Friday, June 29, 2012

To Save or Splurge?

Chapter 73
Last week's installment ended on a bit of a downer, tone-wise, with the sombre warning that the totality of our modern, advanced way of life will come crashing down about our ears if the delicate infrastructure of electronics and communication is disrupted -- and something as simple as an EMP will disrupt it quite thoroughly.

Let's continue in that dark vein this week, and we'll do so by looking at the economies of dressing well, and in the process cast a sideways glance at complete global economic collapse -- an utter financial meltdown.

It's not a foregone conclusion, but unless something is done very shortly, money in general will be tight for everyone, no matter where you live. America is borrowing and spending itself to bankruptcy, then through it, and far beyond, with deficits in the trillions, and no end in sight. The Euro is faring no better: the financial experiment that is the European Union is rapidly devolving into a shell-game between national banks.
A word is beginning to be bandied about more and more, and that word is austerity. It sounds drastic; so drastic that France took the "damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead" stance recently of ignoring the problem's existence entirely. The more socialist one's country leans, the more difficult it is for one to fathom decreasing one's reliance on the government; but decrease one must, if a debt problem is to be resolved.

The solution to over-spending is very simply to spend less; this works remarkably well with individuals, families, nations, or planets. Simple self-restraint, self-control, and budgeting -- in other words, living within your means -- is called for. Much of this can be achieved on a national level through one's individual actions. To continue the theme of last week: be content with your lot in life. Your most valuable commodity is time. Live with a conscious attention to the amount of free time that modern technology affords you, and take renewed possession of that leisure time and enjoy it to the full.

You may need to take a step back and evaluate if your financial reach exceeds your grasp. Far too many men are living lives pursuing huge bankrolls while simultaneously racking up huge debts. Are you one of those men who equate contentment with acquisition of stuff? Perhaps you should dial back on the "bigger and better" and the rat race, and simply pay off your existing debts. You may find life more comfortable with less stuff, plenty of leisure time, and completely in the financial black.

Voluntary austerity isn't as drastic as it sounds in our Futurific twenty-first century. In a remarkable study, it has been shown that as far as amenities and quality of life are concerned, the typical "poor" household in America is living the middle-class standard of 10 to 15 years prior. In other words, the middle-class luxuries of 1970 became de rigeur for those living at the poverty line in 1980. This means the "poor" of 2012 are equal to the "middle class" of 2002. The "poor" of 2002 are equal to the "middle class" of 1992, and so on.

The argument becomes largely academic when you realize the poorest Americans today live like kings compared to men of a mere century ago, with access to unimaginable luxuries like refrigeration, air conditioning, cable televisions, automobiles, and cell phones. For that matter, most Americans "in poverty" live in larger houses with more amenities than most Europeans. And they live in regal ease when compared to today's average in underdeveloped third world countries.

Humans have lived remarkably hard lives for millennia. The past hundred years have made men soft. Understanding that is the first step to appreciating what you have and making the most of it. If governmental decisions or terrorist activity take that soft living away from you, it will be a less jarring step in re-adjusting to your new life, without drastically changing your quality of life where it counts.

Applying this to what you wear isn't a great step of logic, but it does bear mentioning. It is possible, nay, imperative, necessary, and needful, to be properly dressed no matter your financial standing. A Captain of Industry may be laid low by a financial collapse and subsequent hyperinflation; a factory worker will have nothing to do without electrical infrastructure; a disabled vet will be left with his savings when the government can no longer write a check. There need not be any difference between the attire of these three examples, amongst themselves, or on either side of their fortunes; nor need the world plunge into Mad Max-style skins and rags.

The prevalent byline on the Blogosphere of Men's Fashion is usually something along the lines of "Buy the very best that you can afford." This is, I think, overly simplistic. Not the least of the errors is equating price with quality. The larger question is what defines "affordability?" Most men think this means 'take as much money as you can part with and buy as few things as possible.' Not so -- not so at all!

Let's look at when to save and when to splurge on your clothing, and how.

Surprisingly to some, I do not recommend buying bespoke as a rule. The level of art and exactitude and quality in a bespoke suit is unmatched. A bespoke suit is something akin to a lifetime commitment, a big-ticket purchase to be passed down to your heirs. Do you really want to wear the same suit for forty years? Will your body shape even remain constant that long? Do you want to be known as "That guy with that suit?" It may be more cost-conscious to rotate through more suits more often, purchasing and moving on, and retaining a tailor to alter your suits as necessary. We've discussed taking your own measurements,  going on quick-strike hunts at secondhand shops, and focusing on classic fit and style in previous installments, also covered in the Book.

Purchase used, hardy, provenanced articles, fine-tune the fit yourself or with a tailor's assistance, and rotate your suits out every couple of years, and you will have a personalized, elegant, classic, and continually updated look without appearing nouveau riche or "trying too hard." The same goes for ties, coats, trousers, sweaters, and shirts. Buy what fits, on the cheap, and rotate it out periodically.

The exception to the rule, the one time that bespoke is practically required, is formal wear. A dress suit is not the time to skimp; it is an long-term investment and splurge-worthy. Don't even think about wearing white-tie-and-tails without having it made for you. The cost will be breathtaking, but if you are invited to a white-tie event you will be able to afford it. Ditto the boiled-front shirt, detachable collar, shirt studs, cuff links, pumps, et cetera. Think of a dress suit as the masculine monetary equivalent to the wedding dress -- the difference being, if a woman is lucky she will wear a wedding dress only once; if a man is very lucky he will wear tails more than once.

Dinner suits should be bespoke as well, but as the cut is much more forgiving, bespoke is within the financial reach of the average man -- and the opportunity to wear it is much greater than for a dress suit. At the very least, in a pinch, a good tailor should be able to take a "bespoke-but-not-for-you" dinner jacket and alter it accordingly. The pique shirt and accessories are not a place to skimp, either. This really is an example of a suit you will buy once and use throughout your life, so you'd better make it count.

On the issue of undergarments, save; don't splurge. Hand-woven silk tee shirts and elaborate Italian socks may seem luxurious, but anything directly against your skin should be treated as disposable. It will wear out just as quickly as the cheap stuff from the box stores. If you pay a premium for fancy briefs, you will be temped to hold onto them until they are past their prime. Don't wait until your tee shirts turn grey, your elastic loses its snap, and the heels wear through your socks! Rotate them out for new items before these things happen, and you will feel better with fresher underthings more often.

Shoes, on the other hand, are an area in which to splurge. New shoes that fit and conform properly to your feet, are not only supportive and comfortable, they are better for your back and your posture. You should have several pairs in rotation, for shoes need to rest after being worn, and they should be treated to proper shines regularly. With care, shoes are an investment that will last for decades. The old saying is true: you're on your feet all day, so you need to treat them well.

Hats walk the fence between the realm of "splurge" and "save." Most new hats for everyday use are either too expensive to wear with insouciant abandon, or too cheap and shoddy to be any good. A good, lightly-worn vintage hat can be as well-built and serviceable as new, but yet not so dear that it will ruin your day if it blows off into the mud. A hat with some years on it can be re-steamed and bashed to your preference, will fit with a comfortable and broken-in "set," and can take a day's worth of constant doffing and donning. If you are a true hatophile, splurge on "Sunday hats," a black Homburg to wear with your formals, or a specialty new or refurbished hat for special occasions.

Enough of the doom and gloom! Next week we will eliminate the negative, accentuate the positive, and get back to the business of dressing well, despite the ridiculousness that happens around us. Stay tuned!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Futurists Lied To You

Chapter 72
For those of you who haven't been paying attention, we're well into the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we've been told how much easier our future was going to be. Books, magazine articles, and lavish displays at dozens of World's Fairs have assured us that the future was going to be one of push-button ease and luxury. The newest and most ingenious time and labor saving devices were going to save us hours of tedium each and every day in the next fifty years. Well, the "next fifty years" came and went, then came and went again, several times. We're well beyond the year 2000, darn it. The future is here, now. We're living smack in the middle of why aren't we living like the futurists claimed we were going to by now?
We should be saving so much time with our time-saving stuff that we'd be living in Utopia, where the largest problem we have is figuring out what to do with all of our free time. So why do we as a collective society work more than ever, with less free time than ever, and multitask our way into endless, stressful, thankless toil? You hardly see anyone who truly enjoys themselves on their down-time anymore -- nose down, buried in cell phones, texting away, pushing the next contract, making the next connection, constantly, always working. You'd think we had fewer hours in a day than ever before.

The futurists got it wrong, for one simple reason: they underestimated the power of human nature. For humans are stupid; yes, stupid and greedy. Instead of enjoying our newfound leisure hours, we pack the extra time with more work. Life in centuries past forced us to relax from time to time: for example, when the sun went down, you stopped working, because you couldn't see. Time saving devices have not given us more free time: they've taken away what free time we had, and filled it with a twenty-four-hour work cycle that follows us wherever we go. And stupid and greedy humans that we are, we will work ourselves to exhaustion -- because we can. It's a never-ending pursuit of more money, to buy more stuff, with even less time to enjoy the stuff we have.

Lest you think you have stumbled upon a socio-economic essay; no, this is still about dressing like an adult, and here's my point: dressing properly is dismissed by many otherwise intelligent men, because it is a "waste of time." Busy men, that are too busy to put on a shirt, tie a necktie, go shopping for a decent pair of shoes, or have their suits made by a tailor. Busy men, who can only be bothered to wear the same childrens' clothing day after day, unless the occasion calls for a formless, shapeless sack suit bought off-the-rack, sight unseen, from a warehouse of identical bland suits.

Balderdash, I say! It is high time you freed yourself from the endless speeding treadmill of labor-saving-devices, and let those same devices actually save you some time. Start living in the future you deserve; the future that you should have been living all along. Like the frog in the kettle who allows himself to be slowly par-boiled, you are unaware of the cumulative effect of a hundred years of innovations that, instead of freeing your life, pack your life ever tighter around you.

For thousands of years of modern human history, we'd done things pretty much the same way. Only in the last few decades of the last hundred years has our way of life profoundly changed. The power of steam multiplied our ability to produce work a thousandfold. Then a century later, the power of electricity increased our breadth of communication a thousandfold. And now, another century later, the power of the Internet, fueled by electricity driven by steam, has increased our breadth of knowledge a thousandfold. It's easy, too easy, to assume that the world we have created for ourselves in the past five years is indispensable, that our lives would be unlivable without the constant lifeline of communication and electrons that connect us.

Strip the layers of invention away from the things you take for granted, and discover how much leisure time you really have. You awake in the morning, and it is chilly, so you turn on your electric furnace, and within seconds warm air is blasting out of your register vents all over the house. You've already saved time: it would have taken a good ten minutes to pad down to your freezing basement to manually shovel coal into your furnace from the scuttle, and then you have to wait for your radiators to boil. That radiator system is itself a time-saving device: you'd save a good half-hour in not having to crack anthracite and carry it in buckets to your fire grates, revive the ashen embers from the previous evening, and repeat for every room in the house. And coal grates saved time; for a fireplace demands you split and carry wood, arrange the tinder, and light and care for the fire, for each fireplace, which can easily take an hour if your wood is even slightly damp. So there you are -- as soon as you awaken, you have freed as much as an hour of your schedule. Consider that an electric furnace is completely maintenance-free, and doesn't require polishing and cleaning of soot and ash, and several more hours are saved every week.

Next, you eat breakfast. Mister Coffee (or that most sublime of British inventions, the Teasmade) has your cuppa ready for you, and your English breakfast is out of the refrigerator and ready in a flash thanks to your microwave oven and stovetop. You then put the dishes in an automatic dishwasher. And just like that, you've freed up another hour, without having to stoke the ovens, prep the meal, and clean up afterward.

Then you turn your attention to hygiene. You hop in a shower, soap up in steamy water, and you're done, saving you the trouble of drawing a bath, heating water on the stove, or filling a wash-basin. The benefits of internal plumbing alone save at least fifteen minutes, and an electric shave saves you ten minutes of stropping your straight razor and whipping up lather.

So what about all this I'm-too-busy talk now, Mister Big Shot? You've barely rolled out of bed, and you have compressed a morning routine that would have taken an hour or two into a mere twenty minutes. Enjoy your leisure time. Don't try to pack more stuff in -- use the time that you've actually saved, by not cracking coal and stoking your oven. Read a book, take a stroll, or more importantly, put some extra time, effort, and thought into dressing for the day.

This is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. You can go through your entire day and find all sorts of "lost time" that is simply squeezed out and re-filled by all the modern stuff. You perhaps take for granted that you have a car that starts instantly and takes you effortlessly along broad concrete byways? Consider the half-hour you save every time you turn the key, by not having to pack grease cups, top off oil and water, lubricate the valvetrain, prime the cylinders, and crank the engine. Think of the time you save by driving at 60 MPH on smooth roads, instead of 25 MPH on plank roads and rutted wagon trails. And then add another half-hour of free time simply by not having to vulcanize a rubber patch on the side of the road to repair the inevitable blowout. Even as slow and cantankerous as they may seem today, the earliest automobiles were a blazing time improvement over the time it took to tack and saddle Ol' Gray, and were much faster than a horse, even at full gallop. For thousands of years, life moved at a walking pace. Remember that the next time you're in line at the airport: you're not wasting half an hour in line -- you're saving two weeks.

Going to send a text? Email? Phone call? We take instant communication for granted -- enjoy the time it saves you. Try waiting for a clear party line, then getting an operator to connect you. Still, that was a massive time-saver compared to walking down to the Western Union office to have a telegram tapped out and delivered hours later. And that was lightning fast compared to a letter, that may take weeks to reach its recipient.

But it's the Internet that has changed the world. There's an entire generation now that can't conceive that a scant couple of decades ago, if you wanted to learn something, you went to the library and spent hours poring over card catalogs, and miles of shelves of the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. If you were lucky, you found a lead, and if you were very lucky, the library would have it available. Otherwise, you just didn't discover what you wanted to learn. Having the entire repository of the planet's knowledge at your very fingertips IS The Future. Too bad we chose to use it for LOLcats.

Don't get me wrong; I love the Internet, and all the labor-saving devices that we have at our disposal. I'm not one of those guys that wants to live a retro-Edwardian gas-lit lifestyle. The Internet makes this blog possible, after all. A weekly missive like this one, read the world over, would be impossible otherwise, especially with a complete accessible backlog of previous weeks' installments. Otherwise, Dress Like A Grownup! would probably be a mimeographed zine, run off and distributed once a month, which would take many extra hours a week. Mimeographing would certainly be a time-saver over devoting my life to cutting copperplate engravures, typesetting, printing flyers, and mailing them out, which would take the better part of a week -- unless I got a deal with the weekly newspaper, which might sell me space, but only for local readership.

So when you get home after work and turn on the lights, think of the time you've just saved over lighting a gas mantle, which saved time over lighting an oil lamp, which saved time over lighting candles. It's a century-long piggyback of inventions that were unthinkable in the mid-nineteenth century.
The "Electrical Servants" of the turn of the last century do more to save our time than anything else in the history of modern man. Embrace the mid-century wonder of machines that do your work for you...but don't use them as an excuse to pack in more work. Live the Future as it should be lived. Work in moderation, enjoy the fruits of your labor, let the machines do the work that you would have had to do otherwise, and bask in the leisure time that you will find surrounds you. If you are unsure what work is being saved that men of the last century had to do with their bare hands, use the Internet and look up some history.

Before long, you will find time for many sartorial pursuits that you may have previously thought you were far too "busy" for. Victorian gentlemen were ridiculed for having time to change clothes several times per day...but you may notice that when you take true advantage of your "time-saving devices," you have more leisure time than Victorian gentlemen ever did. Time for careful dressing in the morning, certainly. But also time to get fitted for a new pair of good shoes, and find a tailor to alter your clothes. Time to expand your wardrobe to fit your new leisure pursuits. Now that we're into the torrid heat of summer, it's a fine time to attune your wardrobe for outdoor vs. air-conditioned activities, and change accordingly throughout your day. Perhaps most importantly, you have time to change clothes and sit down for a proper dinner with your family. Even time to spend in the evening with a smoking jacket and a good book, before changing into a dressing gown for bed.

Remember, one EMP will make it all go take advantage of the benefits of electricity while it lasts. Our modern future-wonderful life is built entirely on an increasingly fragile card-house framework of delicate electronics to support our communications, transportation, and services -- and if anything happens to that card house, we would find ourselves instantly plunged into a pre-Industrial nightmare. And on that cheery thought, I shall leave you until next week!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Proving the Rule

(Part Thirteen of the series, "Dressing the Average Guy.")
Chapter 71
You might think this week would be my traditional look at recent formal awards ceremonies in the media, for there have been a couple noticeably influential ones: The Tonys and the Cannes festival. In fact, that was my plan going into this week: but something much more interesting has come up. Besides, we've covered formal wear quite a lot this year, and there's much more to Dressing Like A Grownup than mere tuxedos.

The impetus for this week's change of venue was a typical sort of what-are-the-stars-wearing feature on the web's MSN. At first blush, just another filler article chock-full of jiggling Kardashians. "Stars who don't dress their age," or some such fluff. Nothing to see here, move along. But then, a fascinating subtext hit me across the face, and I knew it had to be this week's installment -- for this is a perfect, in-your-face, textbook example of the Second Great Secret of Dressing Well.

For those of you unfamiliar with the format, last year, I posited Great Secrets, that the average guy who was just getting started along the path to sartorial excellence needed to know. The first one would seem to be common sense, despite millions of men who ignore it: "The purpose of to make you look better than you really do." The second one is cautionary in nature, and a warning: "Left to himself, a man will dress back to the era in which he was happiest, or imagined himself happiest."

So let's look at some fabulously wealthy famous men -- who are in the media's glare, have the public's eye, and can easily afford to wear anything, absolutely anything, they want. Given an entire planet full of fashion with hundreds of years of clothing history, what do these men choose to wear when they could wear anything at all?

Let's start with John Christopher Depp, II. Johnny is 49 years old now, born June 9, 1963. He got his start in the mid-eighties on 21 Jump Street, but didn't really hit his stride until he teamed up with Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands in 1990, when he was 27 years old. What followed was Depp's decades-long golden era of movie after successful movie. Now observe his choice of clothing. Does this look like the suit of a 50 year old screen actor, or a 27 year old bleeding-edge hipster circa 1990? Behold the Second Great Secret in action!
Next, observe Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr., a.k.a. "Snoopy Diggetty Dogg" or something like that. He styles himself as some sort of singer. He was born on October 20, 1971. Snoop was a Crip gang member while in high school. Shortly after graduation, he was arrested for cocaine possession and spent six months in the cooler. His music career began in 1992, at age 21. "Doggystyle" catapulted him to unimaginable worldwide fame. His attire? Still that of a child: arrested, so to speak, in his late teens in the early ' 90s, despite now being 41 years old.
Similarly, Robert Matthew Van Winkle was born October 31, 1967. In 1990, as "Vanilla Ice," at age 23, "To the Extreme" became the fastest selling hip hop album of all time. (Let that sink in.) After a failed suicide attempt in 1994, he re-evaluated his life, got married, and focused on motocrossing and jet skiing for awhile. He then studied real estate and renovates and sells houses. But do you see a 45 year old realtor here? Nope, from the askew hat to the annoying soul patch to the sloppy skate duds, what you see is a hippy-hoppy teenage kid in the late 1980s -- which was Vanilla Ice's Camelot.

What is this, an age-progression of Miley Cyrus? No, it's fifty-nine year old Philip Andre Rourke, Jr., who was born September 16, 1952. Poor Mickey was perhaps too good at everything he did. From 1964 to 1972, Rourke was an amateur boxer tallying up 27 wins (17 by knockout) and only 3 defeats. He then turned his attention to acting, and by the mid-1980s, thanks to Kim Basinger and 9½ Weeks, he was a bona fide leading man. In 1991, Rourke decided that he "had to go back to boxing." Following some messy bouts in the ring and facial reconstructive surgery, in 1995 he retired from boxing and returned to acting, where plastic surgery was more "voluntary" and less "life-saving." With multiple acting awards and boxing wins under his, er, belt, this outfit is befuddling. It's certainly not the dinner attire of your average 60 year old male. Whether it's that of a brash 18-year old boxer in 1970, or just the sad result of forgetting your pants due to one too many blows to the head, is something only Mickey knows.

Adam Richard Sandler was born September 9, 1966. He was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1990, when he was 24. After making the move to the front of the camera, he rode the wave of popularity to the silver screen in the late 1990s, in such films as Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and others. He's 46 today, but his attire still dates him as a post-teenager in the mid 1990s in New York, churning out jokes for cash.
Steven Victor Tallaricco was born on March 26, 1948. This is perhaps the most tragic example of slavery to the Second Great Secret. Aerosmith's run on the airwaves was from 1970 to 1978: in many ways, Steven Tyler's music defined that decade, for better and worse. When the folks at American Idol (for those worldwide who didn't know, yes, we have one too, and we're just as sick of it as you are) rolled Steven Tyler out of cryogenic storage and defrosted him to serve as judge, apparently no one told him what decade he was in, or how old he is. This poor 64 year old AARP retiree is rattling around in the glam rock threads of a 25 year old in the 1970s, right down to the danglers and chains, the lank greasy hair, the platform heels, and the bell-bottoms made of Chrysler upholstery. It's just a constant reminder of just how old and out of touch he is, and how much he desperately wants to be that young man again.

Compare to William James Murray, born September 21, 1950.  Everyone knows Bill's Golden Years: beginning in 1976, at age 26, on Saturday Night Live, and a string of successful motion pictures through the 1980s, including Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie, Where The Buffalo Roam, and the Ghostbusters franchise. So it should surprise no one by now that Murray's "Festival of Plaid" suit at Cannes this year places him sartorially squarely in his late 20s, and in the early 1980s. But where Bill Murray differs from similarly-aged Steven Tyler is in the execution. Instead of a sad sort of historical costume, it evokes the past without being slave to it. This is not a bad suit at all. Does it show Murray as a 62 year old guy lost in the 1980s? Sure, but more as an homage: he is able to have fun with it. It follows the strictures of the Second Great Secret, but Murray makes it work for him. It's a good example of color and pattern matching, and as a breezy summer suit, it works as a whole without being ocularly jarring. In short, he uses elements of that era over which he ruled, and incorporates them in such a way that it becomes comfortable for him, while keeping the cut and style thoroughly classic. In other words, a proper method of the working-out of the Second Great Secret.

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part Twelve of Dressing the Average Guy.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part One of Dressing the Average Guy.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Keeping Your Balance

Chapter 70
Dressing well is all about sartorial balance. 
Formality against informality...
Color against color... 
Pattern against pattern... 
Contemporary style against historical fashion.

Any imaginable variation on any style of fashion, in fact, must be weighed, and weighed carefully, against its opposite variation to achieve a harmonious whole. The goal is always an average between the two extremes that is not too far out of the range of normal for the particular place that you are; whether this is attending a wedding or shopping for groceries. The problem, of course, comes when a man doesn't know what to wear at all, much less how to find what an average value is, and even less how to work the extremes to maintain that balance properly. 

This is most glaring when celebrities attempt to do casual-formal wear, as we have seen recently. So we are subjected to such aberrations as a tuxedo jacket with sneakers, or a patterned shirt, or a loosely-knotted long tie, or a silly hat, or sloppy jeans. Their thinking is that the dinner jackets' formality will be offset by the other things, and the average will be dressy-casual. 

This doesn't work, of course, because the attempt to balance two polar opposites is increasingly unlikely to create a harmonious average the farther apart those extremes are. In fact, dinner dress is so extremely proscribed, it takes very little to push its balance to a place of informality: as little as a subtly-colored boutonniere, a flash of pocket square, a rakishly-designed waistcoat, or even the material of the jacket itself, is all that is needed.

Creating a balance in everyday wear is much easier than attempting the same in formalwear. Most men have a passing experience in the art of color and pattern matching. At its most basic, it is an intuitive reflex. A dark suit needs a light shirt and a bright tie, for instance; or else the suit looks muddy and somber. A light suit looks better with a patterned shirt of a darker color, and so on. Making informed decisions regarding pattern takes more experience, but is also largely intuitive. Matching a plaid shirt with a plaid tie may look busy if they are in the same color range and size, especially if paired with a plain suit; but a suit with a subtle pattern paired with a very light plaid shirt and a very strong plaid tie may look very handsome indeed. It's all in the balance created between the factors.

These basic style decisions can be complicated with variable factors such as the time of year and the immediate weather conditions. For instance, on a bright day, a pair of tan trousers may look fine with a mid-grey plain weave jacket; but on an overcast day, a darker grey herringbone jacket may look better. In the heat of summer, a shirt and tie may look overdressed in lieu of a simple polo shirt under your jacket; but in the fall, going without a tie may result in an underdressed appearance.

Another factor to balance is your immediate purpose. A matching three-piece looks official and professional for a business meeting, but a simple change out for an tattersall waistcoat looks less stuffy for an evening out. Running to the auto-parts store to buy an oil filter and spark plugs in a suit and tie may raise some eyebrows, but a hardy tweed jacket, open-collar shirt and dungarees says grungy business is at hand. A seersucker suit, loafers, and bow tie looks fine on the boardwalk, but you wouldn't wear it to church. Again, most of this is a matter of intuition for most men, once one gets past the mistake of mistaking the social average for the sartorial average.

Notice I have said nothing about shorts and tee shirts and flippy flops. These are not adult clothes, despite the depressing number of adults who wear them. Striking a balance is not about looking like the uninformed man-children surrounding you. It is about the grownup clothes you choose to wear. It is possible to be properly-dressed and not look out of place, as the above examples prove -- in fact, the proper result of a well-balanced, properly-dressed man is to make those who are not properly-dressed feel suddenly ill-at-ease and self-conscious in their own clothes, awkward and naked. This is not a result of any action on your part, nor in fact should it be: you, merely and simply dressed, should be all the catalyst necessary.

If this all seems a little overwhelming, take solace in the fact that you are not alone, nor are you solely at the mercy of your intuition. All the major factors of sartorial balance can be reduced to three continua, and these continua can be visualized and plotted against each other as axes on a three-dimensional graph.
The graph can be viewed as a cube, with any point within it defined by the three balance factors. The continuum has definite limits; it is not unbounded on all sides. The axes divide the cube into eight octants, which represent the limits of the extremes in the factors of grownup clothing. The ideal is not the exact center of the cube -- depending on external factors as noted above, the ideal for any given circumstance would describe a point somewhere in the cube's interior. The external edges of the cube are the limits of perspicacity, where clothes become costume

Let's use the Continuum Cube to demonstrate just how skewing works. We'll start at an easy point to visualize: the corner of the cube that pegs all three scales for formal, town, and historical wear. Can you guess what it is? Of course, it's the dress suit: white tie, tails, boiled-front shirt, and patent leather pumps. You can't get more formal/town/historical than that. 
As you can see, the dress suit is easily knocked off its apex by the addition of a simple boutonniere, which will skew it down the X axis, slightly away from formal. Substitute balmorals for pumps, for instance, and the skew moves toward sporty and country, and even slightly innovative, and just like that we're off the face of the cube and into the interior. This simple example demonstrates why proper white tie is as exacting as it is.

With everyday wear, you won't be dealing with the extremes, though; you will be dealing with any number of factors that will average into a value on the continuum. The Continuum Cube only works as far as the physical aspect of your clothes -- but how you wear them, your degree of insouciance and panache, can have an effect on where they skew on the Cube. 

With practice, you can keep the Continuum Cube in your minds' eye as you decide what to put on, place a target area within that cube, and choose clothes that will average into that target area. By looking at what you wear in this theoretical way, and fitting them into a matrix, you needn't be operating solely on intuition and guesswork, but have a solid guide for making wise decisions, and thus a greater opportunity to always be Dressed Like a Grownup.

Click here to go to Appendix 2, which covers the complete Continuum Cube in more depth.

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the beginning.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Pocketful of Balance

Chapter 69
This week, we shall take another peek at the concept of balance. Not "balance" in the tailoring sense of the physical relationship of the front and back halves of a piece of clothing -- we've discussed that issue thoroughly and recently enough on The Island. No, this is balance in its more basic and holistic sartorial form, as previously discussed in The Dressing the Average Guy series. 

In addition to the basic color, cut, and pattern of a suit, balance can be created or skewed by the addition of accessories. The form of the shirt collar, the type of tie, the knot of the tie, and the presence or absence of "furniture" like collar stays, collar bars, tie tacks, cuff links, or lapel pins can add variables to set and fine-tune the sartorial balance of a suit. 

Another method, and a very useful and convenient one, is stuffing a pocket square in the jacket's breast pocket. The squares themselves, usually hand-rolled silk, serve no useful purpose other than sheer decoration. The methods of employing them are virtually unlimited. The simplest is to lay it out flat, pinch it up from the center, flute it with one hand, fold it in half with the other, and stuff it either points-down or points-up. That's the most informal method, and the best way to offset a very precise fit with a casualized balance. There are a wide range of standard "folds" that give specific effects, and each style can be used to adjust a jacket's sartorial balance to give a greater or lesser casual influence to the outfit as a whole, depending on the fold's symmetry, height above the pocket line, and whether the "show" of the square involves the edge or the field.  

Pocket squares have one thing in common, however, and it's an important point to make -- they only adjust the balance of a jacket toward the casual. A nice silk square can make an outfit dressier, more snappy, and more dandy, but it cannot add formality: silk's casual nature can only skew the sartorial balance of an outfit in a casual direction.

This is a problem in the twenty-first century: for most outfits start out with a markedly casual skew to begin with. Even the most "dressy" suit is still much less than actually formal. What is needed is a pocket square that still skews the balance in favor of dressiness, but actually ramps up the level of formality as well. 

If you're familiar with Mr Thompson's Ties & Squares, you know the answer already.


Yes, I know the rules I set for myself: this blog is largely independent from the TT&S empire, and I'm not gonna use this as a grandstand to hawk my wares. But, when discussing pocket squares, I have to make an exception where Razor Squares are concerned, because, well, I'm the only person producing them. If you've read through the TT&S website (and if you haven't -- why not?!) you know the capsulized backstory and how they're made, so this is the Cliff's Notes version: Hand dyed cotton, starched till it's balsa-wood stiff, and folded in knife-edge sharp origami designs.

The purpose of a Razor Square is to take the pocket square concept, and use it to skew a sartorial balance toward formal as well as dressy. The inflexibility of the starched cotton and the precision of the square itself functions the same as a severely-tailored suit; to skew the sartorial balance in the formal direction. Its purpose is to take the very casual, nearly disheveled tailoring of modern off-the-rack jackets, as well as very worn secondhand items, and give the outfit a much-needed little boost toward the proper end of the sartorial spectrum. Used with a dress or dinner suit, it still skews casual, but not nearly as much as a silk square does.

The Razor Squares' designs capture some of the diversity of silk square designs within their hard-edged aesthetic. Some are traditional folds, some are complex and pleated, and a few are completely unique. They are easy to use, permanently folded, and pop right in the pocket with a minimum of fuss. And by an amazing coincidence (no, not really,) I've just introduced the ninth official Razor Square design, and the first new design since 2008.


All of the Razor Squares have a sort of twisted logic behind their forms, and the Maya2012 is no exception. I bet you're wondering what the motivation for this one is...well, even if you don't, I'm gonna tell you anyway. You're welcome.

By now, most people have heard the "End of the Mayan Calendar" tales. The going story is that the Mayan calendar is very long and very unique, in that it has an end point at December 21, 2012, at which time the world will end. A little bit of digging and research uncovered a fascinating tale. The Mayan ceremonial calendar, unlike our own, didn't stop at one year. They had the Kin, Winal, and Tun for days, months, and years. They had twenty days in a month and eighteen months in a year. (Their ceremonial year had 360 days. They also had an everyday calendar, to cover the remaining 5¼ days.) But their calendar didn't stop at a year -- they also had the K'atun: twenty Tuns, and the B'aktun: twenty K'atuns. The Long Count was thirteen B'aktuns, and the end of their "year."

If you're like me, and you process numbers better in graph form, here's the breakdown:

Kin . . . . 1 day
Winal . . .20 days
Tun . . . . 360 days
K'atun . . 7200 days; 19.71 years
B'aktun . .144,000 days; 394.25 years
end of long count; 1,872,000 days; 5125.25 years

We know that the Mayans established the Long Count on Feb 28, 747 BC. They then back-dated the original count of years to 8347 BC, with the "first creation." When the 13th B'aktun was completed in Aug. 11, 3114 BC, the "era of the gods" came to a close and the new count started with the "second creation." That era ends on Dec. 21, 2012 AD, with the last day of the 13th B'aktun. The important thing to see is that the calender then doesn't "end," it just rolls over to the first day of the next Count, like we do on Dec. 31st of every year. 

This is all very interesting, (I can hear you all saying to yourselves,) but why, in 747 BC, did they start in the middle, as it were, and calculate their start point back to 3114 BC and the end in 2012? For that matter, why only 13 B'aktuns, when the rest of the count is based on groups of 20? Why not 20 B'aktuns?

It's all about an astronomical feature called Precession. From our point of view, the sun moves around the earth once a day, and the starfield revolves around the earth once a year. Ideally, on any given day, say, January 1st, the sun should be in the same place in the sky from year to year. But seems to drift slightly each year. In fact, because the earth wobbles very slowly like a top as it revolves, the tropical year is 20 minutes shorter than the sidereal year, so it takes 25,694.8 years (more or less) for the sun to appear to drift completely around to where it started from. 

The man credited with "discovering" the periodicity of the cycle of the "Great Year" was the Greek astronomer Hipparchus in the 2nd century BC. But the Mayans not only were aware of it, likely several millennia previously, they were able to calibrate it by the 7th century BC. And they gave it a start point. Because the solar system's orbit is oblique to the galactic plane, the sun crosses the swath of the Milky Way once a year -- but the sun's position aligns with the core of the galaxy on the winter solstice only once a "great year." 


Why, 2012, more or less: (the sun is half a degree wide, and the Milky Way is quite thick, so there's about a 20-year margin for error.) Still, for a people who lived 2,759 years ago, that's not bad reckoning. So 13 B'aktuns is one quarter of a "great year," and the Mayan "first creation" in 8347 BC aligned the sun with the Milky Way on the summer solstice. That galactic-solar alignment, for the Mayans, was apparently a signpost writ large in the heavens on which they based their very long-range day-planner.

So it seems at least important enough that it warrants a new Razor Square to commemorate it! The four nested triangles are meant to represent alignment arrows, repeating endlessly every 13 B'aktuns, marking the matching alignment four times in the solar year to the Great Year. It's a very poetic, and elegant, and quite farsighted way to look at the passage of time.

It's the end of a long year, that started in 18,598 BC, and the first day of a new year that won't end until 27,638 AD. So party like it's!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the beginning.