Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Flannel Suits: the gentleman's choice

Flannel for suits is a much-maligned, or perhaps just much-ignored, cloth. The film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was, according to Wikipedia, intended to draw attention to the 'stodginess and sameness' of the business community. But does that still apply? These days, stodginess or sameness in business suiting is more likely to be a gray or blue plain-woven worsted wool suit made of fairly lightweight cloth suitable for all-year-round wear in temperature-controlled offices. Flannel has become unfashionable, but at least it's not boring anymore.

My only flannel suit is a suitably dull, gray, double-breasted example from Hackett, and I love it.

I have come to realise that I love soft fabrics. I can't tell you why, there's certainly nothing inherently wrong with smooth-woven cloths, I just happen to go weak at the knees for fabrics with a bit of nap. It absorbs light, and usually adds weight so the suit hangs better, creating an attractive and shine-free sillhouette. Flannel, which is often deliberately brushed to raise a good nap, is a perfect example of this. These days it is often too warm for business-wear but, in less well-heated offices or if you spent a lot of time outdoors, it can be a good bet.

And where can you get one? Well, Hackett of course still do a lot of this sort of thing, and have the sort of properly dense flannel that I like. They are a little pricey though, so for a cheaper option you can always try Charles Tyrwhitt - they do a decent looking double-breasted gray flannel suit, although it's a little on the smooth side for my taste.

Definitely give flannel a try though. It'll make you feel warm inside.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

India: Old-school tailor-made

I am in India for a couple of weeks.

To say that India is, in some areas, 'very foreign' is so trite as to be hardly worth repeating. What I find more interesting is the idea that in some respects it's actually not so much a different country as a different time. The streets of some cities (I am thinking mostly of Varanassi, Mirzapur and the surrounding districts, where I have spent most of my time), with their crowds and smells, rickshaws dodging free-roaming animals, and small boys pushing massive carts laden with fruit and vegetables, strike me as the closest I am likely to come to understanding what London might have been like a hundred and fifty years ago.

By the same token, I rather suspect that simply observing Indian life gives a remarkably accurate idea of what it might have been like to live in the UK at a time when there were servants in every household with any amount of money. From a simple cook and cleaner in lower middle-class households all the way up to grand houses with twenty or thirty servants, and where even the simplest meal was prepared, cooked and served by one or two staff. I find it interesting to note how servants are both ubiqutous and invisible, just as they were in 19th Century England. Casually talked about, politely spoken to, but mostly treated as a matter of no more concern than your laptop, DVD player or washing machine.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to a topic of more relevance to this blog, which is my interest at seeing that, while off-the-peg suits are by no means unobtainable here (particularly in the larger and more 'western' cities), in rural areas the way clothes are chosen and bought harks, once again, to the situation in England a hundred or so years ago. Cloth merchants and small tailors are everywhere and a man who wants a suit or a respectable shirt is as likely to choose some material and have one made up as he is to buy one off-the-peg.

Of course, how good the suit is depends hugely on the cloth and tailor chosen, and I suspect most bear little relation to the quality we would expect from a 'tailor-made' suit, but I like the idea that, here at least, people are still getting clothes made by small, independent craftsmen.

Nevertheless, in any situation a degree of 'convenience-shopping' is inevitable, and I was particularly amused by the box-sets offered in one cloth merchant. Each contains a length of cloth sufficient to make one pair of trousers, and a length of cotton sufficient for one shirt - thus a man can quickly pick up what he needs to create the standard uniform of the service industry or low-end professional worker in this part of the world. To me, they were vaguely reminiscent of those shirt/tie/cufflink sets sold in some shops in the UK, except somehow less ghastly because they still required the cloth to be taken to a craftsman and made into garments.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The top five pairs of shoes you should own

In the style of previous posts, I thought I might share some views on a useful 'starting cupboard' of shoes. Of course, as ever, this is really just opinion and none of these are strictly required unless they happen to suit your particular style, lifestyle, and habit of dressing. I'm also not sure that I would say to anyone that five pairs of shoes is a 'starting' cupboard, so I've put these in roughly the order I would buy them if I were starting out now, and in this way they could easily be bought over a couple of years as funds allow.

Plain black oxfords
Sure, brogues are prettier, loafers are more comfortable, and brown more suitable for casual-wear, but a man with a pair of plain black oxfords can fulfil with confidence about 75% of all dress codes. Clearly, they're perfect with business suits of all shades, colours and cuts, and would only be inappropriate with very casual weekend suits. They can also, importantly, be worn with black tie (where brogues would not be suitable), white tie (patent leather is correct, but few would criticise black oxfords with a decent polish), morning dress, or just a reasonably smart blazer and flannels.

Brown Brogues
You'll need a casual pair of shoes to fill in the less frequent but more varied occasions where black shoes won't do. Weekend wear, wearing with chinos, wearing with tweed, wearing with jeans (if you must wear jeans), wearing with white cotton ducks to Henley, and so on. Of course, there are other casual shoes that could fill these gaps but few are quite so widely suitable. A pair of brown loafers are ideal with chinos, and nice with jeans, but hardly suitable to wear with a tweed suit. Polished oxblood monks might look cracking with a casual suit but are probably a bit much to wear with chinos and a blazer.

Of course, plain brown oxfords could do a similar job, but a) I love brogues (so you should too) and b) if you're going to have only one casual pair of shoes, it might as well be properly casual.

Deck Shoes
Ok, they might not be for everyone, but they do pick up the last straggling dress codes that wouldn't be covered by the two options above. Shorts, beachwear, that sort of thing. Only the most obsessive of iGent would insist on retaining suit and brogues on the beach or as he takes breakfast on his veranda on a sunny morning in August. For those of us with a pragmatic approach to dress, some kind of alternative is required. For me, at least, that alternative is deck shoes.

Loafers (black or brown)
Personally, I'd choose brown, but go for whichever you think you'll get more use from. If you wear suits Monday to Friday, then black loafers are probably more useful to break up the monotony and to give your Oxfords a rest. (Actually, if you really wear suits Monday to Friday then your second pair of shoes should probably be a second pair of black oxfords. Boring but true. Go for brogues if you want to liven them up.) If, on the other hand, your day-to-day wear is more of the chinos and jacket variety then brown loafers are more useful.

I favour a slim shape with rounded toes and the lowest-profile stitching around the toe possible and, for your first buy, a non-tasseled pair might be safest although I would be the last person to dissuade you from tassels if you're keen. For brown shoes, suede is an option, otherwise polished calf-leather is ideal.

Something fun, or practical
If you have all of the above then you're reasonably well covered, and it's time to pad out your collection. It might be that, for practical reasons, you just need another pair of plain black or brown shoes. If so, now's the time. If, on the other hand, you think you've more or less got what you need, then it might be time to stretch to something a bit different. Really love loafers? Perhaps time to get the tasseled pair. Always hankered after some monks? Buy some in black or brown, depending on your usual mode of dress. Live in a cold country and spend a lot of time wearing tweed? Perhaps go for a pair of brogued boots. Regardless, this fifth pair should give you something else to wear with many of your outfits but also something a bit special that suits your own style and that you'll take a particular pleasure in. For me, it's probably my tasseled loafers. And my brogued boots. And my patent leather evening shoes. I'm incorrigible.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A pocket watch

There are a few things that a chap shouldn't really buy himself, but which are nice to have around if they can be inherited or, at the very least, given as a gift. A pocket watch is one of those things. I know it's unfair, but I can't help but feel a little suspicious of the sort of person who buys and wears a pocket watch but, as a fan of three-piece suits, I've sometimes felt it was a pity that no suitable family heirlooms had come my way.

In fact, it turns out one does exist, that belonged to my Great Grandfather. In some ways it's hardly surprising. Before the first world war, and indeed for much of the first half of the last century, pocket watches were as ubiquitous as wristwatches or mobile phones are today, so to have one in the family doesn't so much require aristocratic heritage as simply good fortune and some ancestors who were careful with their possessions.

It's sterling silver, and the hallmarks tell me it was made in London in 1912. That makes sense; my Great Grandfather joined the navy early in the first world war, and might well have either bought or been given a watch around that time. As is often the way with older watches, the chain has long since vanished, so I took a trip to Grey's Antique Market at the weekend to track down a new one. I was pleased to find a nice silver chain, carefully made with an elegant taper at each end, so that the links in the middle are subtly thicker than those at each end. After some struggling with my style conscience, I decided not to go for a double-chain. I rather suspect that, these days, merely wearing a pocket watch is enough of a statement. I shall save the double chain for when I am much older, much fatter, or both.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Socks: Gieves and Hawkes

My long-time readers will know that I'm a big proponent of 'fun' socks. Even if bright patterns aren't your thing, I'm firmly of the opinion that the gap between black shoes and (usually) blue or grey trousers is the perfect place where you can get away with almost any colour you fancy.

Nevertheless, there's a time and a place for everything, and any well-dressed man also needs a selection of the sort of sober socks that he can use to fulfil the more conventional rule that socks should match either your shoes or your trousers. Personally, on the rare occasions when I'm not simply ignoring this rule, I prefer socks to match trousers since black socks are a little too schoolboy for my taste. And so it is that a range of blue and grey socks are required. Plain colours are fine, and useful, but something with a subtle pattern is acceptable and possibly preferable, especially with a plain suit. Gieves and Hawkes do a particularly good selection of this sort of thing, and offer them in that majestic above-the-calf length that I particularly like: it's both hugely comfortable, and also gives a chap a sense of security that no matter how he might lounge in his armchair or cross his legs, there's no chance of a flash of bare leg being exposed.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Shirts: New and Lingwood

I've had the good fortune to be a customer of New and Lingwood since the age of about 13, and still have a set of now fairly useless plain white detachable-collar shirts that they provided me with in my school days. It used be that I would cheerfully buy socks and occasionally shirts from them (on chit, of course) generally unaware that I was buying from a shirtmaker with considerable expertise and pedigree.

Since leaving school, I've not continued as a regular customer at their Jermyn Street shop, but now seems like the time to recommence the relationship, and what better way to start than with a couple of shirts purchased in their pre-Christmas sale.

I went for the 'tailored' option - which generally suits me a little better and, indeed, they proved to be an excellent fit. The 'tailored' range, however, is not only about the shape: with this option New and Lingwood have gone for a generally more modern approach: a slightly more cutaway collar than their classic style, square cut tails with no reinforced gusset and a French placket (a style where one side of the shirt simply buttons over the other, without a separate placket). 

The collar is a plus, since the standard New and Lingwood is not quite as cutaway as I like, the shape of the tails are a matter of little interest to me - the key point is that they are still properly lengthy so that they tuck well in. The French placket is an interesting one; it lacks the neat symmetrical look of a traditional placket, but is more redolent of a dress shirt (which almost always have French plackets) and is, arguably, a 'cleaner' look. Of course, when wearing a tie it doesn't much matter either way, and I'm not sure I'd go for the French placket given the choice, but it's an interesting variation and is starting to grow on me with a couple of wears.

I went for two shirts, one a business-like pale blue stripe with double-cuffs to wear with a suit and tie, and the second a blue check with button-cuffs to wear more casually. The quality of materials and manufacture is clear in both, though the checked one is a slightly thinner cotton probably more suited to summer-wear, while the stripe is a heavier weave with a nice luster that contrasts nicely with the soft suiting fabrics that I favour. 

The next step, of course, is to go all-out and get New and Lingwood to just make me some bespoke shirts. That's definitely on the cards for 2013.