists with some low-tech LoJack, unscrewing the handle when I drop my umbrella off at a check (no one wants an umbrella without a handle).

Pictured to my bemusement is the monogram in the cuff of my Camps de Luca suit, something they appear to include as a matter of course for their customers (like the teardrop inner pocket and other details). Fortunately, it remains covered when worn. As I’ve written earlier, complicated visible details like these are no indication of actual quality of an item, but with Camps de Luca it’s an example of the over-the-top finishing that accompanies the exquisite inner work and construction of their suits. Imitators like Djay have copied external details like these, with no guarantee of the same level of competence in their cutting, fitting and construction, the difficult stuff. The initials are not my own. The suit was a vintage find by my friend Paul-Lux, who kopped it and gave it to me, so that in true bloggerblagger fashion I too have not paid retail for my Camps de Luca suit. While its initials match those of the late Paris resident Porfirio Rubirosa, the crotch of the trousers is far too small to have accommodated his… repute The suit fits me pretty well. It’s how you use it, after all. Those who know don’t show.

Words and photo by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans


Hunter said...

"Growing old, perhaps, I realize life is too short to use the presence of a monogram as a way to judge someone, even if the monogram was on his shirt cuff."

Pretty much sums up my aspirational philosophy regarding pretty much all fashion questions (not to mention questions of cultural appreciation and what-not). I barely have enough time and energy to worry about what I wear/read/listen to/etc., let alone waste time worrying about others.

Recusant said...

Shirt monograms are pretty awful though, unless they are part of the label inside the collar, like Budd. Then you might find a laundryman looking at them.

Patrick Humphreys said...

Cary Grant monogrammed his shirts—on the chest, even, and not the more accepted below-the-ribs location. Good enough for him, good enough for me.

Joe Foerster said...

I've recently discovered, after reading blogs from this site no less, that I am an "iGent" and an guilty of many sins when it comes to my blossoming interest in better clothes. C'est la vie. Three of the things I have latched onto as fixtures of my new wardrobe are: One, French cuffs - always. Barrel cuffs make me think of buying shirts at JC Penney, so always French. Two, double-sided cuff links. I'm partial to the ones Kent Wang sells, but that's because they are nice yet affordable. And three, monogramming on the cuff. Sorry if that offends people. I usually have it done in a very subtle color such as white or pale blue on white, etc. It's a no-cost option in most cases and I prefer the diamond pattern with my last initial as the middle, larger character. I think I can justify this by the fact that I'm only an iGent instead of a real gentleman, and certainly the circles I'm seen in would barely know a wool suit from a polyester one anyway. Maybe someday I'll move past it, as an adolescent moves past things when he becomes an adult. For now I like it and it doesn't hurt anyone. :-)