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Fashion: Vive Europa

Kimberly Cihlar
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

Free trade, common currency and Europe's jet-speed progress toward a borderless continent notwithstanding, one thing will always distinguish the nationality of well-suited gentlemen from abroad as they stroll through the arrivals lounge stateside: fashion. When it comes to style, there will always be an England…nd a France and an Italy.

It is easy for Americans to forget that our styles in menswear have long been sucked into the slipstream of supersonic arrivals from Europe by designers with hubs in London, Paris and Milan. And while national suit identities aren't as glaring as they once were, distinctions still exist. Because knowledge of Europe's sartorial niceties will boost your mileage reward, we offer our guide to frequent flyers.

LONDON BRITCHES

Departure

Logic suggests that the serious dude striding in lace-up brogues to the baggage check, orange Financial Times folded neatly under the arm of his respectable chalk-stripe, ticket-pocketed three-piecer, chin craned forward from starched contrast-collared shirt completed with four-in-hand repp tie, is carrying an English passport. He may well be. But the cliché of the buttoned-down Brit with the stiff upper-class fashion consciousness belies a cheeky stylishness that more than any other country's has informed menswear for the past century and longer.

Enter the way-back machine, Sherman. Before the nineteenth century, fashion in menswear was all the pomp, circumstance and foppishness of French dressing at court, where clothes were meant to advertise social status. The Brits freed men to dress like men and in doing so created one of history's most enduring uniforms: the business suit, an egalitarian garb born of manly pursuits.

An outdoorsy lot, the English were given to field sports, the hunt, riding and going to sea. They took the relatively simple silhouettes of these pursuits -- hunting coats, hacking jackets, blazers, etc. -- and moved them indoors. They also had a rather damp, chilly climate. Hence, the suit came to be a heavyweight garment, created from fabrics such as Harris Tweed (a weighty twill, misspelled from the Gaelic tweel). Another important texture was redoubtable gabardine (an invention of Thomas Burberry, founder of the 145-year-old company enjoying newfound popularity not undermined in the least by recent advertisements featuring a Burberry-plaid-bikini-clad Kate Moss).

Arrival

English invasions stateside have come in waves. We caught on via '30s screen icons such as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant that the precise tailoring of Savile Row was where it was at. Unhappily for British style dominance, so did every tailor around the globe. The fashion architecture that the English created was co-opted by the French, who called the studied casualness style anglais, the Italians and the Americans.

The Brits came storming back in the '60s with the Beatles' arrival in the United States. With them came the Mod Look, Carnaby Street and a breath of fresh air on Savile Row via designers such as Tommy Nutter. Bell-bottoms structurally finished the wild, colorful patterns of hipster dress, while the rock star intonations of Mick Jagger and David Bowie spoke for a generation of English and English-wanna-be youths. Traditional shirtmakers on Jermyn Street also became very flamboyant with screaming palettes and wide ties.


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