Sunday, November 8, 2009

Matters of the Hearth

As late autumn is here, I took delivery of some firewood for the cold, drafty city house. I buy the wood from a man in-state, who maneuvers his truck down my street here in the old section of the city. Once at our door, we throw the wood into the courtyard garden, I pay him, he drives off, and I spend the next hour or two stacking the wood. I have endured endless lectures from older family members about the proper ways to stack firewood, and have split more cords of wood with a maul than I can remember... all of which I think fondly. Because the courtyard is small, and I took a full cord of hardwood (white and black birch, cherry, and hickory), I wanted to stack it well and efficiently. Traditional log racks only hold about 50 or so logs, and do not do the trick for me. I knew that a cross-stack or two would come into the picture, and since I would be using a brick wall as the back and as one end, I could pile the rest between the wall and a tall-but-steady cross-stack. Out of curiosity, I checked online for some creative stacking photos, and found the following.
Stunning. The axe (not splitting maul) in the stump completes the sculpture, as if it were just felled. Below, haystack-style piles are still impressive.

In France, a house with a large over-hanging roof creates a nice shelter for the firewood, against the house walls. Notice the temporary boxes around the windows. The picture below shows a very tight and efficient cross-stack, though if you have children, they must stay out of the tempting labyrinth of stacks.
A smaller version of the felled tree sculpture:
In the end, I realized that my son might try to climb the stack, so I put in some flying buttresses of wood stacks to hold the thing against the brick, and worked in a few courses of small rounds. A few years ago, I took delivery of all unsplit birch, and spent the winter swinging the maul myself, but the neighbors made it clear that the "hobby" was unsuitable for the city. As I write this, a birch fire roars, the Brandy tastes wonderful, the slippers are comfortable, and the wood is safely stacked outside, and yes Father, the wood is stacked bark-side up.

Primary Collars

I had thought about making this an extensive post, as there is limitless non-sense of which I am capable. I was in the airport recently, and came to a realization about the collar. It's really all you have. Cuffs peak out from the jacket sleeve from time to time, usually during fabricated descriptions of various measurements or when being sworn in at one's indictment proceedings... but the collar is what is seen of the shirt when one is dressed well. It really is just a few square inches, and that's all you have. In America, we give it woefully poor treatment and afterthought at most, preferring to leave the decision to shirtmakers who do the same. I will not spend much time on the button-down collar, and let me say that it is far less formal than the rest, but there is nothing wrong with it, so long as it is used appropriately. I won't make this a thorough examination, either, but will instead give the bare essentials of how to think about it and approach it.

Cut it out, cut it away, spread it it out.

The Europeans have shown that the old "your collar shape should depend on your face" thing is not as firm as you might suspect. After speaking with almost a hundred shirtmakers, I have come to the conclusion that unless the collar is buttoned down, it should, at a minimum, be spread. I would call a spread collar anything that produces a collar gap of 90 degrees to a little more. Beyond that, I would call the others cut-away. Politicians prefer the formless collars, in pointy, floppy, plain form.

Here, our President wears the same collar that all pols seem to be required to wear. I hear about all of these guys having "tailors", but their boxy toga-suits and generic ties and collars suggest that several people are laughing, though for different reasons.

A spread collar is the bare-minimum, as far as the eye is concerned. Below, the angle pleases the eye, and adds a level of can't-put-your-finger-on-it elegance.

As the collar spreads further, the interest increases.

When it starts to go around to the back of the neck, we must proceed with caution. The extreme cut-aways are attention-getting, and people will certainly be able to put their fingers on it. They look great with coat and tie, but are a bit too steep for many business settings. As far as wearing them socially though... they are unbeatable.
A certain friend of mine (who chairs a certain committee, at a certain club) had appeared in a collar that shows as a straight line from the front (see the Bengal-stripe collar two photos up), and when I complimented him, he told me that it was "some cheap Brooks Brothers shirt" he had picked up. Perhaps it did, in fact, cost less than most, but the collar was particularly nice, making it a wonderful shirt. It also just happened to look dashing with a tie.

Two famous contemporary television personalities, can occasionally be seen in both spread and cutaway collars, and though the effect is subtle (the collars match the body of the shirts), it is still pleasant to the eye.

When searching images for this post, I came across the following disasters:
They're really not even funny. These would only be impressive if your shirt maker handed them to you, and said "I'll finish the collars once I take your facial measurements", treating them like unhemmed pants.

The other collar on it's way back (somewhat) is the "club" collar. They are certainly a less serious collar than others, but interesting still.
Generally, there are a few rules that remain as constant. (1) The more spread, the more pleasing to the eye (and not just on thin-people). (2) A white collar is always more formal. (3) Cut-aways will start to get specifically noticed, while spreads will add a general attractiveness to the shirt. (4) A collar will appear just as it fits. If too tight, it will be obvious, and vice-versa.

The tab collar is also a great way to add a bit of unexpected formality to the shirt (with a tie, of course), and if you know a decent shirt-maker, they can be retro-fitted on many shirts.
Since so little of the collar is visible with a jacket or a sweater (cut-aways and spreads happen to look fantastic when tie-less and under a V-neck sweater), the collar should usually be the first consideration. Unfortunately, the supply of nice collars per shirts in the world is a sliver on a sliver, and you will have to wait, pay, or get lucky.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Wrinkle-Resistant Shirts, and a Smart Solution

I have been asked about wrinkle-free/resistant shirts, and whether or not they are acceptable. Some shirt makers call it non-iron, and some make reference to the press enduring. Either way, I have evolved my attitude towards them. Because we no longer travel with large steamer trunks, and the modern business traveler tends to pack as lightly as possible, the wrinkle-resistant shirt is a good idea. The problem is that the cuts can be boring. I had several Brooks Brothers shirts that were wrinkle free, and they certainly traveled well, but they were nearly always button-down collared, and in a simple pattern. I finally found one with a spread collar, and French cuffs, and it lasted a few years until I had to finally retire it. L.L. Bean makes several nice wrinkle-free shirts, as does Orvis, and our panelist from Florida has much success with them, arriving crisp looking, and ready for a mid-day drink at the club, or a serious bit of business, regardless of the state of packing from which the shirts emerged. My final verdict is that wrinkle-free shirts serve a valuable purpose, and while not normally truly formal, they can take a bit of stress out of one's trip. My problem, is that they are mostly marketed to the business traveler, the exact opposite of their true potential. It seems that the real value of wrinkle-free shirts is that they should become a staple of the leisure traveler, allowing one to travel to any region of the globe, and be able to be presentable on a daily basis. The principle of dressing on leisure travel is worth a future posting, and I will say now only that a simple blazer will transform your vacation to a surprising-yet-wonderful degree.

I recently bought several shirts online from T.M. Lewin, one of my favorite shirt makers from Jermyn Street in London. Their website offered insanely low prices on their inventory, and I decided to include a few shirts from their "Traveller" line, thinking that I would finally get a few wrinkle-resistant shirts with nice cut-away collars, and pleasing patterns. I was right. They were beautiful.

I noticed that the inside of the cuffs on the Traveller shirts had a curious button.

After a few moments, it became perfectly obvious what the button was for. As a travel shirt, it is likely that one may forget or loose one's cuff-links while on the road. The button serves as a way to convert from "kissing" cuff sides, to a barrel cuff configuration.

While this is a strange position, I can think of a few times when this feature would have saved me during business travel. As they are T.M. Lewin shirts, the holes are finished long, making it easy for silk-knots to be used (some makers have holes that rule-out silk-knot use by being far too short). Because the button is on the underside, it stays hidden when one wears links. A wrinkle-resistant shirt that helps you out if you forget your links, yet has exceptional tailoring in superb fabric patterns? Well done, Lewin!I wonder if I should have this silent plan-B button attached to my other shirts... it's the ankle-holster of the dress shirt world, and a nice feature.

***See January 2009 Post for an expanded bit on French cuffs.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shoes, and the end of the North East winter

I polish my shoes regularly, but salt stains still appear all winter long. I will not get into the stuffing with newspapers, or the shoe-tree splinting (both good ideas), but I did some casting about for solutions for the problem (pun certainly intended).

Note: do not attempt to polish OVER the salt stain.

There were plenty of "Anti-salt Stain" mixtures available at the drugstores and shoe stores, but one suggestion I found that works is a solution of water and mostly vinegar. A quick wipe with some white vinegar, and the stain disappeared instantly, drying in moments, and allowing me to polish them back to luster, leather and finish unharmed.

Before you suggest that I am in the pocket of Big Vinegar, let me say that I used less than one teaspoon for four pairs of shoes. It really does work.

If you have salt stains on suede shoes, I suggest being a bit more sensible beforehand in that case.

Not just for winter, this technique will serve my thoroughly white-washed Top-Sider sailing shoes as well, which get crusted with salt to point that the eyelets oxidize to a brilliant green.

I can only assume that in our world of pre-torn, pre-faded, and pre-thread bare style manufacturing, we can all look forward to being offered $1200 pre-salt-stained shoes at some point in the future.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tea... (a momentary departure from clothing).

I keep getting these invitations in the mail from one group or another, inviting me to "High Tea", either specifically, or by way of group-invite. The invitation always concludes with "High Tea at the R**z" or "Four S*****s", "4PM. Proper Attire Required".

I think that far too few people dress when they ought to, and the casual movement has us by the inseam, but this High Tea business must stop. The "High" in high tea refers to the time of day by hands on the clock (6pm), not the airs and graces put on by the attendees. What is meant by these pretentious invitations is actually Afternoon Tea. A high tea is a meal, with sandwiches, eggs, meats, cheeses, relishes, and breads. Strong black tea (across which a mouse could trot) is served boiling hot, by someone particularly versed in its preparation, and usually in one variety only. There are no doilies, no little snacks, and no foppery. One can expect the crusts left attached to the breads, and mixed company ready to consume filling amounts from large serving spoon portions, and an absence of multi-leveled petit four towers.

High tea is a great way to have guests over for dinner without the pomp and preparation of a dinner party. High tea serves food from their baking dishes, and generally, each person serves themselves from the abundance in the center of the table. The tea is gulped, and it is a wonderful experience.

Afternoon Tea is around 4pm (tea time!), and if you respond to one of the misnamed invitations mentioned, you'll find women attempting to emulate Victorian restraint, nuance, and propriety. You will find tiny finger-foods, and lately, several varieties of ghastly herbal tea with no relation to black tea at all. The attendees will sit smugly, wishing it occurred regularly, hoping that those around them think that it does.

There is nothing wrong with a lengthy and over-blown afternoon tea, but I must take issue with the ludicrous misunderstanding and abduction of the term "high", which is assumed to be a qualitative descriptor, and makes the misunderstanding laughable.

Next time I get one of these invitations, I will arrive promptly at 6pm, invitation in hand, demanding my thick slabs of ham, toast, potted shrimp, and piping hot black tea.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pocket Squares


The pocket square has a billion possibilities. Generally, my rule is that the pocket square can be made out of nearly any fabric, color, pattern, or thickness. Usually I build it together starting with these rules. First, the presentation: In most cases, the pocket square shouldn't match the tie exactly, though certain exceptions are allowable. The boldness of the pattern will also dictate the level of presentation... bright and busy gets a low profile out of the pocket, while plain or subdued can be grown out a little. The pocket square can be similar in color, pattern, or material to the tie, and to whatever degree one dares.

Note: when in doubt, use white.

Now for the fold: The fold is generally dictated by the pattern and material. Many thin silk pocket squares will slip down into the pocket over and over, and require a special type of fold, or a tight square folded plain handkerchief at the bottom of the pocket to act as a wad, while the visible one sits ontop of it.

There are several folds: the Fred Astaire (puff-fold), is good way to deal with a heavily patterned pocket square.

Too many peaks and blossoms from a busy patterned material is far too flash, and it creates parody. A plain or subdued version gets the flared method (some call this the tulip). The 3 peaks method is great for subdued styles as well, but I find the 4 peaks a bit too much.

Always avoid the dreaded and terrible "labial" style (pictured in yellow below, with identical tie).

I have developed several folding methods that compensate for under-sized cloth, and one method for very large pocket squares as well. In terms of where to get them, any clothing department will have them. I go to fabric stores and grab silk, cotton, etc, and make them myself, I buy entire lots of them on Ebay, I have even used the back-panels of old decommissioned shirts.

As for angles, I prefer sweeping away from my centerline, and at an angle that compliments my collar and lapels. Mostly, it should not look carefully done, and should be pulled out at a moments notice for the appropriate situation. Here is a simple presentation:

It's clean and easy, won't draw attention, and it sweeps away at just the right angle, emulating the opposite lapel notch. Next, We have William Powell:

His pocket square is reaching right up to the outer boundary of display, just before it becomes overflown. Cary Grant's pocket squares often angled towards his centerline, and up... probably to draw the eye towards his face, which seems like wasted effort, as all eyes reported directly there anyway:

Jackets just tend to look empty without them. Business suites need them, hunting tweeds should have them (tending towards actual use: wiping face, gun barrels, the top of a bottle). Another never: the fake. These are press-folded cotton peaks stapled to cardboard. It looks awful, but imagine the embarrassment when you take your seat on a plane, and the young lady next to you is sobbing because her visit with her hometown beau has come to an end, and she is headed back to college. Will you hand her the cotton and cardboard 3x5 in your pocket? Unforgivable.

***Always carry another plain cotton hanky for this reason, and if you do give your pocket square to one who needs it, expect that she will keep it.

Groucho Marx used to achieve four peaks by using a white glove. It's silly, of course, but I like it. A certain club in Boston hosts a Seafood Night for its members, and all are encouraged to wear a flat seashell in their pocket. Botany Night usually sees members wearing small series of green leaves instead of cotton or silk. I have never stayed long enough to see what was used during Lectures on the History of Surgery.

In the image below, a self-described "Dandy" produces 3 peaks that seem to outgrow their vase:

My tolerances generally require restraint with the pocket square, but others may encourage blooming of this sort.

I got an email asking which method of folding is correct. The answer: none are incorrect.

Generally, if the jacket has a breast pocket, you should always have something in it. Many coats (the Chesterfield, for example) also have pockets, and a pocketsquare is correct there as well, though you should keep it simple, like polka dot or dark patterns. Ensure that your pockets are opened, if the jacket is ready-made by carefully removing the stitching with a tiny pair of snips, and then unthreading the loops.

Try out different patterns, but remember that if the pocket square is too precious to hand to somebody, either don't wear it, or carry a back-up.


From New York:

I just wanted to back Boston up on this, and emphasize the importance of two things he mentions: that the square is meant for use (ideally, to dry the tears of a lady) and naturally ought not be replaced to the pocket once it has been soiled, and secondly that it should never be too deliberate-seeming. Certainly, deliberate about them in general as a gentleman should for everything he does, but do so in advance so that the actual wearing can be unselfconscious.

I'll also add one opinion on a more general level. It seems to me that it is better to wear a pocket square without a tie than a tie without a pocket square, except in the aforementioned case of a damozel having just emptied her sinuses therein, in which event you could switch to a clown suit with gentlemanliness unquestioned. In the same way, I would say that it is better to wear a jacket with no tie than a tie with no jacket, unless one is a bouncer, a barber, or a barman. This may, however, be a matter of personal preference; I leave it to the floor.

-New York

Friday, February 13, 2009


Our dear Panelist from New York asked about cufflinks, and I thought that I'd write a bit on them. I should start by saying that I enjoy metal as well as soft links, but my true love is indeed, the silk knot. The silk knot is incapable of being flashy, and can never be accused of being too jewelry-like. They are however, more complex color-wise when considering the selection for the shirt. I have rarely seen silk knots used poorly, but I have seen metal link misfortune with surprising frequency. When metal links are worn badly, they are the equivalent of gold chains, conspicuous rings, or flash belt buckles. I have no formulae or rules to suggest, rather, I think that so long as one realizes that metal links require far more caution, the correct effect will be achieved. I wear silk knots with sweaters, without jackets or ties, and I wear them with black-tie. I would wear metal links in all of those situations, though probably not just in shirtsleeves (summer and in the tropics). Our dear New York friend suggested that horn, wood, leather, or toggle links might be worn, and I could not agree more. I have a handful of subway tokens from our T that I plan to turn into the face-sides of cufflinks sometime, and the idea of carving some links from a rare burl is fantastic... imagine a handsome briarwood or meerschaum set made from an irreparably damaged but beloved pipe! Small grommets or hardware from a rare car, fittings from a handsome watercraft, seashells, or small gears from a damaged clock would all make exciting cufflinks. I also once made a pair of silk knots by tying four tiny monkeys fists (the knot used and pictured above), which required small tweezers, resistance to motion sickness, and a long calm passage from Key West to Nassau.

The real issue seems to be that the metal link must not appear to be a default. It should not be flash or disproportionately sized, and it must appear that one has thought it through. Flash is forgiven when one explains "These were Grandfather's... he got them after [better: during] the war." Our dear New York friend once sent us pictures of cufflinks that involved resin-suspended trout flies as the face. Home run. I like the idea of old typewriter buttons, too... sort of a cheaters monogram. Extra points if you are a writer. I made a pair of hilarious links by sewing two mother-of-pearl buttons back-to-back, with some space in the middle. I button the French cuffs together in a wonderfully self-defeating way, certain to frustrate the flash wearer. I was inspired to create these after seeing an acquaintance sporting a pair of links that had no face, just double swivels. Hilarious! The observer instantly thinks you've fastened them backward, but when they get a peek at the opposite side, they realize something is wrong.

The cufflink demands more attention than some give it, and less attention than others do. Flash should be just that: if the link makes impromptu appearances from under the jacket sleeve, a bit of notice should be alright. If the link lives out in the open (sweater, etc.), it should be toned way down.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reader Questions: Slim Budgets and Easy Starts


I have received several emails from young men "just starting out" either in business or in dressing. One individual is in high school, and wanted to have a few proper starters for heading off to college. This young man is unique, and his last line was "What I could be spending on [video] games would probably be better spent on clothes". Considering the fact that investing in proper clothing is something that will achieve the exact opposite of that which video games provide, he is well on his way to profiting from the detailed observations that his eye provides him. I look forward to hearing about his acquisitions. Several of these emails state the same issue: limited budget for clothing. Where does one begin? Is it possible to put together a respectable wardrobe with very little. The answer is mixed. If you are short on time, the task will be difficult. If you have a few years, it will be far easier. If funds are VERY tight, go immediately to a second-hand or thrift store. You are going to buy a jacket. The critical measurement is in the shoulders and sleeve. 3 button is better, but two button will do just fine. At all effort, find wool. Try them on, and take the time to really dig through the racks.

If your budget is small, if you already have a suit or a jacket, the first thing to do is to tune them up. The jacket should fit the same in the middle as it does all over. Most people can stand to get their jackets taken in a bit in the middle. If you are heavy, this may not be an issue, but proper fit is still as important. Take that suit that father bought you for your cousin's wedding, or that old suit grandfather gave you, and head down to the tailor. If it fits well in the shoulders, it will cost less than $20. The two best things one can do for one's [jacket] style is to take in your jacket, and always wear a pocket square (white will do). Dig around the thrift store for an old-but-nice smaller silk scarf (yes... even a lady's silk scarf), and put it in your breast pocket (more on the folding technique in a different post). You can even use a plain white cotton handkerchief. For young men with a few suits that you wear to work, this is also the case. The financial districts in most major cities are full of young men who have overpaid for suits, and have underpaid for alterations. A stroll past the young lawyers chatting outside our government offices demonstrate the unfortunate effect that "politician style" has had on our young lads. The suits are all decent, but they simply swim at the lower torso and waist. Nobody will be offended by a simple white pocket square and a well tapered (by alteration) jacket.

Again, even if you are not slender, there is still most likely room to take in your jacket. Most tailors can also add a third button and steam-repress the lapels with little effort, so consider this if you are a slender man. I think that you will be surprised with the results, and they are subtle... you will still be able to maintain your dear corporate conformity, and few people will realize that, no, it's not the jacket... it's the tailoring.




Our man in New Haven writes:

This is perhaps too obvious to state, but I will do it anyway: a budget-minded man can do well in the thrift store, but he should be sure to hold out until he uncovers a jacket that absolutely suits him, meaning that at the minimum it should fit correctly about the neck and shoulders and that the sleeves are sufficiently long. Our man should then visit the tailor for a tune up, as you describe.

I find, because my size is (usually) a hard-to-find 38L, that I need to search in many shops before having any luck. It took me two years to find an appropriate tweed jacket, despite diligently searching through dozens of consignment, thrift and vintage shops from North Carolina to Vermont.

What I am getting at is this: when I was first learning how to dress, I was often tempted by the nearly-right jacket. You know the one: it's just a bit too ample about the shoulders. But you want to purchase it anyway because it's the right price and of dashing material. And maybe those buttons are a little daring without being vulgar. And you've spent so much time looking without uncovering anything decent. And the fit really is nearly there. Don't you think so, mirror?

Wrong. I bought two such jackets before I finally learned to walk away from the damn things. I even took one to a tailor to see if he could bring the shoulders closer together. It was a costly operation ($70) and the results were bad.

-New Haven

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Collar Stays

Buttons, cuff links, belts, braces, and even shoe laces are all essential components to a man's clothing. One silent and invisible feature to nearly all men's shirts are the little stays that go under each collar in their respective slotted sleeves (I will use the term slot for the purposes of this bit). The slots usually angle toward the collar points, regardless of whether they are deeply pointed, spread, or cut away types. Some shirts have slots that are parallel to the collar's spread edge, and some have stays that are sewn into the collar itself. I realize that some people call them bones, tabs, stiffeners, etc., but I call them stays.

I have accumulated a rotating pile of these things from Lewin, Pink, Hilditch, Turnbull, Brooks Bros., Polo, and they are all drastically different, though the collar slots are relatively similar. I am in no way interested in keeping the stays organized by shirt any longer, so I usually just eye the pile, and estimate which will fit the collar of the shirt I have chosen. It should be noted that for the most part, I prefer to launder my own shirts (in a tumble washer) and iron them myself (professional cleaning cuts the shirt's life down to 1/10th in my experience).

I have all plastic stays. I have been given mother-of-pearl, brass, aluminum, a pair of steel stays, and I even saw titanium in a catalog. For an unseen and always disappearing item, plastic is the only thing that makes sense to me.

Still, after losing a bunch of stays, I was forced to buy a vile vial of them at Brooks Brothers, for about $14. It seemed expensive at the time for tiny plastic tabs, but I didn't want the ends of my collars to break formation when I have them flanking a tie. After I lost that entire supply, the solution came to me on a business trip.

I had lost the pair I brought with me, and was feeling a bit hopeless. I looked around the room, and next to the small coffee maker, were some cocktail straws and my room key card.

It seemed simple enough. I doubled it and put the point into the stay slot. They would have to do. I asked the front desk to send up some scissors (though I suppose nail clippers could have been used... slowly).

It worked. On the second day, I cut the room key to pieces and used it to fabricate new plastic stays. I then remembered paying $14 for a few of these, as I sat with a new pair for free.

It worked out perfectly. Now, I just keep the room key that the hotels give me, and make a few new pair each time I need them... for free.

I have no problem with the luxury models of collar stays, but they are just not for me. It's not a style issue, its practicality.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

French Cuffs - Reader Questions

Dear Boston,
Is the French cuff applicable in a non-jacket setting, and is there any way to gracefully combine one with a sweater? And where is the upper limit of the barrel cuff's social applicability? I think we've all at some point had to wear them to a more or less formal event; can we say that a barrel cuff is applicable so long as it comes with a slightly less-formal suit, tweed say, or must it be limited to the sport jacket at most? Certainly a sweater prefers a barrel cuff, and naturally this is an important consideration for me as a scholar.

-Professor, University in the City


Dear Professor,
I freqently find myself Franco-cuffed and sweatered. I think that silk-knots are the favored link for the sweater, and I give the sweater cuff a single turn-back that falls on either side of the silk-knot, NEVER concealing the cuff. The sweater, like the jacket, should always be showing linen. As I write this, I am French-cuffed with no tie or jacket. The barrel cuff is acceptable in formal settings, but in order, I would rate the French type first (following the rule that more fabric is better, and your everydayer can't figure it out), then the fitted barrel, and lastly, the side-by-side. I am also of the thought that all of them are perfectly acceptable in just about any setting that allows for a turn-down collar. The barrel-cuff, following the rule, can be made more formal, by adding buttons. Turnbull & Asser puts 3 vertical buttons on each cuff, a pain to do and undo, but it is more formal. Three seems to be the limit, though... I could hardly imagine four. The ever-present side-by-side buttons are strange, because when does one ever adjust the setting? Of all the measurements on a man's shirt, it seems that the one that has nearly zero chance of changing is the wrist measurement.
Also, on sweaters and cuffs: The barrel cuff is obviously better for the unbuttoned turnback over the sweater cuff... one of my favorite sweater/cuff positions, impeccably executed often by my friend in New York (carrying firewood, impromptu under-hood examinations of roadsters, and mid-autumn day cocktails on a porch).


I have received several emails about this since posting, which is strange, because nobody reads this blog. The emails suggest that the French or "double[d]" cuff is formal only. There is only one possible origin for this idea: Those for whom the French cuff is new and recently discovered are still taken with its novelty and most likely own shirts in blue, white, or other solid. To them, this would seem to make the French cuff "luxurious", and I'm betting, only worn with metal links. To these individuals, the cuff accompanying an expensive shirt translates inseparably to "formal", but this is purely a matter of one's custom. To prove this point, I will commission from my local shirtmaker, and once complete will post pictures of, a rough flannel tartan shirt with French cuffs of the same flannel. I will then split firewood in it. This will neutralize that silly claim once and for all. I will surely still get one email saying "Sir, that French cuffed flannel shirt should only be worn for formal occasions." I also suggest that readers disagreeing with this claim view the photos in the "Reviving Shirts" post several posts down.

Formality & Black Tie - A Friend's Questions for the Panel

Dear Panel,

I wanted to briefly lament the shawled collar. I have often tried on jackets, smoking and otherwise, and have just never looked right with a shawl around my neck. At first I thought that the trouble was the usual one of finding a jacket that fits my long and narrow person, but conversations with Boston have convinced me that they simply will not work on someone who looks like me... very tall and very thin. So while I have always craved a shawl, I think they are things I will need to admire from afar. Pity. But better to silently experience pity then to look like an over-worked, possibly dying ox with a too-thin neck.

This question is for Florida panelist: may I pull your electronic ear a bit further on the wearing of a black or white tie? It may connect into your position on traditional vs trendy. Or possibly not. The matter: I have a velvet suit that is reasonably formal, but not a tuxedo. The thing is a very dark blue -- a deep, deep navy. While I think velvet has become trendy among a small set, this particular number is from Sweden, probably the 1960s, and is of a staid, respectable cut. The velvet is superior to what is commonly available today. New York and Boston Panelists have seen it worn and can speak to its character more eloquently than can I. To get to it, I recently escorted a lady to what was called a "black tie" event -- a dinner at my university for holders of a supposedly prestigious fellowship. Of course, nearly every fellow there was in rental garb complete with pre-assembled black bow ties. Nearly every fellow wore a jacket that swam copiously around their stomachs. As per expectation, men looked very similar to the waiters serving them, who were also wearing black bow ties, also pre-assembled (the big difference being that the waiters wore no jackets). In contrast, I wore velvet. I did this with the idea that though my suit might be a notch less formal (and, indeed, had notched lapels), the fact that it had been well tailored would actually put me in a more respectable class than the other men in the room. And I wore a white tie because it works much better with blue than a black one would have. Perhaps this was a transgression?

Was my thinking wrong? I suppose a lot of this thinking revolved around the correct prediction that, though the event was billed as black tie, many of the gents in attendance would wear second-string garb. I figured I'd be fine so long as I wasn't in a business suit. Now if I had been invited to a formal event at your house or a Boston's club then I would have expected a different standard and would have dressed accordingly.

Hmm . . . a lot of this is expository. A larger question is: what is our duty in situations where black tie is called for but you can expect almost no one to rise to the occasion? I am afraid I already know the answer to this: it matters not about those who never rise. I just hope I wasn't as guilty as the renters in the not-that-black-tie affair I described. Actually, I hope to suffer no guilt at all. At the time I felt like the only fellow in the room who looked well enough, even though my tie was white. But our recent string as caused me a bit a distress.

-New Haven


New Haven,
I will wait for Florida's response, but I offer this as my unsolicited bit. When the event is billed as "black-tie", the first question to ask is "Do they mean it?" Not that one should show up in a suit if he event is billed black-tie, but the designation, I have found, is really a way of ensuring that everyone adhere to a degree of similarity, because nobody wants to say "wear a coat and tie for God's sake", though that's what they want to say... rightfully, yet sadly so. You actually achieved what the invitation was really getting at in my estimation... a standardized degree of formality, to which you added a shot of bubbles (needed too, by your description of it). I have seen your velvet suit, and with it's exceptional tailoring, and I think that you made the right choice. The choice becomes much less right once you acquire a proper rig, and which point you will be able to intimidate fellow party-goers with the taper.

As for the verticality and accentuation of the shawl collar on your frame, I have nothing to add to your analysis, because it is simply correct.



As we wait for the final word from Florida, I'd add something to what our Boston friend has said. Let me assume the historical viewpoint: black tie was invented by Poole for Edward VII when he was still only 19 and the Prince of Wales. From the beginning, it was intended as something less than entirely formal (i.e., not for ceremonies) specifically aimed for dinner party use. Thus, when properly worn as in New Haven's case for a dinner party, any departures from simple black tie must be in the spirit of dinner, of going out. In this vein, the substitution of velvet for a traditionally less-tactile material seems to me an almost orthodox choice if executed in the right spirit.

Now, departing from the historical view, I'd say that these days having one's clothes actually fit counts for much. To put it as nicely as I can for our benighted age, one can no longer earn demerits for breaking rules, only credit for what one does carry off. We may no longer dress to uphold a dead standard, but only as a tactical gesture in the war to maintain any standards at all. In this sense, velvet too can be a weapon.

-New York

A slight digression. I like words and the English language, and have for years. I am not particularly good at English, but then I was never particularly good at rugby, but that never stopped me from arguing over the game and how it should be played. I blush when I think of how many years I've spoken of the beauty of the English language, and how it is so vibrant and alive by borrowing from others, without ever realizing that you can't keep something alive without evolving it. Now, granted, without rules, the language would disintegrate, but there is a balance between rigid adherence to rules without reason and evolving standards. You see where I going with this. The very nature of the creation of the tuxedo is one of change. Change from the rigid formal standards of England's royal court society to the emerging mercantile centered society. Mercantile society in England was always in the shadow of the royal court and never really developed, but America started with a somewhat cleaner social slate.
I think there should be rules. I don't think the rules should be changed just because we can, but I think we should do what we are doing here - looking at the rules, talking about them, and seeing if they apply. But not be too quick to change them at the whim of fashion or commerce. Remember what your fathers looked like in their leisure suits or bell bottoms. The fate of fashion rests on your shoulders.
Back to the matter at hand.
Your dress should be a reflection of your character. Did the clerk give you a twenty instead of a one? Did you return it? Of course you did, as a gentleman even when no one is looking.
[name withheld] arrived and changed into blue Albert shoes with gold monograms. Does anything say "this is my club" better than that? Very personal. A signature piece. He started off with traditional wear and made it uniquely his. I believe in understatement. Deplorable fashion comes from those that see what [name withheld] did and try to copy and add to. Boston's comment on traditional wear with loud socks is in the same vein as [name withheld]'s statement. Personalize, don't parody. Try for only one change at a time.
New Haven's velvet suit is a good example of when standing out in a crowd is good. A European tailored suit in a sea of ill-fitting rentals sounds like a winner. Transgression? I don't think so. If the white tie worked, and you were not being a parody - good.
This is my recap from your comments.
-- Jacket: Black single-breasted, single-buttoned, with peak or shawl lapels. White limited occasions.
-- Tie: Black (and real of course). White ties ought only to be worn with tailcoats.
-- Shirt: standing collar, french cuffs, and studs in front .(pleated front?)
-- Cummerbund: limited width and black in color. (Bonus points for wearing one actually procured in India.)
--Trousers: no belt loops, with piping or braid of silk or satin running along the leg seam.
-- Braces: Yes.
-- Shoes: black closed-toe oxfords with leather soles and a good shine.


Black Tie - Reader Questions for the Panel


If you have the time, I thought I'd ask your opinions about formal wear. I recently acquired a trim, white dinner jacket with peaked lapels that I consider to be of excellent cut, but now I confess to some confusion over how to next proceed. Well, the obvious next step to to pick up the right pair of black trousers -- easy enough. And I already have both black and white ties. But I am a little tripped up over shoes and shirt -- most tuxedos I have encountered in life have been of the rental variety, and without a proper model I find myself (with eyes cast down) fumbling with the details. For example, must shoes be of patent leather? Is it permissible to use, say, a conventional white shirt from Thomas Pink with black or white silk links? I'm sure there are other concerns I am overlooking, but for now let's start with those. Let me say that I am also on a student budget.

Thank you in advance for your help with this embarrassing problem.

-From Norway


Excellent question. The very best trousers (and most correct) are made for the 'Tuxedo'... they usually have a satined stripe/seam down each leg, are uncuffed, and have no beltloops, though they do have inner buttons for suspenders. If the dinner jacket has more than one button afront, it may be worn with other combinations, like velvet pants (?). If the lapels are satined, you should restrict it to proper black-tie attire.

As for shoes, patent leather is increasingly less required. In fact, the other night as I hosted a black-tie dinner at the club (debuting my new ivory colored dinner jacket), [name withheld] arrived to the foyer, and immediately changed into his navy blue velvet Albert shoes with gold monograms... to stunning effect. Having gone patent leather for years, I now wear highly polished Allen Edmonds with black-tie most of the time because like the silk-knot, they provide a tiny edge of easiness to the look:

The key is a nice handsome shine. Wingtips have been traditionally forbidden, but I am actually coming around, as I find it more daring, and often seen in the arts world. Monk-straps are out, though if you throw on some crazy red argyle socks, it may work (the loud sock/nice suit tradition is a favorite membership guaranty to the London arts crowd). There is also something extremely nice about an old-school opera pump with black-tie, which used to be the norm:

I'd start by going to tuxedo rental places and asking to buy a pair of proper trousers (used, of course) with at least some wool content. Now, as for the shirt, a plain white shirt will do, until you can get a proper turn-down collar shirt (more versatile) with a textured bib. Once you have that shirt, your next one should be a winged-collar. In all cases, French cuffs are the choice. I actually prefer to wear silk knots with my dinner jacket, instead of the metal types, and I match them to my pocket square (the plainer, the better for black-tie). I also rarely use the studs for the front buttons.... both of my shirts came with a ribbon with the buttons attached, which is what I wear. Brooks Brothers actually make a decent shirt for this.

-Boston Panelist


My personal thoughts -
Shoes: Shiny patent leather. I wear wing-tips with suits, but I have shiny patent leathers that only come out with the dinner jacket.
Shirt: White wing-tip formal or lay-down formal. I prefer the wing-tip. Anything else says, "I don't really care/know enough to wear a proper shirt."
Tie: Black, unless you have full tails.
Vest: Avoid.
Avoid trendy variations. I was about to go on at length about trendy vs. traditional, but we can bring that up in a later discussion.

-Florida Panelist


-White ties ought only to be worn with tailcoats, as Florida Panelist aptly notes.
-A white dinner jacket such as Norway's is unusual, already a breach of strict tradition, but quite in the spirit of the Tuxedo in general in that it is a simplification of full formal attire, namely white-tie for the evening or morning dress for the day, both requiring very specific trousers, jackets, shirts, waistcoats, shoes, hats, etc., and both almost useless in the present day. The dinner jacket allows a greater degree of freedom so long as an atmosphere of (sub-ambassadorial) formality is evoked. (Ambassadorial requires white tie.)
-The jacket should nevertheless be single-breasted, single-buttoned, with peak or shawl lapels both acceptable. I prefer shawl in principle, as a reference to the relaxed smoking jacket from which the dinner jacket is derived. Notch lapels smack of the business suit and thus have no business at a formal event.
-For even semi-formal event attire such as black-tie, one needs a shirt with a standing collar, for the same reason that the jacket ought not have notched lapels. It ought also have french cuffs, and studs in front rather than sewn buttons. I lean away from any frills, pleats, or other decorations on the shirt front, though.
-A vest may be worn for full effect, but it must be the right sort of vest, of the same material as the jacket and with a formal cut. The chance of laying hands on an acceptable vest is quite limited unless you have your own tailor. Failing this, I think the old imperial Anglo-Indian cummerbund is still quite good, though it should be of limited width and black in color. Bonus points for wearing one actually procured in India.
-The trousers cannot have belt loops, as Boston Panelist notes. The piping or braid of silk or satin running along the leg seam is not absolutely necessary, but is a safe choice.
-My age compels me to side with Boston Panelist and not Florida on the matter of patent leather: as long as the shoes are black closed-toe oxfords with leather soles and a good shine, this is enough. (Though as a historian I regret the passing of the opera pump, I think it would be excessive to pretend that it has not passed out of use. Real patent leather made with linseed oil would be grand, but these days nearly all patent leather is made with a plastic coating substituting for the linseed oil treatment. Patent leather may remain the standard, but there is now room to depart from it and remain a gentleman.
-Not sure about whether the shoes may be brogues, i.e. wingtips. Depends on the occasion for the attire, I guess. Something entirely festive, maybe so. Something more honorary, probably not.

Finally, I love the idea of going to a club dinner or private party or other only nominally semi-formal event with a further slide toward private house attire, as in the example of our [name withheld]'s shoe swap. What would you think of the jacket sliding into the formal end of smoking jacketness, or of replacing the bow-tie with a black cravat secured with a pin? Actually, this last is potentially even more formal than the bow-tie, and could more easily be worn with a tailcoat. I'm very tempted to try it some day.

-New York Panelist


Monday, January 19, 2009

Velvet Slippers / Albert Shoes

There has been a bit of talk about the velvet slipper lately. I have always known them as Albert Slippers. This is the same Albert whose son, Edward VII is the person (it is said) for whom we leave the bottom buttons unfastened on our jackets, sweaters, waistcoats, etc. I have generally been happy to see them worn in familiar settings, venturing outside of the house (the club, familiar parties, friends houses) during the colder months, but have noticed men wearing them around the sidewalks as loafers. Wearing them in one's house is always right, and to wear them to a party (because one's snowy boots are left at the door) is both easy and a nice tribute to the host, indicating your comfort with the setting but still honoring the event. I also enjoy seeing them with black-tie, again in more familiar settings. Green, blue, wine-red, and with nouns embroidered on the toe are all acceptably daring. I am not quite ready to see them on the street, though... that is for the loafer, not the Albert house shoe. Since the soles are usually thinner leather, wooden floors and rugs are the only surface suited for them under foot. I recently acquired a new pair from Del Toro in Palm Beach. They make a solid black slipper in velvet, usually around $125. The gents there have expanded into embroidering and expanded color selection, and I got one of the early prototypes from them: black with pheasants on the toe. They are certainly far less expensive than Shipton & Heneage at $500 or so, and John Lobb asks around $6,000 for their bespoke models. Other makers include Trickers, Charles Gale, Stubbs & Wooton, Bowhill & Elliot, and Church's. The Del Toros have suited me perfectly, and are obviously very comfortable. Brooks Brothers makes a pair for around $200, and Ralph Lauren offers them at almost $900. One hilarious aspect to the Ralph Lauren models is that they only offer them with their logos or the initials "RL" on them. I think that Brooks Brothers also offers "BB" on theirs. If you are going to the trouble of getting some nice Albert shoes, at least have your own initials (or family member's) on them. The Del Toros fit into the umbrella pocket on the inside of my long winter coat, so they are easy to bring along to parties during the winter.

The Albert house shoe is a good idea, but they are not loafers. A quick dash across the street to the butchers, or visit the neighbor is the extent of their outdoor use. In a familiar setting, they tell the host that you are comfortable at their party, but that you still have the sense to dress. One short note about the emblem: since the majority of them are English versions (obviously the originals), they usually appear with crests or marks of the royal family on them like crowns, ostrich plumes, etc. It is usually inappropriate for any U.S. citizen to wear these images, unless they do so in specific and verifiable tribute.

Christmas Shoes

As the holiday season approached, I took the usual path of breaking out my various pairs of pants with nouns embroidered on them. Of the various pants in the drawer, my favorite is a pair I found about 13 years ago at a thrift store in Hyannis. I think that I paid $4, or so, and an examination of the sewing indicated that they were bespoke. Bottle green corduroy, with little water fowl all over and a sturdy cuff, they have literally elicited curse-laden heckles from men in trucks driving along the streets of Boston.

I realized that I needed a pair of shoes that were as interesting as the pants for wearing around the house (but not out). I have several pair of Allen Edmonds shoes, which I find to be generally excellent in all ways, and I thought I should stick to them. I wanted to make a slight mockery, but still be with in bounds of reason, so I realized that I would be modifying the shoes slightly. I have always disliked the tassel loafer, and find them to be ugly all around. Low vented, and usually an after thought, they more often than not ruin a good ensemble. What better shoe to modify than the cursed tassel loafer? Since I would be wearing these shoes about one month per year (Thanksgiving - Christmas), I was not about to buy a new pair from Allen Edmonds ($300+). I found a pair of Allen Edmonds in my size on Ebay for about $10, and they were in near perfect condition.

They arrived, and I set to work. A $1 length of green velvet ribbon, and 2 gold colored nautically themed buttons for about $1 would be the tribute. I happily cut the tassels from the shoes and unthreaded the leather strap through the heel. I easily replaced it with the green velvet ribbon by rerunning it through the holes and tied an ostentatious bow, securing the gold buttons at the knot.

A quick polish, and they were unique enough to try out. During the maiden voyage (Thanksgiving) they seemed well-received, initially to widened eyes. Since they were good shoes to begin with, the comfort was instant, and they made the perfect Holiday house shoe. Combined with the green water-fowled pants, they fit right in. Perhaps they are a perverse tribute to the opera pump, but the Holidays are good times to pull off that sort of thing, surrounded by friends, and usually indoors.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reviving Shirts

As I buttoned the top button of my shirt, I noticed the fraying was getting a bit worse, and reaching the ends of my collar tips and cuff edges. French cuffs tend to wear out at the outside fold, and it seems as if barrel cuffs wear evenly, and around the outside edge first. In the past, I had recycled the shirts by cutting the back panel out, hemming it, and making a nice pocket square from it. I checked my closet, and realized that there were about six shirts which were all reaching the same level of collar/cuff fray. The collars wear out on the tips (even on cutaways and spreads) and the back turned-down ridge (or "spine") of the collar. Since the shirts were mostly nice shirts (T.M. Lewin, Thomas Pink, Turnbull & Asser), I cringed at the thought of taking scissors to the back panel, and popping off the mother-of-pearl buttons to save. What to do?
I found a shirtmaker in Wellesley, and took a car out to see them one Saturday. I knew that matching the patterns on the fabric would mostly be impossible, so I decided to have the tailors replace the collars and cuffs with a conservative white collar/white cuff theme. Two of the shirts were white background with butcher checks, one black (almost a windowpane) and one green (a Brooks Brothers shirt). The other shirts were two striped numbers, and a solid blue one.
The tailor, Harry (320 Washington St. Wellesley) showed me books of swatches, and a lightbulb flickered on in the dusty attic of my brain. Blue fabric for the collar of the pink striped shirt! White for the blue shirt (not too daring), and the green butcher check? With the tailors blessing, I stretched out my boundaries a bit. I started out with the blue one. Here the original collar and French cuffs are shown next to the new attached set.
A standard shirt. I went next to the striped shirt I had. The barrel cuffs were replaced with French cuffs, and the collar was replaced as well, both in a light blue to match the pink and blue stripes.
Not bad. My next shirt was the green and white butcher check from Brooks Brothers. It was a middle-of-the-road quality barrel cuff with a spread collar. In the swatches, I found a nice herringbone blue.
I was feeling a bit liberated, and the approving nods from Harry the tailor encouraged me further. The above shirt could be worn with a suit and a tie in many business settings, but I was getting close to the edge of what could be pulled off. When the Thomas Pink shirt with the thin butcher checks and cutaway collar was put on the counter, I decided to take this shirt out of the rotations of business-acceptable, and toss it into the cocktail party category. I found a very tight lime green butcher check that was different in size enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be daring. The color was outlandish, and the with the cuffs, it was almost overwhelming... almost. Again it is pictured below with the original French cuffs and cutaway collar.

I could almost imagine the looks when wearing this with with a navy blue tie with little nouns on it, blazer, and light gray flannel pants.

The tailor gave me one shirt back incomplete. He correctly pointed out that the fabric was simply too worn to reattach new components. It WAS a high mileage shirt, but he included the cuffs and collar (pink) anyway. It was a shame, but I realized that I had another fit that could work out in the future. The Turnbull & Asser shirt had three-button barrel cuffs (which were a bit of a pain). Putting on the shirt meant buttoning three buttons on each wrist.
I decided to keep the cuffs and collar (obviously), and to turn the worn-out shirt into a pocket square and handkerchief. In my closet, was another older Brooks Brother shirt that I thought would look good with the pink cuffs and collar, since the Turnbull & Asser one was unrepairable. The good candidate was a tight butcher check in blue with barrel cuffs and a medium spread collar. In the below picture, I was trying to imagine what the shirt would look like with the pink French cuffs and the new pink collar. I wrapped it around the existing collar, and I thought that it looked pretty good.
The last step is cutting off the old buttons from the barrel cuffs and from some of the collars, since they are all mother-of-pearl, and I'll toss the scraps, or retire them to the shoe polishing box.