Monday, 28 June 2010

Dress code: Henley

Apologies for my lengthy absence. A new job is distracting me from the important work of blogging regularly.

Ascot is only just gone, and another major sporting event on the social season begins this week. Henley Royal Regatta is a bizzare and wonderful occasion - a five day sporting and social fixture that is simultaneously one of the most prestigious rowing events in the world and also one of the most important dates in the traditional social season. It attracts spectators who probably never watch rowing the other 360 days of the year (except perhaps for the Boat Race), and international rowers who, in the words of a former Great Britain rower who once coached me, 'value a Henley medal more even than a World Championship Gold'.



Whatever your level of interest in the rowing itself, being a good spectator is a sport in itself. Dressing up in the sort of bright blazers and ties that are so rarely appropriate for the rest of the year, and choosing one of the many bars, enclosures or just beautiful picnic spots along the bank is all part of the fun.

Only the exclusive Stewards' Enclosure actually has a dress code (jacket and tie for men, dresses reaching the knee for women), it's well worth making an effort regardless of where you will be watching from. Although a lightweight summer suit is perfectly acceptable, a far more traditional option would be white cotton 'ducks' and a blazer (light chinos are a worthy substitute for people who have little use for white cotton trousers for most of the year). The best kind of blazer is colourful and, probably, stripey. However, at Henley more than anywhere else, I would strongly caution against wearing anything that could be interpreted as a rowing or club blazer if you are not infact entitled to one. The almost infinite variety of clubs and crews represented at Henley mean that anything but the very simplest blazers run a risk of being misinterpreted as identifying you as a member of a club; to the embarrassment of all concerned. If you don't have a blazer to which you are legitimately entitled then it is not important, you will hardly be the only one, just wear a plain blue or cream blazer or, at most, one with a simple and generic stripe.

More on the oddness of rowing blazers themselves in a few days, when I have dug mine out of the cupboard and found time to photograph it.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Supporting England

If wrapping yourself in a cross of St George and drinking lager all night isn't quite your style, then why not support a great English industry? Textiles used to be big business in England, especially in the North where fortunes were made by mill owners. These days we tend to value artisanship and are wary of mass-production, but it was the technological advances in English cloth manufacture that made it succesful, and which made it some of the best in the world. The people who designed and built the new and highly specialised machinery were not permitted to emigrate lest they give away the secrets to other countries.



Today, English cloth manufacturing is a much smaller affair, as the vast majority of the work has gone abroad to China or India. Nevertheless, those mills that do remain still have some of the best machinery, knowledge and expertise in the world. As a result, they continue to turn out beautiful worsted wools that few other manufacturers can compete with.

When you next buy a suit, it's well worth giving some thought to where the wool has come from. It's easy to be taken in by a high super-number and the assurance that the cloth is 100% wool. These are all very well, but they still don't tell the whole story. You may well make a big saving by buying Chinese or Indian wool, but the quality is unlikely to be anything like as good.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Dress code: Royal Ascot

Royal Ascot begins today for those of you lucky enough to be getting away from work. Personally, I shall have to wait until the weekend to dig out my tailcoat, top hat, and picnic basket and drive down.

For those of you who are going, and who have access to the Royal Enclosure, the dress code for men is very simple. Morning dress is the only option, and a top hat is mandatory. Nevertheless, this still leaves a great deal of room for manoeuvre. Indeed, the amount of variation possible in morning dress is one of its most appealing features and something that distinguishes it from White Tie, of which it is sometimes considered the daytime equivalent.


The basic requirements are relatively simple: A top hat, trousers, a waistcoat and a grey or black daytime tailcoat with tails which sweep round to the waist rather than being cutaway like an evening coat. With formal morning dress, the coat and trousers ought not to match. Indeed, the tailcoat ought to be a plain colour with, perhaps, a subtle herringbone, whilst the trousers are generally striped. The waistcoat can match the tailcoat but much more common is to have it in a third colour. Almost anything is possible, depending on the event, but most classic is buff linen or wool, especially if it is double-breasted with a lapel.


The top hat itself should also be either black or grey, but it need not necessarily match the tailcoat. Technically, the grey hat is slightly more informal but it is perfectly acceptably for the races which is one of the least formal events at which you might wear morning dress. As far as other accessories go, gloves used to be mandatory (as with any outdoor wear) but are now much less common, although they are certainly a nice addition. A pocket square is good, and a boutonniere is even better, especially at a wedding. A formal city umbrella is another classic accessory and is, in any case, a worthwhile addition at the races even in mid-June.

Any formal shirt and tie is acceptable, although contrast-collar shirts are traditional, as is a grey macclesfield tie. At Ascot, turn-up collars and (paradoxically) 'Ascot' ties or cravats are not really appropriate. Shoes should be plain black oxfords or, both more traditional and practical at the races, black chelsea boots.

If you are going, have fun; especially if you will be wearing morning dress. It is one of the very few occasions that remain when you can do so, and the atmosphere in the Royal Enclosure is really something to be experienced, quite apart from just enjoying a great day of racing.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The foldable straw panama

For a day or two it looked as if summer might have reached London, but now we're back to a nice June drizzle. Still, I am always an optimist and am looking to add a couple of items to my summer wardobe.

One of the first will be a straw panama hat. The classic panama is almost indestructible and, indeed, can be rolled up and carried in a tube, or just stuffed into a bag. Their relaxed smartness combined with ease of carrying and resilience to damage, makes them the perfect alternative to the ubiquitous baseball cap for wearing with anything more formal than shorts and tshirt.
Bates the Hatter do a very traditional Panama hat, or for a slightly cheaper version the Aspinal of London one (pictured above) seems like a good bet. It is available with a variety of different ribbons, although personally I would just go for the dark blue. Wear it with chinos and a blue linen blazer, or maybe just jeans and a white cotton jacket.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The tweed suit: basted fitting

Around ten days after I watched it being cut, the coat of my Donegal Tweed suit was ready for a basted fitting at Cad and the Dandy. At this stage, the coat is assembled quickly with basting thread. The collar, lapels and pockets will not be finished, and a minimal amount of padding and canvassing is used. None of the buttons are done, and the sleeves won't open yet. The point is to be able to check the basic fit of the pattern (and so is more useful early on in your relationship with a tailor), and to be able to correct any serious mistakes before the time-consuming hand-sewing and internal construction work is done. At this stage, relatively significant changes, such as changing the button stance or the shoulder width, can be made without requiring huge amounts of extra work as the basted coat will be completely taken apart after the fitting in any case. This is a substantial advantage over the approach of most made-to-measure tailors who simply offer as many adjustments as you want after the suit is finished.


There weren't any huge changes needed on my suit, but there were some that would definitely have been harder once all the padding and canvassing was in place; making the shoulders very slightly narrower, and taking a little bit of material out of the chest. The former is marked with chalk, although you probably can't see it in the photo, while the latter is pinned, and accounts for the pinched fabric just under each arm. The other changes were to shorten both the sleeve and the overall coat length slightly, which have been made only on my right hand side in the photo, so the difference is obvious. The trousers don't usually have a basted fitting, as their construction is so much simpler than any changes can be made easily enough after they are finished.

After the basted fitting, the suit is sent off for a straight finish, which ought to take about five weeks. Any last remaining tweaks will then be made after the suit is finished.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Book Review: Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion

There's a difficulty that all writers of men's style books have, which is what exactly is the book to say? Is it a guide to how to dress? A history of clothes? A discussion of men's fashion in general, or only that particular area of men's fashion that the author likes?

The days when men required a book to tell them the precise rules of dressing in polite society are long gone, except for one or two very niche dress codes such as Royal Ascot or a White Tie Ball. Indeed, those days probably never existed since men were presumably brought up to dress well according to their social status and, if they really had social mobility in mind, they need only observe and copy the dress of their social 'superiors'. Magazines covered the changes in fashion, but surely guidebooks of the type so popular now were superfluous?

My point being that a book (and there are many) which claims to tell men the rules of 'dressing for success', 'dressing as a gentleman' or anything similar is very difficult to write, for the simple reason that those rules don't exist. A book might very well tell you how to dress as a 1930s gentleman, or a 1950s gentleman, or perhaps a member of the elderly landed gentry in 2010, but all of these would be costume guides, not style guides. Therein, I feel, lies the problem with so many men's style books.

All of which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of this review. Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion. I've got the more up-to-date 2009 edition, which has a pinstriped cover. The much older one has a red cover and a picture of a man in his underwear on the front. Take your pick.

Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion (Lifestyle)

I thought I would love this book, and I do... a bit. But not quite as much as I had thought. It suffers, I feel, from the problem I've discussed above in that the author seems to have set out to write a guide to the rules of being a well-dressed gentleman, and then wisely backed off at the last minute when he realised that such a task is impossible. Instead, the book is a mish-mash of the history of clothes, suggestions on where particular items might be bought, rare and timidly-worded guidance on what is and what is not appropriate in certain cituations, and the occasional incongruous bit of highly specific advice (a page on which socks to wear with which shoes, and pictures of the difference between Italian, US, French and English casual outfits, for example).

Areas where the author might genuinely have been able to offer some useful insight are oddly skirted around. For example, he hints at the vital importance of knowing when to wear gloves with white tie, but says nothing as to what the rules might actually be.

On the plus side, the book is incredibly wide-ranging; covering everything from underwear to shaving kit to golf shoes, and everything is illustrated with an array of attractive full-colour photos. It may well inspire you to buy a proper shaving brush, a few more cashmere jumpers, or a tweed suit. On the other hand, it's less likely to give you any practical guidance on which ones to buy. It, like so many of these books, is really best suited to the coffee-table or perhaps the five minutes before sleep.