“One day the two button, darted suit appeared. Sometimes it was marked down, sometimes it was returned, but it always reappeared. And those who wore it swelled its ranks…and those who wore it swelled its ranks.”
-Excerpt from the Song of Townsend.
David Wilder: Natural Shouldered Man of Mystery
The natural shouldered set was once the dominant style? Once maybe, for a time. They founded, created and ran all you see, men who wore those un-darted, three button models, that is. Men, whose acts of restraint required no legislation. There was a time, you know, when they thrived, when a civilization spiraled into essence from their talented, hardworking fingertips. They were the Rock Stars of their time. Ah, but their time is faded…And yet, there still remain rangers amongst them who patrol tradition’s outskirts and protect the faith until such time as it is called back to its rightful place.
It always comes to one while riding quiet commuter trains or catching a whiff of a lady-like perfume. Suddenly, the world around you changes and you are out of body, back in Southern Westchester at a garden party in the spring time or a Yale/Harvard football tailgate in autumn. Christmas parties in Bronxville, that crisp air combined with chimney smoke and blonde girls armed with bobbed hair clapping their hands and snooping for an unopened champagne bottle in one of the myriad cases scattered in abundance. Indian summer rays, clashing refreshingly through thousands of golden carapaces. Back then, you weren’t a sap if you displayed noblesse oblige, that counted.
That era, which seemed a forever but was merely an eyelash flutter at the sun. Bermuda shorts and loafers with madras shirts at the marina, shrimp cocktails and excellent white wine. A known crowd, a trusty crowd, with a set of rules you could follow for social interaction and expect the same in return. Cheerful memories replete with long strawberry blonde curls and flashing green eyes, all gone, all gone, like a black and white photograph in a slow smolder of white plumes at the edge of a bonfire. A world apart now, rent by some terrible sartorial cataclysm. But there was no conflict, just a fading of men of restraint, not up to the modern pace, no match for the talons of modern media. Old money reflexes without new money talent, doomed to twilight, helped, inexorably, by several economic upheavals that broke the old bonds of kinship. Oh ye faded republic, gleaned for an instant out of the corner of our eye; a brass eagle finial reflected in a dusty attic mirror. A last taste of the old Americana, as in our dreams.
Ten years ago he would hardly be considered remarkable by even the most arriviste observer. Now, however, he is a somewhat like a tarnished paladin from a more elegant era holding back the minions of darkness. Like the Tasmanian wolf, the carrier pigeon, last of a breed… last of a breed. Which brings us to our hero, David St-Clair Wilder. He is one of those aforementioned rangers amongst us, patrolling the borders of fashion, ever vigilant and unassumingly keeping the natural shouldered flame lit for posterity.
To the natural shouldered wardrobe born, David has made his background his life. It is no accident that he works within the hallowed halls of J. Press. Indeed, it is a testimony to life imitating art, and driving it. Born in Greenwich, Connecticut, his father was a native New Yorker; His mom is from Minnesota (but grew up in South Africa.) While a child, David’s family introduced him to the custom service industry, when they opened a beautiful personal stationery boutique in downtown Greenwich.
Therese St-Clair, started in 1977, by his mother, a Greenwich-ian lady of leisure who wanted to showcase her genteel talents. Although the shop started as stationers, the family was soon embossing leather vanity items with monograms and engraving metals (as in, please put that biting phrase from Kipling about being shipped somewhere “East of Suez” on my hip flask). Old world services offered in the 20th century; bespoke stationery for the tri-state area’s elite. A living room environment was created for potential clients to pore over choices of paper, font style, or reproduce their family crest. If a client was particularly lazy or wanted an expert opinion as to what sort of stationary would suit them, the Wilder family would apply their artistic advisory talents. The author himself indulged in this service once to be told that hot cerise stationery was “Him”.
For a generation, Therese St-Clair was the toast of Greenwich. Everyone had David’s family design their personal stationery or a special announcement whilst still in full lilt they sold it to another party. Nothing has changed at the shop which retains both the same zeitgeist and personnel. David’s family simply needed a break from the intense focus and resources that were required to provide the exacting excellence and quality. The new owners carry on at the very same level.
Indoctrinated into the natural shouldered creed early on, David had to wear a jacket and tie (often knit) from third grade onwards at Greenwich Country Day School (Where a certain father of a certain U.S. President attended.) Because the jacket mandated wasn’t necessarily a blazer, David was free to experiment with corduroy and madras and seersucker and tweed. Although I was shocked to learn that darts were not discussed in his circle until high-school, on second reflection I was relieved he had not heard of them until then.
At Yale, this legacy was all button downs and khakis, penny loafers, and both argyle socks and sweaters. Even then, he owned all the right clothes from J. Press. David actually worked part-time in the New York City, J. Press store. Incidentally, New Haven, Connecticut is where the Press family originated its business to cater to the natural shouldered herds which migrated from club to dance to football game; always in need of that article of clothing to be both comfy and correct in. His father had shopped there in the late 1940s and David had this example to draw upon.
In some ways though, being a throwback Yalie was to also reveal the fissures appearing in the social wall. Walking around in full preppy rig would sometimes elicit derisive comments from students who didn’t appreciate (or even understand) David’s tongue-in-cheek style (which was sometimes a kicky parody of itself) and therefore mistook his sincerity for highhandedness. The pendulum of modern fashion, it would seem, was swinging menacingly towards the Trads. The term “Trad” from traditional, may have originated from Japanese worship of the post war East Coast, American natural shouldered lifestyle. A lifestyle from an era when, as a nation, we were both playful and secure at once. Though the Trad stance apologizes to no one, it is seemingly under siege by all its detractors whom it makes feel inadequate.
The years passed, and America moved farther apart from the natural shouldered look. That which had evolved to make the wearer appear eternally young, evolved too far and was now, ironically, associated with an undesired maturity. To console himself, David drew inspiration from such Trad film classics as The Apartment, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, That Touch of Mink and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? With solid influences like this, David realigned his sartorial priorities and began to wear a more authentic version of this “Throwback Trad” getting his ties narrowed at Tie Crafters and injecting a little color and European influence into his style. However, his true favorite remains the pre-1960 Ivy-League look in its purest form because of the cleanliness of the lines. Additional influential movies were Casablanca, Trading Places, Metropolitan, BridesHead Revisited, and the TV series I Dream of Jeannie.
Growing up in Greenwich in the 1970s and 80s basically saw the last gasp of the “country squire” crowd. Quiet, un-showy living, which revolved around clubs, long skiing trips in shared lodges and summering in private domestic or Caribbean beach locales.
And whither does David think Trad go-eth? The concentric circles that both acknowledge and approve of the Trad look get tighter every year asymptotically approaching the frozen state of Dante’s Ninth level. However, those that do remain still are some of the most robust. In many ways, they, the Trad, are the chosen dressers, forced to incessantly recite the mantra of the genre lest valuable sartorial lore be forgotten and pass into artifact. Sadly, as time passes, so do their comfortable social ambits. Nothing stays the same. Grand old, wood paneled Gotham shrinks to the point where only a few endroits remain: The Algonquin Blue Bar, The Roosevelt Hotel, 21 Club, the Racquet Club, The Yale Club (well, before its untimely collapse into a tourist curio), the Yacht Club, Lexington Bar and Books, PJ Clarke’s, Mellon’s for a burger (ah, the memories…), The National Arts Club, and the wherever the Colonial Dames’ events take place (Trad on the hoof?) David enjoys being stuck in his rut but how long until even these hallowed places drift into memory?
For the moment, David enjoys swathing himself in such diverse Trad raiments like his Nantucket Blues from Mark, Fore & Strike or his dozen or so MaGee tweed (Irish tweed, Scottish tweed, cashmere blends) jackets, Lacoste shirts and shaggy dog merino, v-neck sweaters (the ones with the deeper, more tasteful v-neck placement), ties at 3-3/8ths-5/8ths width, lots and lots of J. Press button downs, and club collared shirts worn as often pinned. It should be noted that, David’s passion within the natural shouldered checklist of accoutrements is eyewear.
In terms of glasses, David possesses an enviable collection of what may be termed “Trad” frames. 1920s-1960s frames that may evoke Tab Hunter or Brideshead Revisited, depending on his mood. He notes that whereas a movie like Quiz Show often gets the costumes dead on, they more often than not drop the ball when it comes to the eyeglasses. Monsieur Wilder owns over 80 pairs of eyeglasses, many of them vintage and only available in the after market or by having them recreated by a firm called AR Trapp. David has gone this custom route many times and has had frames recreated for him, getting Trapp to alter their shape and size to adjust for his individual specifications and measurements. O’Malley’s frames are a favorite. He also has the FDR1 model in several shades (clear, blonde tortoise, Skye Vodka blue, black, natural.) He also likes a style he calls the CIA2 because it is reminiscent of the style those suit wearing, government security forces wore in the 1960s. It would be fair to say that within the Trad world, David has experimented with several different styles. However, as he gets older, David feels he is heading towards a Dr. Bellows look (from the I dream of Jeannie television series) right down to the eyewear!
But what is Trad? Do I take its existence and the elements that compose it as a given? Was it an era, a culture, a mode? Is it clothes reflecting a lifestyle or a lifestyle reflecting clothes? I know of many examples where one can take the boy out of the Trad, but is the reverse ever true? Can you take the Trad out of the boy, or do the reflexes linger for a lifetime? It seems to me Trad was America’s version of Gentlemanly restraint as developed here first by the work ethic and then reinforced by the travails visited here by once the industrial revolution and thence the Great Depression. These milestones made it indelibly bad taste to flaunt one’s wealth. Wealth was enjoyed in private and virtue was considered as enriching as material baubles. This stance was reflected in the simplicity of the clothing, good quality but not the very best. The Trad style became, functional, playful and comfortable.
However we live a society where increasingly it is OK to judge but not be judged. Befitting the age of the voyeur, we are in an era of greater awareness but lesser self-awareness and perhaps that cloaks the jealousies that may attend the natural shouldered stance. Women assert that they want proper men but not really and the confusions abound about what and who is a “real” man. Certainly the fashion industry doesn’t represent the solid, dauntless man as the never changing pillar of manhood; that would obviate the need for the “au courant” man of fashion who needs to replace his wardrobe every season to appeal to the girls. And this is the point, the natural shouldered Ivy league look is the last American style untouched by sub-culture, the fashion industry or feminine influence. For work and play, it is a purely “Old Boy” approach to color and one ups-man-ship.
Far from dead, Trad simply carries on its aristocratic business on the fringes, its heirs are as rangers protecting the unsuspecting faithful whilst, somewhat unappreciatively, unseen themselves. David simply keeps his natural shouldered kit in good repair, his preppy coif anointed by Peter who is master of the Trad hair style3.
But the world is moving on, becoming more “connected.” Ironically, considering it is one of America’s most cloistered and uncontaminated of homegrown styles, globalization may actually be good for the Trad style. Certainly, it enjoys a cult following in Japan who worship the American 50s and 60s natural shouldered look almost to the point of fetish. J. Press itself was bought and enhanced by a Japanese company. Proving that sometimes a cross cultural fusion into a classic is progress. Sake-martini? Serve them by the pitcher full.
1 The FDR model was made by The American Optical Company, when they were still in business. Now they are available mostly in the aftermarket.
2 Apparently, AR Trapp calls them the CIA model as well.
3 Peter’s Hair Styling on 1st Avenue between 64th and 65th streets in Manhattan, 212-535-9546. Peter is from Finland and has mastered the fine art of the natural shouldered coiffure. Consider also his associate, Nat, who is the master of the Trad, Neopolitan style, straight edged shave.