In the spring of 2007 my college roommate from Boston introduced me to the Tea Partay video. It changed my life.
I realize not everyone has the privilege of being able to point to the defining moment in their life (or in my case a viral advertising campaign) that had such a profound impact on their very identity that they were never the same afterwards. I suppose I’m lucky that my “moment” involved topsiders, cable-knit sweater vests, pastel coloured polos, and alcoholic malt beverages that came in flavours like lemon, peach and of course raspberry. Granted, the P-Unit wasn’t for everyone – but those geezers will snicker at just about anything.
For me the Tea Partay was a new way forward - a road map to a lifestyle I hadn’t previously known I wanted. That summer, and again the following spring, I would travel down to New England to gorge on the trappings of my new self. Ironically I was never able to obtain any Smirnoff Raw Tea.
In the years that have passed since college, filling my plate with Tea Partay trimmings has been pretty straightforward. The chinos„ the merino sweaters, and the private clubs have all come my way pretty easily. Getting a chocolate lab was a little more difficult. This only leaves taking up residence in New Hampshire or Vermont as my final obstacle to achieving Tea Partay nirvana.
Once I acquired my chocolate lab I knew I had to set her up, make sure she was looking right and earning the respect of all the other bitches on the block. That meant a Barbour waxed dog coat – something that would match my Beaufort to wear on our long walks on the beach. She’s now pretty much a canine Muffy Aldrich.
I’ll be the first to admit that before I got young Scotia I thought jackets for dogs were a pretty dumb idea. Maybe they still are. I doubt very much her little Barbour keeps her “warm”, but the waxed cotton does keep her back dry, which makes drying her off at the end of a rainy Vancouver outing that much easier.
I’m very much over silk ties.
In the latter part of 2013 I found myself acquiring wool ties almost exclusively – and I don’t foresee that trend abating in 2014. I suppose it is natural to be drawn to warmer fabrics, in more subdued colours, in the fall and winter months - but for me I think it is more than that.
Wool ties have an inviting and complex texture to them that is lacking in their repp silk brethren. By working with a considerably more muted palette, wool ties convey rich colours with a depth that is at the very least different than silk, and for my money more pleasant. The traditional nature of wool ties, both in their colouring and styling is no doubt owed to their pedigree as a “weekend” tie – put to best use in the countryside, on the hunt, or in the study. Though historically viewed as more causal than silk, and not typically featured in the English gentry’s city wardrobe, when you consider how much brown is being worn in town these days, I’d venture that it is safe to knot-up a wool tie in even the most conservative of workplaces.
The truth is that a lot of silk ties look cheap. Cheap silk ties look too shiny, too glossy, or too chunky to be taken seriously. Today everyone wears a tie that reads “100% silk” or “all silk” or some other descriptor that is really of no assistance in determining the value of the tie. Cheap ties look terrible. Also only the finest ties in the world are actually made of nothing but silk. At the very least the interlining of the “100% silk” tie is made of a material other than silk, and in most cases the tipping and thread will be as well.
Because wool ties remain somewhat of novelty, only worn by those in the #menswear game, or those geezers too old for the game entirely, they remain somewhat of an unadulterated product – and thus less likely to look like they came from Nordstrom Rack, even if in fact that’s where you got them. They also continue to be manufactured, by and large, in conservative patterns and colours, rather than in garish hues with obnoxious designs. This means that unlike some of those Tommy Hilfiger ties in your closet, they won’t look terribly dated after only a couple seasons.
Like the silk grenadine, the wool tie will never dislodge the silk repps from the lofty heights of workplace hegemony, but in 2014 I’m going to try and let them make a run at it.
I appreciate the ambiance of #menswear shoppes as much – or more – than the next guy. From the well-curated window display that draws you in off the street, to the mise en scène created within by the fixtures and the cultural artifacts strewn about on shelves and tables, it all comes together to reassure the customer that they’ve come to the right place.
The storefront provides the “feel” that must match the “look” that the label sells. The Filson flagship store in Seattle for example is stylized as some sort of hunting cabin – complete with fireplace and mounted moose head. Purveyors to the shirt-and-tie crowd tend be a little more refined in their “visual merchandising” opting for quilted leather wingbacks over rocking chairs, and towering bookcases over hunting trophies. Much like the clothing they sell – some merchants do this better than others.
For as long as I can remember law reporters have been a staple prop in just about every #menswear store of the trad or Ivy set. You can see them featured prominently in this image lifted from the J Press website, they’re also featured in the photo at the top of this post. I consider this incredibly interesting.
Though window displays and chino colours change with the season, these trusty bound sets of judicial opinions apparently never go out of style.
I really enjoy printed reporters. Although as a lawyer I rarely actually refer to them (almost everything is available online), and most law firms are now binning decades worth of these costly relics, I suppose there is something romantic about these sequentially numbered and uniform texts, with brightly coloured bands around their spines, that gives them a timeless aesthetic. But surely young men who share my sentiment represent a rather small sect of the #menswear market?
Furthermore I find it hard to believe that the legal crowd remains (if it ever was) the target market of so many brands and shoppes. Brooks Brothers must dress just as many bankers, doctors and consultants as they do lawyers. Yet year after year Brooks Brothers , J Press and even Banana Republic (to name a few) include law reporters in their advertisements and in-store displays.
Yes, lawyers and judges are habitual wearers of suits, ties, tweeds and cufflinks. Nevertheless I don’t think the #menswear public holds up the legal profession as a beacon of all that is right and proper with traditional dress. Though every now and then a legal drama does grace the airwaves (most recently USA Network’s Suits)that leads the masses to believe that all attorneys are charismatic and well-dressed individuals who spend much of their time just hanging out and looking crispy - for better or worse this is not actually true.
My guess is that legal reporters are a popular muse of merchandisers not because the profession they are affiliated with is particularly rakish, but because of the larger concepts they represent: establishment, tradition, conservative values, and higher learning. The fact that their existence in actual law offices is somewhat anachronistic I suppose only reinforces their symbolism. If you’re in the market for a navy blazer, an oxford cloth button-down, or a decent pair of brogues I’d wager that at least a couple of the aforementioned characteristics appeal to you.
(In the photo above you can see that instead of repurposing actual reporters destined for the landfill, Banana Republic decided to commission entire sets of fake books for their displays. A merchandising initiative as contrived and empty as the pages in the B.R. Reports.)
Interior decorators and set designers appropriated the legal reporter decades ago and turned these rather boring and utilitarian objects into vogue furnishings. Indeed, the sight of neat rows of reporters lining the shelves of Victorian-era homes, and the offices of the rich and powerful in movies and television has made them cliché – a visual shorthand for an enviable lifestyle enjoyed by the privileged. Deserved or not, the learned texts of other professions have not received such adoration from artists and designers, which is why this American Federal Reporter is in a Vancouver Brooks Brothers window and not an old edition of Gray’s Anatomy.
Much has been written on the importance of buying well made goods, especially wardrobe workhorses like suits and shoes. Indeed, it’s likely that too much has been written on this one aspect of #menswear alone.
While it is of unquestionable importance to seek out quality in whatever accoutrements you require, the conscientious consumer must turn his mind to secondary considerations like customer service and brand warranties if he is to avoid disappointment with his purchases down the road. This couldn’t be truer in our era of ecommerce. I’d wager that most #menswear enthusiasts now do at least some of their shopping online, and whether that’s on eBay or through established online businesses - it comes with inherent risks. One of those risks is that the vendor won’t service or otherwise stand behind the product they sell you should a problem develop.
Of course one could encounter this problem when dealing with a brick-and-mortar retailer, but in my experience retailers physically rooted in a community are more responsive to the needs of their clientele. If you purchase a pair of shoes from the haberdasher downtown, and you return to the shoppe some time later bringing a latent defect in the shoe’s construction to the attention of the shoppe’s manager, it would be unusual not to receive some sort of compensation. Had you purchased the same shoes, with the same defect, online you may not be so lucky.
I recently had an experience that made me reflect on these and other concerns. A couple years ago now I bought a pair of Loake boots online. I purchased them “new” and in box, but from an eBay retailer based in the UK. Despite my best efforts looking after them, and even resoling them, a nasty hole developed in the upper of one of the boots. Though I had gotten good use out of them I expected more from this historic Northhamptonshire boot maker. With no “store” to return them to I had only the brand’s reputation to lean on for assistance. Accordingly I boxed them up, and sent them back to the factory.
I had no receipt. No warranty card. I couldn’t even say I bought them from an “authorized dealer”. My only currency was a thoughtfully written letter. The approach was simple and straightforward: I explained that I had thoroughly enjoyed wearing the boots, but had hoped to get more than two years use out of them.
Several weeks after I sent off my package I received an email from a gentleman at Loake named Oliver who was sympathetic to my troubles, and agreed that my boots must have been defective. He offered to replace them with a new pair. No further questions asked. No further charges. Now this is how a company stands behind its products.
My experience with Loake was a very tangible example of the enduring benefits of buying from bona fide #menswear brands. Could I have found Chelsea boots online for less than I paid for my Loakes? Sure, but had those down-market boots worn out prematurely I doubt even the most eloquent letter writing campaign would have generated a replacement pair. This unhappy occurrence would then result in me buying two pairs of poor quality boots, when I should have just bought a proper pair in the first instance. In this latter scenario the high street brand isn’t such a bargain after all.
As was recently observed over at A Suitable Wardrobe, #menswear fungibility is a myth. We pay more for products from reputable and established #menswear brands because they are better or different from the cut-rate competition. Cynics will always say that the discerning consumer needlessly pays more just for “the brand” – but if paying for “the brand” means that years after I make my purchase “the brand” will continue to provide me with prompt, courteous and in this case generous customer service, I think “the brand” is a pretty good long-term value.
So as tempting as it may be when you’re cruising eBay to zero-in on the most competitively priced version of the shoe, bag or jacket you desire – it is always worth a pause to consider what recourse you’d have if the article is defective or otherwise doesn’t live up to your expectations.
Since the turn of the twentieth century ready to wear suits have been designed and produced according to a sizing formula that averages various measurements of the male anatomy to deliver “proportioned” suits that should fit most men with a 38, 40, 42 etc. inch chest. As trousers make up one half of a “suit”, they too are sized and proportioned to fall into this generic and comprehensive measurement system. This should not be news to anyone who has ever bought a suit.
The “drop” is the difference between a suit’s chest measurement and the waist measurement of the accompanying trousers. The standard drop is 6”. This means that a suit sold as a 42R is going to come paired with pants proportioned to fit a man with a 36” waist. Think about that.
According to Dr. Oz a waistline of greater than 35” is heading into unhealthy territory, yet pants of that rather generous cut are paired with a jacket of pretty standard size. I realize that Dr. Oz is not the final say on what is or is not healthy, but apparently he has the stones to tell his fan-base of Americans who love day time television that their 36”+ waistlines are killing them - so he must be able to back that up. If you’re ever hard pressed to cite a single fact or statistic that conclusively demonstrates that suits are designed with slightly overweight (and not particularly athletic) geezers in mind, the “standard 6” drop” would be it.
Though some brands offer “slim fit” models where the drop is 7” (like this suit from Jack Victor) or even 8”, these are few and far between. The Milano fit from Brooks Brothers for example, the legendary suit-makers “slimmest fitting suit” adheres to a 6” drop. Such a shame.
The truth is that for healthy, active young men, our drop is going to be greater than 6”, and more like 8”-10”. If you’re tall, go to the gym, or just have good genes your broad shoulders will require a 40” jacket or greater, but you’d never dream of wearing suit pants with a 34” waist.
This creates a dichotomy for the aforementioned group between a suit’s off-the-peg drop and their actual drop. This gap, if not properly addressed by a competent tailor, can result in billowy-ass trousers lacking all indicia of taper or break. By “addressed” I don’t mean merely having the department store tailor, or the dry cleaner around the corner, take-in the waist on the offending trouser. Yes, that may bring the waist more in-line with a proper fit but it doesn’t actually address the drop problem.
As discussed above the pants of a 42R suit have been cut to accommodate a man whose butt, quads and calves require a 36” waist. So if one purchases a 42R suit, but their actual drop is 8” and they get the waist of the trousers taken in to accommodate their 32” waist – but they go no further with the tailoring – their suit pants are going to look ridiculous flapping in the wind around their skinny legs. I hate to beat up on Congressman Ryan - but these choice photos illustrate my point nicely.
Being mindful of the drop means getting your tailor to take-in the seat, and re-adjust the taper of the trousers, as well as taking in the waist so that the silhouette remains proportional and flattering, and you’re left with a slight break on your shoes.
Yes, ready to wear suits rarely fit well of the rack – tailoring is required; the #menswear blogosphere established this long ago. Unfortunately considerably less has been written about just what exactly needs to be tailored and why.
By keeping the drop in mind the next time you find yourself trying on suits, and by remembering that in all likelihood the pants you’re about to slip on were cut with a much larger man in mind than you, you can approach your tailor with confidence later, explaining that extra attention need to be paid to your new trousers.
So please, mind the drop.
I’ve written here before on my respect and appreciation for the traditions and conventions of the Canadian bar. Like the substantive law of the country, the dress code for barristers in our superior courts is part of a legal tradition shared across the Commonwealth.
Although in most Canadian provinces judges and lawyers stopped wearing wigs in the 19th century, the requirement for barristers and justices of the superior courts to conduct trials and appeals in white winged collar shirts, tabs (two strips of linen about 5” long by 1” wide hanging down the front of the neck), black waistcoats, grey morning dress striped trousers, and robes remains in force. Female barristers often wear skirts made of the same morning dress striped wool instead of trousers.
The history of the barrister’s robe goes back to medieval times when it was common for men “of learning” to wear gowns or tunics. Up until the Tudor period barristers’ gowns were done up in the front and made of brightly coloured fabrics. Gradually more sombre colours became popular and by 1600 members of the Inns of Court were strictly appearing in black gowns.
The robes worn by barristers today, with their pleated shoulders and three-quarter length sleeves adorned with buttons came about in the latter part of the 17th century.
The history of other aspects of the barrister’s robe is less clear. For example the triangular piece of cloth draped over the left shoulder of the robe that is split into two prongs on one end has an obscure past. One theory dictates that this stylized feature of the robe is a holdover from the “mourning hood” worn by members of the bar after the passing of King Charles II in 1685. The other, more colourful theory holds that originally the cloth strip was for clients to discretely place coins into as payment for their barrister’s service (one slot for gold coins, the other for silver). At one time barristers were not openly paid for their services, so if a client were to literally pay his barrister behind their back it would preserve the barrister’s dignity and the client could expect his barrister’s advocacy not to be compromised if his ex gratia payment was modest.
Like the barrister’s robe, the tabs worn around the barrister’s neck took their modern form around 1680. Though some historians suggest the two rectangular pieces of cloth were supposed to represent the tablet of Moses, more likely they were no more than a fashionable “sign of learning”, as doctors and clergyman also wore them at the time.
Despite centuries of (albeit limited) demand, finding quality barrister’s attire can still be a challenge - especially for women. Though pleased with the waistcoat and robes she had made in Vancouver, my girlfriend was not satisfied with her first winged collar court shirt. Despite being custom made, both the material and the fit were not to her liking.
In advance of a multi-week trial where several court shirts would be required, she decided to commission a set from the Brooks Brothers custom shirt program. Needless to say I was incredibly jealous, but I don’t do enough trial work to justify such an order.
Although the Brooks Brothers’ shirts were more expensive than the Vancouver-made shirt, they are quite lovely and she is hoping the wrinkle-free cotton and the consistent sizing will make the investment worthwhile. Unfortunately, and as is often the case at the criminal bar, the trial she ordered the shirts for was adjourned so she hasn’t had a chance to put them through their paces.
Court shirts will probably never be big business for an American clothier like Brooks Brothers, but if they were ever in need of a niche market to expand into, Barrister’s attire has more than enough history, tradition, and panache to make it worthwhile.
Scavenging your way through thrift stores and consignment shoppes for secondhand clothing can be a rewarding and self-affirming activity for #menswear enthusiasts. Others, like recording artist Macklemore describe thrifting as, “savin’ my money and I’m hella happy that’s a bargain, bitch.” Whatever your reasons are, if you’re smart about it vintage shopping can pay serious dividends.
I say that thrift shopping can be rewarding because in addition to being able to snap up everyday items at a fraction of their retail price, from time to time you can stumble across rare or unusual vintage pieces that simply aren’t available “new”.
I also consider thrift shopping to be a self-affirming exercise because as #menswear enthusiasts we consider ourselves to have something akin to “insider information” on fit, style and quality. Accordingly, when you roll out of a Salvation Army with a tweed sport coat you paid $12 for, you feel like a champ because the hours you spent on the blogosphere arriving at the conclusion that an undarted, 3-2 role lapel, hook vented jacket is worth having just paid off.
Unfortunately we don’t all live in San Francisco, New York or any other meccas of #menswear that come to mind. I live in Vancouver for example – somewhat of a hinterland for classic #menswear, and the “trad” lifestyle generally. Put simply, my trips to the secondhand shoppes aren’t quite as fruitful as our friend over at Broke and Bespoke who shamelessly flaunts his weekly hauls of tweed jackets (he picks them up by the half-dozen I gather) and Etro ties that he gets for the price of a cup of coffee.
Indeed, for the rest of us vintage shopping is a grind; you can’t remember the last time you actually found anything nice, but the faint memory that it did happen once keeps you coming back. Thrifting is trickle-down economics: if the gentlemen at the top of the top of the food chain in your area don’t dress particularly well, there’s little chance that their cast-offs that end up in your local used clothing store will be worth purchasing.
The body of literature available in the blogosphere advising on thrift shopping is voluminous, with posts by PutThisOn and Broke and Bespoke coming to mind as particularly informative. Nevertheless, on the topic of sourcing used sport coats and suit jackets I volunteer three further observations:
1) When you pick a jacket off the rack your primary focus should be on the jacket’s length, and how it fits you across the shoulders. This applies to purchasing jackets “new” as well. These are the two “gatekeeper” criteria, and it’s binary system – either the jacket fits across the shoulders, and is the right length for you, or it isn’t. It’s a matter of yes or no – there is no “sort of” for these crucial jacket dimensions.
Block from your mind fabric, colour, brand and other considerations until you have arrived at this simple “yes or no” conclusion. If the answer is yes then you may pass Go and contemplate what further work needs to be done to improve the overall fit of the jacket.
If the answer is no then put the jacket back. No amount of tailoring is going to make your size 40 shoulders fit naturally into a 38 jacket – no matter how beautiful it is. Likewise if you’re a 40 regular, don’t buy the 40 tall.
A smooth and natural fit across the shoulders of any jacket is fundamental: too tight and you’ll see weird ridges, too big and the jacket will sag. Neither look is flattering, and neither can be cured by tailoring. Attempting to adjust the length of a jacket will throw off its “balance” and is not advisable. I suppose a tailor could try and let out the bottom of a jacket by an inch or so, or take it in by the same margin, but my old tailor refused to do this for me on more than one occasion.
Jackets are designed with proportions in mind like the distance between hemlines and pockets, and the jacket buttons and your waistline. If you attempt to change these ratios the “balance” will get offset and won’t look quite right.
2) If you’ve found a jacket that fits you across the shoulders, and the length is right for your torso, your next consideration is sleeve length.
I don’t think I’ve ever tried on a jacket that I haven’t needed to take out at least a half inch on the sleeve.
This is where you need to be careful when looking at jackets made of materials other than wool. Wool (worsted or otherwise) is an ideal fabric for jackets because it doesn’t crease or fade as easily as other materials. Cotton on the other hand will crease along the cuff, and may be more prone to fading.
The photo above is a good example what does this mean for a vintage shopper. I bought this jacket thinking I’d have no problem taking the sleeves out. I was wrong. That crease isn’t going anywhere. If I went ahead and had the sleeves taken out anyway I’d be left with ridiculous looking slightly discoloured rings around my cuffs. Terribly unbecoming.
With wool on the other hand, like in the photo below, the problem isn’t as pronounced.
At the very least before you leave the store with your new jacket pull the end of the sleeve open a little to take a look at the difference in colour between the exposed fabric, and the fabric tucked underneath, and consider whether there is a crease separating the two that’s too rigid for a steam iron to press out.
3) When buying used clothing you don’t get the benefit of a marketing campaign, a salesperson, or running commentary on the blogosphere to inform you of the quality - instead you have to rely on your instincts and brand reputation.
When in doubt over the bona fides of a garment, try focusing your attention on evaluating the workmanship of the little details. This is a trick my old tailor got me on to. How are the labels sewn on? How are the buttonholes finished? What are the seams like in the places no one gets to see? While not necessarily determinative of a well-made garment, the level of care put into the lesser aspects of the jacket is a pretty good indicator of what sort of price point the garment was manufactured for.
As you can see from the label on this Saks suit, no one in quality control at that factory cared how the labels were cut or sewn. Makes you wonder what else they didn’t care about on that run of suits.
Every aspect of a mass-produced garment has a dollar value attached to it. If a suit manufacturer bidding on a contract needs to cut costs – the quality of buttons used, or whether or not the lapel buttonhole will be functional – are easy ways to shave off a few dollars per unit. Individually these minor irregularities or shortcomings may not be noticeable, but when examined in aggregate they can leave you with the conclusion that the jacket you’re holding was made on the cheap.