Tribal Markings in Men's Style
`They were learning to draw,’ the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; `and they drew all manner of things—everything that begins with an M—’
Why with an M?’ said Alice.
`Why not?’ said the March Hare.
Alice was silent.
The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: `—that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness— you know you say things are “much of a muchness”—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?’
`Really, now you ask me,’ said Alice, very much confused, `I don’t think—’
`Then you shouldn’t talk,’ said the Hatter.
This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.
`At any rate I’ll never go THERE again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’
Really Alice? Was the tea party stupid or did you just not fit in? Like your confidant the cat suggested, you are just as mad for being here as anyone else, the question is whether your form of madness simply differs from theirs. After all, the tea party made sense to the others and they had been at it for an awfully long time.
Every time I wear things that I think mark me out as English and ask an informed Englishman what they think they invariably give me a prolonged umm and bobbling of the head. It is not unlike a faulty mechanical cat unable to complete its meow. It doesn’t matter if I wear things authentically down to the purple socks; I have never had an Englishman I asked for input from admit I am dressed English.
This tells me several possible things. First, that the English are not necessarily familiar with their culture’s tastes and further, each one has a slightly different interpretation of what English tastes are. In any event, no one English person knows every acceptable item of English clothing, just as no one person knows every word in the English language. Second, I may not wear items properly in combination even if all the individual choices are correct. More interesting may be that I might not seem English to them as a person and they might therefore resent that I am wearing English items – items which properly belong on them and not on foreign passport holders. Additionally, they may consider attaining Englishness something valuable requiring effort and thus, they are slow to admit success.
The English do not like to admit someone is wearing something English.
Part of it is the class divide which makes them anxious to make a definitive statement about an item. In short, they are not always sure themselves if something is English, they only know they couldn’t or wouldn’t wear it. Other articles of clothing they know are English but belong to a class they are not a part of and they become either leery or disdainful about the item. There is thus one Outer England but also many Inner Englands.
Outer England can agree on certain universal items, even if those items are well seated Inner England items. An example of a well seated Inner England item would be regimental ties. Although few are entitled to wear them everyone agrees that to wear one even accidentally is a breach of cultural faith and they are generally shunned unless the design is one which no one could mistake for an English regiment.
Outer England universally agrees that the navy with red spot tie, the navy chalk stiped suit and the blue Bengal striped shirt are all acceptable within every social circle. I suppose this is one definition of “classic” to define a term.
True Inner England items are those clothes that you buy at your exclusive shops. Only your set wears or recognizes them, even if the differences are subtle, which they often are. Inner England items are meant to keep insiders exclusive and outsider’s (whether they are English or not) guessing. The English do not celebrate strength in numbers, they believe in exclusive, elite circles.
Another reason the English are hesitant to admit a non-Englishman is wearing English items is cultural chauvinism. The English do not like to admit other people can ape what they consider their birthright. At most you are a tourist picking up a bauble; a savage wearing a hat plucked from the head of a British soldier who no longer needs it. Therefore the English are exclusive, rather than inclusive. America and other cultures are eager for you to assimilate; they are flattered that you want to be like them. The English consider your desire to fit in suspect. Exclusivity and the cult of the ton as envisaged by Brummell is alive and well
At the most, you will get a compliment from the English that they like something you are wearing. This does not always mean that it is objectively pleasing; it means that it is acceptable to the English, for to be like the English is to be proper.
The ultimate compliment from the English is when they ask you where you got something and then get it themselves. At this intersect you can see that what is English is exactly in line with what they will wear. In New York City, I have to explain why I reject something new, maybe it’s a foreign cuisine, maybe it’s a tie color but because the assumption here is inclusive and we define ourselves by diversity, I have to account for why something does not suit me. In England it is the opposite, you have to rationalize why you are choosing something because the assumption is that everything starts out suspect.
Recently, while on a train, a man walked by in a double breasted, milled finished, charcoal beaded pinstripe suit. He turned around to take a seat and motioned to me while saying something. Because I was wearing earphones, I missed what he had said and I removed them to ascertain his need. He repeated in a mild English accent “I wanted to tell you that I love your shirt” (Pink with a white butcher stripe in 3/8ths of an inch interval). I thanked him and he sat down to read the Financial Times. I could not help but notice how content he looked and that maybe my shirt had reminded him of the chaps back home.
If the English really like something, they will tell you. And liking is acceptance and acceptance means it’s English. So here I was after several months in English mufti, finally part of the tribe, at least on a general level.
Ian Kelly author of the most excellent Beau Brummell the Ultimate Dandy.
What intrigued Mr. Kelly about Brummell was taking a look both at the genesis myths and where some of the rules for male attire have come from. The suit is one of the greatest exports of Anglo-Saxon culture. The Brummellian period set down and cemented some of the suit’s rules and they have endured. Understanding why this is so is empowering for the modern male dresser. One of the greatest success stories of the suit is the fact that it can withstand a lot of modifications and still maintain its basic character which is that of traditional or high style.
The urban peacock or maverick keeps on coming back into fashion in England in a way it doesn’t in America. Americans dress more relaxed in a stylish uniformity which is perhaps more sexually fluid but there doesn’t exist this desire to be slightly outré or a bit wicked around the edges which English men seem to prefer.
At a recent memorial service for a Financial Times journalist from an older generation, a certain old world formality was in evidence which could have placed the scene in the 1950s; pin stripes and black furled umbrellas, chesterfield overcoats with velvet collars. The City of London has that City vs. Country aesthetic which is more distinct and at odds from the American casual, sporty look.
The City look is still double cuffed shirt, dark tailored suit, chunky knotted woven ties, light belt buckles, black shoes, and the colors are still traditionally Savile Row.
Mr. Kelly gets suits from Martin Greenfield in New York City whom he met through his production of Brummell. He also loves the tailored looks of Gieves and Hawkes, Kilgour and Ozwald Boateng; taking him from very traditional to modern traditional to designer. Because of his background as an historical writer, actor and costume designer, he is a great admirer of costume history, costumes and the different roles clothes can play in a person’s life.
Just like another Englishman who loved America, Kelly chose a suit cloth from Martin Greenfield’s operation in Brooklyn called the “Cary Grant” a dense midnight blue cross weave.
Is there a separation between a very well dressed Englishman and an English dandy? MODERN TIMES – a nightclub and society…affiliated with the Last Tuesday Society1 is inhabited by dandies and they wear a lot of retro details in their clothes. They are perhaps viewed with some suspicion outside of the art world.
At the moment the public school (by which he means private school) trend is the denial of the old world upper class traditions in favor of street gear. There are fascinating class nuances to all of this but even the places that used to teach you all the rules, like Savile Row tailors, themselves don’t always know where to start anymore. They used to be able to talk you through the number of buttons on your sleeves or at what angle of slant a side pocket could be acceptably placed on a jacket.
These minute insignia of what is to belong or not belong would have been very familiar to the dandy coterie around Brummell but are at present very much a subject for individual debate and more and more, they are all colors on the palette for people to choose from. However, even when people are choosing colors from the palette, they still want some idea of the heritage or orthodoxy if that is either what they aspire to or what they want to allude to.
Even with dress down, it is still a question of taking a suit and deconstructing it. A deconstructed, relaxed suit itself has no meaning except when contrasted against the more original, formal version. Therefore the traditional forms and ideas are going to continue and the suit in its traditional guise will also continue to represent a rite of passage. Further, the old ways of creating tailored clothes are coming back again; people want to know the provenance of the materials and the labor involved in making a suit. But English style is still quite fractured with a lot of individualistic interpretation.
But if all these tailoring details are so important why weren’t they ever written down? Because they are tribal, it had to be an oral tradition which you learned when sent by your father to a tailor because that tailor would know. There was never meant to be a guidebook that anyone could go out and buy and have the idea. This oral tradition is absolutely intrinsic to these sorts of tribal markings; that these details were only known to insiders and could never be copied perfectly by (and indeed their conspicuous absence would help identify) outsiders. In fact, if the details could be copied, they would lose caste and be discarded.
At first blush this may sound repulsive to a democratic American but it allows an elevated idea to exist within a plastic forma nota. It becomes less about an individual detail and more about the feeling… the zeitgeist… the knowing. Thus, even when you begin to try to write about this oral tradition, it suddenly becomes incredibly hard to communicate and set down. Obviously, some things can be set down like the number of buttons on a sleeve but the essence of tribalism is more about the nuances of cut; the sewing and the shaping of the suit. It defies literary form because it is all about tastes and luxury.
It is useless for tailors in other places to even try and copy the traditions of a Savile Row tailoring firm because they will always be caught falling short of copying someone else’s heritage. Further, it rattles the idea whether there is an absolute right or wrong with tailoring details, such as the sacred “four sleeve buttons on a jacket rule”. A hand cut teardrop lapel buttonhole may not only bind together the NYC elite but also garner respect from a similar quality English group who would wriggle their noses up at another NYC tailor who tried to copy details of one of their Savile Row tailoring firms. It seems elite circles respect the unique, artful and obvious totems of other original, elite circles and has disdain for “wannabes”.
It is also a warning for the dilettante who thinks he knows better than his tailor. If one interferes too much with a tailor’s house style beyond buttoning stance (single breasted vs. double breasted; two button vs. three button) and tampers with important matters such as the height of the collar or gorge, the style of the lapels, the shape of the pants or shoulder, you are defacing the tribal totems. This defacement results in a bastardized version of a tailor’s suit which no one of merit will honor and will leave the meddling client looking like a clown. Hardly the type of investment a true man of substance wants to make.
But is it more important to the English to have an item they recognize as part of the tribe or do they respond to foreign items that are nevertheless beautifully done? It doesn’t necessarily involve foreigners; it is a one up-man ship that occurs more between their fellow English. However, the English appreciate something well done even if it marks that person as an outsider. If extremely well done, the English are not above adopting it as part of the gentleman’s kit.
According to the old gentlemanly ideal (which still exists in England although it isn’t called that anymore) there still exists the sub-ideal of effortless superiority and never looking like you are trying. It is better to wear a shirt with a collar that is frayed from an excellent handmade Jermyn Street shop. This displays an aristocratic or patrician disdain for new money. And if indeed the cut of the suit is really what it is all about, this goes a long way to explaining why there are a limited number of acceptable suit cloth color and pattern choices for London’s city.
And if Brummell were alive today, how would he react and would he fit in? The basic crux is still in place but the splintering into so many different camps of style would both amuse and confuse him no end. His stance was anti fashion, to pick one style and stick with it. He did like to shock but in his day the shock was in the consistency and restraint.
Where would Brummell get his suits today? At Myers and Mortimers who were where he went in his time (It was just Myers back then). Of course, he still owes Myers money but he would doubtless like to head over there. He may also owe Gieves and Hawkes money but their archives were destroyed in the Blitz. He would also respect the craft of Bernard Weatherhill and the media sass of Ozwald Boateng.
What kind of man was Brummell? He crafted a social carapace for himself. He was very good company and a man who loved to keep people entertained but also a man who liked to keep people at a distance. Not an unusual City type. He had a dazzling self confidence and irrespective of whether it was genuine or a pose, it was effective.
Although he did care passionately both about being the arbiter of elegance and with the details of clothes, he would be amused by his fame now and his importance as the father of the suit. Brummell enjoyed being frivolous about important things and caring passionately about frivolous things. He thus demonstrated that wild inversion of importance which, as a pose, the dandy seems to like to strike in order to portray the ridiculousness of life. Therefore, Brummell was both enjoying and laughing at himself (and everyone else) at the same time.
What impresses Mr. Kelly most about a man’s dress? Clean hands and cuffs which was a Brummellian aesthetic and somewhat shocking back then at a time when handling horses was common for the British Aristocracy.
So why 200 years later if it was made acceptable by Brummell, do we call men who care about their appearances metrosexuals if they care for themselves? Men who discuss fashion or personal vanity/grooming fashion are open to teasing by their peers. It is part of the discord within the discourse.
Brummell’s indelible boot stamp was that men should choose from amongst articles of clothing that carried the acceptable tribal markings for their exclusive circle both as a signaler and source of satisfaction to other members and as unobtainable badges to be envied by those who were denied entry to the ton.
And speaking of boots, where would Brummell get his shoes made today? He wouldn’t care about where exactly as long as his could still polish the bottoms with the froth of champagne.
1 Both are dandies and retro chic clubs – the former a dance club (nightclub, used to be at the Great Eastern Hotel about once every couple of months, but very popular – old style dancehall music as well as more modern music, but the dress code was very strict: men in suits etc, nearly always vintage) the latter, Last Tuesday, is a sort of louche literary society, that does parties and events at Literary Festivals including, though, seances, wine tastings, installation art events…and usually a lot of drink! When Tom Ford says he loves London for the dressing up and gettting drunk, I think he means these guys!!