Friday, October 26, 2012

The Scariest Thing I've Seen This Year

Halloween Special
Chapter 90
Cue the theremin music and fire up the fog machines! Our yearly tradition is back -- the worst, most egregious, baddest, most doubleplusungood thing I've had the dire misfortune to witness since, well, since last Halloween.

The most scary thing I've seen this year might have been the image of bloody handprints on a wall of a CIA safe house/U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya -- terrifying horizontal streaks left by four Americans as they were hauled out bodily by a crowd of Islamic terrorists, who murdered them in a mindless orgy of violence, and torched the grounds, on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

That event has led to many scary things I've seen this year; and they look to be shaping into a complex political coverup that would be right at home in a cheap B-thriller horror movie. But our focus here is on Dressing Like A Grownup!, and Islamic terrorists dress as you would expect them, and sheriff's deputies wear their uniforms. So as grisly and stomach-churning as these events were, we have to look elsewhere for a sartorial horrorshow. 

And we have one.

On the 18th of this month, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation held its 67th annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Founded by Francis Cardinal Spellman in 1946, to honor the memory of New York Governor Al Smith, the Foundation is a Catholic charity that assists the neediest children of New York. But the dinner is primarily known for two things: every four years, it hosts the two Presidential nominees, who spend the evening telling jokes. 

And it is a genuine, honest-to-goodness white tie affair. Dress suits, tailcoats, full-formal, whatever you want to call it, it is one of the few occasions that demands the dressiest of traditional clothing, with no short cuts. Most people would not notice what actually went on that evening. Everyone had fun, the candidates were both in rare form and actually blazingly funny, and the money all went to a good cause. So who cares what they looked like, really? After all, there was no red carpet, no paparazzi, no questions of "who were you wearing?" After all, it's just a tailcoat....


Wrong. Dress suits are the closest thing civilians have to military uniform. It's still party clothes, make no mistake; but there are explicit rules. These rules don't exist to make life needlessly difficult -- they are there because White Tie, done properly, is the ultimate expression of the First Great Secret of Dressing Well: it makes you look better than you really do, all the time, without exception -- if it is done correctly. These two men, vying for the position of head of the most powerful nation in the world, should know a thing or two about dress suits. Neither of them do. Governor Romney, joking about his wealth, said "It's nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house." A good line, but it's apparent that he's never actually worn a dress suit before. And neither has the President. 

It's painfully obvious that no one there has ever worn white tie and tails; because they are all getting it wrong. Coats are baggy, shirts are unstarched, waistcoats are too long. It's as if they were all at a high school dance...or Halloween party. No one knows what the hell they are doing. No one. And that's scary.

The President of the United States is wearing an unstarched fold-collar tuxedo shirt and pre-tied bow with his tailcoat. Which, sadly, is what the waiters would be wearing, to differentiate themselves from the guests, in decades past. Romney is also wearing a tuxedo shirt, with skimpy attached wing collar. His bow tie neckband is riding over the top of his coat collar, and is nearly jumping free of his shirtcollar. If these were fifteen-year old schoolchildren playing dress up with the clothes in their grandfather's steamer trunk it would be merely humorous. These are grown men, and it is nothing short of tragic.

But this brief image is proof that we are witnessing the next Fall of the Roman Empire. Directly behind the President is seated Chris Matthews. I don't even know how to register my complete and utter disgust. This is a full-dress event, and Matthews can't even be bothered to wear trousers? Let this image of low-rise belted pants scorch into your retinas, his shirt billowing out under his waistcoat, his cutaway fronts flapping impotently across his distended belly: this is the image of the tail end of Western civilization. 

Let us now compare this evening of atrocity to images of Presidents past, who have attended this selfsame dinner, wearing the same dress suits, but wearing them correctly. Notice President Reagan's dress suit, and how it is cut across the waist. The trouser waistband is high, the waistcoat is cut to be just shorter than the fronts of the tailcoat, and the angle of both are identical. 

Now observe President Ford's shirtcollar. It is starched, detachable, and much taller than that worn with a dinner suit: a full two and a half inches, with broad, elegant wings, and a broad, elegant bow tie to match it. His pocket square is arranged with nearly Razor Square precision.

Turning our attention to President Nixon, take a close look at the cut of his coat. This is why a dress suit must always be made bespoke. Notice that the sleeve falls without so much as a wrinkle. Notice especially the shaping through the chest and torso, the precision of line, the sculpting of the cutaway that looks molded to his body: the very definition of a body coat. Now compare this to the first picture of Romney above.

Now we'll step back farther, to President Kennedy. The thing to see here, is how the coat acts when in motion. Kennedy is reaching his arm forward, but the coat still holds to the small of his back, the tails follow the curve of his hips, and the cutaway points stay in place like they were welded there. Now look at the other fellow, who has both arms out, one in a handshake, the other on another gent's back: but his coat does not billow out, and stays snug into the waist. Notice, too, that he is starched from chin to navel -- the shirt front and waistcoat are both stiffly starched pique marcella, and neither his shirt nor his waistcoat shows as much as a wrinkle, despite his half-twist forward from the waist. One last detail: the man at the far right is not in a dress suit: he's in a double-breasted dinner suit. Is he a waiter? No, more likely a member of the media; you see, it's perfectly acceptable to wear a dinner suit to a full-dress event if you cannot afford a proper dress suit. (Memo to Chris Matthews.)

How have we descended so far, that at a White Tie dinner with the President of the United States, no one knows how to actually wear White Tie? The answer is, "down a long, gentle slope." White tie isn't difficult -- on the contrary, it is very simple. There is absolutely nothing to cause confusion. Step A, step B, follow the rules, and everything from cut to proportion to size to materials is clearly laid out for you, as simple as a Marine's uniform, and the result is guaranteed to be visual perfection.

Grown men don't know how to wear anything, anymore. Welcome to an era when even statesmen, Presidents, captains of industry, and media professionals can't follow a simple set of directions that have been set in stone for over a century. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Da Capo

Chapter 89
Hello, Average Guys! As you know, I try to maintain a certain kind of balance here at Dress Like a Grownup!, and keep a few different kinds of plates spinning at once. Some plates are the equivalent of a doctoral degree, continuing education for lifelong dandies, all the way down to some plates that are Dressing 101, core curriculum for the freshman youth. After some time in the more advanced topics, like our recent History of Neckwear series, I like to go back and spend some time at the basics, for the benefit of Average Guys like yourself who are just starting along your mature sartorial journey. 

Of all the changes that need to be made, to cast off the shackles of the children's clothes you currently wear, and make a neat transition to the attire of adults, some are easier than others. The most difficult transition, is to that of a proper hat. 

This is understandable. The transformation of the core of your attire, trousers and shirts, is merely a shift in style from your current jeans and tee-shirts; as is the addition of a jacket. The metamorphosis from sneakers to proper shoes is likewise largely a shift of style: after all, you have always worn shoes of some sort: you are merely aiming to shift its nature. In other words, you are modifying your current articles of clothing to different, but related, articles. 

Not so the hat. For many, the inclusion of a hat is ex nihilo; the addition of an article that is totally new, and at first very strange. It is impossible to ignore a hat: it is always there, an unfamiliar pressure around your skull, an unfamiliar weight on your head, an unfamiliar sight at the periphery of your vision. You feel uncomfortable, and awkward, and uncertain; and your behavior will reflect that. And as you know, your attitude toward what you wear is just as important as the articles themselves -- if you feel awkward wearing a hat, others will feel awkward for you wearing a hat.

And yet, there are millions upon millions of Average Guys who think nothing of wearing a baseball cap. The odd little beanie-with-a-bill has become completely ubiquitous. But, just because everyone does something, doesn't mean it's right. If you're playing baseball, that's just fine -- wear a baseball cap. If you're not, don't -- wear a proper hat instead.

Fortunately, there IS a way for an Average Guy to transition into a proper hat easily and gently, without the jarring impact of the Sudden Fedora. If you are currently one of those fellows who does wear a baseball hat everywhere, this transition will be completely painless and very natural. If you have never worn a hat at all, it can be nearly an unnoticeable transition, for this particular sort of hat is actually very closely related to the baseball cap. 

I refer, of course, to the flat cap; also called the driver's cap, newsboy cap, taxi cap, dai cap, golf cap, ivy cap, or scally cap. They all refer to basically the same thing: low, wedge-shaped, with a visor in front instead of a brim all 'round.

They are universally worn, breaking boundaries of class, age, and nationality. In practice, they feel very much like the baseball cap with which you are familiar: snug around the circumference, sitting lightly upon the crown of the head, a brim over the eyes, the ears out in the open. Traditionally a sporty sort of outdoor hat, they can be worn pretty much anywhere today. If you are reticent about wearing a trilby or fedora until you get used to the idea, the flat cap is the ideal way for the Average Guy to break into the World of the Hatted.

The flat cap can trace its ancestry to the Tudor period. Tom Ring's 1566 Portrait of a Man wears a simply constructed cap.

The Tudor cap developed into to the widely-used military cap. They were constructed like this mau cap: rectangular front and back panels, a circular crown, and a demilune-shaped brim. The height of the front panel and the width of the brim were the same, so if the front panel was brought down and attached to the brim...

...the result was the distinctive wedge-shape of the flat cap. Notice the front panel remains, but the back panel is now in one piece with the crown. Many flat caps are made like this, but there are many variations. They are made from just about any fabric imaginable: cotton, tweed, felt, wool...even leather. One benefit of this type of cap is that it can be folded flat and put in a jacket pocket.

For cold weather, flat caps can have ear flaps for warmth; either tucked up inside or tied over the top when not in use.

Some flat caps are made of one piece of shaped and stretched fabric. As a rule, the smoother and plainer, with fewer seams a cap has, the more dressy it looks; since it takes more work to form the shape than just sewing panels together.

The ultimate expression of this is the ascot cap. They are in appearance like a flat cap, but shaped and blocked on a form like a fedora, with no seams. They are made of felt, and quite stiff.

There is another breed of flat cap, that is not derived from the Tudor military cap. It comes from another Tudor hat, like this one painted by Raphael in 1506 of Angelo Doni. It is made of pie-shaped wedges sewn together, with a drawstring around the circumference. It survives today virtually unchanged, in the form of the doctoral cap of academic regalia.

From it we get the eight quarter cap. Less wedge-shaped than the one-panel cap, the eight pieces that form the crown are topped by a button. You can see the resemblance to the baseball cap immediately.

The six quarter cap is identically constructed to the 8/4 cap, but with two fewer pieces for a slightly more streamlined profile.

The five panel cap is a hybrid of the two styles -- the front half is made with a half-circle crown and a front panel, the back half is made with pie wedges like an 8/4! 

There is a flat cap for every taste, and the shape and feel is similar enough to its cousin the baseball cap, that the Average Guy who finds himself hat-shy can slip into proper headwear without a second thought about it. After a time in a flat cap, with which you can practice proper hatiquette, you can decide to expand your horizons with a fedora or a trilby, or not. Many gents are content to spend their entire lives in a flat cap.

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, October 12, 2012

Scarf it Up, Scarf it Down

(Part 9 of the series, "The Secret Life of the Tie.")
Chapter 88
The past two months has been quite a ride, hasn't it? I'll bet you've learned more than you ever wanted to about the history of neckwear. We set the WABAC machine for half a millennium ago, and surfed the waves of change through the centuries, through fads and fancies, loose and carefree to meticulous and starched, as the pendulum of change swung from one extreme to the other and back again, over and over.

Then we took a methodical and exhaustive look at what people wear today -- but with a solid grounding in history, we begin to see the connections to not just what people wear, but why. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the progression of fashion has echoes going back not just the mere five hundred years that we've espied, but right back to antiquity. Men today are the same as they ever were, with the same impulses and desires and senses. 

This week, we are leaving the present day and projecting a bit into the future. A tricky business, that: the vagaries of fashion oft take strange and unexpected turns -- but we can begin to see some trends among the fashionistos and glitterati, that will doubtless trickle-down to the masses afore long, and if they take root and germinate, we may begin to see a shift in what is worn generally.

So this week, let's let the images speak for themselves.

Here is Justin Long. Not exactly an A-lister, but note two things: his day cravat is a scarf, and it is loosely tied in a simple knot -- certainly not how a day cravat is usually tied. This wouldn't usually interest me, but take another look...

...this time at Brad Pitt. Quite definitely an A-lister, but note also two things here: he is wearing a scarf as a day cravat, tucked in and all, and the nature of the knot. It is a simple slipknot -- the scarf is doubled, with both loose ends on one side passed through the loop on the other side.

Here's Brad again, this time with a tee-shirt and jacket. But look! The scarf remains, a very long one in fact, tied in a slipknot.

Even the little Pitt is getting into the act.

Another fashion forward fellow, once-famous David Beckham. In evidence, a scarf in a slipknot. This is a regular sort of warm-weather scarf: notice that the doubling-up makes the scarf quite short, and rather bulky about the neck. One might think this is merely for warmth...

...but here he is again, in shirtsleeves, with a thin silk scarf tied the exact same way -- short, in a slipknot.

The entertainment media, whether leading the charge or following the pack, is echoing this trend. Note the new Sherlock Holmes sports this exact same scarf style: short, doubled, and slipknotted.

The conspicuous inclination here isn't merely that there is more scarfitude hereabout, or even that said scarves are being worn short. Notice Hugh Jackman here and the other examples I've shown. The scarves are worn under shirts or jackets, or over crewneck shirts -- but never, ever worn with a tie. These scarves aren't being worn for warmth, under a Chesterfield overcoat: they're being worn as neckwear.

Could we be seeing the next formative step in tie evolution?

We very well could be. The scarf gives a sense of protection to the neck and bulk to the upper chest -- something men are hard-wired to gravitate toward. At the same time, it enables the shirt to be worn open, and the casual bent towards open collars in recent years is undeniable. The slipknot is embarrassingly easy to tie, requiring no specialized skill or knowledge at all. And although it looks bulky to my eyes, it must be remembered that cartwheel ruffs were once embraced by men as highly fashionable as well. 

Could it be that we're seeing the final passing of the age of the collar and tie that has endured since the Victorian era, as the pendulum swings backward again to the elaborate neck-wrap?

Only time will tell if this sudden scarfiness is merely a novelty, on par with the leisure suit craze in the mid-1970s, or if it has the staying power to become an enduring fashion that will be remembered by future generations as the hallmark of the early twenty-first century; as tall Arrow starched collars and four-in-hand knots were the hallmark of the early twentieth. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

It's Hip to Be Square

(Part 8 of the series, "The Secret Life of the Tie.")
Chapter 87
This week, we'll return from the land of the Emmys, and talk some more on our series of modern neckwear...for there is one more variation yet to be discussed! We've worked our way through history, from ruffs to stocks, from cravats and steinkirks to ties. We've looked at modern ties, from bow ties and long ties to ascots and day cravats. 

This week, we honor the simple square: the neckerchief. Let's look at its history, its modern use, and uncover a surprising secret.

Unlike the cravats and ties of gentlemen, the neckerchief was the neckwear of the working classes: the blacksmiths, the farmers, the ranchers, the sailors, the cowboys, carpenters and cooks. And like the working men themselves, their neckwear was not simple adornment, but multi-functional. Neckerchiefs are always worn diagonally, with two opposing points tied together. As a simple cotton square tied about the neck, it sopped up sweat while you toiled in the sun. Soak it in in a stream and tie it about your head, and it kept you from overheating in the summer. Worn over your nose and mouth, it was a filter from dust or fumes. In the event of an accident, it could be used as a sling, (or more direly, as a tourniquet.) And it could even be worn under your collar like a "normal" tie, if that need arose.  

The neckerchief is thus an image inseparable from the cowboy/ranch-hand of the American West. Today, it is seeing a resurgence of sorts, due to its ease of use, the ability to be worn with an open collar, and its versatility. Many people see the day cravat as an upper-class affectation, and the earthy roots of the humble neckerchief provide an alternative that nevertheless produces the same sartorial effect: something to take up space under an open collar. 

The neckerchief is most often seen with Naval uniforms worldwide, where it has been worn in that utilitarian capacity since the 16th century. The Navy style is to fold it in a triangle, and roll from the point to the ends to form a tube. Then it is tightly twisted, placed around the neck under the collar, and tied low in a square knot. 

The U.S. Navy standard for the neckerchief is thirty-six inches square, (that's a yard, for you Europeans, 91.5 cm) and technically anything called a "neckerchief" must be close to that dimension. Not only is 36 a nice round number, it gives a diagonal measure of fifty-one inches, which (if you will recall from our study of "starcher" cravats) is ample enough to wrap around the neck twice with room for a large knot. Let's take a quick look at some examples of the neckerchief. 

Sean Connery (1968, as Shalako) wears his neckerchief tightly rolled up, and knotted like a steinkirk, with the ends falling freely. This is the classic cinematic "cowboy style."

This (real) cowboy wears his neckerchief unrolled and loose, in the simplest way possible: with the ends twisted together in front in a simple knot. He wears it over (and covering) his shirt-collar.

Roy Rogers wore his in a showman-like style, with the knot at the side of his neck, and the ends flowing and loose as a ponytail. It looks odd today, but you need to bear in mind that in the mid-twentieth century, all things cowboy and western were very much in vogue in entertainment and popular culture, and rugged manly men in flamboyant outfits like this were more or less the standard for cowboy troubadours. Remember, too, that in black-and-white on a twelve-inch television screen, this would have appeared much less jarring; likewise from a hundred feet away on stage at the Grand Old Opry.

Here's a modern example of wearing the neckerchief. Notice it is worn wrapped front-to-back-to-front, with a small knot. In modern parlance, this is called a "cowboy turtleneck."

The ability to wear a large neckerchief is limited in everyday use, so many wear the smaller version of the neckerchief, the bandanna. A bandanna averages twenty-six inches square or so, which gives the ability to tie around the neck without the extra length of a neckerchief. Why 26 inches? Because diagonally, it measures 36 inches -- in other words, a neckerchief with the points turned toward the center; which was undoubtedly how the first bandannas were formed. This cowboy wears an unrolled bandanna under his shirtcollar like a tie, and simply knotted. (Although arguably neater, the trimmed bandanna was less useful than a neckerchief in emergencies.)

Gene Autry wore a rolled bandanna like this, and it became the ad hoc "cowboy tie." It is rarely seen today under shirtcollars; most opt for the under-the-shirt look, exemplified by Cary Grant in the first image of this post. 

Prince Charles demonstrates the same look as Gene Autry above, but with a slightly smaller bandanna worn right around the neck, with the ends showing. The effect, you'll notice, is reminiscent of a bow tie, with the points standing out.

Robert Downy Jr. (Zodiac) shows the most common way to wear a neckerchief today: bandanna sized, loose around the neck, under the shirt, with the points out.

A more-put-together look crosses the line between neckerchief and day cravat, with a folded style, a Gordien knot, and the points nearly hidden.

There is no doubt that we are seeing more neckerchiefs of all sorts in recent months, but whether this is a long-term shift in style consciousness, or merely a flash fad, only time will tell. That a simple silk square under a shirt is easier and more comfortable than a tie, there is no doubt. As fewer modern men wear ties in their everyday lives, perhaps we will see an increasing number taking up the neckerchief as an alternative.

There is no "wrong" way to tie a neckerchief. Unlike the highly-structured cravats of yore, the multitude of tie knots, and the "proper" way to tie an ascot that we've seen in previous weeks, the working-man's neck scarf reveals its rustic roots in that there is no set method of wearing it! Fold it, twist it, roll it, scrunch it, under shirt or over, under collar or over, and tie with a simple knot, a square knot, a Gordien knot, a four-in-hand knot, pin it, or woggle it. There's not a lot of variety even possible with a bandanna due to its diminutive size, but the extra length of a true yard-wide neckerchief lends itself to a greater amount of sartorial expression.

Of course, just because there is no set method of wearing them, doesn't mean that there is anything new under the sun. Wear a neckerchief like Cary Grant above, and you're wearing a Cravate Collier de Cheval, although you may not realize it. Likewise, Gene Autry is wearing his like a Cravate à la Colin. There may be new names, like a "Cowboy Turtleneck," but scratch the surface and you find a simple Cravate à l'Oriental! You may think you are being cutting-edge by twisting the points in front and then tying them in back, but in fact you have just "discovered" the Cravate à l'Irlandaise!

The reason for these similarities becomes immediately clear if you've been paying attention through our Weeks of History: for a neckerchief is in fact nothing more nor less than the cravat of 1830, merely unstarched and worn under the shirt. Once you have that "light-bulb moment," and realize that The Art of Tying the Cravat isn't as pointless and obsolete as you thought it was, and may in fact be re-inventing itself day by day, you should go back and read it with renewed vigor. You'll start seeing those hoary old knots re-appearing, being worn by folks today who think they are being hip and trendy. And then you can be hip and trendy, too.

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically, Part Nine of The Secret Life of the Tie.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part Seven of The Secret Life of the Tie.

Click here to go back to Part One of The Secret Life of the Tie.

Click here to go back to the beginning.