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!

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