Fashion: High-Tech Tradition
Flannels, Cashmeres, Wools, Tweeds Modern Lightweight Fabrics Spur a Luxurious Return to Traditional Styles
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97
"I always had a fondness for tweeds, like my father and grandfather, but I wore mine a trifle more loosely and casually than they."
--The Duke of Windsor, Windsor Revisited
Tweeds, and flannels, and the other cloths of drape and substance. In fact, Windsor liked to wear fall-weight suits all year round. They looked better, tailored better, had more mileage. He had inherited a tweed suit from his father which, with a bit of alteration, the Duke kept going for more than 60 years. That's style.
Those tweeds were a bit heavy and scratchy, though.
"We went to the Riviera in July," says Laura, Duchess of Marlborough (quoted in Suzy Menkes' book, The Windsor Style). "It was fiendishly hot and I was wearing the thinnest of dresses and when we arrived at the villa, the Duke was in full Scottish rig. The first thing I said to him was 'Oh Sir, aren't you terribly hot?' But he didn't seem to notice." With Windsor, style was obviously transcendent.
Style is, as it happens, a word one sees cropping up a great deal in the fashion press--as though it were a trend, akin perhaps to the way the words "classic" or "tradition" are used there--as though it were a commodity, more a matter of decor than piety.
The other word that is now being touted by the fashion press is sartorial. Translation: dressy, with an emphasis on accomplished tailoring. It is fashion's latest about-face to its overzealous advocation of casualness and limp, crepey, pebbly fabrics four or five seasons ago (about a year and a half in human time). What this means is a return to a more precise silhouette and good, traditional suiting fabrics such as flannels and tweeds, twills and worsteds, with more than a nod given to the luxuries of the newer Super merinos, worsted cashmeres and the other sybaritic cloths of high pedigree. The Duke would have thoroughly approved of fashion's return to the fold of taste.
It is, therefore, not so much drastic change in styling that drives men's fashion today, but fabrics. After all, suits are basically a conservative medium of dress and haven't changed radically for decades and decades. As Anne Hollander has noted in her study, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress, "Advances in technology and economic organization during the past two centuries have in fact been bent on preserving the character of men's tailoring and spreading its availability." The rules were established at the end of the eighteenth century: coat, trousers and vest, designed and constructed to produce a uniformly ideal silhouette and image for any man. A slightly wider lapel here, a fractionally narrower trouser leg there, is as much as most of us are willing to tolerate.
Unlike women's hemlines, which seem to go from here to there in a blink, more than a half-inch taken or given anywhere in a man's wardrobe constitutes a revolution. The general thrust in menswear since the beginning of the twentieth century has been to make the basic suit more comfortable: lighter-weight fabrics and construction techniques have reduced stiffness, heaviness and constriction. Men's tailoring today is positively airy compared to what it was before mid-century.
This is all part of a greater movement in the modernization of men's clothing. The initial step was democratization. As the Industrial Revolution and democracy advanced in Europe and the United States, democratic business dress first replaced privileged court and aristocratic dress, then became a standard uniform as well as being uniformly standardized. After the form was set, comfort became the goal.
Tweeds are perhaps the best example of this. They were, at the fin of the last siècle, the great social leveler in dress, worn by kings and subjects, presidents and citizens alike. What is different about tweeds today is that they are no longer the hairy, blanket-like, bullet-proof and scratchy productions they once were. Originally weighing in at 18 to 28 ounces (cloth weight is determined by the square yard), tweeds in traditional patterns and colors are now half that weight.
With a return to a more retro English styling of late, these cloths are perfect for that country house look--when the country house is climate-controlled.
"Mind you," says James Sheed, director of Dormeuil, one of the world's most eminent woolens houses, "for the past several seasons now in Europe, the weights have stabilized as far as consumers are concerned. I would say that 10- to 15-ounce cloths are preferred. And we see that in the United States as well. Our Sportex line of tweeds, which we developed in the 1920s for golfers, originally weighed 22 ounces. Today that same cloth is 14 ounces. The tailoring properties, durability and good looks are still there, but in a more comfortable cloth."
Jay Kos, a decidedly upscale Manhattan haberdasher with a British sense of styling, agrees. "I'm doing mainly tweeds and flannels: flannels for town, and tweeds for country suits. My preferred model is a three-piece suit, done in either a hacking or Norfolk style, in 15-ounce Shetland. We do those in beautifully dusky colors with muted windowpane patterns. They're not the sort of thing to sell to stockbrokers, who are locked into their pinstripes, but we do a brisk business with fellows who can dress with a bit of individuality, like doctors and other professional men. It's the kind of suit that becomes an old friend."
Tweeds are known in the cloth trade as woolens, a category that accounts for the bulkier, loftier and fuzzier wool cloths that also includes twills. The other category of wool cloth is worsteds, which are smoother and more tightly woven, and thus stronger, than woolens. Flannels can be either, depending on how they have been woven.
"Actually, we've increased our offerings in tweed this year, as well as other more substantial cloths like alpaca-wool blends, camel hairs and wool-cashmere blends," says Rod Smith, spokesman for Southwick, one of the United States' most prestigious manufacturers of quality-tailored clothing. "We've always felt that a fall suit should look like a fall suit. This fall we're particularly strong on Irish Donegal tweeds, and neat patterned tweeds such as barleycorns, miniature herringbones and checks. It's a movement back to basics, back to traditional English cloth and styling."
Dougal Munro, president of the renowned British cloth firm of Holland & Sherry Inc., confirms this shift towards more substantially finished cloth, "particularly in more sophisticated suiting for both town and country," he notes. "We do an extensive range of tweeds we call 'Country Elegance.' They're only 11 to 13 ounces, but perform just like the older, heavier cloths which, at 16 and 18 ounces, were too heavy for the American market. These newer, lighter tweeds tailor and drape just as well, and are just as durable."
Holland & Sherry has also taken a renewed interest in Donegals, with an extensive range of 11-ounce tweeds in some 20-odd beautiful colorings, from darkest tobacco brown to palest golden grain, with everything in between from indigo to olive, but with an emphasis on lighter and brighter shades this season.
Flannels are the other resurgent cloths this year. "Being a designer of classic English-styled clothing," says Edgar Pomeroy, Atlanta's flamboyant Anglophiliac custom menswear designer, "I prefer to work with English fabrics that weigh between 10 and 12 ounces in the Super 100s and 120s ranges. They tend to have good drape and a soft hand, and they hold their shape better. I favor the slightly napped surface texture of the woolen flannels and mill-finished worsted flannels. There's nothing quite as elegant as a classic double-breasted, chalk-striped flannel suit for making a noted sartorial statement."
"My customers are happy with 10- to 12-ounce cloth in the fall," agrees Dallas' consummate custom tailor, Chris Despos. "Today, it's possible to have cloths with substance without all the weight and bulk. Not only reduced weight, but increased qualities of fineness, because advanced spinning technology now produces finer and finer yarns.
"The three cloths that I do best with are: one, a Super 120s wool and 15 percent cashmere blend from Isles Textiles; two, a Super 120s and 10 percent cashmere blend from Samuel Lehrer; and three, a Super 120s and 10 percent cashmere blend from Lesser Textiles. Each weighs about 10 ounces and responds beautifully to tailoring. I try to make the finished suit even lighter and more comfortable by using lighter inner linings and less padding in the coat."
There had been a vogue for a few years--started in the 1980s by Armani and company--for crepe- and boucle-type fabrics that had a pebbly, dry, limp hand. They seemed a good medium for the unconstructed casualness of the period because they had overstated surface texture and a very loose weave. But things are decidedly dressier now.
"All those high-twist crepes are on the wane, and the pendulum is swinging back to much more traditional cloths," says New York designer Alan Flusser, owner of his own custom shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and author of the recently published, definitive book on buying men's clothes, Style and the Man (HarperStyle, 1996, $24). "The fashion spirit now is for harder-finished cloths, cloths with more substance that can be tailored better. There's more interest today in dark, dressy clothes in a slightly slimmer silhouette. And if you're wearing solid-colored satin ties and white cutaway-collared dress shirts, you certainly want a more sophisticated suit. And that means good fabrics and good tailoring."
The biggest news these past several seasons has been in the cloths known as "Supers." Super fine wools are a relatively new phenomenon that followed recent advances in technology. Supers are made from what is the world's finest wool: pure-bred merino sheep from Australia and New Zealand grow wool that is supremely soft, silky and fine. The diameter of a strand of Supers-quality merino is less than 20 microns (one millionth of a meter); the smaller the micron number in the designation, the finer the wool. Thus, the first generation of Supers were in the 80s and 90s range of fineness, about 19 microns; newer 110 and 120 Supers are in the range of 18 and 17 microns. What's most noticeable about these cloths is the atypical combination of a soft, buttery texture with great durability and drape.
"Theoretically, you can make Supers of any number in any weight," says Neal Boyarsky, president of Beckenstein Men's Fabrics in New York City, the most prestigious cloth merchant in the United States. "The art comes in getting the right fineness in the right weight. We have now progressed to 140s, 150s and even 170s Supers, which are in the range of 14.5 microns. For fall, we like to combine the higher-quality Supers with cashmere in 12-ounce weights. It makes a superb cloth that reacts well to tailoring and humidity, and retains its shape even though it's incredibly soft. It's one of the most luxurious cloths you can buy."
Dougal Munro agrees about the 170s. "This year we've woven enough 170s for just 240 suit lengths, and I can tell you that it's finer to the touch than worsted spun cashmere. At around $800 a yard, a top tailor--and to whom else would you entrust such a cloth--would have to charge perhaps $10,000 for a suit."
Luxury is, of course, the name of the game. "The better cloths are selling better," says Boyarsky. "We do lambswool and cashmere blends, baby camel hair, silk and cashmere blends at 10 ounces, 130s Supers cashmeres, and 120s Supers cashmere with a touch of vicuna, as well as pure vicuna in both 20-ounce topcoat weight and 12-ounce sports coat weight. The vicuna sells for a neat $3,000 per yard. But my favorite suiting for fall would be a 150s Super-and-cashmere blend at 10 ounces--just perfect for a successful businessman."
The essentials of the tailored wardrobe always follow the dictates of taste and quality. Fine fabrics and classic styling are the best fashion weapons with which to take arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Since the Second World War, the textile industry has created new fibers, developed blended fibers and refined existing fibers. Wool still comes from sheep, cashmere from mountain goats and vicuna from a camel's cousin, but the standards of quality today are pushing the luxury properties of these fine fibers higher than ever. On the drawing board are Super 200s woolens, vicuna blends and whisper-weight worsted cashmeres.
In a world in which so much seems to be of the fast-fickle-and-forget-it brand of shoddiness, men's tailoring is actually getting much better.
G. Bruce Boyer, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).
Resources for Fine Cloth
Beckenstein Men's Fabrics
121 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
21 East 67th Street
New York, NY 10021
200 South Newman Street
Hackensack, NJ 07601
6600 West Rogers Circle
Boca Raton, FL 33487
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