Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Shoes: Correspondents

Correspondent (or sometimes co-respondent) shoes aren't a particularly easy style to pull off. Almost always brogued, they're usually black and white or brown and cream. They're fairly rare these days, and have picked up unfortunate connotations of dandies, rogues and generally people who are a little too keen to have their clothing make a statement.


Still, illustrations like the one above do still make me hanker after a pair of brown/cream correspondents to wear for the summer. Perhaps this year I ought to get some - I like to think there's always room in my wardrobe for something a bit silly.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

What colour is black?

For the last post of 'black tie week' I thought I'd look at the issue of colour. At first, this may seem to be a pretty simple question - a dinner jacket is black, surely? Well, yes and no. For a start many people believe that pure black, especially under artificial light, is actually better achieved by a midnight blue material which looks 'blacker than black'. It's a discretely elegant choice that's hard to find off the shelf, but is well worth considering if you're getting your suit custom made.

Another option that noone would call 'discrete' is the white dinner jacket, although this should never be pure white, but ivory or cream. Done right, this can look smart and sophisticated, but done badly it makes you look like a waiter or as though you're on a cruise. It's much easier to get the white dinner jacket wrong than to get it right, and the key is to wear it only when the situation absolutely demands it. By that I mean that the party is either at sea, in the tropics, or otherwise in a location so warm that wearing black would be positively uncomfortable.


The white dinner jacket is always worn with standard black trousers, and can be in any of the usual dinner jacket styles. Single breasted models are probably more appropriate for the warm weather that demands a white jacket, but on the other hand a double breasted model can be worn without a waist covering, which may be preferable in hot temperatures. Perhaps the most common style is the single breasted shawl collar.

What of other colours? Most people would agree that black, midnight blue or white are the only acceptable colours for a dinner jacket, but I would suggest that they are missing the possibilities offered by considering the dinner jacket's heritage as a smoking jacket. The dark red jacket worn by one of the gentleman in the illustration below, which I also used earlier in the week is clearly not a classic colour but, as it is one of the traditional colours of a smoking jacket, it does not look at all inappropriate. Smoking jackets themselves are commonly dark green, maroon or dark blue and, if worn with taste, are a bold but acceptable choice at less formal dinners, as might be a dinner jacket in a similar colour.


In all this, remember that the colours of the trousers, shirt and bow tie must not change. White for the shirt, and black or midnight blue for the trousers and tie are the only acceptable choices.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Cad and the Dandy: Final review

As expected, I got the dinner suit back from Cad and the Dandy the other day. Despite the changes that were needed, the whole process including two fittings has taken almost exactly two months, which is more or less what they promise. If you read my last review you'll remember that a couple of fairly serious errors were made, in the form of the wrong lining and the wrong type of silk facing being used. As one would expect, these were quickly rectified at no expense to me, and I don't bear Cad and the Dandy any ill-will as a result. I've heard more than one report of big-name Savile Row tailors making up a double breasted suit as single breasted, or vice versa, and I know that these things can happen. The important thing is that I am delighted with the final result.

The suit is, I'm afraid, still slightly crumpled in the above photo due to me being forced to transport it in a box. However, nothing a bit of a steam can't fix. The main thing is that the fit is excellent - noticeably better, even, than my A Suit That Fits suit, which I ascribe to the half-canvassed construction that Cad and the Dandy offer as standard. The guys at C&TD have been very helpful at making sure I get a great fit, with absolutely no attempt to hurry me away with a less-than-perfect suit, and I think the results show. In the end, I am happier with the button stance than I expected to be, and I don't think I'll be making any further changes to that.

Aside from the fit, the finishing of the suit is beautiful, with a number of the signs of quality tailoring visible, such as the pad stitching under the lapel that rolls it to slightly to keep it flat against the body of the suit.


There's also a good deal of hand-stitching, even on this suit where I didn't pay the extra for the fully hand-sewn construction. A particularly beautiful touch is the embroidered initials on the inside above the label. This is done by hand at no extra cost, and is so much nicer than simply having your name printed on the label as ASTF offers for an extra £20. In the picture below you can also see the way the pockets are constructed, cutting in to the material of the lapel, rather than having the suit cloth extend to wrap around them. I have always assumed that the latter method is better for reinforcing the pockets but, on the other hand, it seems less common on Savile Row and is used more frequently on more modern suits. Personally, I don't have a real preference either way, but I think in this case the more classic look is nicer and in any case it shows off more of that lovely red lining. You can also see the nice pocket buttons C&TD chose, that I hadn't even thought about when I ordered.


I really couldn't be more pleased with the suit. It's got the right mix of being perfect where it matters, but also with some of the clear signs of hand construction that give it a bit of personality. The whole process of ordering with C&TD has, despite the mistakes, been easy and enjoyable. I shall definitely be ordering from them again in the future.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

101 easy ways to dress better. No. 9: Learn to tie a bow tie

Before I start, I was delighted and flattered to see that one of my favourite blogs gave me a mention yesterday. If you like commentary on sports, schools, society and so forth, all served up with a healthy dose of aristocratic English wit then A Viscount Speaks is for you.
(Not suitable for people prone to a sense of humour failure at the slightest hint of xenophobia or male chauvinism.)

Anyway, continuing with the Black Tie theme, this week's '101 ways' post is about one of those things that really seperates the men from the boys at black tie parties. If you want to improve your black tie ensemble, but don't want to spend too much money yet, then one thing you absolutely must do is buy a 'real' bow tie (almost any decent menswear shop will have one) and learn to tie it. It's not nearly as hard as most people seem to think and, once you've got it sorted, the advantages are worth the effort.


A self-tied bow tie always looks slightly imperfect or lopsided. This is an important part of its charm and appeal, as it looks far more elegant than the unaturally perfect shape of a pre-tied tie. People do notice a real bow tie, and it makes you look like a man who wears a dinner jacket as a matter of course, rather than a man who is 'dressed up' for an occasion. You also have the advantage of being able to undo your tie much later on in the evening and leave it hung round your neck which, while it may be unacceptably scruffy, does still look rather natty.

If you're worried that learning to tie a bow tie is difficult - it's really not. The method is exactly like tying a shoe lace, and the internet (and especially you tube) is full of instructions.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Black Tie Jackets

The most obvious place to begin my examination of black tie is with the jacket. As mentioned in yesterdays post, there are a number of different styles that are now considered 'acceptable', and they have slightly different backgrounds with some being more informal versions of a white tie tailcoat, and others being more formal versions of a smoking jacket.


In the reverse of what is normal for lounge suits, single breasted dinner jackets are generally considered more formal. Although notched lapels are becoming more common, it is smarter and more interesting to take a step away from the lounge suit and towards the tail-coat by having peaked lapels. A slightly less formal alternative is to have a shawl-collar. This harks back to smoking jackets and it's smooth line and almost exclusive use for evening wear makes it a very elegant choice. Either way, the lapels should be faced in silk: either satin or grosgrain, although grosgrain is often viewed as more sophisticated. Occasionally you see two-buttoned jackets, but the deep V shape of a one-button jacket is far more stylish and traditional.
This sort of jacket is classic and very smart indeed. It does, though, require some sort of waist covering, either a traditional waistcoat or a cummerbund - more on which in another post. Hackett and Ralph Lauren offer both peaked and shawl collars in classic styles and beautiful cloths. For a slightly less pricey option, TM Lewin are well worth a look (although they don't seem to show it on their website).


The less formal alternative is a double-breasted jacket. These can come in a number of button configurations but a single-button fastening is common, either a 4x1 as above or even the very bold 6x1. Double breasted jackets are, in many ways, a more comfortable option especially as they don't require a waistcoat or cummerbund. The rare option of a shawl-collared, double breasted dinner jacket is as informal as it gets, merely one step away from the smoking jacket. Nevertheless, these days it could be worn to almost any black tie event and people would be more likely to admire your style than think you inappropriately dressed.
A double-breasted, shawl-collared, 6x1 jacket. As close as you'll get to wearing a dressing gown to dinner.

Double-breasted dinner jackets can be harder to find off-the-peg, but it's not impossible. Brooks Brothers offers one at a very reasonable price.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Defining Black Tie

Although a lot of people (me included, to a certain extent) will get very wound up about getting black tie 'right' or 'wrong', one of the nice things about it is actually how flexible it is. Unlike more formal dress codes like morning dress or white tie, it's possible to have a table-full of people at a dinner party all wearing 'correct' black tie, and all looking broadly uniform, but actually all dressed quite differently. Pleated shirts or marcella, with studs or fly fronts. Double breasted or single breasted jackets with peaked or shawl collars. All are acceptable, and all look great in their own ways.

I thought I would make this week the first of what I hope will be a small number of 'feature weeks' and cover black tie in a bit of detail. My hope is that by the end of the week I will also have my new dinner jacket back from Cad and the Dandy (I had another fitting yesterday, but it needs a few small adjustments) so I can conclude the week by finishing my review of that.


The best way to start seems to be by defining black tie. This is best done not through listing precisely what must be worn, but by considering the purpose of black tie. Foremost it is, paradoxically for people who are used to only wearing it to award ceremonies and weddings, an informal dress code. Originally acceptable only in male company, in a private home or members club, it is designed to be a more relaxed and comfortable version of white tie. This leads to soft shirts, turn-down collars and more relaxed jackets. The jackets themselves, as mentioned, come in varying styles. Some are obviously similar to a white tie tail-coat, while others are much closer to the smoking jacket which might originally have been worn with black tie in a gentleman's home. Regardless, they are distinguished from a mere suit jacket by means of less common collar and lapel formats, by the silk facings, and by being made from evening-appropriate black or midnight blue wool. The bow tie matches the silk facings, for reasons of style and formality and, again, to distinguish the whole ensemble from more colourful daytime wear.

As long as these essential guidelines are understood, it is possible to experiment a great deal with black tie, and come up with an outfit that is personal to your taste but still acceptable at any event you should go to. This sort of experimentation is far more stylish, and far more interesting, that making do with the lowest-common-denominator black tie suits worn without thought by too many men. Hopefully, the next few articles will help give some understanding and inspiration to make changes to your dinner suits.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

101 easy ways to dress better. No. 8: Wear braces

Braces (or suspenders, for my American visitors) have slightly mixed associations these days. Their ubiquity with city bankers and elderly men may be one of the reasons why they have almost entirely been replaced by belts for most men. Partly, I think, it's just laziness combined with the fact that men are much more likely to remove their jackets these days, so braces are less likely to remain hidden. Whatever the cause, it's a great shame for two reasons.

Firstly they are, like socks, underwear and almost always hidden by your outer clothes. This gives you far more flexibility to wear something colourful, luxurious, or just a bit silly (like braces in your old school colours). On the rare occasions when they are made visible, they add a pleasing splash of colour, either glimpsed beneath an open jacket, or properly exposed at that point in an evening where jackets are removed and ties loosened.


Image from Albert Thurston

A second, perhaps more important, reason is that braces will make your trousers look so much better. The only way a belt can keep your trousers up is either by resting on your hips, which is not a good look for a suit, or by being tight enough to grip the body above the hips, which pulls in the waist of the trousers and is also a pretty terrible look. By contrast, trousers worn with braces hang neatly off the shoulders, meaning they retain their intended shape, and can fit snugly at whichever point on the body you choose to wear them, without needing to be pulled tight or constantly adjusted. Braces also avoid the tendency of trousers worn with belts to sag slightly at the front, especially on men with anything less than a washboard stomach, and help prevent shirts from becoming untucked.

Ideally, braces should not be elastic, but in either silk or boxcloth, and attached via leather tabs to buttons inside the waistband of your trousers. Some of the best known are made by Albert Thurston, which are available in the UK from Woods of Shropshire amongst many other places.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Style Icon: Lord Darlington

The Remains of the Day is an absolutely wonderful film - a great example of a Merchant Ivory production, and Anthony Hopkins in one of his best roles as a Butler so concerned with maintaining the appropriate 'dignity' for his position that he permits almost no emotion to interfere. James Fox is also excellent in the crucial role of Lord Darlington, his employer. Although he probably wouldn't be described as a particularly 'stylish' man - merely well-dressed in a way befitting his position - he does appear in some wonderfully aristocratic, slightly dishevelled, outfits.


Cardigans, soft shirts, knit ties and ventless tweed jackets are a staple when he is at home alone (save for the servants...), and he looks utterly at home in his equally dishevelled but equally magnificent library. When necessary he does, of course, scrub up well in black tie or white tie, but it is his more casual clothing that I particularly like. Early in the film he appears in a beautiful camel-coloured polo coat and, later, in this beautiful three-piece tweed suit.


This look comes naturally to his Lordship, and it's not the sort of style that is necessarily easy, or sensible, to mimic artificially. However, I do like cardigans, knit ties and soft tailoring, and there's definitely a temptation to add a bit more to my wardrobe - if only for those weekends in the country.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A double-breasted grey flannel suit

I certainly hope that one day I'll be able to buy whatever clothes I want, but if so I will miss one of the great pleasures of wardrobe-building on a budget: finding bargains in thrift and charity stores. Giuseppe at An Affordable Wardrobe has a great blog focusing largely on this, but it's worth doing for anyone, as it's not unheard-of to find Savile Row quality bespoke suits in charity stores for under £100. They may not fit you perfectly, but you'll still have the great quality and construction, and as long as you find something that's a reasonably close fit, it can be adjusted.

Anyway, I unexpectedly found a great suit the other day. Not bespoke, as it happens, but a very nice double-breasted flannel suit from Hackett, in charcoal grey. I've been after a flannel suit for ages, as I absolutely love the luxurious look of it, and the weight of the cloth gives suits a beautiful drape. The suit could do with a few small adjustments, but it's a pretty close fit already.

Suits in this sort of very dark grey are a good substitute for black, to wear to a less formal dinner or an evening cocktail event. It's also a good understated option for business wear. I think the plain charcoal colour looks great against white, so here I've paired it with my white collar and cuff shirt, and a plain white pocket-square.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Reader Question: Brown Suits

"I've been thinking about getting a chocolate brown two piece suit, what do you think about this colour in a suit?

Brown suits can be great, although I don't think they're the easiest look to pull off. Dark brown, like chocolate brown, I think is a particularly hard one as it can lack the classic formality of a similarly dark grey or blue suit, but it also doesn't have the appealing warm-weather look of a lighter brown suit. That said, I've seen examples of very nice dark brown suits, so I don't think it's impossible at all. I think you're also right to go with a two-piece for this, and presumably a single-breasted, as I think anything else could be overkill.

With a brown suit, you have two main approaches as I see it. Either you can opt for a very city-style suit in a plain worsted wool, just as if it was grey or blue. This could be a good look, but I think there's a reason that city suits are generally not brown, and this might be a wasted opportunity to do something more interesting. My preferred option would be the second approach, which is to acknowledge that you've chosen a country colour, and wear something with a more country flavour.


The above suit is from Walker Slater who have stores in Edinburgh and London. Even if you're not from the UK, it would be worth looking at their site for inspiration, as I think they do the town/country crossover very well. With this approach, you could choose a heavier cloth (perhaps even a tweed, although that might be overkill...) and maybe opt for a subtle pattern, like in the picture above. Although this style of suit would be arguably a bit less formal, you would still be able to wear it in most situations, and I think it would be a more interesting suit with a bit of extra personality.

A long answer to a simple question, but I hope it's useful at any rate!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Trilby

I love hats. They're smart and they keep your head warm, the rain off, and the sun out of your eyes. I find it a bit sad that they've pretty much died out while many far less useful items of clothing remain. Still, it doesn't stop me wearing my favourite hat - a grey trilby from Bates the hatter.


This is one of the nicest hats Bates do, made from a really nice quality felt, and I like it because of its relatively low profile and medium brim, so it's not as showy as a larger hat. Bates stock a huge range, far more than they show on their website, and are incredibly helpful when it comes to measuring you and advising on styles or colours. They used to be based out of a cramped store at the eastern end of Jermyn street, piled up to the ceiling with hat boxes that the proprietor had to hook down with a long pole. Unfortunately this area is being redeveloped and, sadly, Bates has been evicted. However, I understand they are now operating out of Hildtich and Key so at least they're not gone altogether.

Their cheaper hats are as little as £130 and I really can't recommend them highly enough. They're the only smart way of keeping your head warm when you're wearing a suit, and they'll make you look considerably more stylish at the same time. Oh, and contrary to expectations, they really don't attract the sort of attention that might otherwise put you off wearing them, or at least they don't in London.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A silk dressing gown

I seem to have come down with a spring cold, so I am spending the evening in the flat in my dressing gown feeling sorry for myself. This reminds me that I've always hankered after a gown like Bertie Wooster's. (Bertie is a common source of reference for me, you may have noticed, and I'm not ashamed to admit it...)


Bertie owns a lovely silk dressing gown with, and this is what I particularly like, quilted collar and cuffs. Silk dressing gowns themselves can be bought for as little as a couple of hundred pounds, but finding one with the quilting seems much, much harder. To date, I have only seen them in New and Lingwood, where they have some nice looking ones in the window. I daren't think how much they are, but since a cashmere one on the website is nearly nine hundred pounds, I suspect that the silk ones will fall well into that category of 'things that are simply not worth the money for something that cannot possibly be worn outside the home'. A pity, to be sure, since I'm certain one would give me great comfort in this time of illness.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Red Carpet Black Tie

I'm trying to tone down the Black Tie snobbery, on the basis that it's a dress code that's been in flux almost since its inception, and permits stretching the boundaries of what's permissible in a way that White Tie really doesn't.

Still, many don't even know what the boundaries are, and Hollywood is no exception, so it's probably no surprise that many stars manage to turn up to one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in the world looking as if they've just been dragged through Topman backwards. Still, there are always a few that give us hope, and even inspiration for our own black tie ensembles. One of my favourite websites: Black Tie Guide, has, for the last few years, put together a page of amusing coverage of the style triumphs and disasters of the Oscar ceremonies.
Well worth a look, though this year's style 'winner' probably shouldn't be any surprise, really...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Overcoats

So much for spring. The sky may be blue, but it's still freezing cold in London. Let's talk about overcoats.

I must admit I find overcoat terminology slightly confusing. Overcoats, topcoats, chesterfields, covert coats - what's the difference? Different retailers seem to use terms inconsistently, or incorrectly, and there's overlap and grey areas that add to the confusion. Still, here is my attempt at explaining the differences.

The difference between an overcoat and a topcoat is the easiest - it simply comes down to length and weight. Overcoats come to slightly below the knee and are generally made of a heavier material, whilst a topcoat comes to just above the knee and is usually made of lighter material like gaberdine. Overcoats can be (and often are) made of tweed, in check or herringbone patterns. I particularly like the one in the picture below, which is similar to one my father has and which I'm very fond of.

Things get more complicated when you come to talk about chesterfield coats and covert coats, and my view is that the terms are simply not used 'correctly' anymore. In theory, the chesterfield is a long overcoat without the waist supression common in the 19th century and which has a velvet collar. So far so simple, except that T.M.Lewin sell what they describe as 'Chesterfield' coats which appear not to have velvet collars. Meanwhile, do a Google Image search and the vast majority of the results appear to show a topcoat with a velvet collar. Shorter and with lightweight material, they're certainly not classic Chesterfields as I understand it. On the other hand, they are great coats and a real wardrobe staple.


What about the covert coat? Well, Wiktionary defines this as 'A coat suitable for wearing while shooting game, usually with a neutral colour and windproof or waterproof qualities.' This is a pretty broad description, but my understanding of them would also include that they are made of a fairly lightweight cloth and have the four lines of stitching on the hems and cuffs that is used to give added strength against damage when walking through the countryside. As the definition says, they are more likely to be in neutral 'country' colours like brown or fawn. The picture above is a fairly good example.
However, these too seem to be labelled confusingly. A lot of retailers sell them with velvet collars and in dark blue as well as fawn, meaning that they are almost interchangable with the 'Chesterfield' topcoats discussed above.

Of course, none of this really matters - so long as you know what you want and can find somewhere to sell it to you. My next purchase is to be a fawn covert coat although, as I want one with a velvet collar, perhaps it's not really a covert coat at all. I don't think it's going to be hard to find, though, as this style of coat seems to have become incredibly widespread.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Style Icon: Leo McGarry

There's a memorable scene in the very first episode of The West Wing when Josh and Sam both spot that the other has been wearing the same suit for two days. Things don't get much better as the series go on but then again it's probably fair to say that most of the characters have more important things on their minds, so I'm prepared to forgive Josh for ruining his suit with a scruffy backpack, or clipping a blackberry to his belt.

One man, however, manages to run the nation and still be superbly dressed almost all the time. Leo McGarry, we are told, wears Savile Row suits (although as far as I know we don't know specifically who his tailor is - do correct me if I'm wrong) and seems to have a vast range of them. He mostly wears double breasted suits, in a much wider range of colours and patterns than the plain blues and greys favoured by the rest of the West Wing staff.

He wisely wears braces instead of a belt, and generally opts for a pocket square, which is one of those incredibly easy additions that helps to lift him from looking like a middle-manager to the part as one of the most influential and respected men in the world.

Importantly, Leo's style is just one small facet of his character. He doesn't let his clothes become costume, or allow his preference for dressing nicely to overpower more important traits such as his intelligence or political ability.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Wearing colours

An interesting debate has been stirred up by the always interesting, often controversial Andrew Williams at Men's Flair regarding wearing regimental colours that don't 'belong' to you.

Personally, my feelings on this are pretty clear, and I'm actually slightly surprised that so many people have defended the practice. Nevertheless, arguments on both sides have been interesting, and I've weighed in with my usual lengthy comments, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to explain myself more clearly on my own blog.

The question centres around wearing items, in particular ties and watch straps, which bear regimental colours; is this acceptable if you have never actually served in the regiment? If we discount Walter Mittyism and actual attempts at deception, which are not even worth of discussion here, a number of reasons remain why people might do this. Some have suggested that they wish to show support for the regiment in question, likening it to wearing the colours of their favourite football team. Others have pointed out that regiments do not have a monopoly on a particular arrangement of colours any more than polo players have a monopoly on the wearing of polo shirts.



To me, neither of these arguments stand up well for one simple reason, which is convention. The convention is that a regimental (or school, or club) tie is worn only by people properly 'entitled' to it. No such convention exists around wearing a team's football top, or a polo shirt. Indeed, quite the opposite, there is a convention that wearing your team's colours is a positive thing for a football supporter to do. Showing support for a particular regiment, as opposed to showing support for the men and women of the armed forces in general, is unusual for anyone without a close family member who serves, and so claiming to be wearing a Guards tie because you 'support' the Guards is odd and, as I say, simply unconventional.

Of course, breaking with convention can be a good thing, and many (if not most) fashion advances have come by doing so. No doubt the first person to wear deck shoes other than when sailing was breaking convention, and that's no bad thing. Yet the convention of not wearing colours or symbols that you have not earned strikes me as one that it is much more important to maintain, and not to push the boundaries of. People who serve in the armed forces have a right to identify themselves, if they choose, by wearing their regimental colours, and if these colours ever simply become a fashion statement to be worn by anyone who so chooses, then that right is taken away and these historic identifiers will lose all their meaning.

If none of this matters to you, then just remember the danger that, if you wear regimental colours, sooner or later someone is bound to assume that you have served in the regiment and embarrassment for you is sure to follow. Err on the safe side and stick to generic patterns - there are plenty out there to choose from.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Spring

Many of my fellow style bloggers are excitedly heralding Spring as time to bring out the linen suits, straw hats and deck shoes. For those of us in London, the main difference is that some days I might be able to get away with not wearing a scarf and gloves. Still, given the beautiful weather for the last couple of days, it's hard not to look forward to the new style options that warmer weather will bring.

The biggest difference is in changing colour tones to suit the brighter weather. This can be changed without necessarily affecting the warmth of your clothes, which is nice over here where the longer days and bluer skies do not necessarily bring increases in temperature.

Brown, cream, light greys and light blues all suit the sunnier weather well, and now is an especially good time to start ocasionally swapping a suit for odd jackets and trousers. This gives you the chance to introduce small amounts of cream tones or linen fabric to your outfit without looking as if you've stepped out of the American deep-south.