The English and Their City Suit. Part I

By Film Noir Buff

How does one define a culture? How does one claim that any item is truly representative of an ilk or a mindset? Further, how does a culture define itself? What was stereotypically true of a culture a generation ago may no longer exist, although it might endure as a label referenced by outsiders. To expand on this idea, what was once so definitive and current becomes outmoded. Perhaps this is part of the working cycle of culture? However, it now seems that in our new media age, years are like decades and items that once would have disappeared from posterity now merely skip a generation and are recycled before they can retire with dignity.

Do we as Americans eat the same things, wear the same things, and dress the same way as 25 years ago? Do we even look the same? I recently viewed footage from the seventies of people playing in a park during a heat wave. All the young men had their shirts off and they were so thin and underdeveloped they looked more fragile than our girls of today. Is it steroids in the meat or is it for the first time we can see on the record how we are as different from our forbears as they might have been from theirs?

There is a belief held by some that men of days bygone were dressed better than they are today. Is that in fact true? I observe photographs of men dressed in suits from the 1920s to the 1970s and I do not see the nostalgia many have come to hold them in. Their suits look heavy and badly tailored; their shirts seem stiff and uncomfortable. By contrast when I see politicians and newscasters on television today they look like their clothes are better made, better fitting and more comfortable. Is that really the case, or do I just associate the present with the way it should be done?

I often wonder what people from the pre-industrial age really looked like, really sounded like. The camera and mass media has changed the way we behave forever. Think of when you point a camera at someone, even someone you know. Their reactions tell a bit about them but more importantly, it tells us that we have become more aware of ourselves and the possibility that someone will remember us wearing the wrong clothes or expression. It fascinates me that in ages past, before the possibility of being recorded permanently with the camera there were still those devoted to always appearing a certain way, like Beau Brummell.

Forget about the bit Brummell1 is supposed to have said about people turning to look at what you’re wearing. It’s been misunderstood and interpreted too literally. I am not entirely convinced he wasn’t making fun of the listener to sound profound at the moment; a jest resonating through the ages and causing confusion. With regards to the Beau concentrate instead on his legacy because the result was no less than a stylistic compression of coal dust into diamonds forcing all men of manners to concentrate on the very subtlest of details.

And even today as the legacy of the Beau, the English rely on subtleties in the weave of a suit to let those in the know appreciate its custom make. Further, it is bad form to choose a custom touch that can be detected by anyone who doesn’t already have a trained eye for such detail.

A quartered (more or less) photo showing different shades of blue and grey. The upper left hand corner cloth is an H. Lesser 120s and 10% cashmere navy pin stripe which is no longer made. All of these are acceptably City in England with the exception, of course of the lighter grey in the upper right hand corner.

There is in the minds of many English people the idea of the “Well Cut” or “Very Well Cut” suit. This can be put in context when understanding that a certain shirt pattern or color could be worn for business but only if it were worn with a very well cut suit.

The important idea of cut and shape with regard to the suit suggests (more than any other clothing principle) a national awareness that nuance is the arbiter of social hierarchy. Ironically, details in other areas of life may go completely unnoticed. Examples may be architecture and décor. This may be due to cultural focus or it may be that with clothes there is a more manifest knowledge, even (or especially) amongst observers accustomed to beautiful clothes, to look for certain touches as evidence of class, superiority or taste.

In America, especially New York City (NYC), most do not believe that anyone can pick up the subtleties of a custom made suit and so choices in fabric are made that slap the observer in the face. We do speak about a “beautiful suit” but we seem more likely to refer to the quality or the color and pattern of the fabric than the cut and construction of the suit. Often it seems that suits that initially grab an American’s attention as beautiful will, upon closer inspection, prove to be of ordinary design or workmanship. With a suit we are wowed by something visually different and not by rich and talented shaping and cutting.

Also, I think also that whereas the English express themselves with cufflinks and a shirt and keep the suit very simple, the Americans use the suit as the center of expression which is probably why more choices are acceptable for business daywear here than in the City of London. But there is another reason, individuality. Not the same sort that leads the English to choose different things to offset themselves but the competitive individuality women demonstrate in being the center of attention.

In America, I think it is a popular enough cultural image from the past to picture two couples facing each other and dressed identically. While the women look upset and self-conscious that they’re both wearing the same outfit, the men feel ratified and look happy, like they made the right selection and are part of a team. Well that’s changing now and men are becoming as touchy about looking like other men as women are of other women.

Additionally, although London is no doubt as faceless as Manhattan, Americans live in a culture where you are what you wear. We have no “class” system to announce our importance and, it seems, many of those who are part of the power elite possess neither the breeding nor the tools necessary to identify it in others. For this reason, the Eastern Seaboard Brahmin class indicator of “scruffiness” doesn’t work across a broader more diverse cross section of Americans with both money and power.

Unlike in England where you would lose caste for caring too much, in the USA neatness and fastidiousness count and so does the announcement that you have a custom made suit. It’s the same message really between England and the USA; it’s just deployed in a different manner. The same apple green stripe on a flannel that would make a Londoner cringe impresses most Americans in positions of success that you’ve gotten something special made up.

The English do not like to talk about themselves and this may explain their more restricted and precise choices in clothes. I get the sense that they employ clothing as an opportunity to tacitly communicate as much about themselves as possible, a sort of sartorial resume. I wonder if it isn’t the opposite in NYC where one might be trying to tell people as little about oneself personally while still trying to achieve an effect of power or prosperity. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Americans get their understanding of what to wear from fashion adverts while the English seem to learn about what to wear by a form of social osmosis.

About the color of stripes and patterns in suits.

The English do not generally like colored stripes on suits. This is partially because they do not like to match the tie to anything in the suit (which is, ironically, traditional in America), and therefore the suit needs to be neutral, very neutral. The English are fond of matching their ties and shirts and leaving the suit as a frame or backdrop. If you introduce the element of color into the suit pattern you destroy the aesthetic.

Think of it this way. Let us say you want to wear a blue shirt with yellow stripe and mate it with a navy tie with yellow spots on it. Now you pull on your suit jacket with alternating white and green stripes. If you pretend the green stripe isn’t there you’re going to look awful, and if you add green to the shirt and/or tie choice not only do you violate a cultural color aversion but you’ve matched “too much” which is a social violation for a man.

There are exceptions to the no color stripe guideline, such as the navy blue suit with a pink (which initially looks yellow or orange), purple, lilac and even a rust red stripe. It should be mentioned that the rust colored stripe is also acceptable on gray cloth. However, the first three stripe colors mentioned are always found on a navy blue cloth and are considered either a young man’s suit, a fastidious man’s suit or a dandy’s suit.

Bear in mind that these color combinations are indeed popular in England but in an unconscious manner. If you ask English people to concentrate on what accessories they would wear these suit patterns with, they grow silent. Like any other cultural truism once you stop doing it instinctively and think to express it verbally, it all vanishes.

The English accept a pink stripe on a navy background. This handsome example is a 10 oz 99% cashmere, 1% Vicuna from Harrisons of Edinburgh’s Multi-Millionaire collection (call number 89951). The pink stripe is an interesting mix of white and pink that gives it life. Sometimes a fabric really gets it right. This is where tradition, hip, and dandy all blend. The Grey pin stripe cloth is the 7-8 oz Harrisons Havana summer weave in 120s and 1% cashmere (Call number 21036).

In the USA men would take a suit with a pink stripe and mate it with a blue shirt and a hot pink tie. In England the reverse is true, they would prefer to wear a pink shirt and a blue tie. It is too obvious and too violative of a social norm to pick up a color in a suit fabric with a necktie.

But why are purple, lilac, or pink stripes on navy wool acceptable and rarely any other combination of stripe and wool color? It would seem the national passion for the combination of blue and pink is so powerful that they are willing to wear these particular bold patterns but will tolerate few others. It is understood that these exceptions are a bit difficult for the “anything goes” American mindset to grasp.

Blue stripes on either navy or grey background cloth are also acceptable. To be fair blue stripes can vary from an almost white powdery blue to a powerful ultramarine or electric blue and even to an aqua which itself can range from pale and powdery to one that is quite turquoise like. Actual green stripes, as well as bright reds, orange, yellow and brown are not worn in the City. And pinks, lilacs, purples and mauves on anything but navy wool will likely see you escorted to the exit.

The number one suit stripe color is still white, ranging from a dead white to an ashen grey and from distinct to almost undetectable. Permissible but old fashioned even for the English is either a black stripe on a dark grey background or what at first seems like a lighter grey stripe on a charcoal background but is actually rather like a trompe l’oeil effect achieved through regularly spaced omissions of the otherwise solid hairline striped pattern; achieved through weaving.

This pits Fresco against Havana cloth. The English don’t care about weave as much as color. The Fresco cloth is the right shade of charcoal and the Havana pin stripe is the lightest shade you could choose for the City of London.

And here lies the strain on suit pattern designers. The English want to look different all within a very tight constraint of choices. The demands and the resulting resources expended in the quest to produce variations on the navy with white chalk stripe fabric boggle the mind.

Prince of Wales checks, window panes and any sort of checked or plaid pattern is verboten in the City. It makes you wonder why they make these patterns at all; the answer is for leisure or for foreigners.

Even non directional patterns which add up to a solid like the nails head pattern (small and somewhat irregular narrow rectangles in grey, blue or white on a grey or grey-blue or navy blue background) are considered “American”. Both the nails head and the bird’s eye pattern (small dots of a slightly lighter shade than the background material) have made city inroads mainly because there is a vogue for solids at the moment.

Philosophical considerations that affect suit cloth choices in both England and America.

In England they admit there is a class system and everyone is far more supportive of the differences between the classes. There is a belief there that class and money bear only a tangential relationship. People can have a flair for style and clothing irrespective of their social backgrounds and be appreciated as having such by all their countrymen.

In America class is a source of constant denial. Taste appreciation is fairly uniform in England but in America ask 100 Americans what’s in good taste and you will get 100 different answers with the attitude “Who has the right to determine what is and what isn’t tasteful?” There seems a lot of defiance within our classless society which leads to a lot of unfortunate sartorial selections.

For contrast the darker English wool against what Americans consider a charcoal suit. The darker grey is a charcoal, two ply JJ Minnis Fresco cloth (call number 0514) and the lighter is an H. Lesser sharkskin 11-11.5 oz superfine (call number 28794).

In any event, the English like dark suits. In fact they like the darkest suits. Americans have no idea how dark the English like their suits because generally we will instinctively choose lighter colors. The English like a charcoal that is almost indistinguishable from black and a navy like that too. Occasionally, they will wear a “bluer” navy if it has very heavy pinstripes or chalk stripes on it. The English will claim they do not like black suits but they seem to wear them in abundance both solids and with white or grey stripes.

It is interesting that for suits the American upper class like a navy blue that’s a little bluer or more purple than the English would choose. Also, while a medium grey, a medium or dark blue-grey and the tan suit are all the mark of American gentility for the workplace, the English would never touch these cloths for City wear. Why would we develop such different tastes from each other? Although in the grand scheme of things, a black-navy vs. a purple-navy cloth choice is practically unnoticeable, in the world of tailored suit choices it is a veritable chasm.

Incidentally, when it comes to the “City” we are speaking about both a physical place and a state of mind of people doing business. The English will wear all sorts of suit patterns and shades for the “country” with the country defined as lunch with a friend in Oxford town! Thus, “country” is also a state of mind in England. We might call it “suburb” here because we have more land and more wildernesses. We also don’t have that parliamentary act which preserves the green areas and restricts development. The English have plenty of built up areas but no urban sprawl.

In any case, the Americans like the medium grey suit because it suggests leisure and an easement from business to club. Remember that the English separate the idleness of the aristocrat from the seriousness of business; we combine it.

The English also do not have our weather extremes. Pounding heat and frigid wind chills have given rise to changes in the colors and cloths chosen by Americans. Additionally, the great fogs of industrial London (which were actually clouds of soot) made anything but the darkest suits untenable. Meanwhile, in America the light suit became the mark of the well heeled both because our upper classes walked in factory free cities and because the great depression’s envious eye demanded they come across as more likeable. Light colors accomplish that.

Imagine a movie made for American audiences. Imagine further a scene with several men visiting an American company in extremely dark suits. What purpose could we surmise the director and costume designer wanted to achieve and what effect would these dark suits actually have on the audience? The intent might be to portray these men as way too serious and humorless; perhaps even to be disliked and made fun of. Is this a barrier to Americans selecting the darkest suits?

Above all I would be alerted that grave trouble was in the offing. In America, the hero wears a medium colored suit, the balance between power and casual openness. Sometimes the Hero can wear a black suit but he either wears no tie or the outfit is hip and non English looking; the black suit itself will clearly come from a designer and not be in the bench made tradition.

With regard to English tastes and what we can learn from them.

One might apply the obvious lesson here that the dark suit choice and the dark tie choice is what gave birth to the more adventurous English shirt. You may not want to choose the darkest suit cloths but it may give you pause to consider the Anglo-Saxon reasons the people who invented the suit for work choose darkly and why you yourself might instead choose a lighter shade.

Certainly, in the USA you could distinguish yourself by choosing the darkest suit colors and because color is free this is an easy way to develop a sense of style. It is far too easy to otherwise believe that style is the amassing of items, that style is the adding of etceteras like a ticket pocket.

Sometimes style is the removal of something; sometimes to distinguish ourselves we delete. Whoever said that elegance was never far from simplicity would doubtless agree. For example, removal of a placket on a shirt to achieve the French style front creates a more formal and more elegant effect. A simple deletion but how many would think of that sartorial coup?

Actually it seems that most who buy custom shirts believe it is time to load up with extras, as if it were their one and only chance to “go to town”. And I think probably that signal is picked up by the seasoned bespoke veteran. Likewise, Americans might think that when selecting a suit cloth, they need to get more color for their money, even if it is just a lighter shade of grey.

But to choose dark suits is to choose the route of power over that of the popular guy, the guy with the spring in his step and the girl on his arm that knows all the wise cracks and delivers them to charming perfection. You could choose the dark suit and be different here in America because most quail from the darkest choices. And because of this, as with the selection of solid neckties, the dark suit will distinguish you because few wear it.

To be continued…

1 Beau Brummell is quoted as once having said “If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.” Many take these words both literally and to heart but considering he liked to be looked at and noticed and had introduced a new style of dress to London that was basically shocking for its time, I find it hard to believe he didn’t just want to sound profound and exercise his own inner sense of power by playing with contemporaries who also might have taken him too literally.

  1. — Frederick    Oct 7, 23:16    #

    A very nice read, but I do dispute the assertion that in England dark suits prevail (and have traditionally always prevailed) since any cursory look at a film made in England between 1930 and 1960 will demonstrate many lighter suits were/are worn. Glen-check, herringbone, houndstooth; mid and light grey; a palette of browns. This might not be in ‘The City’, but then most of population, even those with sartorial ‘taste and distinction’ are not in the city, or at least not there most of the time.
    The pink shirt is not really a universal British standard of shirting statement, white, cream and blue are far more standard. Pink is definitely considered dandyish. Conservatism in clothes is quite true and I see it more in the tradition of – as you mentioned – cut and how it is worn. For example the line of the trousers without a noticeable break, and the expectation that a jacket should be shaped at the waist.

  2. — FNB    Oct 20, 23:55    #

    Well, no matter what I write, someone always says they saw someone in the UK wearing something else. England is too large a culture to cover every area individually. I am not only speaking of The City but of composites. Frankly, you can see all sorts of designer and Italian things on the backs of the English. That isn’t the England I was interested in. I was interested in the organically grown English look.

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