Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wedding of the Century, version 2.0 (beta)

Chapter 12
I have self-imposed jet lag. Last night, I turned the clocks ahead five hours and went to bed early, in the hopes that I could trick my brain into thinking that I awakened to a restful eight o'clock, instead of three in the morning.  It worked; today, I am running on Greenwich Mean Time. Thanks to the BBC, I had a front row seat this morning, to every second of the real-time.

Why on earth would I put myself through this? For you, dear readers, all for you. (You can thank me later.) For the foreseeable future, you will be media-inundated with What She Wore . On this blog, we don't care about the gowns and dresses and awful, awful hats. We want to know what the MEN wore, and it's a sure bet that no one will mention a word about it...No one -- except me!

First, of course, I would be remiss without the traditional rant -- a few words about the wedding itself, from my perspective.

In America, we love fairy-tales: the attractive but otherwise ordinary girl who is discovered by her Prince Charming and lives happily ever after. We also love shoehorning non-fairy stories into the fairy tale formula, regardless of facts. Back in 1981, we were assured a "fairy tale wedding." Pah! Diana was no commoner; while not royalty, she was nobility -- already a member of the titled peerage, before she was shoved in Charles' path. Make no mistake, that train-wreck was ultimately a pairing of political expediency...and we all know what became of that.

This time around, we're fed the same story, but this time we're assured the princess really is a commoner -- "two generations from a Yorkshire miner." Well, yes, but one generation from a successful airline pilot, and the daughter of a very successful party planner. Successful enough to put his kids through the right schools, and then wily enough to steer his kids to a school where eligible royalty attends. "Commoners" don't usually find themselves in circumstances like that. Kate might not have been nobility, but she was also certainly no Cinderella. (If there's one thing Americans love more than fairy tales, it's a good conspiracy theory.)

The first public royal wedding was as recent as 1911, just happening to co-incide with the advent of moving pictures. Previously, weddings were a secretive event held in the Royal Chapels: without mass media, there was no reason to involve the populus. Since weddings were often power grabs among nations, by pairing up and marrying off their children to each other, it was an internal political matter anyway.

This particular nuptial reflected the Queen's softer, fuzzier New Monarchy better than any so far -- aided by 1) a simpler ceremony than, say, a coronation; 2) a more informal procession, since William is not the heir-apparent; and 3) Kate's input into the wedding details. Fortunately, the destiny of the warm-and-cuddly People's Monarchy seems to be rosy for our future descendants under King William V and Queen Catherine...Kate is winsome enough, and both William and Harry take after their grandmother's don't-you-wanna-hug-her-like-a-teddy-bear personality, more than their aloof father's.

For the observant today, the 85-year old Queen was everything you'd want from the most powerful person in the British Empire. She scooted across the seat of the Royal Bentley, disembarking at Westminster Abbey on Prince Philip's side in a most un-regal manner. Trumpet fanfares, H.R.H.'s and God-Save-The-Queens seemed incongruous for this little old lady, smiling and chatting like Everybody's Favourite Grandma, completely nonplussed by all the pomp, sitting in her little yellow dress with the yellow top hat on the little throne with the little lion's heads on the arms. Royal, yes, but not regal; just like us, she realizes that her position and power has nothing to do with her, so she just enjoys the retirement package. (Philip sang "God Save the Queen" with a sweet earnestness that was quite touching. Old couples are so cute.)

Enough of that -- onto the clothes!

The common take among the fashionists pontificating over the event today, is that men have it easy at formal events: the women have all the hard decisions, the men have no choices to make. Nothing could be further from the truth. Women's fashions? Sum it up by saying the garish colors and ridiculous hats worn by the proles waving Union Jacks and hooting on the far side of the cordons, were far overshadowed by the utterly absurd frippery worn within the walls of the Abbey. Tendrils and tentacles, fronds and feathers, satellite dishes and stuffed blue toucans, every ghastly variation of nonsensical headwear was in attendance. The going trend is an inexplicable attachment on the forehead, and extending over the eyes.

By contrast, male dress is always at least nice. It's in the successful manipulation of the details that menswear can pole-vault into the realm of the sublime. While countless minutes were spent wasting drooling commentary over things like Victoria Beckham's head-mounted rubber doorstop, the infinite variations of men's morning dress in attendance were not even commented upon, and that's a shame.

Of most notable importance, is that these examples of proper wedding attire are solely the province of the guests. The worst-dressed man at the Abbey was still better dressed than 99% of the bridegrooms and groomsmen in America, with their cheap black rental dinner jackets and clip-on bow ties.

William and Harry, of course, were in military uniform; and military dress is always the most proper thing to wear to these occasions if you have the ability.

Harry wore his Household Cavalry Blues and Royals Captain's uniform in Dismounted Review Order, with a forage cap, displaying the Army Air Corps wings and his Golden Jubilee and Afghanistan Campaign medals.

William could have worn his RAF uniform, but instead opted for a bespoke Irish Guards Colonel's uniform, (made for him by Kashket & Partners of Mayfair,) as it is of higher rank than his RAF. The colonel's rank is honorary: it is often given to a member of the Royal Family, as patron of the Irish Guards' interests. The scarlet is certainly more dashing and photogenic than RAF blue, and he displayed only the Order of the Garter sash and star, Golden Jubilee medal, and RAF wings. He presented an unusually uncluttered and neat appearance, especially compared to the gold cords and braids of Harry's uniform, which looked like an entire schooner's rigging thrown over his shoulder, and his father's overwrought uniform of the Navy Admiral.

The order of the day for the civilian guests, with very few exceptions, was morning dress.

Tonga's frockin' it proper.

(Most notable exception: the king of Tonga, who arrived with his usual style in a more-formal-than-formal double breasted grey full frock coat.)

The cutaway suit from
Ede & Ravenscroft.

Generally speaking, morning dress is a dark grey jacket that has tails that cut away gracefully from the front button, around and down to just behind the knee, worn with a waistcoat and striped trousers. But that's like saying filet mignon is, generally speaking, bovine meat wrapped in pig meat: it just doesn't convey the whole story.

You could tell at a glance, by the exactness of the fit, who owns their own bespoke morning suit, and who bought off the rack. And then there were the dozens of types of lapels: peak and notch lapels, some gorges low-set and others fairly flying off the shoulder -- narrow, skinny, straight, wide, flared, bellied lapels. Some trousers matched the coat, some had wide bold charcoal stripes, some narrow stripes, I even saw a tone-on-tone in a very subtle grey. "The same old suit." "No choices to make." Yeah, right.

But where the variety truly lies, the greatest venue for personalization, is what happens under the coat. Waistcoats were of every design and color imaginable; from dark blue silk brocade to pastel pink, but mostly there were shades in the traditional grey or buff. Styles ranged from high-buttoning to low, lapelled or plain, double or single breasted, points at the front or straight-cut, angled or scooped crossovers. I saw at least one slipped waistcoat -- an extremely elegant and subtle touch that most people never even notice.

Don't fear the hat, Sir Becks.
The hat is your friend.
Even with an inexplicably
wide mourning band.

The shirts were all a simple fold collar (save for one Beckham exception,) some of which were detachable and moderately starched. British spead-point collars of various degree predominated. Ties tended toward the bright, solid, Easter spring hues, and pocket squares, although not universal, were a-plenty. The old guard distinguished themselves apart from the newbies, not just in the cut of their coats, but in their use of the hat. Morning wear dictates a top hat. Those familiar with them, wore them. On their head. Not in the Abbey, of course, but while waiting in the queue beforehand. Most went hatless, and those who merely held their top hats self-consciously in their hands were conspicuous (ahem, Beckham again). Their hat shame is truly odd, considering the atrocities attached to the heads of their dates.

This is not to say there weren't badly-dressed men there. One celeb present looked notably disheveled, even in his bespoke coat. But "worst-dressed," in a morning suit, beats the best dressed rental tux any day. The point being is this -- dressing well, correctly, and like a grown-up isn't difficult. It's just knowing what the guidelines are, and expressing yourself within that framework. The variety of tastes and styles expressed in all those morning suits were just as personal as all those loud, obnoxious, pretentious dresses and (let's face it) silly hats. Very few of the men came out looking foolish, and most of them looked just grand.

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(The photos used on Dress Like A Grownup! are copyright their respective owners. I have reproduced them here in accordance with the Fair Use clause of U.S. copyright law, Title 17 section 107 of the U.S.Code, which permits their use for scholarly, education, or research purposes.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Parading

Chapter 11
Easter is a unique time of year! It gives us a chance to brighten our sartorial palette a little; try out linens and lighter pastel colors, experiment with new styles without fear of chastisement, even participate in an Easter parade!

Wait...a what?

Mention "Easter Parade" today, and most people will think of an old movie with Fred Astaire, if the term even registers at all. But did you know that at the turn of the last century, the New York Easter Parade was a retail event that was as big as Christmas? It's true! But how it got that way, and what happened to it since, is an interesting tale.

It could well be argued that the Easter Parade has roots that go as far back as Christianity itself, to what is referred to as the "triumphal entry" of Jesus into Jerusalem on the tenth of Nisan (April 6, 0032 *)
* reference Sir Robert Anderson's book The Coming Prince, pp. 95-105: he extrapolates the equivalent modern date from Nisan 10.

In an example of a proto-flash mob, Jesus' arrangement for a colt to carry him from Bethany to the temple in Jerusalem was met with a crowd of folks with palm fronds and cries of  "Save us! Blessed is the King of Israel!" If you have any sort of knowledge of Christianity at all, this image is a familiar one, as is this parade's antipode less than a week later: when public opinion changes somewhat, and the same man, beaten and scourged and dragging a cross, leads another parade, this time to cries of "Crucify! Crucify!" to a hillock called Golgotha, just outside the city. One would think this would be an anticlimax, but was actually the necessary building-up to what would prove to be The Most Important Day Ever.

In the early centuries of Christianity, Eastern Europeans, dressed in their finest clothes, would gather at a given location and walk together to their church, and then walk back afterwards as part of their Easter celebration: a re-creation of Jesus' two parades, they encouraged onlookers to join them, accompanied by songs of celebration.

Church clergy in the Medieval period saw the opportunity to use the Easter procession as a teaching tool, as congregants had no access to Scripture and couldn't understand the Latin Mass. By placing statues and paintings in vignettes along the route illustrating the "stations of the Cross," (important events that happened along the route to Golgotha,) the parade itself became an educational experience.

The convention of wearing your newest, finest clothes at Easter became a tradition in its own right over the centuries...but for good fortune in the coming year, not  out of respect for the occasion itself. The Renaissance wit Poor Robin in his Almanack wrote "At Easter let your clothes be new/Or else be sure you will it rue."

The Easter Parade in America started in the 1870s, again, as a sort of unplanned flash-mob. The churches along Fifth Avenue in New York decorated their sanctuaries at Easter with elaborate Spring floral arrangements. After services, some would go from church to church to see the various colorful displays. This quickly became a congregational event, then the other congregations would join in, and before you know it, you have a Procession. Since this was an upscale part of town, the parishioners were quite wealthy, and in their brand-new, expensive fashions, cut quite a sight. By 1875, it became a cultural event; the middle-classes would line the streets to see the new fashions; and Procession, plus Public, equals Parade.

In the 1880s, spurred on by New York's success, other cities across the U.S. developed their own Easter Parades, but bereft of the original spontaneity of the Fifth Avenue parade, the emulations seemed to lack some of the original's éclat.

In 1890, the annual church-crawl that started 20 years earlier on Fifth Avenue was recognized as The Easter Parade, and was firmly entrenched on the socialites' calendar of cultural festivities.

By 1900, the Parade had been discovered by shops and advertisers, and became a marketing byword: a sure sign that the bloom was off this Easter rose and the long slide into inconsequence was nigh.

The Easter Parade was never without its detractors: upper-class excesses were more accepted among the Catholic and Episcopal churches of New York, but the more socially conservative Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Calvinists, and Baptists, with their "Protestant work ethic" of simplicity and frugality, observed that the extravaganza was beginning to glorify the possessions of the individual, over the celebration of Easter itself. The parade was well down the road to marching itself into complete secularization.

And then, as today, fringe groups of assorted nuts found they could use the parade to draw attention to themselves and their odd convictions. By 1950, the processions of the 1870s were unrecognizable. By the time the Parade had been radioed into the Soviet Union, (used for pro-capitalist proselytism!) it had become a deconstructed, purposeless melange of carnival showmanship.  The only remaining vestige of the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade as it exists today, is a Halloweenesque pastiche of ridiculous costumes, and antiquarians in their frippery.

We've come a long way. You can make this Easter your own demonstration of refinement and dignified celebration, though, by turning the clock back to the early days of Christendom. Dress for yourself, dress in celebration, and when you attend church this Sunday, park a few extra blocks away, walk a bit, and encourage those around you to join you to your destination. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Yes, Miss, I find your shallowness most diverting.

Chapter 10
We're going to take a small detour on our travels today.  Our destination of transcendental sartorial excellence is still in sight: no need to fear that we have lost our objective. Contrariwise; looming large on the immediate horizon is Easter, the wedding of Two Very Visible People, and the tailleur train-wreck that is The Prom. In fact, the upcoming weeks will be fraught with negotiating the minefield of raiment faux pas. But before setting out across this treacherous no-man's-land, we'll take a moment here to rest and regroup, to take stock, and prepare for the battle ahead.

The job of being properly turned-out at formal and special events like the aforementioned has, for decades now, indeed been a literal "no-man's-land" for men. We have abdicated our responsibility, handed it over to women, and just worn what we were told to, assuming they, as the arbiters of fashion and good taste, would not lead us astray. The unfortunate downside is that in decades past, women were the arbiters of fashion and good taste. They were brought up in it, taught it, were steeped in it. And just about fifty years ago, they began to not be taught it. The long slow decline since then was inevitable.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not one of those people that bemoan the passing of the Good Old Days. We have many wonderful things that weren't around in days gone by: things like penicillin, microwave ovens, and the Magic Electrick Box that you are staring at right now. Which doesn't preclude the fact that we seem to be desperately, hopelessly in need of mandatory finishing-schools.  Such things were more common in þe olde dayes, and are unfortunately seen today as a quaint anachronism at best -- a misogynistic tool at worst.

But a finishing-school was, in reality, only what the name implied: a means to put a fine, glossy polish on a lifetime of continuing social education. For the masses, social education was something that was taught in the home as a part of growing up. And for those unhappy few who were deficient in that area, the American public school system of the 1940s was glad to help, by assuming the responsibility of raising good, upstanding young citizens. With typical American ingenuity, they used media to do the job. Thanks to this, a glimpse into the minds of the era survive today, in the old prints of "health and hygiene" flicks by Coronet Instructional Films.

The logo that promised the next ten minutes would
 be spent passing notes in a dark classroom.

Often ridiculed as primitive, and unfairly labelled as propaganda or a brainwashing tool, they are an attempt, in hundreds of 10-minute reels of flickering black-and-white 16mm images, to tell the stories and pass down the social skills knowledge that had traditionally been taught at home.
Stills of Coronet's 1950 "Are You Ready For Marriage?"
(online at the Prelinger Archive)
Far from being a covert conformity conspiracy, Coronet magazine (Coronet Films' parent company) was actually owned by Esquire. Yes, that Esquire. They aren't accurate portrayals of mid-century youth -- but they were never intended to be. They go beyond mere hygiene: they're idealizations of the social norms that young people needed to emulate, to be productive members of society. And, just like today, kids were more likely to absorb what a screen told them than listen to their parents. They may have made fun of it -- but they remembered it.

Coronet's 1949 "How To Be Well-Groomed."
(You can't make this stuff up.)
So what? Dusty old reels of really bad acting and stilted dialog on a shoestring budget, expounding the benefits of having friends, brushing one's hair, and being dateable? How is this at all relevant to dressing like a grownup? Well, here's the point: Acting and dressing in a mature manner are inextricably linked. One follows the other.

By way of example: let's follow the mid-century emotional and social progression of Boy to Man, mirrored by his manner of dress.
An actual primary-school class, circa 1950.
In primary school, Mother dressed Junior in cute little outfits of shorts and striped jumpers. He may not have liked it; but there was no room for negotiation with Mother.

Actual, factual image of high school circa 1950.
By the time he hit High School, this little tyke's attire was commensurate with his growing maturity: shirts with ties, v-neck sweaters, and all the trappings that look so odd to us today when we see images of mid-century schoolboys. He may not have particularly liked it, but he became conditioned to it, the rules specified it, and although he was allowed a certain amount of latitude insofar as choice went, he was still under Mother's aegis. He was learning -- what was appropriate, what was acceptable, what was expected, in what he wore, just as much as how he acted.

Undergrads, circa 1949,
illustration from Esquire.
It was with great pride, when this young man went off to college and finally severed the apron strings, that Father would take Son to his first real tailor for his first real suit. He was on his way into the world, and he went prepared, and smartly dressed. He would push the boundaries of style and fashion on campus, keep up with the fads, and be cutting-edge current -- but always within the confines that he had learnt throughout his life.

Workaday clothes, also Esquire 1949.
When he graduated, now fully adult and brimming with knowledge, and went out into the workforce, his dress would become more proscribed, but college was the time for (sartorial) experimentation, to find the niche that best reflected his own personality.

Now today is a whole different picture. The old rules are gone, smashed by the foolish rebelliousness of 1960's anti-everything sentiment, and half-a-century on we're still reaping the results of generations that don't understand the barest shadow of our magnificent sartorial history. A boy is now sent to elementary school in tee-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, and taught by teachers in tee-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. No smart little outfits -- Mother can't be bothered -- and no authority figures in proper dress leading by example. High school, and no changes are seen: tee-shirts, jeans, sneakers. No peer pressure, no societal norms, no cheesy 16mm instructional films cranked out of whirring projectors in darkened classrooms -- is it any wonder that, when left adrift in college, the clothing modes of childhood would continue unbroken?

And is it any wonder that students have no concept of social interaction, who then grow into adults that have no concept of social interaction?

You can't do anything about the hoards of ignorant buffoons and buffoonettes surrounding you -- but you can do something about you. Start with you. Wearing the proper clothes doesn't make you (or the person you're with) any better mannered. But it's worlds easier with proper clothes, than without.

Need a more distinct direction to put a polish on your modern manners? Click here to check out Appendix 3.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

The Game's A Foot

Chapter 9
Last week's April Foolery was a right bit of fun (you did realize it was a joke, and didn't go out and buy a closet full of top hats...right?), but put your Serious Hat on now, because this week's topic is fraught with significance -- Shoes.

It's a simple enough concept: a protective layer twixt your feet and the rocks beneath, a simple necessity of life. Unfortunately, that is the extent of many men's knowledge of shoes -- but grown-up dressing demands thinking beyond merely being shod with ones between plates and tuppence.*

*Rhyming slang: ones and twos (shoes) between plates of meat (feet) and tuppence a pound (ground).

The thousands of shoe styles and variations can be overwhelming for us guys, which is why your "default setting" is most likely that with which you are most familiar. In other words, what you grew up wearing. And that, unfortunately, is kiddy sportswear.  The typical "shoe store" offers nothing but a proliferation of Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Sketchers, ad nauseum, in hundreds of variations, and at a price point for every wallet. Aisle upon aisle, rack after rack, all the same stuff. The Helpful Salesman, if he acknowledges you at all, will mumble, "Wot size erya?" before trundling off to The Back, to return eventually with boxes of more stuff, hopefully in a size that a Chinese craftsman half a world away reckons would fit you. So you lay down your dollars, and you leave the store with a white canvas-and-rubber abomination adorned with a filigreed fretwork of appliqué swooshes, stripes, and mesh perched on a snow-tire tread that conceals snake-oil frippery like air bladders, aerogels, springs, and valves. And you wear it everywhere, until the dingy grey mess disintegrates into ribbons. And then you go back a few months later to buy another.

Well ... stop doing that.

I want to introduce you to the world of adult male footwear. This is just the barest introduction, mind you: there are other dedicated sites that cover the intricacies of construction and stylistic detail of felicitous footytogs, and if you are interested in such things, you can graduate into that. For now, for here, I'm giving you what you need to get by and get started.

All shoes serve the same function, viz., keeping pebbles out from between your toes. So why all the fuss? For the same reason I've been railing on and on about proper clothing and Classic Style and the hideousness of tee-shirts since the beginning: just covering yourself isn't good enough. There's a rich history of style waiting to be tapped, and for some reason even some of the best dressed gents forget about their feet.

Remember the Great Secret I revealed in Chapter Two? The purpose of clothes is to make you look better than you really do. That doesn't stop at your ankles. A good shoe is a work of art. The old maxim is true -- women really do judge you on your footwear. And nobody wants to see your ugly knarly hairy toes in public.

At the risk of being simplistic, there are a few technical terms of historical significance to use when describing a shoe. At one time, which shoe, in what style, in what color, at what time of day, for what purpose, was of utmost importance to know, to avoid embarrassing social gaffes. Those rules have slackened today: if you are interested in absolute historical correctness, the rules are still out there -- but for most of us, a few basic guidelines will suffice.

I will pare the field down to two basic styles and some of their variations for you. Learn these two basic types of shoe, and much of your battle is already fought. These two shoes are the balmoral and the blucher. The basic difference between a balmoral (British "oxford") and a blucher (British "derby") all boils down to a detail in the manner of the lacing, that you may have never noticed.

A balmoral, from Alden
On a balmoral, the vamp of the shoe (the piece that covers the instep) is laid over top of, and sewn to, the bottom of the lacing eyelet tabs. The lacing is in a V-shape at the bottom, the tongue is sewn on separately, and when the shoe is tied, the tongue is completely concealed. This is called "closed lacing."

A blucher, also from Alden

With a blucher, on the other hand, the vamp and tongue is one piece, and the eyelet tabs are laid on top and sewn on the edges, but is unattached to the tongue at the bottom. It is easier to adjust the fit with a blucher, as the side flaps can be loosened or tightened across the tongue, and is called "open lacing." Of the two, the balmoral is considered the more formal, and needs to be more carefully fitted so it laces tightly without the eyelet flaps gapping.

Alden's monk strap
A blucher that has buckles instead of laces is called a monk strap shoe, 

A wholecut, from Allen-Edmonds

and a balmoral that is made of one unbroken piece of leather is called wholecut.

The following details can be applied to either blucher or balmoral: the cap toe, which is an extra piece of leather sewn to the vamp over the toe box, as seen in the above examples, and the wingtip, which is an extended cap toe that extends down the side of the shoe, and is shaped like a W over the vamp.

An Allen-Edmonds spectator wingtip
A spectator (British "correspondent") is any shoe utilizing two different colors of leather, usually (but not always) a wingtip.

Saddle shoe, from Allen-Edmonds

A saddle shoe is closed-laced like a balmoral, but the eyelet tabs are sewn down over the vamp.

We need to make special mention here of brogueing: the decorative holes and designs on some shoes. They were originally of Scottish design, and were functional; allowing water to drain out when slogging across glens and bogs. Because of this, brogueing is traditionally considered less formal and more country-sporty, but today is pretty much acceptable anywhere. Full brogue has holes down the sides and over the toes in a decorative pattern, like this spectator shown above.

Half-brogueing on a cap toe
blucher, from Alden.
Half-brogue has brogueing in a decorative pattern over the toe only...

Quarter-brogue cap toe
balmoral. Alden again.

and quarter-brogue just has one line of holes at the edge of a captoe.

By and large, the simpler, darker, and shinier the shoe, the more formal it is. A patent-leather black balmoral is more formal than a tan suede one, for instance, but that same tan suede balmoral is less formal than a dark brown blucher. Like I said before, the rules are just guidelines.

Shoes should be made of leather. Calf, buck, pig, horse, all have differing characteristics and appearances. What those are, is unimportant for now. What is important, is that it needs to be real animal skin. The strength and resilience of synthetics is just inferior to the real stuff. Soles should be made of leather as well.

Finally, you need to have your shoes fitted properly, and that means finding a competent shoe store with competent salesmen.

The Brannock Device.
You've probably seen a Brannock Device, which was invented in 1927, and has become the world standard for foot-sizing. You can use the Device as a test for a good shoe salesman, who (if he passes muster!) you can feel confident will find a good shoe for you, and is not merely interested in you as his next sale. The trick is to ask to be sized. If the salesman sets your foot in the Device whilst you are seated, just walk away: he doesn't know what he's doing. When a sizing is done well, you are asked to stand: your heel is firmly placed against the stop and your toes are pressed flat. Width is carefully taken, and careful note is also made of the location of the ball of the foot, and height of the arch and instep.

A good salesman will not just look, but feel the shape of your foot. When you try on a shoe, a good salesman will double-check the position of not just the toe, but the position of your arch, ball, and instep inside the shoe as well: which involves more feeling around and manipulation. This may seem strange and fussy to your formerly Croc-shod feet, but real shoes fit closely and well. A new shoe may feel tight to you in areas, but the leather will in short order conform itself to your foot and become more comfortable than any old tennis shoe could ever be. A good salesman will be able to determine if the shoe is fitting and supporting you properly. There are many very good shoe makers out there. I personally favor Alden and Allen-Edmonds, (you can probably tell!) as they are both of fine quality, as well as being American-made.

You may notice this whole "fitting" thing would make shopping for shoes online a tricky proposition...and you'd be right. Online options are good sources for bargains in used shoes that, if new, would be quite pricey. Factoring in that used shoes can usually be recrafted and rebuilt to like-new condition for much less than actual new shoes, and it seems like an irresistible prospect. But fitting sight-unseen is a hit-or-miss affair: no two feet are alike, and even a used shoe in your size may have been inhabited by a foot with a much different shape than yours. Since the leather has been molded to a different foot, it may never truly feel like "your" shoe.

Fortunately, there is a way to narrow the field by a great deal, and increase the chances that an online used shoe will fit nearly as well as a new one. This is because of lasts. A last is the wooden form that a shoe is constructed around, and shoemakers use a number of different lasts. Before you shop around online, you should be properly fitted once: the shoe salesman will find a style of shoe that fits you more perfectly than the rest, because of the last it was built on. Ask him the number of the last of that shoe, and what other models are made on that last. All of the styles of shoes that company makes, in your size, on that last, will fit you equally well, in theory.

So, if you troll the online sites for those specific types of shoes in your size, the odds are the previous owner would have had a foot similar enough to yours that the fit will be extremely close, and (--bonus!--) already broken-in. So go forth, get properly fitted at a few places that know their stuff, and see what exists in the basic styles you've learned about today. Its the first step to better footwear, and the sooner you get started on the journey, the farther you can go. See you next week!

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Proper Toppers

Chapter 8
When you go about refining your outfit and defining your personal style within the reasonable bounds of Classic Style, the finishing touch is always a hat. You've certainly been used to wearing baseball caps all of your life, and I have introduced you briefly to fedoras and trilbys and other "soft felt" styles of hat in previous installments. But you are not fully dressed without an introduction to the absolute expression of pre-eminent hatting: the Top Hat.

The good old "topper," in various forms, has been worn continuously since the late seventeenth century, and its parallel development and use alongside the Classic Style suit since its inception in the 1830s, ties it inextricably to what we know as the "suit" today. It has admittedly been seen less in the U.S. since the Kennedy presidency, which had attempted to ban male hat-wearing altogether. Succeeding generations are finally shaking off those musty old-fashioned restrictions of the late-twentieth century and are again beginning to wear hats, and with it, the top hat is enjoying a refreshing renaissance. The cutting edge of classic fashion for all ages is all about the top hat; so to dress like a grown up today, it is becoming imperative to own at least one, and preferably more styles, of this type of classic headwear. 

First, of course, we need to look at the top hat's history and development. It was originally stiff and rigid, and was designed as a protective helmet when the leisure class went joyriding on horseback. Horseback accidents usually did not, as today, involve lateral collisions at greater than 30 mph, but vertical collisions involving one's cranium and the earth beneath. The hat was thus built to be gradually crushable: as it met the ground before the top of your head, it slowed the moment of impact, thus minimizing damage to you; at the sacrifice, unfortunately, of your hat. It was, in fact, the first vehicular crumple zone, Volvo not having been invented yet.

The crash-helmet origins of the top hat eventually became secondary to its striking appearance: eventually, hats were made in "town weight:" much lighter, but offering proportionately less crash protection. Sort of like the modern motorcycle helmet's relation to the bicyclist's foam Wiffle-helmet, which legislation has forced the hapless bicyclist to wear in an effort to make him look even more ridiculous than he already does.

(It is axiomatic that what the leisure classes wear as sports wear, becomes the next generation working-classes' formal wear. Riding coat and crash helmet thus became top hat and tails. Following the trend through the centuries, this explains why people will get married in a Polo shirt and Dockers today, and if something isn't done soon, your grandchildren will get married completely naked. But I digress.)

Until the 1850s, top hats were largely constructed of felt made of beaver fur. This was replaced by felted silk when beavers were hunted to near-extinction. Felted silk hats became the standard until the aforementioned Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. Soon after, the last person to remember how to make felted silk died off, and the looms fell into disrepair and were destroyed. For the last fifty years, the top hat has either been made of wool felt, rabbit fur felt, or satin.

Most soft hats are make of but one layer of felt, formed over a mold called a block, and steamed into shape. A proper top hat, by contrast, is a highly constructed piece of engineering, either in "country weight" or "town weight." Because it is rigid, it needs to be carefully fitted to the shape of one's head with a hatter's conformature and formillion, not merely sized by circumference. It is constructed of a shell of gossamer: layers of calico fabric proofed in shellac and ammonia. When cured and dry, it takes on the consistency of plywood. The gossamer is formed and shaped on a cylindrical block, the crown is added, and the shape is seamed by heating the gossamer, which softens the shellac and binds the edges together. The brim is built up of further layers of gossamer over a form, covered in felt and edged in silk. When the form is dry, the silk (or fur, or felt) covering is slipped on, and ironed to the gossamer, softening the varnish underneath and binding it in place. The hatband and interior of the hat is added as usual. The "country weight" hat was constructed of two to three times more gossamer than "city weight" hats.

The top hat with which you may be most familiar is the High Silk Hat, which is always worn with formal wear. It is characterized by a high crown, subtly flared, a curled brim, and brushed and polished to an extremely shiny lustre. It is made in the traditional manner, as just described.

A more convenient hat is the Opera Hat. A clever device, it is not rigid and inflexible; indeed,  four spring-loaded rods that connect the brim to the crown make it collapsible, folding completely flat for convenience when you will have to store or check your hat at a venue. It typically has a flatter brim, a thinner band, and duller sheen than other top hats, and is made most often of satin.

Drab shell in dove grey
This is all fine for formal occasions and nights on the town, of course, but for everyday wear, black is unacceptably formal. Formality in top hats is determined by color, size, and sheen: the duller felts (called "drab shell" hats) may be worn in colors for casual use, but the most formal is always black and highly glossy. For day wear, a crown height of four to six inches is standard; for evening wear, six inches or greater.

Polished fur melusine

When choosing a colored top hat to wear during the day, it is important to have an eye for quality. Felt toppers abound, but many are of such poor quality as to be horridly unacceptable, just cheap costume wear. Preferable to drab shell is fur melusine, which, unlike felt, has a directional nap like plushed silk, and can be polished nicely to an acceptable sheen. Quality can be most readily seen along the top edge of the hat: a lesser quality hat's sides and crown are blocked in one piece. A good quality hat will have a sharp edge, for the crown and sides are attached separately, and the crown will be completely flat. The degree of curvature of the brim is an area of note as well; lesser quality hats as a rule have a flatter and less elegant brim. When wearing a top hat, as with all things, the quality of detail differentiates the poseur from the flâneur.

Summerweight straw

Colors are best kept to earthy tones and dark blues, as bright primary colors tend to lose the element of elegance: at the lightest, mid-tan or dove grey, but preferably dark autumnal hues. The summer months give a good opportunity to wear a straw option, either traditionally or as a sporty skimmer.

John Bull in brown
As with any factor related to dressing like a grown up, price need not be a limitation, if you do not fall prey to the cheap-and-easy road of shoddy craftsmanship. Online auctions and estate sales can reveal solid, wearable examples for much less than buying new, and a competent hatter is able to repair, reblock, and resize a decent worn example to like-new condition. The resurgence in top hat couture is reflected in the increased numbers of makers of low-crown and John Bull-style hats in various colors, in addition to the silk high hats. For those with cash to burn, bespoke top hats of any color and fashion can of course be made.

Suede, leather, and animal skins are becoming popular options for top hats. This should be ignored as an annoying youthful fad that will soon go away, and the sooner the better.

In addition to the usual sources for used and vintage items, these vendors are well-worth a mention.
Lock & Co. hatters, founded in 1676, offers a selection of hats in silk, fur, and drab, in black and grey colors. 
Ascot Top Hats offers a large variety of colors and styles, including opera, John Bull, and dressage; in black, greys, and browns, both new and refurbished antiques. 
Patey Hats is a bespoke hatter of renown. 
Silk Top Hats Dot EU is a Danish restorer who offers a variety of vintage silk hats as well as new-made ones.(Their inventory is sporadic, and have been out of service for a while. I'm hoping they will add items again soon.)
Hatcrafters Dot Com offers a wide variety of styles, but caution is called for to cull the well-made hats in elegant styles from the cheap costumery. They are worth a look, however, for their low-crown drab shells in a wide variety of attractive colors, and their fine straw toppers.

As a minimum, I would recommend the inclusion of four top hats to your wardrobe: 

1) A formal high silk or polished melusine of at least a 6" crown, for evenings out.
2) A summer straw of no greater than 5" crown, for casual vacation or country wear.
3) A John Bull or flared low-crown drab, in brown, for day wear.
4) A city-weight low-crown fur melusine variant in blue.

Melusine low crown in navy

Additions to these basic four should be a black opera hat, additional low-crowned drabs in differing shapes and colors, and a high straw variant for summer resort evening wear.

Armed thusly, you now have the information to go forth and hat yourself in a manner befitting the classically styled man, while at the same time riding the crest of the wave of Fashion, and be well-hatted no matter the occasion or time. Tally-ho!

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