Friday, November 25, 2011

The TT&S Bow Tie Man of the Year

Chapter 42
This year marks the genesis of yet another tradition here at Dress Like A Grown-Up! Once a year, on the week of Thanksgiving, Mr Thompson's Ties & Squares chooses one man who deserves the accolade of the
 2011 Bow Tie Man of the Year!

The criteria for this lofty prize is threefold. He must be a man in the public eye, who has the attention and influence of a great number of people -- he must exemplify the art of the bow tie to a high degree -- and he must, through his example, encourage other men to don bow ties as well.

The selection process has finally resulted in our three finalists.

The Second Runner-up made the TT&S Finals for his popularity among the younger demographics, and his character's propensity for fine dress. He was, in fact, one of the very few young male television characters this year who might have made a positive influence on his viewers' attire, had they decided to copy his style.

Ed Westwick lost out on the top spot, not solely because of the limited scope of the show's appeal across very specific demographic lines, but also because the Chuck Bass character on the WB network's Gossip Girl wears his ties in such a faux-hipster ironic fashion. It's not enough to wear the bow tie to win the big award, one must respect the bow tie as well. The unlikeable personality of the character doesn't help the bow tie cause, either. Villains may dress well, but they don't  lend themselves to emulation!

The First Runner-up this year, a young British actor, is certainly not an on-screen villain. Quite the opposite: in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, he's a time-travelling hero. He was very nearly the winner this year, on account of a single on-screen assertion:
"Bow ties are cool."

Matt Smith's Doctor on BBC's Doctor Who not only revitalized the franchise's appeal to a new, young generation of Americans, but brought bow ties again to the forefront of pop-culture. Smith falls short of the top prize, not because of any shortcomings of his own, or his fans' lack of fervency, but in the very nature of the Doctor himself. In all the Doctor's incarnations through the decades, he has essentially worn a costume. Identical outfits every week make very good visuals from a hero-storyteller point of view on the tele-cine, but it doesn't make for easy emulation. Matt Smith's Doctor may champion the bow tie, but will the lack of diversity in his 'superhero' attire inspire others to wear bow ties in their everyday lives? It may be argued that people emulate their heroes, but the point may be debatable when it comes to costume: did Tom Baker's Doctor inspire people to wear 18-foot long scarves? Does Batman inspire people to wear capes?

Which brings us to this year's winner. And he's a natural. He plays a strong key role in the most consistently highest-rated show on American television in its time slot. His character is complex and interesting, and has a wide-ranging fan base that transcends demographic lines. Most importantly, though, his on-screen persona is a consistent wearer of a wide variety of bow ties in a naturalistic and decidedly non-costumey way.
Of course, I refer to David McCallum, and his role of Donald "Duck" Mallard, the Medical Examiner on CBS's NCIS.

McCallum in 1957's Hell Drivers.

Mr. McCallum, a Glaswegian born to musician parents in 1933, has had a long and varied life in the arts. He attended University College School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, got his acting start doing voices for BBC Radio in 1947, was involved in London amateur drama in 1950, and became Assistant Stage Manager of the Glyndebourne Opera Company in 1951. He began acting in British films in minor roles in the late 1950s.  By the mid-1960s he was seen on American screens, notably as Judas Iscariot in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, and on the small screen in The Outer Limits and Perry Mason. A classically-trained musician, he recorded four albums in the mid-sixties as well -- instrumental arrangements of the day's pop hits.

His breakout character worldwide, though, was as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s Russian-born secret agent Illya Kuryakin. McCallum took the peripheral role and constructed a complex character around him, the result of which elevated him to co-star status and two Emmy nominations.

Although he was never at a loss for acting work in Britain and Australia, as well as his many voice-over and narratorial gigs, he never re-captured his pop-culture icon status in America until 2003, with NCIS's Dr. "Ducky" Mallard. McCallum became an expert in forensics himself to play the role of Mallard convincingly. He was very nearly made a technical advisor on the show.

Most importantly for us, though, is Mccallum's use of bow ties. Rather than a kitchy costume, or as a snarkily ironic meme, McCallum wears his wardrobe as Mallard naturally and effortlessly. The bow tie is the perfect, logical accessory for his profession: when one is elbow-deep in viscera, one doesn't want a long tie trailing in the way. His ties are worn as a perfectly imitable example of timeless fashion, and at the same time tell a great deal about the character of the slightly eccentric, Morgan-driving classicist. The ties do not shout their presence, but they are ever-present. It's real, it's natural, and it's a testament to Mr. McCallum's virtuosity as a thespian to be able to create a lovable professional with such a well-tuned sense of fashion.

So congratulations, David Keith McCallum, Jr.,
you are the Mr Thompson's Ties & Squares

Friday, November 18, 2011

Carving a Turkey

(Part 7 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 41
We're not slicing poultry this week, but we will be chopping up this turkey of a jacket!

The past few weeks have been your introduction to the ne plus ultra of personal tailoring: taking a grossly outsized jacket, like this one, and trimming it down to fit. Two weeks ago, we covered how to execute the surgery -- in theory. Last week we introduced our three-piece lambswool patient, and this is the week we take sharp steel to thread and start dissecting!

This procedure can be completed with many trial fittings on your own person -- but if you have built a tailor's form like we covered earlier, it is worlds easier. What? You haven't made a tailor's form yet? What's taking you so long? It's not a difficult or lengthy project, and well worth the effort.

The first stage is to remove the sleeves. Yes, it's daunting if you've never done this before, but don't worry; if nothing else, this will be a learning experience. Just follow along with me --  I won't ask you to do anything to your clothes that I'm not doing to my own as well. Turn your jacket inside-out on your form, and we'll remove the sleeve lining from the body lining first.

Pull the lining tight at the top of the arm, like this.  You'll see the stitching holding the sleeve lining in. Many jackets are hand-sewn here, but most are machine-sewn.

Removing the stitches is the same in either case: take the tip of an x-acto knife or seam ripper with a new blade and carefully pop a stitch by slicing upward. Then pop the one next to it, and so on.

When you have a half-dozen popped or so, you'll open a little slit enough to pull the lining apart a little. Now it gets quicker, for you can turn the knife downward and unzip the seam. Be careful not to get careless! It's easy to cut the lining by mistake. Just cut the stitches, pulling the lining apart as you go.

Work your way all the way around the armscye...

...and when it's completely detached, drop the lining down into the sleeve.

Now turn the jacket right side out, and we'll pull the sleeve shell.

You probably won't see the armscye stitching. Just slice gently down the middle of the seam to pop a few stitches...

...and when you see a small gap, pull it apart and continue to unzip the seam.

Unzip the top of the sleevehead first: it requires the most attention. You may find a second, loose line of stitching under the first, that holds the shoulder padding to the sleevehead, and perhaps a line of  "wadding" inside the sleevehead itself. Just slice through any stitches that get in the way.

When the sleevehead is removed, unzip the underside of the scye.

As you can see, the sleeve isn't a simple piece of fabric! In addition to a roll of cotton wadding in the sleevehead, this sleeve has several layers of canvassing to help stiffen the top of the sleeve. No matter:  keep everything where it is! Don't disassemble or flatten anything out, for that would cause trouble later. Just fold the sleeve up and keep it in a safe place for later.

Now our jacket is one sleeve short, simple as that!

And as the saying goes, "repeat for the other side."

Having been de-sleeved, the next step is to remove the front buttons. Slice them off, and remove all traces of the thread that attached them.

You may wonder why we're doing this, but it will make sense in the long run. By neutralizing the front fastening, we're removing a major hurdle to proper fit. Remember when we fixed a button stance at the start of this series? Same idea: this way, fitting the jacket nearly "from scratch," we won't be unduly influenced by where the buttons were, and can fit them afresh based on where they need to be.

Now we turn our attention to the bottom edge. We want to release the lining all along the bottom.

The lining hem is very loosely stitched, often by hand, sometimes by machine. Fortunately, it is very easy to unzip with a knife.

With the hems now free-floating, here is the result. We can now work with the outer "shell" fabric without bothering with the lining.

With the lining thus unattached, I can take the opportunity to show you what a jacket looks like inside-out; something most men never see. Notice how the shoulder pad is standing out? It's highly worked, using multiple layers of felt and cotton stitched together to hold that shape. Notice the way the hip pocket is made, and the reinforcing of the front and the chest. This has a light interfacing attached all along the front, and several layers of canvas. This is, relatively speaking, a very lightly-constructed jacket: most have much heavier interfacing and quite hard canvas reinforced with horsehair, to give shape to the chest. All reasons for us to stay away from the "professional" side of coats in our alterations, and concentrate on the back.

The back, as you can see, is plain fabric, and thus is much easier and more forgiving for us to work on. Also notice that the shoulder pads, although they sit on the back, aren't attached to the back directly -- again, good news for us.

Now, as you recall from two weeks ago, the thing to do is separate the front and back halves by unzipping the side seam. But look here! Three seams...the front one is the chest dart. It only goes as far down as the hip pocket, not to the hem: so unzipping it would do no good. The underarm seam is interrupted by the pocket, which runs through it. This is a problem as well: for unzipping it would entail remaking the mouth of the pocket. That's pretty complex stuff, and best to steer clear of. The remaining seam, in green, is the sidebody seam, and that's the seam for the job. It runs from the armscye to the hem in one uninterrupted arc, so that's the one we'll unzip.

Start at the top, the same way as the other seams we've done. Pop a few stitches...

then pull apart and unzip downward.

Unzip the right sidebody seam...

then the left one.

And now we've come to that most important of stages: the front and back halves are unconnected and free to be fit to each other individually!

Simply let the back fall naturally, and pull the top of the sidebody seam in place, and you can see instantly how well this will work. We'll save the fitting for next time -- I'll let you use the time to play around with how the seams interact on your own jacket, pin things together, and get a feel for what the jacket "wants" to do.

This illustrates why we removed the buttons earlier. With everything unattached, you can smooth the fronts in place over the shoulder and see where things want to lie, increase the overlap, account for a low shoulder, and so on.

The advantage of a tailor's form is that you can fit your own jacket to your own idiosyncratic posture. I have a bit of a stoop and carry my shoulders forward, which requires a longer back; and this method of fitting accounts for that almost automatically.

The back shows the immediate improvement that will be made from the armscye down. The shoulders are still far too wide, of course, and the extra width of the blades is also apparent here, and will have to be dealt with... It's a tantalizing taste of things to come, to be sure.

This is a perfect illustration of what happens when a faulty balance is corrected: the answer to  "Where did the extra length in the fronts go?" is seen here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Suits and Suitability.

(Part 6 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 40
Ready for some serious tailoring? Did last week whet your appetite and get your yearnin' on for a jacketectomy? If so, you've come to the right place; for here is our subject:

It's a three-piece suit of downy soft grey lambswool. It's grey, it's in great shape, and it's thoroughly mid-century classic in form. The jacket is a notch-lapel button-three (a true button-three; not a three-roll-two) fully lined with bronzy-gray rayon. The interior has details like a security-buttoned breast pocket and ticket pocket. The hip pockets are flapped and jetted, (it can be worn flaps in or out,)  the outside breast pocket is sharply angled, and the lapel has a buttonhole. The structure is soft: the chest is very lightly canvassed. The waistcoat is an uncollared button-seven with an adjustable back, sporting four pockets and a very interesting double-pleat detail on the fronts. The trousers are lined to the knee, with split waistband, brace buttons, and turned-up cuffs. As a secondhand-store find for just a few dollars, it's the ideal candidate to practice surgery on: if it works well, it will be a great suit to wear, and if it doesn't...well, it will be an inexpensive learning experience. I won't post pics of the details'll be seeing plenty of this suit in the upcoming weeks.

This is the label. It says the size is a "41 regular." Well, I'm a regular guy, and I wear a 39, so this jacket should be only two inches too broad in the chest. Right?

Wrong! If you had bought this jacket thinking it would "almost fit," without trying it on or measuring it, you would be sorely disappointed when you got it home. Women learn from a young age that sizes vary greatly from garment to garment: their size numbers mean almost nothing. Men who are interested in dressing well need to learn that same lesson with their clothes. This coat fits hugely, capaciously, ridiculously large. There's no way it can be only 41 inches around.

Let's take some measurements and compare them to our own.

Remember how to find your jacket measure? Take your actual chest measure and add four inches. My measurement is 35", so my jacket should be a 39. Half of 39" is 19½", so a quick measure across the front and back of a jacket that fits should result in that number.
You may need to refer back to Part 10 of the Dressing the Average Guy series, "The Measure of a Man." It's also included in the book,
Dress Like A Grown-Up! Part One.

If this jacket is a size 41, the chest should measure 20½" inches across. But look here! 22½ inches -- that means this jacket is a size 45!

That's so far off of the label, it requires a check across the back as well. Same measure: 22½". What went wrong? Hard to say. It's telling that 45 less four inches is 41: which means this jacket would fit someone with an actual 41 inch chest. This jacket's size, then, reflects the chest size of the wearer, not the jacket itself. Very odd. No matter, though: even though this example is a full six inches too far around, we can still take it in enough to fit. Let's take some more measures and see what other oddities we'll find.

The sleeve is 23½". That's a full two inches too short for me: my sleeve length is 25½". Not an insurmountable problem: letting out sleeves is relatively simple, and there's enough material tucked up under the cuff to do it. Even so, this would have been disastrous if we invested all that time to get the fit through the body correct, only to discover the sleeves were irrevocably too short!

The total length is 31". Remember that the alterations will result in the hem being marginally shorter, so it's a fair guess that the length will end up closer to 30¼" than 31." Even though 33" is the ideal length for my height, 30" is still completely wearable.

The blades, of course, are proportionately large across the back at 19 inches. It may seem a miraculous feat to trim them back to where they need to be, at 16 inches, but believe it or not, we will get there.

The shoulders are quite wide as well -- ten inches is an inch and a half too far! Needless to say, there is much ado about sleeves ahead of us.

We can, with these measurements, set out a game plan of sorts. After removing the sleeves and setting them aside, a full six inches --a half foot-- needs to disappear around the circumference. Using the method laid out last week, we'll make it go away using only the back and side seams, without changing the collar, lapels, or chest area. Roughly, we'll shoot for taking out an inch and a half at the back, and 2¼" at each side. We'll tighten up the shoulders by overlapping the shoulder seam. Then we'll re-cut the armscyes all around, make them smaller, and put them in their proper places.

Finally, we'll narrow the sleeves to fit the smaller armscye, let out the cuffs to the right length, and I'll show you how to set the sleeve pitch. The trousers should present few problems, after what we've already learnt in that regard...and the waistcoat will be a snap; just a simplified version of our jacket mods.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Presto Change-O Jacket Size-O

(Part 5 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 39
This week starts the most challenging thing yet for you to learn, not only in our current Island of Misfit Clothes series, but in the entire Dress Like a Grown-Up blog up to this time! It's time to get out of the wading pool and queue up to the diving board: very soon, you'll find yourself either sinking or swimming in the deep end.

We'll be talking for the next little bit about jackets; and more specifically, the way they fit. If you've been following along with the blog for any length of time this year, you have a good understanding of the importance and usefulness of wearing a jacket. You also probably remember the "search hierarchy" when it comes to finding a good secondhand jacket, which I laid out in Chapter 29 --

Proper fit  [is more important than] the current style [is more important than] the fabric quality [is more important than] the maker's label.

If you've put this into practice out in the field, at the estate sales and secondhand shops, you have probably refined and simplified this concept further. I memorized the rubric thusly: "Fit trumps condition. Condition trumps style. Style trumps quality. Quality trumps age."

Whichever way you memorized it, what's clear is that proper fit is king of the mountain. This necessitates, unfortunately, ignoring otherwise perfectly serviceable articles. You've undoubtedly experienced the heartbreak of seeing your perfect jacket on the rack, only to have to turn it away when you've discovered it's an inch too large in the chest.

Wouldn't it be great if you could afford to take it to a tailor, who could expertly take it in somehow, work his magic on it, wave his wand, burn candles -- whatever the heck tailors do -- and that same jacket would come back fitting you like, well, like a jacket? But is short, the economy is rough, and it's hard enough to make ends meet as it is. That jacket will have to stay on the rack.

Until now! That's right, I'm going to show you how to do it yourself. More accurately, you'll be able to approximate what a tailor does. It's daunting at first, but with some basic needling skillz, you will be able to take a jacket that is grossly outsized, and sew it down as trim as you please. We're not going to rush through this: I'll take several weeks, step by step, and show you just how to go about it.

This week, it's Toon Time. Through the magic of skillfully crafted graphics, I'll clearly illustrate the concepts involved, and perform the surgical procedures virtually, before we look at the real article.

Getting a jacket to fit is all about the balance. We've looked at balance before, in Chapter 33, when we adjusted the buttoning-point to correct for a low shoulder. With large sizes, the same concept applies, just in a larger scale.

This is your average fellow. We'll be fitting him for a jacket. The first thing you will notice is that the poor guy has had his arms hacked off at the shoulder. The reason is simple: when treating a jacket for alterations, the sleeves are considered as separate from the body. They get in the way, and it's easier not to deal with them just yet.

Here's our guy in an ideally-fitting jacket. (The sleeves have been removed for clarity.) What to notice here is that the jacket is built in two halves, front and back, that are joined together at the shoulder and the side body. The shoulder and side body seams are shown. Most people think of a jacket as left and right, because the front opens up. Try to get away from that, and see it as the relationship between the back and the fronts.

In a jacket like this one, both halves are balanced, as shown by the blue arrows. The fronts sit against the chest, the back against the spine. The collar sits against the back of the neck, and the armscye (the jacket's armhole, taken from "arm's eye") is centered around the wearer's arm. The front and back sides are said to be the same length, that is, in balance. Because the jacket sits naturally in place against the body, it doesn't have a tendency to pull, gap, wrinkle, or sag, whether buttoned or unbuttoned.

Here's a more corpulent, barrel-chested fellow, also wearing a well-fitting jacket. His jacket is well-balanced, and fits in all the right ways, just like his thinner compatriot. Since he has more chest to cover, it takes more fabric to cover him, but the relationship of the lengths are still said to be in balance.

Take that large-chested jacket, and put it on our thinner fellow, and a balanced jacket becomes immediately out of balance. His smaller frame can't support the extra fabric in the right places. The chest balloons out, and the back is larger across the blades, (but not as much as the chest, because a man's extra mass hangs out more in front.) All that fabric can't just stay suspended out there unsupported -- it has to have somewhere to go. And that's when we get into trouble.

Try on that jacket unbuttoned, and here's what happens. The chest, being heavier and more constructed than the back half, collapses against the wearer. The jacket is unbalanced at the front: all that extra length, which was needed to cover a larger chest, falls down, and that length needs somewhere to go. The armscye acts as a pivot, and the fronts fall away toward the rear. The lower back kicks out, and the back pulls away from the spine. The back neck is pressed in, but the arms tend to pull back. The jacket looks hugely large in the back, the arms are uncomfortable, and wrinkles form behind the arms and across the back.

Buttoning the jacket is no better. Pulling the fronts together by the buttons forces the fabric away from the lower back into place -- but that extra length still needs someplace to go! Now, it pushes up, towards the collar, and pulls the neck out at the back. The armscye acts as a pivot in the other direction now. The jacket now looks oddly short in the back, and wrinkles pull forward under the arms and down the back.

If you asked a tailor how to fix a balance problem, he would answer that the correct way to do it is to remove the arms, remove the collar, rip the shoulder seam and side seams out, pull the fronts up, re-sew the side seams, re-set the shoulder in place, narrow the fronts, and re-set the collar. In short, re-make the whole darn thing.

But there is another way, a much easier way. It isn't perfect, it isn't "correct," and instead of eliminating the primary problem in one go, it replaces large errors with small ones, which can be chased in sequence until the final error is negligible. On the other hand, it is completely do-able by the average non-tailor, it takes a lot less time and effort, and the results are very, very close to the "right" way. Oh, and you can do it for free.

Here is the key: we won't touch the highly constructed chest and shoulders. There's a lot of work that goes into the lapels and collar of a jacket: canvas, horsehair, melton, pad-stitching, and a dozen other things you've never heard of. Try to mess with them without knowing just what you're doing, and you'll never get it right again. By working with the simple areas and staying away from the "professional-only" ones, you can preserve good, professional-looking results. After removing the sleeve, just take out the side body seam, essentially separating the front and back halves.

I know what you're thinking, and don't panic about the sleeves -- we'll cover those later. Just carefully remove them, and they can be re-set after we're done with the body.

Now that we have our halves separated, (and color coded for clarity,) we'll start chasing down errors, starting with the largest: the overall balance, caused by the excess chest size. Since the halves are free-floating now, this is almost self-correcting. Make sure the back of the collar is correctly in place, smooth down the chest with the fronts buttoned, smooth down the back, and the side seam will overlap. Pin the overlap, and you will see an immediate improvement. The red arrow shows the next small error: the back may still be too full across the blades.

Now we start chasing down the small stuff. Pinch the excess fabric together at the center back seam. Don't take out a lot; only if the blades are way too large, and only nip from just under the collar to just above the small of the back. The next error to contend with is the shape of the armscye: you can see that the correction to the fronts has pulled the scye to the rear, and now we have to move it to its proper place again.

This is a simple operation as well: release the shoulder seam, from just beside the collar to the end of the shoulder. Since the shoulders are padded, you'll have to do this carefully to keep everything in place. Smooth down the rear of the scye, and pin the wedge-shaped overlap.

This has reduced the circumference of the scye. Since it's in the proper place at the rear, what remains is to cut the front of the scye to give room for the wearer's shoulder. Be very careful not to cut larger than the scye's starting size, or else your sleeve won't fit! Sleeve heads can be made smaller, but you can't add fabric -- so we'll be sure to measure twice and cut once.

After everything is in place, sew the side and shoulder seams in place. A very good practice is to preserve the curve of the front edges, and stitch them down to the rear overlap. The seams were stretched and shaped when the jacket was made, and the more you can preserve the original shape of the fabric, the better it will look. As you can see here, the result of the alteration is a balance and fit that is very nearly as good as a custom-made jacket. The only remaining error is to hem the bottom edge to be even all 'round.

For comparison, here are the two jacket profiles superimposed. The original, well-fitting jacket is in red, and the large, altered jacket is in black. The differences are that the lapel notch and button point are slightly lower, the total length is fractionally shorter, and the position of the side body seam is shifted to the rear. The armscye, although of the same size, has been brought forward slightly to a more comfortable position.

If this seems like a huge project, I won't lie to you -- it is. Don't fear, though; we're going to take our time on this, span several months, off and on, working step-by-step the whole way, and by the end, your jacketing options will have expanded practically without limits! As with anything you attempt, your first jacket will take awhile, and might not be what you would call an unqualified success. Your second will be better, and faster, and your third faster and better still. Eventually, you will be able to go to an estate sale, pick out a gorgeous jacket that is six inches too large, buy it for a song, and alter it to fit you in a single weekend. Imagine that!

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