Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Hero of the week: Colonel Barry Jenkins, Royal Artillery

A number of British news sources are reporting on an amusing news story today. It seems that Colonel Barry Jenkins, of the Royal Artillery, sent a lengthy email to be distributed to his younger officers giving them some advice on dress. Most of the papers have predictably focused on a single throwaway remark he made at the very end about taking Princes William and Harry as a model for good civilian dress. I find that far less interesting than the rest of his comments which, from the full copy I managed to track down, seems to contain a good deal of wisdom!

A few highlights:
"Only the middle button of a 3 button (M) suit is fastened. It is a coat not a tunic. If your suit has a belt, so be it, but a slim elegant leather suit belt and not a Harley Davidson Buckle Belt is to accompany it."

Top advice there. It's unbelievable how many men do up all the buttons on a suit but, as he references, it's perhaps understandable for officers used to a military tunic (on which all the buttons are fastened). Most of the papers have reported his advice to wear a 'slim elegant leather suit belt', but have missed a much more revealing phrase: 'If your suit has a belt, so be it'.
The point he is making (I assume) is that suits really look better without a belt, and should be held up by side adjustors and/or braces. However, he's absolutely right that if you are going to wear a belt, then slim, plain and discreet are vital.

"The tie should be correctly tied, close to the collar and checked regularly. The knot must not be big fat Grange Hill special or be seen adorning the neck of a semi finalist on the Apprentice (M&F). The tie should just reach over the waist belt, not 6 inches above or below."

Couldn't agree more. I wrote before about how little I like big knots in ties, and a fair few people disagreed with me, which is fine. However, the fact remains that the sort of traditional style espoused by Colonel Jenkins does ask for a smaller knot, and big knots (especially with shiny ties) will make you look like an Apprentice contestant or an estate agent. Your call.

"Oh yes, diving watches/laptop/GPS type watches furiously scrunched up against your shirt cuff look awful. Try and use a thin elegant dress watch"

I've not done much about watches because it's so much of a personal choice that I wasn't sure I could say much about it. I think the Colonel is right, however, that sporty watches don't do much for a suit, especially if they are too chunky to comfortably slide under the shirt cuff as you move your arm around. If you only wear a suit occasionally, and like a sportier watch the rest of the time, then I would still advocate finding a slim, fairly plain dress watch to wear with a suit. It really doesn't have to be expensive.

"We are a broad church and we should not exclusively ape the armed wing of Boden, Primark, Fat Face or New and Lingwood, but I am constantly amazed by what some think is acceptable dress. It is not just the quality but the untidy scruffy manner in which it is worn –this must sharpen up."

This is a great point, and one that was disingenuously trimmed by every single paper that covered the email. They all removed the words 'or New and Lingwood'. When you read it in full, you realise that the Colonel is not snobbishly condemning Boden, Primark and Fat Face. Rather, he is clarifying that he would not want his dress standards to create a regiment filled with identikit officers all dressing from a single store, whether that is Primark or New and Lingwood. As he goes on, it is not so much where a man shops that matters, or exclusively the quality of his clothes. Instead, it is about some basic standards in how collars fit, how ties are tied, how shirts are ironed, and so forth. This matters for soldiers, but it matters just as much for anyone who wants to look like an adult.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Food: Cornish Grill at Redhook

It's hard to beat a Sunday morning spent lazily working through the supplements while polishing off a couple of reviving Bloody Marys, especially if that is then followed by a late (and very lengthy) lunch.

Redhook, one of the restaurants owned by the Rushmore group, the people behind Milk and Honey in Soho and New York, have teamed up with Cornwall in your Kitchen, a supplier of top-quality meat and fish to London restaurants, to offer exactly that experience one Sunday a month. A couple of chefs from big-name restaurants, a four-course fixed menu of fantastic seafood and meat, and an invitation to show up early and enjoy the selection of newspapers and the make-your-owen bloody mary buffet? That's my idea of a Sunday well-spent.

Redhook follows the Rushmore Group recipe for success of creating a quirky but relaxed and comfortable environment, paying proper attention to making really good food and cocktails, and filling the place with friendly, knowledgable staff. It's such a simple formula, but so often ignored by other, much better-known bars and restaurants.

Image property of Redhook London.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Got sole

I'm always aware of how little most people seem to care about their footwear. Otherwise well-dressed men still wear the most apalling shoes. Perhaps they think that all black shoes are essentially the same. Unfortunately not. A good outfit can be ruined by shapeless shoes, made from dull leather that won't take a shine, with thin, bendy rubber soles.

People should care, though. As a starting point, it's worth giving some thought to how your shoe is constructed, and what this might mean.

Arguably the ne plus ultra of shoe construction, at least in the UK and the US, is the Goodyear welted shoe. Good shoe manufacturers will proudly advertise their shoes as Goodyear welted, so it won't be hard to spot, and this is not a bad indication of some level of quality.

What does it mean, though? Simply, that the leather upper is built with a welt, a strip of leather, running around the bottom edge. The sole is then stitched to this, with the stitches going all the way through the welt. This results in the sole extending by a few milimetres from the side of the shoe, and the stitches are visible running around the top. This can be faked, and sometimes is, but it's not too hard to spot. If the stitches are real thread (i.e. not molded into a rubber sole) and match up to stitches on the underside of the sole, then it's real goodyear welting.

The advantages all stem from not having the stitches going into the inside of the shoe. Firstly, this means that water drawn into the thread by capillary action doesn't end up in the shoe damaging the inner sole and getting your feet wet. In addition, when the time comes to resole the shoe, it's considerably easier to remove the old sole and stitch on a new one because there is no need to touch the upper or the interior of the shoe at all.

An alternative method, reputed to be more popular with Italian designers, is Blake Construction. In this method the sole is stitched directly up into the bottom of the shoe. The disadvantages are esentially the reverse of the advantages of Goodyear - the stitches are inside the shoe, meaning that water can be brought in, and it is somewhat harder to resole the shoe. It's not impossible, though, contrary to what some people might tell you.
The advantages of Blake construction are that there is no need for the sole to be any wider than the shoe itself. This allows for the narrower, lighter shoes that some Italian designers prefer.

Another option is for a cemented, or glued, sole. That sounds pretty unpleasant, and it's certainly not ideal, but it does have its place. The disadvantages are that the sole is glued firmly in place and therefore very difficult to remove and replace when worn down. The advantage, though, is that the sole can be extremely thin. This makes a glued sole best suited to evening shoes, as the fact that they are worn rarely (and mostly indoors) means they wear down very slowly, and they look most elegant when they are as slim as possible. Chunky soles on an evening shoe just looks wrong, as illustrated by the pictures below. The first is an Allen Alden evening shoe with a Goodyear welted sole (and open laces, which is not great, but never mind). The second is a Barker shoe with a cemented sole. My view is that, on a patent leather evening shoe, the cemented sole looks considerably better.

Other types of construction exist, although many are just variations on the above, but these are the most common and the ones you are most likely to need to choose between. Hopefully, this quick guide is of some use.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Style Icon: John F Kennedy

The timing of this post is actually somewhat of a coincidence. I was inspired to write it only after a recent trip to Washington, and after reading Stephen King's excellent new book, 11/22/63.Still, I obviously have to note that tomorrow is the anniversary of Kennedy's death. I can't comment in detail on Kennedy's politics, or what he was like personally, but that's not especially important. It is tragic that a young man, who put himself in harms way to serve his country, had what would likely have been a remarkable Presidency, and life, cut short by the actions of a deluded individual. Perhaps its a good moment to remember that behind all the political rhetoric, disagreement, and occasionally vicious arguments, are real people with families trying to make the world a better place as best they can.

It might seem odd me choosing JFK for this post. For one thing, he's credited with beginning the decline in men wearing formal hats after he appeared bare-headed at his inauguration speech.

That, fortunately, is as much a myth as him accidentally calling himself a donut. He did not wear a hat to give his speech, it is true, but he arrived looking splendid in full morning dress including a formal overcoat and a very lovely top hat.

Sartorial fault can be found elsewhere, though, in his unusual tendency to do up the bottom button on his jackets, a fundamental error in dressing.

However, this was a deliberate choice, an example of Kennedy's very personal, individual and almost careless style and elegance. Indeed, he actually had his suits tailored specifically to allow him to do this. The above photo illustrates the fastened bottom button, but more importantly shows off a terrific example of relaxed summer style. Like much of Kennedy's dress, it is classic Ivy League, with the white trousers, loafers, and brass buttons on the blazer.

Of course, like any great man, Kennedy knew when to stick more closely to convention and don proper formal wear, something that the current President could probably learn from. His evening dress in the picture below is absolutely flawless, and a great example of how to really pull off white tie. Note the rigidly starched shirts, which are very difficult to achieve nowadays, except at a very few specialist laundries.

I've bemoaned before the utterly bland dress sense of most modern politicians, terrified to be caught in anything but a plain charcoal or navy suit and, increasingly, reluctant to even wear a tie. Kennedy, managed to take pride in his appearance without it ever seeming to affect his ability to run the world's most powerful nation.

(I have never yet censored any non-spam comments on this, but I'll make it clear now that any discussion of conspiracy theories on this thread will be deleted without reply. It's not the place, and I'm not interested.)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Borrowed Heritage

Last year, while in New York, I noticed this Ralph Lauren Polo advert in a men's magazine:

Does the crest on that tie look at all familiar? I would say it bears an uncanny resemblance to the crest of a British school that is rather older than the USA itself.

If you look closely, you will probably determine that the Ralph crest is infact the mirror image of the Eton one.

This is hardly the only instance of this. When I visited the store, I saw that they had a whole series of ties that, um, 'closely reference' the crests of English Public Schools. None were described as such, presumably no permission was sought (or required?) and it seems unlikely that most purchasers knew or cared. They are simply a seemingly generic crest that gives that vague impression of educational privilege and sporting excellence that is a part of the Ralph Lauren brand.

Does it matter? Several of my friends argued that it doesn't. A wearer of the tie pictured above is not deliberately intending to give the impression that he attended Eton, any more than one of those people who insists on wearing a Guards tunic with his skinny jeans and converse intends to imply that he served in the army. It is simply fashion, and Ralph Lauren are by no means alone in appropriating exclusive symbols to sell to the wider public. New and Lingwood has built a well-respected business out of this very activity without doing any particular harm.

Yet I think a problem remains. Borrowing an old school crest isn't such a big deal, but it's indicative of a pre-packaged approach that bothers me. It's a shame that instead of individual style and heritage, shops offer a facsimile, more costume than anything. It's particularly a shame when this is done by quitly appropriating genuinely ancient symbols.

What do you think? Should anyone care when brands do this sort of thing?

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Photo property of Katariina Järvinen (http://www.flickr.com/photos/katariinajarvinen/5799935426/)

Those in the UK and several other countries will start to see the annual bloom of poppies on coat lapels over the next week. While there's undeniably a certain amount of social obligation behind it, I find it impressive that this symbol still unites the whole nation nearly a century after the armistice. It is, of course, more relevant than ever and it's moving to see a whole stream of commuters queuing up to buy poppies from a heavily-medalled sergeant at Waterloo station.

It's appropriate to wear the poppy from when it goes on sale at the beginning of November, up until Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday, although it's unlikely anyone would take offence if you wore one outside of these dates.

Of course, the choice to wear a poppy or not is entirely a personal one, and noone should feel forced into it by social pressure. However if you are attending a remembrance service or a military event of some kind, courtesy probably dictates that you make the effort to wear a poppy, and preferably a new and uncrumpled one.

Men conventionally wear the poppy on their left breast, and ladies on their right, although this distinction is often ignored these days. I believe it is also acceptable for ladies in military uniform to wear the poppy on their hat, but no doubt their own service guidelines will provide the best advice in this case.

The important thing, of course, is not the etiquette but the gesture of a small donation and of common acknowledgement of our national gratitude to our armed forces. For this reason, I can't help feeling that extra-large poppies or ones made of fabric or metal are perhaps less appropriate. Since neither style nor permanence should be a consideration, the standard paper (or plastic, in Canada) poppy remains the simplest and most dignified symbol.

You may note that this blog has been a long-time supporter of Help for Heroes, another charity which does amazing work with injured soldiers from recent conflicts. This might be an appropriate time to consider making a small donation, and you will be able to do so using the link at the top right of this page.