Saturday, March 21, 2009

In terms of fit, comfort and style in footwear, nothing beats the OXFORD SHOE, popularly known as the wing-tip….

According to fashion lore, back in the eighteenth century, Oxford university students, a restless lot by nature, began to grow particularly unhappy with the uncomfortable, constricting fit of the above-the-ankle boots then in vogue. Putting their practical wits to work, some students took to scurrying across campus in low-cut shoes that were as easy to walk in as they were to get out of, given the eyelets for lacing up the vamp. Needless to say, this cooler, more comfortable shoe style soon became known as the oxford, named after the venerable institution located 50 miles west of London.

While oxfords became the accepted footwear style at universities throughout Britain and managed to get a nod of approval even from London gentlemen who tended to shrug off anything "new and fashionable," the look still swung in and out of vogue for nearly two centuries. As late as the 1900's, men in America as well as in England regarded oxford shoes with a reserved disdain, refusing to wear them.

In the book, "If The Shoe Fits," author Bill Severn writes that when oxfords made of light tan calfskin were delivered to stores in upstate New York in 1898. the proprietors complained, demanding that the manufacturers take the shoes back so that the tops could be put on them to make them "salable." It is anyone's guess whether the retailers' requests were ever actually taken seriously.

By 1915, oxford shoes were more widely accepted, as shown by the many advertisements boasting of their heretofore unheralded qualities. In fact, the oxford became the most popular gentleman's shoe through the Twenties and Thirties, aided in no small part by returning servicemen only too happy to kick off their government-issued, heavy military boots. For his part, in 1924, the Prince of Wales ushered into vogue the first suede oxford, known then in England as reverse calf, during a visit to the United States. Judging from the controversy his suede shoes stirred up--one observer called them "a mark of great effeminacy"--it is surprising that the Prince did not find himself chauffeured right back to Britain. So much for fashion invincibility.

Perforated brogues are perhaps the fanciest of the Oxford style shoe

The oxford shoe of today bares little resemblance to its ancestor, at least as far as shape and construction are concerned. The modern day oxford is lighter in weight and narrower in shape than those of earlier decades, which needed to be heavier and clunkier to balance out the wider trouser legs and heavier clothing fabrics. As suits became lighter in weight over the years, and trouser width narrowed to a trimmer line, so too did the oxford shoe experience a paring down of sorts. Current trends point to the return of thicker crepe soles and chunkier heels, but classic oxfords remain just that--classic--and should endure any and all vagaries of fashion.

The term oxford is often used incorrectly in describing any low cut shoe. But there are subtle differences between a genuine oxford and all other low cut styles: the real thing has a vamp (the top part of the shoe front) that is stitched on top of the quarters, or sides, of the shoe, with lacing of three or more eyelets over the instep. With a saddle oxford, a leather piece, usually in a contrasting color, extends from side to side over the instep, much like that of an actual saddle.

Quality oxfords have uppers of calf or kidskin, which are soft and lightweight. Hand or bench-made welt construction, a cobbler's craft that has been with us for about four centuries, consists of a narrow leather strip sewn by hand to the insole and upper, with the sole later attached to the welt. Another earmark of quality construction is leather soles and lining. Leather is a slow conductor of heat and will retain warmth in winter, while repelling it in summer.

According to statistics from the Footwear Council, a man may walk an average of 115,000 miles in his lifetime, putting stress on 26 bones, 107 ligaments and 19 separate muscles in each foot in the process. So for the man who wishes to avoid returns to the shoe store at regular intervals, buying the best possible shoes--preferably oxfords--may well be an investment in health as well as style.

The first bona fide active sport shirt born directly from sports is the POLO SHIRT, perhaps the most popular top a man can wear….

As with no other fashion idiom, sportswear is a wholly American invention. Call it our perennial preoccupation with practicality or a long-abiding contention that clothing and comfort need not be mutually exclusive, sportswear is synonymous with American style. Over the last century or two, sports have had a tremendous influence on fashion, particularly in England and America, where proving one's meddle, whether on a lush fairway or a natural clay court, is a matter of personal, if not national, pride.

The polo shirt was specifically designed early in this century for aristocratic men who played the vigorous, if dangerous game of polo for which the garment is named. The earliest versions of the polo, according to "Esquire's Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Men's Fashions," were pullovers made of knitted wool jersey that featured short sleeves and a turned down collar, an altogether comfortable shirt that afforded the mallet-wielding athletes greater arm movement than the heavy woven shirts they always wore.

Once the polo shirt was seen as satisfying the requirements of the sport for which it was invented, it began to take on its own fashion life, with newer adaptation in styling. color and fabric. And its functional, if not flattering, appeal was not lost on sportswear designers in general.

By the early 1930's, men's golf and tennis wear companies adapted the polo shirt for their respective sports. For tennis, the shirt was executed in pure white, in a lightweight cotton mesh, while for golf, color was added along with slightly longer sleeves. To be sure, it is in the lexicon of golf apparel that the polo has ascended to a lofty fashion perch, a position that won't soon be usurped by any other garment.

Fashionable golf polos today are made of myriad styles, fabrics, colors, textures and even prints: satiny Sea Island cotton or cotton and silk blend jersey; cotton or lamb's wool interlock; pure cashmere or silk and even blends of silk, wool and cashmere. For dressier occasions, and when a slight chill is in the air, the long sleeved versions are a perfect choice, whether one is playing a round or just visiting the club for dinner. Indeed, so ubiquitous has the polo become in men's fashion that many are often worn under suits for a look that blurs the distinction between sportswear and tailored clothing.

From Giorgio Armani to Ermenegildo Zegna, every Italian fashion company worth its lire has created a version of the polo. Stateside, household designer names like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have built reputations, if not empires, on the strength of their polo shirts, many of which are from newly created golf lines.

It is not without a certain irony that a specialized item of apparel, originally designed out of necessity for the sport of kings, has evolved into the most popular sport shirt among the masses in the history of fashion. But be forewarned: as flattering as a well-styled polo shirt might be, don’t count on it to improve your golf swing any time soon.

There is little in the lexicon of men’s clothing that compares with the NORFOLK JACKET for sheer nattiness...

Made of sturdy wool cheviot, Harris or Donegal tweed, with bi-swing back, bellowed flap front pockets, pleated back, and self belt, a stylish Norfolk Jacket gives the wearer a look of preparedness. Which, after all, was the original idea.

The garment first appeared on the aristocratic back of Coke of Norfolk, earl of Leicester, in the early 18th Century, when it was customary for English noblemen to wear country jackets associated with their districts. Undoubtedly a man of great style who took his hunting seriously, the Duke of Norfolk, as he was not-so-commonly called, had his tailor fashion a hunting suit of a burly tweed fabric strong enough to thwart any wayward thorns, fitted with ample pockets for storage and a belt that fitted snugly about the waist to keep out the cold. For shooting partridges out of pear trees or picking off wild geese soaring over his 43,000-acre estate, there is little doubt the sporty duke turned himself out in good kit. As well he should have, since King George IV was often a guest at his hunting parties.

And so the Norfolk jacket actually began as part of a suit. Years later, not long after the 20th Century began, it would be revived, not for hunting but for golf, paired with knickers or plus-fours in matching tweed fabric. Throughout the 20’s, golf legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen championed the look to such an extent that both men might well have been the garment’s poster boys.

The typical Norfolk features a belted back and bi-swing shoulders.

In later decades, Ivy Leaguers would take to wearing the Norfolk jacket on campus with “odd” trousers rather than those that matched—a look that became defined as “British country dressing” and forged a new casual style for men when not “in town.”

Lately the Norfolk jacket has reappeared, revived by certain men’s wear designers and clothing makers who, rummaging through the fashion annals, have turned out modern versions remarkably similar to those worn by style-conscious men in the 30’s. Made of English or Italian wools, cheviot or Harris tweed, in heathery, natural earth tones, many of today’s versions of the Norfolk hint of the past but look altogether appropriate in the present, fitted as they are at the waist and constructed of much lighter (and decidedly more comfortable) weight wools and wool blends.

The Norfolk jacket may still be subtly aristocratic, but it’s doubtful the modern, urban man wearing it will be gunning for grouse in the Scottish moors anytime soon.

Always a hallmark of style, these days a man's NECKTIE is often regarded as the ultimate indicator of his character as well...

It is to Honore de Balzac that we owe the truism "le cravate c'est l'homme meme."
Balzac spoke the truth. A consummate dandy and legendary practitioner of the art of tying the cravat, Balzac is generally believed to be the author of the first book on men's fashion called "The Art of Tying the Cravat." The book credits "H. Le BLanc" with the authorship, but few argue that Balzac was the man behind the pen, or feather, as it were.

The necktie as we know it descended from the "focalis" worn by Roman Legionaires dating back to the first century AD. This neckwear precursor was worn by the Roman soldiers as a way of protecting their throats from the cold. Much later, this purely functional neck cloth evolved into what was called a "neckerchief." Usually made of linen or silk, the cloth was wrapped around the neck until layered just so.

By the nineteenth century, every school, sporting team, men's club and regiment in England had its own distinctive neckwear pattern designed, usually a coat of arms motif or a combination of colored stripes. Most of these neckwear designs are an integral part of England's fashion history. P.L. Sells & Co., perhaps the largest tie manufacturer in Britain, stocks more than 10,500 of these individual designs on file, any one of which may be made up when required.

The dapper Duke of Windsor, just after World War I, popularized the maroon and navy stripes of the Brigade of Guards, favoring it over all the other ties in his substantial neckwear wardrobe. Since anything the dapper Duke wore would spawn legions of imitators, he also must be held responsible for eroding the hegemony of the striped repp tie. Elsewhere in England, members of the Garrick Club are still distinguishable by their bright salmon and cucumber striped neckwear, rare as these color combinations are.

While the tie most assuredly remains a staple of proper gentlemen's dress, its exclusive fraternal associations with the military, sporting organizations, private universities and select gentlemen's clubs have all but disappeared, even in England. Indeed, the state of neckwear in the twenty first century reveals less about the man and more about the woman in his life, fortunately or unfortunately.

There are those would challenge the above theory, maintaining that a man's tie is still a joyous communicator of self-expression, the last bastion of exclusive male finery, a classic and glorious example of the peacock male. But how does one argue against the fact that today, nearly 60% of all ties sold are bought by women?

Understandably, most women prefer their men to look well-dressed. Yet precisely because women expect their men to be properly dressed, and men in turn often tend to focus on things other than their wardrobe, the choosing of a tie often rests with a woman. And inevitably, that choice is made with a feminine eye. Hence, the tie selected cravat is often too colorful, too creative or too sentimental. It is no coincidence that as masculine influences on neckwear design diminishes, the feminine influences (small animal prints, huge flower motifs, offbeat, overpowering colors) become more pronounced.

Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue into the future, since many neckwear manufacturers these days are designing their tie lines to appeal more directly to the purchaser rather than the wearer. Further, these tie companies have begun to advertise their merchandise in women's fashion magazines.

The proliferation of these gaudy, often overly designed splashes of silk have had a restraining influence on other areas of men's wear design. Patterned shirts and suits must be quieted down when it is matched with a tie whose pattern recalls a wallpaper print or curtain fabric. Yet it is characteristic of men's fashion that every trend toward excess in turn originates a reactionary move back toward classicism and tradition. In the last season or two, I've noticed a return to simple, elegant designs in neckwear such as solid satins and grenadines, understated polka dots, small geometrics, woven checks, regimental and repp stripes and rich paisleys, all patterns I endorse completely.

Another casualty of designing and marketing neckwear to women is the lack of quality we've begun to notice in the construction of these ties. Women's wear is legendary for putting pattern and design above quality. Few women care about a garment's construction, so long as the color and pattern pleases them. This mentality has infiltrated neckwear to the point where most designer ties today are completely machine made, with lightweight, inferior silk and substandard interlinings.

Simply stated, the best possible tie is one that is made by hand. They are easily recognized by the single slip stitch or length of silk thread dangling under the fold behind the wide end of the tie. This is a telltale sign that the tie fabric has been hand sewn to the interlining. This construction gives the tie more resilience and enables it to knot (and unknot, an important factor) better.

Generally, the fabric, tipping and interlining are cut and sewn on the bias, a process that uses a generous amount of fabric but allows for the best possible drape and least chance for unraveling.

Another way of determining quality construction in a tie is to turn it over and inspect the hand-sewn seam in back. On a quality tie, it should be straight and even. At the bottom of the wide end, a "full margin," or one-quarter inch of tie fabric, should be seen between the tipping and the tie edge. Better neckwear is also hand-pressed with steam so that the edges are softly rolled rather than hard or overly creased as with machine-made ties.

At the bottoms of both the wide and narrow ends of the back of the tie, double "bar tacks" of silk thread anchor each seam. The best neckwear will also feature a hand-sewn, self-fabric "keeper" or loop to conveniently house the narrow end of the tie and keep it in place. Lesser ties use their label to serve as a "keeper" of sorts.

Another mark of better ties are linings that are compatible, weight for weight, with that of the tie fabric, which will ensure proper drape once knotted and worn. A heavy lining, used with a lightweight silk such as crepe de Chine, for example, would inhibit the tie's ability to drape and knot correctly.

Color alone does not lend variety to a necktie; too many men limit themselves to basic cloths such as silk foulards. They should understand that on those certain occasions that call for a handsome sports jacket paired with pleated flannel trousers, a rich ancient madder silk paisley tie or one made of cashmere is altogether appropriate.

At the risk of being dubbed a male chauvinist, I firmly believe that the knot of a gentleman's tie is too crucial a matter to be entrusted to the fairer sex. Every man should be able to expertly tie his own tie, even if his tie knotting knowledge extends only to the simple and basic four-in-hand. In my view, allowing a woman to fasten one's tie is hardly an act of gallantry but rather a sign of weakness. We would all do well to remember Oscar Wilde's prophetic admonition: "A well-tied tie is a man's first serious step in life."

No truer words were ever spoken.

There is little doubt that a TUXEDO does things for a man, sartorially speaking, like no other element in a gentleman's wardrobe...

Think of the word tuxedo and images abound of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, hair parted and slicked, Champagne somewhere within reach, visions of silk satin, vases teeming with Calla lilies and the lazy, haunting notes of a lone alto sax haunting the background like the ghost of Beau Brummell.

Then again, a more apt visual could have Marlene Dietrich as she appeared in the Thirties movies classic Morocco, slithering across the screen in a man-tailored tuxedo, stiff-front shirt, bow-tie and studs, sacrificing none of her sultry sex appeal in the process. Indeed, "Black Tie" connotes, even defines, true elegance. Like the little black dress in women's ready-to-wear, the tuxedo is a classic and has been experiencing a renaissance in the last decade.

Today we are once again in the midst of "occasion dressing" not unlike that of the Thirties when propriety and elegance were part of everyday life and putting on one's finery, particularly for evening, was eagerly embraced. The elegant era of Bogart and Bacall, Fred and Ginger, William Powell, Cary Grant and Hollywood glamour still inform our every day lives in terms of fashion. We look longingly back to an era and its icons, when style mattered and dressing well was a virtue.

Like much of what is classic, the tuxedo has suffered its share of fashion aberrations over the years. Originally worn by residents of the tony enclave in upstate New York called Tuxedo Park, the garment is, basically, a standard suit style made up in the fabric and detailing exclusive to formal evening dress. It is considered a less formal style than the tailcoat and was ushered into vogue by Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, who preferred it for evening dinners at his country estate in Norfolk. While a guest of the the Prince, Tuxedo Park resident James Brown Potter saw the new form of evening dress and had one made at Poole's along Savile Row. Returning stateside, Potter shared his enthusiasm for the semi-formal evening suit with his fellow residents, including Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco mogul who built Tuxedo Park, William Waldorf Astor, Grenville Kane, director of the Erie Railroad, and Allen T. Rice, editor of the North American Review, each of whom had their tailors copy Potters new duds.

Gathering together for dinner and cigars at Delmonico's in New York, the Tuxedo Park denizens began wearing their new version of formal wear, prompting stares and gossip as to the propriety of men in what looked to be abbreviated versions of the formal tailcoat. Not knowing what to call the jackets or the men fashionably bold enough to wear them in public, people referred to them as "tuxedos" and a fashion icon was born.

But it wasn't until the fall of 1886 and the first Autumn Ball in the newly completed Tuxedo Park that the tuxedo became a household word. As a prank, Griswold Lorillard, impish son of Pierre, along with his friends, in attempt to lampoon the jackets their fathers wore to dinner in town, lopped off the tails of their tailcoats and made their grand entrance to the ball, much to the shock of fashion observers and virtually everyone in attendance. As one society editor wrote at the time: "At the Tuxedo Club Ball, the young Griswold Lorillard appeared in a tail-less dress coat and waistcoat of scarlet satin, looking for all the world like a royal footman. There were several other abbreviated coats worn, which suggested to the onlookers that the boys ought to have been put in straitjackets long ago."

It is therefore to young Griswold Lorillard that we owe credit for putting the word tuxedo in the lexicon of men's fashion. Yet certain theorists contend that the tuxedo's genuine beginnings or ancestral heritage stems more from the French-born "robe de chambre" (chamber robe) worn by wealthy Parisians during the mid 19th century.

For a man to wear a dressing gown when entertaining at home during the Victorian period was considered quite fashionable. However, in the company of women, the coat had to be long enough to cover the buttocks. When the company was exclusively men, no such rules applied and so many fashion-conscious men had abbreviated versions of their "robe de chambre" made by their tailors, which they wore when entertaining male friends.

A silk brocade waistcoat and black four-in-hand silk tie updates any formal Tuxedo

With the return of classic elegance in men's fashion, traditional, somewhat nostalgic formal clothing and accessories have witnessed a rebirth in popularity as well. And while the stylish man's wardrobe would almost certainly include a well-tailored tuxedo, there is nothing wrong with renting if one has to, provided the rental is from a reputable house that deals only in quality clothing. The better rental companies always stock the most classic styles and provide knowledgeable staff for help in putting a look together. Best to avoid any shop that advertises tuxedos in fruit salad shades or promotes any color other than black for evening.

Formal shirts in particular are as elegant as they ever were, with the stiff bat-wing collar style, a fashion legacy of George Bryan "Beau" Brummell, once again being worn, with either a pique or pleated bib front. The most luxurious formal shirts are hand-sewn and made of pure cotton voile or fine broadcloth. Double barrel French cuffs are worth the extra price they may command and look decidedly elegant. Cummerbunds are strictly a matter of choice but even among those who favor them, they are best worn with single-breasted, peaked lapel tuxedo jackets only.

Decidedly elegant is a luxurious woven formal silk waistcoat worn under a tuxedo. The most stylish ones are in subtle tones of gray, silver, or deep burgundy, and feature woven geometric motifs, raised stripes or mini-checks. In turn, cuff links are most elegant when they are conservative and discreet, such as simple ovals or circles of black onyx. Always appropriate to evening attire is a silk or linen pocket square peeking from the breast pocket of a tuxedo or smoking jacket. White is always right, although holiday tones of gold, burgundy or emerald green silk can add a festive touch.

As for formal shoes, patent leather is considered classic, whether as a lace-up or slip-on. But for comfort and elegance, formal slippers in silk faille or velvet with gold embroidered initials at the toe cap are the ticket. To keep things elegant and luxurious, silk or lightweight wool formal hosiery works best in solid black or with the addition of a subtle clock pattern that is truly Old World in style.

For a roguish finish, a silk or silk and cashmere muffler either casually tossed about the neck or neatly tucked in as an ascot looks superb peeking out from an all-black evening coat or trench. And the addition of a boutonniere in one's lapel--red or white carnation only-- would do Fred Astaire proud.

When donning a POCKET SQUARE, it should look as though it was done with one’s eyes closed, a technique one might actually consider applying...

The handkerchief, or pocket square as we know it today, was once strictly a utilitarian accessory, self-consciously carried in the hand so as to be at the ready whenever a man felt a case of the sniffles coming on. By the time of the early Renaissance, fanciful handkerchiefs became an essential accessory in the wardrobes of fashionable men who often tucked fancy squares of silk or linen into their sleeve. It was also an era when snuff was the stimulant of choice, thereby rendering the pocket square virtually essential lest one fall into the category quoted above.

The idea of “showing a little silk” carried on right up through the turn of the 20th Century, when it became fashionable for men to wear pocket squares in the chest pocket of their suits. Indeed, so pervasive was the penchant for pocket squares in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s that any man who left home without it looked as though he had neglected to finish dressing. The 60’s witnessed such fashion follies as the leisure suit and the Nehru jacket and pocket squares were, well, square, if not totally off the style agenda altogether.

Here in the modern era, pocket squares are once again in vogue. But to wear them properly it is advisable one not subscribe to the many and varied “folds” such as the “television fold,” “presidential fold” or the Cooper, Cagney, Astaire, et. al., ad nauseum so often recommended by misguided guides to dressing well.

Gary Cooper understood the "studied nonchalance" of a well placed pocket square

Best to just drape the center of the square over your index finger, grasp it at the puff or center, fold it up to meet the points and casually stuff it into your chest pocket with the puff and points showing about an inch above the pocket line. It should look as though you did it with your eyes closed, which you might actually consider doing. Once positioned, it should render a look of studied nonchalance.

Of course it may take some practice to get it imperfect. Ultimately, one’s pocket square, whether silk, cotton or linen, solid or patterned, should be worn with subtlety rather than showiness. The artfully dapper Jean Cocteau once sniffed: “Elegance ceases when it becomes noticeable.” Sound advice. And certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Nothing beats the NAVY BLAZER as an article of clothing with a past so richly steeped in tradition, misinformation and myth...

The blazer, the ultimate classic element of a man’s tailored wardrobe, is also the subject of lively debate about how it got its name. One legend holds that the name is derived from English nobility who took to emblazoning their outerwear with coats of arms. Others claim that the blazer is a direct descendant of the bright scarlet rowing jackets worn by Cambridge University students in the late 19th century. Invariably made of flannel, with broad vertical stripes, these jackets were so bright that from a distance they looked “ablaze,” hence the name blazer.

Actually, the blazer’s origins are nautical. The most romantic legend traces the jacket back to 1837 and the captain of a British frigate named HMS Blazer. To avoid the embarrassment of his crew’s shabby appearance pending a visit from Queen Victoria, the skipper outfitted each seaman with short blue serge jackets accented with shiny brass buttons similar to those on Royal Navy uniforms. The blazers were an unequivocal hit with the style-conscious queen, and a fashion icon was born.

The single-breasted navy blue blazer is, without a doubt, the most versatile element in a man’s wardrobe. It bridges the gap between work and weekend wear—add charcoal flannel trousers, a tie, and dress shirt for business or a knitted polo and khaki trousers for brunch. An ascot, naturally, lends an aristocratic dash, which is altogether appropriate given the garment’s regal standing in clothing history.

For consummate style, the double-breasted blazer—with peaked lapels, not notched—is without peer. Far more refined than the single-breasted model, it looks even more distinctive, if not closer to the original, with six buttons rather than four.

A double-breasted blazer with brass buttons shows off its nautical origins best

When the mercury climbs, the best blazer fabrics are lightweight wool, worsted, and hopsacking—a type of basket weave at once loose and airy. And Irish linen, though difficult to find, always translates well into a classic blazer. The trousers most nattily paired with a navy blazer are cream- or ivory-colored pleated wool flannels, with the season determining the fabric weight. For the less adventurous, tan gabardine or charcoal gray worsted trousers are always correct.

As with many traditional garments, the blazer has suffered some tampering over the years. Lapels have been narrowed and widened with abandon and, during one period in the early 1960s, they disappeared altogether, though the trend was mercifully short-lived. The blazer has been adorned with fussy, unnecessary detailing and even tailored in synthetic fibers better left to bulletproof vests and trampolines. And yet, like fine claret, the blazer has endured, and the unique ability to maintain a certain stature without being off-putting is probably its most valuable asset.

The TWO-TONE shoe, once referred to as the co-respondent, is actually rooted in golf and tennis...

Think of a classic like the saddle shoe and memories return to the halcyon days of Duane Eddy, ivy covered campuses, cuffed chinos and Friday nights at the drive-in with Peggy Sue. But contrary to these Happy Days images, the two-tone shoe as we know it is actually rooted in sports--tennis and golf in particular. Designed back at the turn of the century as a "racquet shoe," it was, essentially, a classic lace-up Oxford style shoe made of white buckskin with a red or black saddle strap across the vamp, and finished with red rubber soles (hence the name saddle shoe).

Gene Sarazen was the first professional of note to walk the greens in white buck golf shoes trimmed in black or tan leather according to Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions. Sarazen styled his two tone shoes in the early 1920’s while in Britain. In 1925 the ever dapper Walter Hagen introduced the two-tone black-and-white wing tip to America at the swank Lido Club on Long Island in New York. The next year, Bobby Jones championed brown-and-white two-tone shoes, setting the pace for inventive color combinations to come, including tan with brown and black with brown.

In the early 1920's Ivy League students in the Newport, Rhode Island area took to wearing saddle Oxfords, boldly pairing them with generously cut, wide-bottomed Oxford "bag" trousers. These sartorially adventurous students, along with certain avante garde dressers of the period, were virtually the only men who wore the Oxford shoe and its many variations, including the brogue wing-tip, all of which were long considered radical new designs in men's footwear. Today, the Oxford style is worn on greenswards across the country.

An updated version of the classic saddle shoe, with traditional red crepe sole

The first suede Oxford stepped onto the shores of North America on the regal feet of Edward VIII, later known as the Duke of Windsor, in 1924. Though his sartorial proclivities were already legend on both sides of the Atlantic, fashion observers were aghast at his poor taste in wearing country "reverse calf" (as suede was then called) oxfords, calling them "a mark of great effeminacy." One can only guess what they might have made of his Scottish-born ghillies (oxfords without a tongue, laced across the instep and often wore with argyle hose and plus fours) or kilties (Oxfords with a tongue of fringed leather draped over the instep covering the laces and eyelets).

Fortunately, all of the above styles in footwear, particularly suede, are once again very much in vogue on fairways today, though trouser legs are mercifully less billowy. Even plus fours, Fair Isle sweater vests, argyle socks and suede shoes are back in style, all sartorial ideas championed by the once Prince of Wales. While images of Peggy Sue may be wonderfully nostalgic, it is to the dapper Duke to whom we must pay homage for popularizing what has become a universal style in golf shoes. A true hacker though he may have been, his handicap was no doubt lower than Duane Eddy. Or Peggy Sue for that matter.

Originally worn by Englishmen solely in the country, the tapered TRILBY, with its unfinished edge to the brim, has a distinctively informal style.

Throughout the first half of the last century, a hat on a man’s head was as common as a pin through his shirt collar. Indeed, up until the late 50’s, were a man to appear in public without a hat he would have been considered under dressed. Back in the anti-establishment 60’s and the fashion free-for-all that defined the 80’s and 90’s, some considered a man wearing any form of headwear as, well, overdressed.

Curiously, hats are once again popular, especially among young American actors who are championing the cause. Yet if hats have straddled the fashion spectrum over the decades, from propriety to superfluousness, Hollywood has certainly done its part to continually keep them in vogue. Who could forget Sidney Greenstreet and his Panama, so personal a signature to his sinister style that for a time any similar straw hat was called a Greenstreet. Rex Harrison never looked dandier than when donning his soft tweed Irish fisherman’s cap in “My Fair Lady.” Al Pacino, as Don Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” was a model of formidable, if not imposing, elegance when donning a black pin striped suit and an oxford gray fur felt Homburg.Today American hat manufacturers are enjoying a Renaissance of sorts, with healthy sales of snap brim Fedoras in the style worn by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, who looked every bit the dashing adventurer in his beat-up version.

It is fitting somehow that certain hats and the actors who wore and continue to wear them on the screen have become so etched in our collective memory. The most classic gentleman’s hat, the Fedora, takes its name from a character in an 1881 tragedy by French playwright Victorien Sardou. And the Trilby, a trimmer, more compact version of the Fedora, was named after the central character in a book and stage play by English author George du Maurier.

Few in the know would argue that the Fedora deserves credit as the first low-crowned, soft hat for men. But popular as it was throughout the 20’s as an alternative to the stiffer Homburg for finishing off dressy town suits, when clothing became a bit less formal and tweeds found their way into town, so too did the Trilby.

Originally worn by Englishmen solely in the country, the tapered Trilby, with its often unfinished edge to the brim, had the distinctively informal style that was appealing, particularly to men in America. And when Edward VIII, Prince of Wales, endorsed the snap brim softer hat by appearing in one in public, the Trilby’s popularity soared on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the Trilby, or “sloucher” as it is sometime called, is its pliability, which allows the wearer to work the shape of the crease or angle of the brim in a manner that suits his personal style. Just as individual is the hat’s tilt; unlike the stiff Homburg or bowler, a snap-brim style offers a man his choice of angle, although it should always be worn slanting to the left (according to history, men once wore their ladies’ plumes in the left side of their hats and tilted them to prevent the feather from being slashed by an opponent’s sword. This is also the reason the bow on a hat’s puggeree is always on the left side of every hat today).

The best Trilbys are made of genuine fur felt, usually rabbit, which is one of the strongest fabrics since the short fibers bond well when they are wet and steam is applied. Apart from being lightweight, the felt is highly water-resistant and resilient enough to be easily pressed back into shape should it become overly damp. Hand-sewn leather linings, otherwise known as sweat bands, are another trademark of quality Trilbys, much preferred to the glued-in variety often seen in inferior versions.

Actor Johnny Depp is a Trilby aficionado

Experts seem to agree that a Trilby is an excellent choice for a first hat since it looks good on virtually anyone—perfect for those who want to play it safe with his headwear or may think they don’t look good in a hat. Yet despite its compact, relatively conservative style, certain rules apply, at least according to clothing designer Alan Flusser. In his book, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress, Flusser contends that not all hats look appropriate on every individual. “The height of the crown and the width of the brim ought to be in correct proportion to the size and shape of a man’s head and face,” Flusser writes. “A man with a narrow face should wear a hat with a narrower brim; otherwise the heavy shadowing of the hat will make him appear even thinner. Conversely, a man with a rounder, wider face, or with facial hair, ought to wear a hat with a wider brim, lest he risk looking like Oliver Hardy.”

True or not, Flusser’s contention appears valid enough. But regardless of whether you subscribe to the principles he has put forth, one thing is for certain: Oliver Hardy is one Hollywood legend whose sartorial style no man should envy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hunting and riding as sartorial inspiration goes in and out of vogue with each sweep of the fashion pendulum. But EQUINE STYLE is always classic...

Somewhere in the beginning of Robert Redford's film, "The Horse Whisperer," there is a narrative that reveals something along the lines that since time immemorial, man's relationship to the horse has always been fragile at best. Save for the subject of fashion. Trigger and Mr. Ed notwithstanding, the horse and the attendant sports and pastimes associated with riding have been an enduring source of sartorial inspiration over the years, particularly in England and America.

Centuries ago, equine pursuits were the exclusive domain of British Royals and the aristocracy, but today such activities are equally popular among classes not necessarily to the manor born. Sports such as fox hunting, dressage and polo all required certain staples of dress, from specially cut jackets with slant pockets and high-button placement, to woven shirts with long collars buttoned down for ease and practicality. Call it Equine style, horsemanship and hunting has given us such classically elegant garments as jodhpurs, hacking jackets and knitted pullovers, while introducing the rest of the world to such fabrics as thorn-proof tweeds, tattersal plaids, hounds-tooth checks, corduroy, calvary twill and velvet. Even the trench coat as we know it was originally designed for British military commanders who led their armies while on horseback.

Colors too, such as tobacco brown, olive green, taupe, yellow, bright red, and black, once seen only in hunting and equestrian apparel, have made their way into everyday sportswear and tailored clothing.

Ironically, the sport of polo in many ways is part of the heritage of Rome-based clothing manufacturer Brioni, a 55-year-old company that has traditionally tailored “blue blood” sportive apparel for well-to-do Italians who enjoy Equine pursuits. But from whatever part of the world a clothier happens to hail, there is almost always a certain British country "horsy" flavor to sportswear that is genuinely classic and elegant, be it in the rich colorations, sophisticated patterns or finely finished tailoring. The clothing almost always reflects the kind of breeding and confidence always associated with Equine style.

That the horse has also had a profound influence on American western wear is obvious. How else to explain leather chaps, lengthy linen dusters with high-button center vents in back and pointed toe boots? Apart from the cowboy look, which can reach certain heights of elegance in its own right, equine style is revealed more in the proper turn of a lapel from a fitted tweed sports jacket, the rugged yet rich patina of tan twill pleated trousers or in the luxury of a buttery soft suede riding coat. Add deep tones as rich as the earth and subtle patterns that are timeless and rooted in tradition and anyone, man or woman, can ride off into the sunset in good kit. Hopalong Cassidy and Edward VIII would be proud.

Perhaps no other garment helps a man beat the heat than a Seersucker Suit. But it was not always credited with such redeeming attributes...

When dog days draw near, perhaps no other garment helps a man stylishly beat the heat better than a seersucker suit. Cool and comfortable, easy to care for, relatively affordable and--wrinkles be damned, it epitomizes everything the best warm weather clothing should be. Yet, though it may come as a surprise, the seersucker suit was not always credited with such redeeming attributes. On the contrary, its history has largely been a tale of struggle for survival.

From the hindi word "shirushaker" meaning puckered or blistered, seersucker first became popular when it was used for the silk pajamas and night shirts worn by the British Raj in India. Like much of the cloth still made in India today, seersucker owes its crinkly texture to the various slackening processes that the threads undergo in weaving. Indian weavers referred to these cloths as homespun and much pride went into the handwork.

The cotton seersucker suit as we know it, first surfaced in New Orleans as long ago as the turn of the century, quickly becoming the suit of choice for southern gentlemen, many of whom were wealthy plantation owners. Unopposed to the wrinkles, these men were no doubt attracted to the lighter weight of a garment made of seersucker, along with the meager $10 price tag manufacturers placed on a suit.

Among northerners however, save for a smattering of style-conscious and trendy Princetonians who wore seersucker suits on and off campus throughout the Twenties and Thirties, the garment given to wrinkling was mostly regarded with snobbish disdain. New Yorkers particularly were unwilling to sacrifice a crisp crease for comfort. Above the Mason Dixon line, seersucker was shrugged off as a poor man's fabric better left to the South.

As the Forties unfolded, the seersucker suit, oddly enough, started to win favor along the northeastern seaboard, even becoming somewhat of a status symbol in such stalwart business cities as Washington DC and New York. Damon Runyon once even remarked during this period that a man wearing a seersucker suit with aplomb could cash a check anywhere in New York with no questions asked. The rationale: Any man sufficiently self-confident to wear one must be affluent, since a poor man would never allow his economic status to be so apparent. But seersucker suits were far from being universally accepted in northern locales, despite Runyon's literary appreciation.

During the early Fifties, an industrious New Orleans clothier named Joseph Haspel devoted his energies to developing a seersucker suit that could be washed, then worn, without a need for pressing. Haspel's quest for an ever present crease was finally realized when he blended polyester and cotton and created a seersucker cloth that retained its shape even after rigorous machine washings. An unabashed showman by nature, Haspel demonstrated his miracle fabric breakthrough at a convention of tailored clothing buyers and manufacturers in Florida. Staging a press conference on a nearby beach, Haspel, donning one of his new blended fiber seersucker suits, left the crowd and walked directly into the ocean up to his neck. Later that evening, he wore the same exact suit to the convention and even the most seasoned cynics were silenced. Wrinkle resistant seersucker lived. And Haspel would forever be known as the father of the washable seersucker suit.

As the decade progressed, Hollywood lent its hand to promoting seersucker as a stylish suiting fabric. Who could forget the daring-do of James Cagney in "A Lion in the Streets" or the cool nonchalance of Tom Ewell in "The Seven Year Itch." Then again, Gregory Peck was at his forthright best in "To Kill a Mockingbird" as he entered the courtroom stylishly clad in a seersucker suit replete with wrinkles. Eventually, according to Oscar E. Schoeffler and William Gale in "Esquire's Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Men's Fashions," "no reasonable man could afford to overlook seersucker."

Gregory Peck wore his wrinkled seersucker suit to court in "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Since its early days as strictly a southern garment, the seersucker suit has traveled a stormy path to acceptance. Perhaps the real turning point in its achieving popular status came in 1964, when in the movie "Charade," Cary Grant, sporting Haspel's drip-dry version, stepped into a running shower to escape the pursuit of George Kennedy. Then again, its popularity could stem from the fact that every American president over the last 50 years has worn one: Haspel's company has routinely sent a seersucker suit to the White House up until Richard Nixon took office.

Once again, the seersucker suit is fashionable for summer, even along the buttoned up thoroughfares of Wall Street. The newest look in seersucker is the high roll, three-button, single breasted model, but double breasted, peaked lapel versions are still very much in evidence, with either four or six button fronts--the same models seen on southern men since the Twenties and Thirties. While blue and white remains the most classic color combination for seersucker, many designers today offer it in unusual shades that look of another era--pale gray, ecru and pale rose come immediately to mind.

The contemporary seersucker suit always looks appropriate with a simple bow tie and would not be complete without a jaunty pocket square of linen or cotton peeking out from the breast pocket. As for wrinkles, it is worth remembering that fashion has been most influenced by those men who dared to defy convention, even though, as Cecil Beaton has written, "Ridicule or scorn often rewards those who turn off the modern highway of conservatism." Just so.

A big stick might have been part of Theodore Roosevelt’s shtick, but his Panama Hat spoke decidely more about the 26th president’s style...

If one were to compose a list of U.S. Presidents notable as much for their panache as their politics, the least likely to appear on such a roster would be Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, for all his likable rotundity and seeming unconcern on matters of dress (his greatest passion was spending days in the jungle), credit is due our 26th president for popularizing what is universally considered a men’s wear classic: the Panama hat.

Of course, insightful as he may have been, Roosevelt would probably have been as surprised as anyone in being heralded as a trendsetter. The story goes that on a November day in 1906, during a three-day tour of a construction site at the Panama Canal, Roosevelt was photographed behind the wheel of a huge steam shovel, dapperly donning his Panama. Almost immediately after the photographed was published in newspapers across America, men began sporting these lightweight, woven hats, which were becoming available thanks largely to enterprising sailors who brought Panamas back home by the bale and sold them at U.S. ports.

Considering the circumstances leading up to the fashion for Panamas, it is easy to understand how these hats got their name. What else would sailors and latter-day forty-niners crossing the isthmus en route to California and points east and south call them? But in truth, Panama hats have never been made in Panama and almost certainly never will. Rather, the hats have always been made exclusively in tiny villages throughout Ecuador, with some also crafted in Colombia and Peru, just the way it's been done for the last 300 years or so. Sadly, no one ever bothered to set the record straight by naming the hat correctly; not even the Ecuadorian Indians whose handwork very likely went into the Panama worn by President Roosevelt.

The Panama may well be the most often copied hat in the world. But to be the genuine article, it must be made either in Ecuador, Columbia or Peru because the name, technically, applies more to the type of weave and material than to the style. In fact, the actual weaving process is a craft that has been handed down from generation to generation of South American natives. A single Panama can be made in as short a time as three days or can take as long as three months. Cost-wise, a single hat can be as low as a few dollars or as much as $5,000. It all depends on the quality.

Construction begins with a special fiber from South American palm leaves called toquilla or jipijapa. The leaves are gathered and dipped in boiling water, allowed to dry and then shredded and bleached with sulfur. And while it is best for these strips to be woven while still moist, the weaving process never takes place underwater as romantic legend would have one believe.

The finesse of a high quality Panama hat is determined by the number of concentric rings or "vueltas" as they are referred to by those in the know, that fan out and around from the hat's center. The finer the straw strips and the tighter the weave, the more "vueltas" the finished hat will have. About seven ring strands make up an ordinary Panama, while 15 or even more constitute an exceptional one.

The benefit of all this painstaking craftsmanship and micro weaving resulted in a finished Panama so soft and supple it can be rolled and crumpled like a handkerchief and stuffed in a back pocket, only to spring back to its original shape looking no worse for wear. Legend has it that a certain Panama was once made so tightly woven that it could literally be pulled through a man's wedding band. True or not, it is a part of the noble hat's lore.

For staving off the sun's rays in spring and summer, nothing beats a light and airy Panama. Apart from its many stylish virtues, it is a highly functional accessory to a warm weather wardrobe. Because it is soft and lightweight, a Panama will repel the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays with negligible discomfort to the wearer since air easily passes through the fine weave, leaving the head cool yet protected. The wide brim on certain models provides a spectator with needed shade at sporting events such as tennis or golf tournaments.

A well made Panama is often difficult to find, so ordering one in advance from a reputable hatter is advisable, although waiting time can be as long as three months for one that is made in South America. When shopping for a fine Panama, it is important not to be put off by certain imperfections either in the weave or shading of the straw. These hats are handmade and always naturally colored. They should feel deceptively lightweight and be as smooth yet slightly textural as linen. Only the machine-made copies will appear flawless in color, shape and texture.

A straw trilby or fedora makes for a perfect first summer straw hat

Most Panama imitations these days are made in China and sell for under $200. But a genuine one will cost upwards of $500, the best of which will bear the stamp, "Made in Ecuador" that is burned into the inside of the hat. The best of the best Ecuadorian Panamas is the Monticristi, which comes with a certificate of authenticity.

Various styles of Panamas have wavered in and out of style since the turn of the century. Most classic is the Optimo, which is easily recognized by the tall, full-shaped crown and telltale ridge or crease down its center. Roosevelt favored this model, as did Warner Oland, who portrayed Charlie Chan, along with the devilish Sidney Greenstreet, who managed to wax sinister in his so often that for a time the style was named after him. For a lightly dressier look, there is the porkpie, characterized by a short triangular crown, meant to be properly pinched in front, and a narrow brim. The large plantation style shades the sun best and remains the hat of choice for taking in tennis or croquet matches.

It is fitting, somehow, that an American president be held accountable for the popularity of the Panama hat. Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, did wonders for the military-inspired blouson jacket and Jimmy Carter rendered the chambray work shirt chic. And, sartorially speaking, even Roosevelt would have agreed that a ivory, natural straw Panama hat is an infinitely more appealing accessory than a big stick.

Ultimately, the popularity and appeal of a classic Trench Coat may well stem from the fact that it is flattering on just about anyone who wears it...

As with no other garment, men seem to develop a sentimental attachment to their trench coats. No doubt Hollywood has something to do with it. After all, the trench coat was a virtual second skin for the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson, to name only a few. Indeed even Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis were at their feisty best (as in "witness for the Prosecution" and "Deception") when devilishly draped in such decidedly masculine outerwear. On the other hand, the appeal of the trench coat may well stem from the fact that it is flattering on just about anyone who wears it.

It is all an illusion, really. The epaulets give lend more heft and thus, more importance, to the shoulder; a turned-up collar allows even the meek to wax sinister; the generous amount of fabric drapes the body well, and, with the wide belt drawn tightly (always knotted, never buckled, in devil-may-care nonchalance), it is forgiving of either the overweight or the undernourished. The result of all these details is an appearance that seems battle-ready, which, after all, was the original intent.

The legend behind this great raincoat began with an Englishman, Thomas Burberry, who sought a way to improve upon the Macintosh, a coat developed by a Scotsman, Charles Macintosh, in the early 1800's. Macintosh had patented a process for molding rubber between two layers of fabric, thereby making the garment waterproof. The problem with Macintoshes (the name given to almost any form of raincoat until the turn of the century), as Burberry saw it, was the lack of ventilation,which rendered them both hot and uncomfortable.

In seeking to develop a lighter weight fabric several decades later, Burberry, a self-proclaimed "dress reformer," noticed that rural shepherds wore linen smocks that appeared to be cool in summer, warm in winter and kept the wearer reasonably dry in the process. Burberry also discovered that it was the tightness of the fabric's weave and the looseness of the shepherd's garment that kept out the wet. He resolutely developed a tightly woven fabric made of cotton, which was cheaper than linen, and called it "gabardine" after a line spoken by Trinculo in Shakespeare's "Tempest": "I hid me under the dead moon calf's gabardine for fear of the storm."

The yarn in Burberry's new fabric was also chemically treated to repel rain; he first used the material in an overcoat called a "slip-on," a name he never bothered to register. He didn't have to. King Edward VII inadvertently rechristened the coat by constantly reminding his valet to "fetch me my Burberry." The name stuck.

While the noble King most assuredly got his "Burberry" whenever he asked for it, British soldiers on the front lines during World War I weren't nearly as lucky in proffering protective outerwear. Thus, a concerned military appealed to various outerwear manufacturers to develop a water-repellent, functional and protective coat for the soldiers and officers in the trenches, with military contracts to go to those whose coats were best designed and most practical.

With the war full blown, both Burberry and another apparel maker, Aquascutum (Latin for water shield), began producing trench coats that fast became standard military issue, worn even by the Army's highest officers, including Lord Kitchener, Britain's esteemed Secretary for War. The trench coat we wear today is virtually unchanged in its myriad details and construction. The authentic ones are still made of all-cotton, treated gabardine, are double-breasted and are lined with a wool or camel hair fleece that may be buttoned out in the warmer seasons. Of course, all the functional characteristics of the trench coat that enabled it to survive the war are what lend the garment its stylish allure and functionality. Those clever flourishes also add to its hefty price tag.

If a man is serious about his trench coat he should be aware that a modicum of misinformation surround's the coat military detailing. For example, those semi-elliptical brass rings that are attached to the belt and known as D-rings were never there for the purpose of carrying grenades. Not unless he wanted to blow himself up.

In truth, the D-rings were attached to secure a satchel that in turn held a soldier's grenades, maps, flasks, and other assorted articles of combat. The satchel was further steadied by a shoulder strap or harness that was slipped under one of the epaulets, which became known as the Sam Brown belt. The other epaulet was used for stowing binoculars and, on occasion, a gas mask.

The so-called "storm" flap on the coat's front was never put there as a cushion for absorbing the impact of a fired rifle. It's sole function was to prevent rain from seeping in through the top of the coat. The dropped yoke in back functions much the same way in that it helps rain to slide off. The slanted side pockets are always covered with a button-through flap to prevent seepage and the throat latch, which is hidden and secured in back behind the collar, is meant to be buttoned in front when facing strong wind and rain. The buckled wrist straps enable a soldier to tighten his sleeves and keep water out as he raises his arms in firing position. And that vertical procession of small buttons that run up the center vent in back was originally designed to allow the horse soldier to drape his trench coat on either side of his saddle.

A genuine trench coat will also be finished with genuine horn buttons, just as the D-rings are always brass and the various buckles are made of leather. The wool and fleece lining, lightweight yet thermal, should have two large patch pockets on either side. Which brings us to another trench coat myth. Contrary to popular belief, no trench coat, military or otherwise, is completely waterproof. Manufacturers get around this little drawback by using such garment industry nomenclature as "shower proof" and "rain resistant."

In fact, the chemical weatherproofing processes used in trench coat fabrics today will repel wetness up to a point. It is also important to remember that repeated dry-cleaning will wear away the weatherproofing treatment in the fabrics eventually. For that reason, it is advisable to keep dry cleaning to a minimum. And whenever the coat is taken to the dry cleaners, it is imperative that all leather buckles be removed, since certain cleaning fluids and solutions will discolor them forever.

Ultimately, it is perfectly understandable why a man might take meticulous care of his beloved trench coat; the price tag alone is a frightful reminder of how costly neglect can be. Still, the trench coat, more than any other outerwear garment in a man's wardrobe, tends to be regarded as a close friend--with a character that becomes even better with proper age. Lord Kitchener loved his trench so much he asked that he be buried in it. But I think we can agree that's probably going a bit too far.