Friday, July 8, 2011

The Shirt Off Your Back

Chapter 22
This week, I'm going to say something that you might think out of the ordinary for a "men's fashion blogger" -- it's certainly a bit of wisdom that seems to go against the grain of what I've been saying for the past five months re: jackets, and that is, sometimes, you can ditch them.

That's right: shirtsleeves are fine. 'What!?' I can hear you shouting at your computer screens now. 'I've spent weeks hearing about how proper attire must always include the implementation of a jacket! Are you daft? Have you gone off your crumpet? What gives?'

Fear not, I have not taken leave of my senses. Dressing like a grownup, if I have taught you nothing else, is all about dressing appropriately. Just as t-shirt and cutoff jeans are never appropriate, sometimes, on occasion, an excession of layering is just as inappropriate. And this is just the time of year to mention it.
Unless you are one of my lucky readers who live somewhere up in the Arctic, or in the extreme southern latitudes, you are in the midst of summer right now. Not a pleasantly warm, breezy, partly-cloudy, sort of summer either, but a hellish blast-furnace that will try to kill you the moment you set foot in daylight.

For instance, I live in a part of America that is lovely for ten months out of the year -- the other two months, though, is the reason this area was sparsely settled until the invention of air-conditioning. The unforgiving fiery globe beats down mercilessly, bakes the ground, without so much as a wisp of cloud to provide relief. The air is stagnant, stale, heavy with humidity, and completely still. The ozone builds along the ground. And it continues this way for days. Hazy, hot, and humid, no wind, no clouds, no change, for weeks on end, until the weather finally breaks with a thunderstorm to temporarily relieve the monotony.

No, this is the heat of summer, and even the lightest jacket, the thinnest, loosest-weave, unlined blazer you can find, is too much. If you will remember back to Chapter Seven, Spring Break Experimentation, in the last week of March, we discussed resort wear, including such an aforementioned jacket over a bare chest, with a thin scarf tied in lieu of a shirt, paired with Bermuda shorts. That is fine for resort wear, where you are lounging about all day drinking rum cocktails, and the gentle breezes carry off any perspiration...but this ain't spring anymore, and you aren't on vacation, so walking around in a Bermuda suit without a shirt is not recommended.

Of course, for many people, the actual outside temperature isn't an issue. Air-conditioning, in a constant path from house, to car, to office, and back, means you never have to actually experience Summer; and since offices and shops seem to keep their summer thermostats at a chilly 65ºF, you can happily wear a suit all day even with the most torrid inferno blazing outside.

On the other hand, for those who, by choice or necessity, have to exist in a closer affinity to the atmosphere, it's a different story. There's no breeze to cool you; no clouds to shade you -- a jacket, no matter how thin, merely heats the air and traps it next to your skin, and the high humidity retards evaporation. The only relief is to physically wick the moisture away, and we have no recourse but to strip down to a t-shirt and short-sleeved shirt. But how do we manage this without looking like a schlub? Is it, in fact, possible to look like a well-dressed grown up, in just shirtsleeves?

Of course it is. Don't be silly. Well-dressed doesn't mean overdressed: it's merely a matter of choosing the correct clothing, just like any other situation. Many beginners, who try to dress like grown-ups for the first time, make the mistake of always overdressing. But, of course, there's a catch. There's always a catch, because the correct clothes aren't always the ones that are immediately or most easily available.

Ditch the jeans, and wear a light pair of thin slacks that fit properly, and sit at the right height. You don't lose a great deal of heat through your legs, and baring them to the world won't gain you that much comfort. If you must wear shorts, keep it to yard work or lounging at home; never in town. Boat shoes or loafers with a low vamp are cooler than lace-ups and can look just as nice as a balmoral. Wear socks: you need the wicking action to keep your feet cool, and protect your shoes. Sweating directly into a shoe is just gross.

Likewise, wear a cotton tee-shirt. The wicking action is what keeps you cool, and it will act as a sweat-sponge that will save your overshirt from collecting stains. Make certain your tee-shirt fits: it should have a collar that fits to your neck without gapping, has sleeves that won't bunch uncomfortably under the arm, and is reasonably fitted to your body. Remember, a tee-shirt is not a fashion statement, it is a utilitarian undergarment that serves a function.

The shirt you choose should be of an appropriate pattern and style. Golf shirts of the Polo or Izod vein have been the standby for decades, and are a safe choice for beginners.

A few things to watch out for when choosing a golf shirt for summer wear: Be sure it fits well through the body, in the shoulders, and around the neck. Extra fabric insulates and traps air, defeating the purpose of a summer shirt in the first place. Remember that golf collars do not always play well with jacket collars: choose a collar that fits your neck and sits close in -- it is good to at least have the option to pair a golf shirt with a jacket. The fabric itself should be light enough to breathe -- many golf shirts are made of a very thick cotton, suitable for an autumn weekend on the links, but would be suffocatingly hot in summer, despite the short sleeves.

Another option is the "short sleeve dress shirt," which is a bit of an oxymoron, but nevertheless is made along the standard open-collar or button-down form, merely with elbow length half-sleeves. Neither sporty enough for a true summer short-sleeve, or formal enough for business wear, it's a compromise. It's best used when summer outdoor-indoor use is required in professional settings, as a jacket can be slipped on indoors for a more proper look, and off again when it's required to brave the elements. In short, it looks like it "needs" a jacket; and in fact it does.

Harry Truman was a proponent of the
tropical shirt; this one is cut to be
worn untucked.
Summer heat gives a certain amount of latitude in design, and that brings us to the tropical shirt. At one extreme is the Hawaiian print, at the other is the guayabera shirt. The safari shirt and bowling shirt can be listed in this continuum as well. The prints may vary from floral, to geometric, to plain cloth and broad stripes. The cut of the shirts are similar: a collar that is designed to sit with the points laying flat against the collarbone, and worn open, with buttons down the front. A large armscye, and sleevelength just above the elbow. Pleats from the yoke that run down the back: either simple, box, or reverse-box pleats. And a generous shirttail. This last point is important. Among tropical shirts, there are those that are cut with skirts like a jacket: square all the way around, jacket-length, with hip pockets. Obviously, those must be worn untucked. Those that are cut with shirttails are preferable for our purposes, and must be worn tucked in.

Higgins' safari shirts are the conservative
alternative to the floral: khaki, with
bellows pockets and epaulets.
Tropical shirts are "true" summer shirts, as they look somewhat awkward with a jacket, due to the shape of the collar. Such shirts are available just about everywhere this time of year, but beware the caveat -- they must fit. You will remember from Chapter Five, The Science of Style, way back in the second week of March, we discovered the best fit for a suit, is that which fits the shape and proportions of the human form. It's the same thing with something as simple as a shirt.

Truman's shirt is representative
of the style: this one is cut
to be worn tucked in.
The proper fit can take a mundane article and turn it into something special. A ballooning, shapeless sail of a shirt doesn't look as sharp as that same shirt would if it was fitted to you. I don't mean skin-tight: just with all the extraneous fabric taken away. Tropical shirts are meant to fit somewhat loose, but if it looks baggy, it may need a little tailoring. Fortunately, shirts are simply constructed and easily altered, and it would take a competent tailor very little effort to take a too-large shirt and nip in the sides a bit.

The former President wore tropical shirts,
often and well.
I must here repeat the refrain I sang several months ago: find a good alterations or bespoke tailor in your area, and give them your business. Spending a few dollars to have your shirts or jackets taken in and shaped to fit you will make a world of difference in your appearance.

(Not the least of his problems:
a buttoned collar.)
If the shirt isn't cut like a jacket, tuck the shirt in. I know, purists will decry this, saying the Aloha shirt must be worn loose, only Thomas Magnum tucked his in, blah blah blah...To these purists, I must only respond that we are not in Hawaii, and are concerned mainly with looking like a grown-up, whilst wearing what is, at its base, a very silly shirt. And the way to do that, regardless of its flamboyancy of pattern, is to treat it like any other shirt -- pressed, tailored, and tucked in.

Going out in a well-fitted, crisply ironed, tropical shirt is a stylish way to beat the heat -- or at least meet it on its own terms. It's not a sartorial choice to indulge in all year long, but for those weeks when the air is thick as soup, your car's tires are melting, and the friction from your mower causes your lawn to catch fire, no one will begrudge you a little Summer madness!

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