Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A new jacket

I've been thinking for a while that I'm in desperate need of a new jacket. A blazer, perhaps, or a sports coat, if you're American. Either way, I need something to wear when the dress code, or my own inclination, calls for making an effort, but a suit would be going overboard. Lunch with my parents, dinner with friends, tea with in-laws, and so forth. My beloved double-breasted blazer is, alas, rarely suitable on these occasions. It goes badly with jeans, is a little too visibly formal when paired with chinos, and looks uncomfortable (even a little caddish, or so one of my friends insists) without a tie.

The obvious, and practical, choice would be a single breasted blue blazer. Perhaps herringbone, and with horn buttons rather then brass, to tone it down a little. Of course, never one for the obvious choice, I have instead been attracted to the idea of a grey jacket in a relatively brash check. Something, I thought, a little like the one here, which I found while browsing around for ideas.

In the end, a trip to Cad and the Dandy decided me upon a rather lovely Glen check with a little blue running through it.

It's made by Dugdale and is a particularly beautiful cloth which should make me a lovely mid-weight, single-breasted, Spring/Autumn jacket. I have, with my usual impeccable planning, ordered it so that it will be ready just in time for the Summer.

Monday, 16 May 2011

101 easy ways to dress better. No. 13: The right colour shoes

I don't know why I hadn't done a post on this before. It may be because I consider it so blindingly obvious as to not be worth mentioning but it seems that is not the case, so let me reiterate: gray or blue suits must, with only a very very few exceptions, be worn with black shoes.

Is this just me being old-fashioned and dogmatic? Perhaps, if the state of men's footwear I see on the underground is anything to go by, I am hopelessly alone in this view. Nevertheless, I stand by it and believe it will remain correct long after more fleeting fashion norms have come and gone. Why? Is it simply a subjective convention, that only looks odd to my eye because of what I am used to, or is there an objective reason why brown shoes with a business suit generally looks disastrous?

My first job was working for a video production agency. My boss taught me an important rule of thumb for setting up a shot, or adding post-production effects. When looking at an image, the eye is generally drawn to the brightest or lightest object on the screen. Much the same applies when someone is looking at you. Their eyes will, even if they aren't aware of it, flick all over you and become drawn to lighter and brighter options. Hopefully these should be your tie, the part of your shirt that is visible and, perhaps, your pocket square. This draws the eye upwards, towards your face. The rest of your suit, however beautiful, serves in large part simply to frame this. What about your shoes, though? So long as your shoes are darker than your suit, or similar in shade, they won't distract the eye and pull it downwards, away from your face. If, on the other hand, you wear lighter coloured shoes with a dark suit, or simply shoes that are drastically different in shade from the rest of the suit, they will become a distraction and jar with the rest of the outfit. That, at least, is my theory for why I find it such a distasteful style.

From another point of view, brown shoes are significantly more casual than black, and so look very strange with an otherwise smart outfit. But then, perhaps brown being casual is, again, mere convention. Break the rules if you wish, you certainly won't be alone. However, there will be places where people will notice and will judge you unfavourably. Since these places will include law firms, City banks and private clubs, you may find it to your advantage to follow the convention.

Wait, though - I'm not going to leave it there. You can wear brown shoes with a grey or blue suit so long as you do so discriminately. I would suggest that at least a few, if not most, of the following conditions need to be satisfied to make this a success.

  • You are in the country or, if in town, it's a weekend (or, at the very least, a Friday)
  • Your suit is light coloured
  • Your suit is made from a soft or more casual material such as flannel
  • Your suit is plain or checked
  • Your trousers have turn-ups
  • The shoes are dark brown or, better yet, oxblood
  • The shoes have closed laces
Many well-dressed men probably instinctively know when they can get away with wearing brown shoes, and haven't even considered the above criteria. Those who are less certain might find it a useful guide. Good luck.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Since the ban on smoking in public indoors, enjoying cigars has become a lot more difficult. Smoking is banned, ironically, even in my club's smoking room and they're not exactly the kind of thing you can nip out and have in 10 minutes with all the other smokers. Nor would you want to. Cigars should be kept for the right time and place and properly enjoyed. So, it's mostly at this time of year when I start to have them a little more frequently, as I'm more likely to end up outdoors somewhere after dinner.

The Partagas factory. Like most, this now makes a number of other brands including Romeo and Juliettas.

Cuba leads the market in cigars by a vast margin, although in fact a number of the big brands manufacture non-cuban versions on other Caribbean islands so that they can be imported into the US. Regardless of where they are made, the best cigars are hand-rolled from whole leaves. A bunch of three or four leaves scrunched and twisted together and then tightly wrapped in another leaf makes up the main body of the cigar, and it is the mix of leaves chosen that defines the flavour and is the major difference between brands. Around this rough tube, another leaf is painstakingly wrapped to create the proper shape and the smooth, even, outside of the cigar. Being able to form the correct length, width and shape for the cigar brand at this stage is the result of a training course that takes several months, with brands that feature unusual shapes, such as the torpedo, requiring particular care. Over the course of this training, hundred of cigars are produced that may be perfectly serviceable, but are not good enough to be sold. These are used to make up the part of the workers' pay that consists of three cigars a day. Others, which may be close to perfect, are sometimes smuggled out and packed in forged or stolen boxes, and it may occasionally be these that you will end up buying if you try to get a bargain by purchasing cigars on the street.

I'm not sure where the strange legend comes from that Cuban cigars are rolled on the thighs of virgins. In fact, at least in the Partagas factory, they are rolled on neat rows of wooden tables, by men and women proud of a job that is skilled, prestigious, and well-paid by local standards.

The resulting cigars are pressed, trimmed and ultimately boxed and shipped out. Cigars are boxed to try to get as little variation in colour within a box as possible, and spot checks are done to ensure that the quality and consistency remains high. It is, all in all, a remarkable process and the care that goes into a handmade cigar is reflected in the enjoyment you get from it.

Cheaper cigars are machine made, and the filler is made from chopped tobacco leaf, rather than whole leaves. Often, it is the discards from one of the hand-made cigar factories that are then bundled up and sent off to make machine-made cigars, or even the strong cuban cigarettes that, for some reason, don't seem to have caught on elsewhere.

Cigars must be stored in a humidor to keep them at their best. An even temperature and humidity is important and, while preferences vary, most people agree on something around 70F and 70% humidity. The climate of the tobacco-producing areas of Cuba is remarkably close to this for much of the year, which is probably an indicator of why it makes the best cigars in the world.

A good humidor is lined with cedar-wood, and serves the dual purpose of keeping your cigars in the best possible shape, and of looking beautiful on your desk. Most of your friends will be delighted and impressed if, very occasionally, you offer it around after dinner.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Royal Wedding Style

Unlike most of the press, I have little interest in ladies' hats and dresses, and my interest in military uniform is limited to the jealous admiration that is the only refuge of a man who will never have a legitimate excuse to wear a sword or that much gold piping. Instead, I shall restrict myself to looking at what a well-dressed civilian male wears to a formal wedding.

Cameron, despite (or perhaps due to?) early reports that he would wear only a lounge suit, ended up being fairly well turned-out in classic morning dress including a smart double-breasted waistcoat, and a well-chosen tie. No pocket square, buttonhole or (so far as I can see from the external shots) top hat, but that's probably not surprising for a man who is desperately trying to shake off images of him in the fancy tailcoat of the Buller. Dull but appropriate, which is probably the best we could have hoped for.

Mr Clegg went for the more unusual choice of a morning suit. That is to say, a fully matching three-piece suit with a morning tailcoat. These are technically a little less formal than morning dress, and are even less common. When they are seen, they often seem to fall in to one of two categories. Either they are bespoke and beautiful; worn by men with taste and confidence in their dress. Or else they are slightly misjudged rentals. I have a nasty feeling that Mr Clegg's fell into the latter category. The coat is too large, and makes him look like a child, while the trousers pool around his ankles. Still, at least he took the time to wear a pocket square.

And what of the less naturally conservative class of public figure? David Beckham went for a slightly fashion-forward take on morning dress with some success. I'm not a fan of the wing collar, but at least the suit fits perfectly and, unlike almost anyone else, he's got a top hat. Bravo, say I.

Fit is always key, but it seems all the more important with morning dress. An outfit that should be trim and formal looks dreadful when the constituent parts hang sloppily, or the coat tails reach your calves. An ordinary shirt and tie is vital to avoid crossing the line into costume, and novelty waistcoats are acceptable only in circumstances so specific as to be not worth mentioning here.

Above all, though, if you are given the choice between wearing a suit or wearing morning dress then be bold and choose the latter. There is no shame in hiring it, so long as you do so with sense and discernment, and you will be helping to maintain a marvelous formal dress code that is perhaps second only to evening dress for making you look your best. It is also probably the only way we civilians can ever compete with those soldiers and their swords and sashes.