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Gray Eminence

Autumn's tailored offerings show shades of elegance and a return to the element of high style
Robert E. Bryan
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

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Patterns of Excellence
It is precisely gray's understatement that makes it so right for showcasing elegant patterns. Consider glen plaid and stripes. Properly speaking, the Glen Urquhart plaid, usually black, or gray and white, and consisting of a smaller and larger plaid combined, originally emerged from the Glen Urquhart Valley in Scotland. An excellent choice for a worsted—finish business suit, it was well favored in the 1940s and 1950s. Movie star Cary Grant was a particular fan, wearing glen plaid suits in films from His Girl Friday in 1940 to North by Northwest in 1959. You mightn't look like Grant, but it's possible once again to choose his favored pattern.

Undoubtedly, the most popular of men's suit patterns can be roughly divided into two categories, pinstripes and chalk stripes. The terms cannot be used interchangeably. Pinstripes are pencil—fine lines most commonly seen on flatter finish fabrics, while chalk stripes, just like chalk line, are broader and softer and are used in combination with somewhat heavier fabrics, like flannel, with a fuzzier surface. Favorites of both dandies and businessmen since the nineteenth century, the two styles reached a peak in popularity during the 1930s. While most men are leery of a bolder stripe, mistakenly identifying it with gangsters, stripes of any sort are always a preferred choice for the well—dressed man.

Formal Matters
The season's new palette lends itself especially well to clothing that has an air of formality. The elegant Chesterfield coat, most commonly seen with a fly front and velvet collar, may be the perfect choice. It was first popularized by the sixth Earl of Chesterfield, a fashion leader in the 1830s and 1840s. It was last worn with frequency in the 1920s and 1930s, a period generally recognized for its chic, characterized by men like Menjou. While less common today, the Chesterfield remains a tasteful choice for a man of style, particularly when worn with a dark and dressy business suit or worn formally with an evening suit.

While black will always be the new black, when it comes to evening wear, today's stylish dresser may consider enlivening the curiously egalitarian tuxedo form with a shawl collar. The look comes to us from the 1920s and 1930s when—spurred by the trendsetting Prince of Wales—a less formal approach to formal attire came into vogue, and the shawl—collared lapel could be seen on both dinner jackets and suits. Characterized by a rounded, unnotched lapel, the shawl remained a favorite of younger men from its inception. It's been particularly strong in periods—like the 1950s and the present—that favor narrower lapels but seek ways to convey a sense of insouciance.

Accessories to the Act
Part and parcel of an understated look is the requirement that interesting accessories pop out from the gray canvas. A tie, of course, is the first thought (we feel maroon is an excellent choice), but consider other options, such as tie bars, luxurious sweaters and handkerchiefs, as well.

The tie bar, considered an absolute necessity as recently as the 1950s, was dealt a severe blow by the youth quake of the 1960s. However, due to the return of a certain sense of dandy chic, the tie bar is once again seen in fashion magazines and on fashion runways. Not only does it add an elegant finishing touch to a man's attire, but it serves a functional purpose by keeping his very expensive necktie out of the soup. If you doubt the viability of this stylish accessory, check out any Fred Astaire movie of the 1930s (in which he wore it on the diagonal) or the Grant films of the 1950s (in which he wore a modest clip with his slimmer ties).

Finally, a well—dressed man always wears a pocket handkerchief. While it is always safe to wear white linen, the more adventurous can wear colors and patterns that relate to—but never match—the tie. While a pointed fold is perhaps more classic, the simple square fold in white is in vogue, complementing the new, narrower lapel. Interestingly, now that many men are forgoing the tie, the pocket handkerchief has acquired a new importance as a focal point.

Robert E. Bryan is a fashion journalist who has covered menswear for The New York Times magazine and W Men's Portfolio.

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