Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Owls, Punch bowls, and Owls

We drove from Boston to Northern Vermont during another pleasant-but-off-puttingly mild New England winter weekend.  A few towns over the border in southern New Hampshire, we stopped to allow the younger legs to stretch and burn off early morning energy.  An "OPEN" flag outside of an antiques shop looked like a good spot.  We explored the five floors of estate acquisitions the owner had accumulated over several years, getting a sense of his eye and imagining the early morning cold-barn and basement auctions the proprietor had regularly endured to make his inventory possible.

I climbed to the fifth floor and found thousands of little owls of all materials, shapes, sizes, and delicacy.  Thousands.  They were packed from gable to gable and began to creep me out in the cold attic.

I asked the owner and he told me that they were all from a single estate he purchased (!!!) Deeply freaky.

Mrs. called me downstairs to the main floor where she had found a punch bowl with a full set of beautiful glasses.  Small-town New Hampshire prices offered it at $15.  Sold.  Beautifully cut glass and a full regiment of matching glasses.  We had been passively looking for one since 2002, and we were both happy.  Keep reading.

Back into the car and we arrived at noon for a stop over with my Grandparents for lunch.  The epitome of Old World Yankees, our lunch concluded with a fresh apple pie with sharp cheddar slices for a topping.  Children are allowed a la mode, but not the adults.

We leafed through an old photo album from her childhood camp days, when summer camps were populated by groups of boys or girls from the same area, town, street, etc.  Mrs. Kitt knew all of the families in Fairfield and they entrusted their little girls to her each summer.

Mrs. "Kitt" and the dog they all hated.


Before we left, Dearest Nanna told me that she had a small gift for us.

"I've had this punch bowl for decades" she said.

Mrs. and I glanced at each other.

"I just know it will have a good home with you in Boston" she continued, carrying it into the room in both arms.

Another punch bowl.  We had been waiting ten years for the right one to come along, and now we had two... in the same day.

She ground it in further:
"It has about 30 glasses with it, all individual in design, but nearly identical in size.  I spent about thirty years collecting them here and there."

Mrs. and I glanced at each other again.

"To my taste, matching glasses seem a little boring.  Variety is always more interesting."

I inspected them casually.  She was right.


Then we were on to northern Vermont with two punch bowls, two silver ladles, and about 40 glasses in the trunk.  I would later lay on my pillow in our spacious-but-inexpensive Vermont suite and see those thousands of owls staring at me when I closed my eyes.


Important Author's Note.  Please Read.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Elusive Gentleman - PART II

I am beyond thankful for the contributions in the last section of comments, which actually caused me to scrap what I had written in favor of distilling the genuine wisdom of those who commented.

Here are qualities and uses described by readers:

Restraint with Power
To possess power and wield it responsibly in the face of understandably human temptation makes a good King, politician, officer, neighbor, parent, friend, etc.  The restraint is likely a complex mixture of respect, humility, duty, honor, charity, and stewardship among others.

Setting a Benchmark
Parents use this often, and for many of us, it works.  Encouraging boys and others to "be a gentleman" is requesting that they rise to a level of conduct that is above their level of action at that moment.

American Differentiation
Because clothing, money, schooling, and all of the other chips we gather to make our case have little to do with it, Americans are forced to earn the title, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world.  JKG astutely observes that many in the U.S. use their clothing to attempt justification of their virtue, of use their virtue to justify their clothing.  You can almost hear the exchange: "Why are you so dressed up?" the young woman at the party asked the bow-tied and tweed clad young man.  "Because a gentleman should always dress well." This is the type of smug idiocy JKG is likely warning against.  Its similar to someone introducing himself socially as "Doctor So-and-so".  Forceful self-branding makes my pen scratch that name off the list the next time a set of invitations go out.

My Man Godfrey - 1936

Robert E. Lee was discussed, and while his mention can be a lightning rod or bristle point, I think that the description gets at the larger picture.  Flawlessness of conduct by every single standard is impossible.  While many of our founding fathers and historically pivotal characters were certainly gentlemen by most of today's standards, they were still human men.  Staggering duplicity and occasional deviation from the course is inevitable.  Frequency, degree of deviation, and its level of premeditation probably play largely into disqualification/qualification of the title.

Adherence to Principle
ADG suggested that his fatherly defense of virtue will someday get him into a slug-out.  Getting your ass kicked is no different than giving an ass-kicking, because the reason it took place is what is important.  Violence should be the absolute last resort in all situations, but there are times when humans become mere mammals, and a man is forced to enter into that unfortunate dynamic.  ***When it does happen, I highly recommend having a guy like The Mainline Sportsman next to you.

Non-physical fights are what we should focus on.  ADG wrote that he defends virtue for sake of the virtue itself, but also to set an example, possibly to calibrate those around to higher standards.
     Gentlemen seem to adhere to causes others have left for dead, and they will take their fights to town hall, to court rooms, and to their daily life if needed.  They fight against what they individually see as unjust, threatening to their moral outlook, threatening to their family, and they often find themselves alone, abandoned by those unwilling to take an unpopular or uncomfortable stance.  Examples may include protesting eminent domain abuse, trials by media, modern social witch-hunting, or mistreatment of someone they may or may not know.  Unconcerned with crowd-dogma, the gentleman will often emerge the loser of the battle, but he emerges each time.

It seems unanimous that courtesy has largely disappeared from society in the forms we once knew.  Because of this, simple courtesies are now sadly considered chivalrous.  Walking a female guest home from a party in the city seems so unthinkable that hosts are often talked out of it by insistence... from the female guest herself.  It is clear that because the bar has been so lowered on courtesy, old etiquette and manners either inflame resentment and hostility by modern Ms. Chip-on-shoulder, or worse, they nearly swoon from unfamiliarity with being afforded the dignity of a lady/citizen/friend.  "He's such a gentleman... he sent me a thank you note."  Huh?  Thank you notes are sent by anyone who is thankful.  Gentlemen may hold doors, give up their seats, etc., but they also likely take up causes reluctantly because of staunchly held principles that are being attacked (or viewed as attacked).


Comedian Brian Regan jokes that following any heroic feat (Capt. Sullenberger landing on the Hudson was his example) you have to answer "no" when the media asks you if you consider yourself a hero.  I think that there is some overlap here for our purposes.

Thankfully, at the end of all of this, I realized that I understand less than I thought I did when I began.  My father will say that that is a good sign.  We should aspire to act like what we think a gentleman is, but never get too wrapped up in the inward obsession of it.  If you are concerned about whether or not people think that you are a gentleman, you are likely in it for the wrong reasons.  My close friend "Plum" says that a gentleman (among other things) takes ownership of that around him.  He considers his community, its parks, streets, institutions, sacred spaces, parties, parades, and well-being of its citizenry all within his purview.  He cannot be ground to submission or apathy concerning these matters, and he realizes that he is a small speck in a long line of stewards of the same cause.

A blogger (in an email to me) said that "some are born gentlemen, or 'nature's gentlemen'".  True.  In my time I have never observed any correlation between birth, worth, wardrobe, or style and what my ideals of a gentleman are.  The farcical "dandy" movement was taken seriously by so many who failed to recognize its satire that an odd blurring occurred in the subtle-but-sacred lines in the sand.  Self-branding and boisterous self-proclamations as "gentleman" may be the fastest and easiest way to ensure disqualification... which (ahem) I find to be true with many other labels.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Elusive Gentleman - PART I

In several email exchanges, I have been exploring this idea a bit with readers, friends, and family members.  Online, there often exists a call to pseudo-chivalry by readers and writers, most often deployed in the comments sections of blog posting.  Blogs often discuss what they think a "gentleman" should wear/act/espouse, etc., and commenters often use it as criticism towards the blog author and unfavorable comments following the posts.  I have received no fewer than fifty emails asking whether or not “a gentleman does [x],” usually along the lines of “Wouldn’t you agree that a gentleman ALWAYS wears a pocket square with his jacket?.  No, I wouldn't agree.

The answer I have settled upon is that I really have no idea.  While it is not impossible to define what a “gentleman” is, I don’t think that I can define it.

Growing up, I was never told what a “gentleman” actually does in any specific form.  I was however, constantly notified about what a gentleman does not do… usually something at which I was then engaged.
“Sit up, please and eat like a gentleman” was often said in my direction.  Had I asked exactly what a gentleman eats like, I would have been told “Not the way you are currently doing it.”  This was true for most of my behavior as a boy and a young man.  In my mid-to-late teens, during dinner, I would often casually relay an exchange that I saw as harmless, between a neighbor, a girl, etc. and me.  Listening patiently, my mother would conclude the discussion with an immediate course of required actions that usually had me walking, calling, or writing the party to whom I had brought some offense or coarseness.  “You will call her up and apologize.  You will also inform her that you were mistaken and that you would in fact be delighted to accompany her to the banquet.”  Permissions to drive the car, receive an allowance, or participate in varsity sports hinged on these mortifying corrections and back-peddlings.

It could be said that for a young man, the definition of a “gentleman” is never truly articulated.  It is instead presented on a case-by-case basis, only allowing one’s understanding of it to be a long series of narrowing down by trial and error.

From an email: "A gentleman in America usually means that he is wealthy and speaks a foreign language fluently".  Really?  Serial philanderer and off-court disaster Kobe Bryant is fluent in Italian and very rich.

In Europe, I came to learn that in many countries, there exist clearly defined and enumerated definitions of gentleman, which correlate directly to lineage and ancestry.  In the US, we appropriately give little-to-no worth to lineage beyond cocktail party whispers, especially when you have been subjected to international classmates who legitimately and immediately are considered aristocrats... many of whom have DUI convictions, date-rape accusations, and other unpleasant symptoms of a consequence-free upbringing.
To Americans, the Gentleman it is more amorphous and almost ethereal.  Young men are often guilted into early 20th century social niceties or they are misguided into adopting an unpalatable version of snobbery, ersatz-cultivation, or various airs in order to “be a gentleman”.

Just as legions of young men are now interested in adopting healthy dressing habits and styles, they are also translating the increased formality of dress into an increased formality of conduct (which is fine by me).  My father always said that “he who speaks seldom knows.  He who knows seldom speaks.”  I have always been very weary and suspicious of people who say “I am a gentleman” with a similar squirm when people say “we” for certain groups (every single Lisa Birnbach interview for example).  Something about it smacks of indulgence and desperation.  “If you want to see the real thing… here I am”.  How charming.

My grandmother once said that a host welcomes people into his house, but a gentleman welcomes people anywhere.  Interesting, but I don't really know what it means.

As I spend my life circling around the definition of gentleman, and as I encourage my son to do the same just as I had been, I think that maybe it’s best that a definition never exist.  This likely serves to deify the word, and like other definitions, it opens it up to vast debate.  Like the way a State Trooper uses the word “Sir”, the word “gentleman” is used punitively and comparatively.  If your definition of a gentleman is something more polite, more inclusive, more punctual, and more outgoing than you are currently, I say have at it.  If your version is something that can be acquired, bought, affected, or used to insult or smugly compare, please spare me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tapered Jackets

Dear Y-W-P, I bought I jacket last month that looked great on the [display] model. Now when I wear it it looks different. I wear a 38/40 jacket and I am slim. I know that I need to have it "taken in".  How tight is too much to take in the middle?

Respectfully, Jeremy
Charleston, SC


If it looks good on the mannequin, it has a 50/50 shot of looking good on a human.  The jackets and clothing are pinned and stretched endlessly on displays to look great.  Since most male displays are tiny 34-38" chests and don't move, the jackets are tightly wrapped on them and look deceivingly good.  The shoulders/waist ratio is also statistically uncommon.

 This is a bit too tight in the middle.

No tailoring magic... just pins and folds.

As for taking in jackets, the torso-tightness is purely the preference of the wearer.  I like them slimmed in the middle, but loose enough that a thinner wool sweater can go underneath.  As a general guide, I would say that lateral creases or puckers mean that it is too tight.  Even if you are unfamiliar with tapering them, a few minutes with a seamster or tailor will bring you to a comfortable level.  It's fine to be a little picky with the pins and insisting "A little more... a little more" is perfectly reasonable for fitting garments.  What never ceases to surprise me is how minuscule differences can make a difference... quarters of inches sometimes.  Sleeve length, lapel width, and all angles of the clothing drastically change the overall look.

This is not to say that you should obsess about quarters of inches.  You should merely adjust the jacket to a point that you think looks good.  Remember that it should also be comfortable and look good not just while standing at the fitter's mirror, but most importantly, while moving around living your life.


P.S. I'll be in that fine city of yours next month.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


As you may know, I wear shoelaces made from World War II-era Allied parachute silk spun into mili-coils around a braided jute core and wrapped in a sheath of bias-woven organic cotton (51% Carolinian / 49% Egyptian).  Each shoelace takes 8-10 months to produce and requires three separate fittings.  The laces are then hand-waxed in England by Barbour and cooled in a French wine cellar for three months.  Finally, the aglets are made from brass salvaged from a sunken Napoleon-era 6-pound cannon, and sealed with a natural vegetable resin formulated by Basotho artisans.  No man should leave the house in laces that cost less than $18,000.

In other words, I buy my shoelaces from the drugstore and pay about $1 for a package of four.  I tend to prefer the slim round type over the flat "tape" style.

This is where it gets stupidly specific (and real).  Laces need stretch/give and maneuverability through the eyelets of your shoes for both putting on and for walking, and waxed laces don't allow for it.  However, waxed laces keep your shoes tied better than anything else, and unwaxed ones will never stay in place with a simple knot.  The best laces, therefore, might be unwaxed in the middle half, and waxed at the end quarters.  Nerdy, but true.

The solution (and this is where I'm not joking) is to buy unwaxed laces, and wax the ends yourself.  You will need:

1. Beeswax
2. Four-to-six seconds of free time

Beeswax is preferred because it is colorless and won't bleed onto canvas shoes, pants, or a boat's deck.

Even some candle wax will do.  You can be as fancy as you'd like.  Use your Barbour wax dressing on your laces to let people know that you have WAY too much free time / no social life.

It's likely that another men's style blog has already provided this advice, but I couldn't be bothered to check.  This technique is used by sailors to keep (cotton or leather) laces tied after drenching and sloshing, and waxed leather laces on polished Top-Siders is a sure sign that someone is familiar with boats.

Monday, February 13, 2012

5 Steps to Being Stylish and Awesome!

First, start with a nicely-fitting classic assembly of jacket, tie, pocket square, socks, etc.

Follow these next steps exactly:

1. Hem your pants way too short and have the legs taken in.
2. Hem your jacket sleeves as well.  Why should the pants get all the fun of fitting poorly?
3. If you wear nice dress shoes that lace up, take off your socks.  Yes, it will feel nasty, but NO SOCKS!
4. Re-tie your knot into a large and loose wad and make your pocket square as offensive as possible (extra points for a small bow tie!)
5. Stand in an awkward position that looks horribly unnatural. Pretend the camera "caught you off-guard".

Now you're ready to:
Blog, attend museum openings, infiltrate grad-school parties, bicker over a restaurant check with your friends and then leave a crappy tip.  Be sure to look preposterously out of place wherever you go.

This looks cool, right?

To think... I had been doing it totally wrong all these years!

*NOTE: If you don't want to hem your wool pants, you can substitute in a pair of dark jeans, but remember to peg the cuffs and roll them tightly above the ankle.  Ignore the stares of contempt, because you will be a goofy loser awesome.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Pomped, Polished, and Perplexed

We visited the regions around the coast for a bit in the occasional free time.  I drove a few hours up that great river as well.  Louisiana is pleasant in February, and there is a toughness and an honesty that is elemental.  The oil-fields and coastal fisheries create a rugged aesthetic.  Signs advertise "underwater welders wanted" and "fresh seafood daily".  The insanely tough men and women who tend to all aspects of commercial fishing and oil-based commerce are rugged and charming.  A man taller and twice my weight stood in line next to me at the local fish-shack for lunch, still smelling of torch-joined steel in his fire-retardant cover-alls.  Like nearly everyone in this region, his tough exterior melted away when he starting chatting me up in his pleasing-to-the-ear Cajun patois, recommending various items on the menu, substantiating his evaluations with actual local trivia.

"Onna Tuesday, yor gonna want the shrimp, 'cause Eljay does the buyin' that mawnin' an he's picky. If ya come tomarrah, ya gonna wanta git the fish, 'cause it's only been on ice faw 'bout three awahs when they open."

He was a man who obviously had no fear of butter, heavy cream, sugar, or deep-fried anything.

The region is packed with beautiful bones of houses, still viable with a lot of elbow grease.  If any elbow grease is left over, the folks here would surely fry something in it.

I was given a tour of the parade costume warehouse to the north.  Almost three decades of costumes filled the hangar, many of which were fantastic.

From the hard-boiled pipe-welders, steel cutters, fishermen, engine mechanics, and oil workers, to the delicate and elaborate pomp and flashy ostentation of the parade participants, I had come full circle.  Louisiana is always thought of in terms of either the Bayou or Bourbon St.  While the live music, parades, and generous open-container laws are very nice, I have developed a love for the industrial side of the state, and I am happy to remain among the petroleum pipes and ships, eating the oyster stew and the grilled fish for days on end.  I stick out like the sorest of thumbs, but the hospitality is unparalleled.  The giant fella in the welding cover-alls said that if I was around this Friday, he would like me to attend his cookout.  All around, people seemed more concerned that a stiff in a suit felt out of place, and invitations to a church fish fry were inescapable.


Back home and at the office, my shoe-polisher had arrived, and while I was eager to spin a shine onto my oxbloods, I couldn't help but notice the picture on the box.

What exactly do they think I am going to go with it?  I had intended on everyone polishing their shoes, but this horrible picture makes me feel naive now.

Maybe it will spin me back to the mid-80's when Paul Hogan was still trying to charm us with his Humor Australis or when Andrew McCarthy was trying to date one of the figures from the top of this post.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Packing Tips for Men

Folded shirts (especially those from the cleaner) are the easiest for packing.  The plastic sleeve and cardboard backing provide ease of packing and protection in the suitcase.  If you are fortunate enough to be able to launder and iron your own shirts, I still recommend cardboard backing and a plastic sleeve for flat packing.  Ironing at home always gives the shirts a better natural drape than starched professionally cleaned shirts.  I'll return to it someday.

Stick your tie (chosen for the shirt) in the sleeve.

Keep your links on a pin, and they won't disappear.  It also works for metal links, if they have enough gap at the hinge.

Sling the pocket square through.

Inside the plastic, they hold fast and unpack very easily... organized for your stay.

The ties and shirts pack flat with no wrinkling.  The links and pocket squares sit safely tucked, and occupy very little space.  The technique makes traveling for business or pleasure far easier.  At your destination, leave each plastic-sleeved packet together until you wear them.  For packing a suit, see this past post.

Feasting on seafood in Louisiana again. A King's cake (I think it was called) and chicory-scented coffee was served after lunch.  Fat Tuesday preparations are in full swing, they tell me, and hospitality comes easy and naturally... even the roadside swamp-dives serve incredible food.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

Updating A Tweed Jacket

An old tweed jacket of mine resurfaced recently.  It still fit, but a month or two of swinging an axe might tighten the shoulders a bit too much.  I picked it up at a church rummage sale some time ago, and it is likely from the early 1980's with an extremely low cut on the front-buttons.

It wasn't bad, but I realized why I rarely wore it.  The buttons are too close together for my taste and both are too far down... nearly open to the belt line.  I took it to the seamstress, and she was happy to add another buttonhole above the top.  I hadn't purchased any matching buttons, so she leap-frogged the bottom button to the new top buttonhole.

The photos are reversed (I took them in the mirror), so don't be alarmed if the overlap looks wrong.  I still will add a bottom button,  but it looks better to my eye already.  The bill was $12, which is twice what was paid for the jacket, as I remember.  Warm and heavy, I'll happily be able to wear it a bit more now that it was tuned up.

A delightful turn of events for The Cableknit Charlestonian, and his fun post can be found here.  Also following his quote apropos of this post:

"Uh-oh, I've lost a buttonhole."  -Steven Wright

Thursday, February 2, 2012

L.L. Bean Signature Photoshoot

LL Bean sent me another invitation to purchase from their catalog.  When I first opened this up, I was happy to see that LL Bean Signature was veering towards a more permanent and classic style.  Subtle tartan flat-front wool pants?  Polished leather shoes?  Count me in... I'll take it.

A nice classic sweater of wardrobe-staple caliber?  Yes.  Wearable and versatile shirt, too?  Now we're talking.  Untucked I wouldn't do, but who cares.  It looks good.  Well, Bean Signature, you may be winning me back.

Wait... what the-?  Are the Bruins playing tonight?  Why is this guy drinking at 9AM on a Tuesday?  He can certainly flick a cigarette further than most, but I don't like the way he is eyeing that plate-glass window.

Tired of people asking you where you bought your belt? 

LL Bean Signature's design team has scoured thousands of old publications and images for their inspiration, and apparently high school yearbooks from 1991 were fair game.  After college, it took this small-town varsity quarterback three tries to get his real estate license.

This guy wasn't even born when Hee-Haw was still on prime time.  The hunting motif serves as a painful reminder of activities in which he'll never participate... unless he hits a doe with his Passat.

Are you a private detective who also runs an auxiliary snow-plow route?  Luck was a lady tonight because your up-state upholstery connection has finally paid off.  [Read actual reviews here.]

He proudly tells you that the small cut on his hand is "from a chainsaw accident".  What he doesn't tell you is that it was from dropping the Husqvarna floor model at the local hardware store.

This smarmy guy has been prowling around the train station in Budapest asking women to have lunch with him and bumming smokes from the older travelers.  He hasn't showered in days and has an unrecognizable accent, and now your passport and iPod are gone.


I hope that they will do more of this...

...and less of this:
Wool Blanket Trench, Plaid

There is a reason re-invention often goes poorly.  There is little lasting wisdom from focus groups, but three or four generations of society tend to shake out the forms that deserve to last.  The first round of Signature snark is here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lad's Choices

As mentioned in a previous post, I took a trip (under advisement) to Keezer's in Central Sq. to buy a new black satin cummerbund.  Mentioning the sub-$20 price tag sparked several emails requesting that I pick up a few more when next I went.  Thankfully, I had some free time and took the subway back across the river (all of 2 stops) for a second visit.  My young lad accompanied me because he likes "choosing ties" and also likes the spicy dosa lunches at Dosa Factory.

Inside Keezer's, he asked if he could choose a few ties for me.  The catch: by himself.

"Fine with me."
"I want to choose some beautiful ones for you" he continued.
"Go ahead.  I'll wait here."

At $5-15, they wouldn't break the bank, so I stood with the cummerbunds by the register and waited for him.

"Here's the first one!" he said, and then sprinted back into the store's wilderness.

Not bad.  It will be a great summer tie with a white shirt and a blue blazer.  I liked it.

[sound of rummaging]

[sound of rummaging]

[sound of rummaging]

"Here's an argyle one!" he said, running up to me.

Oh, Dear God. 

"It's ... wonderful" I said as convincingly as possible.  "Yes, it does look like argyle. A little."

"Do you like it?" he said adorably with genuine pride and excitement for his find. 

"Of course, son... I love it.  Thank you."

Off he ran again.

The thing is massive and unwearable.  For scale, I compared it to a tie of sensible proportions from my closet (below), and the new one is certainly within costume range:

My red tie looked like a sprout compared to the ugly "Argyle" monster.


"One more?" he asked.

"One more" I said, and he ran back through the crowded racks of clothes.

[sound of rummaging]

[sound of rummaging]

[sound of rummaging]

"This one is a handsome green!" he said, returning with a skip in his step.

Also not bad.  I like knit ties in moderation, and this Lilly Pulitzer number will go into the rotation with the other.  Two out of three.  At least he has an eye for it and the prices were so cheap (under $20 for all three) that I could indulge him  in something that clearly made him happy.


"I also found a nice suit for you, too!  Want to see?" he asked.

"I think we should probably go."