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Gray Eminence

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

One of the holdovers of black's recent fashion reign is the tendency to equate all new movements to that color (or lack thereof). Hence each time the palette changes it's suddenly "pink is the new black" or "orange is new black." Well, gray has arrived, but it isn't the new black.

The return of gray in men's suits and jackets signals not just another fashion turn, but a more pervasive change, a return to style and elegance. Don't think of it as drab or somber, but as the shade of distinction and subtle flair. Gray, in its many tones, from the elegance of pearl gray to the formality of a charcoal topcoat, is more stylish than ever.

Perhaps the No. 1 color choice of businessmen for generations, gray nevertheless escaped attention because of its understatement. But look back through the 1920s and '30s and you see that all the best—dressed men employed gray. Then it was pegged as the corporate world's chosen shade in the title of the 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Gregory Peck played the film role a year later. The suit was meant to be slighted as the uniform of the day, but watch the movie today and see how Peck comes off none the less dapper.

While the film's point may have been to portray a lack of individuality, the choices we feature here make quite clear the enumerable ways for a man to express his personality in gray. The muted palette emphasizes sublime patterns and the qualities of fine fabrics.

Not only does this season have a more refined palette, but autumn brings us a wide choice of other stylish elements that have been in short supply for far too long. Silhouettes are varied and such classic details as peak lapels and vests are part of the mix. Furthermore, gentlemanly accessories are essential to the look as providers of warming shades and spot interest.

The Peak of Style
The surprise is not that peak lapels (the upward slanting points at the chest fold) are to be found today, but where they are found. Double—breasted suits and evening wear always provide a place for peak lapels. Now single—breasted jackets and business suits enjoy their rakish charms. While peak lapels appeared in that context in the free—spirited late 1960s and early 1970s, it was in the 1930s and earlier that they were most common on single—breasted garments. Such men about town as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gary Cooper and Clark Gable sported the look to great effect. The cut adds an increased formality, which is why it's always been popular in tuxedos and dinner wear. It also elongates the lines of a coat, making the wearer seem taller and slimmer.

Doubling Up
The 1987 film Wall Street burned the double—breasted suit into modern consciousness as the ultimate power suit. But, truth be told, it has been the body armor for tycoons dating to the earliest years of the twentieth century. Contrary to some popular opinion, it can be worn by men with a wide variety of shapes, its yards of fabric ample enough to hide an entire corporation. The secret is to keep it buttoned and not flopping open.

The d-b had its widest acceptance in the 1930s, most commonly seen in a six—button model (on which two were meant to be fastened and the rest left idle) worn by men ranging from Noel Coward and Adolphe Menjou to Humphrey Bogart. Then the double—breasted suit went to war. In 1942, War Production Board General Regulation L—85 stipulated that wool be rationed to save cloth for the boys fighting overseas, and the patriotic wore single—breasted suits. Sadly, double—breasteds never really attained the same prominence again, having been supplanted by the 1950s' skinny—lapeled sack suits, a style that doesn't work at all for the broad—chested. In recent years, the d—b cut was largely relegated to blazers worn by yachtsmen or the likes of Prince Charles. Happily, the style is assuming its rightful position, as a suit to be worn by captains of industry, or just fashionable young men who want to look that way.

Two Buttons Return
Since the 1990s, the three—button, single—breasted sports jacket and suit has been the most common model. But, lest we forget, two—button jackets enjoyed a long reign in the tailored clothing world. John F. Kennedy is most often cited for making it a virtual fashion lock in the 1960s. It may have been cut to better conceal his back brace, but the effect was a fresh silhouette to replace the three—button sacks of the 1950s. Businessmen and celebrities like Johnny Carson followed suit in the New Frontier. More recently, the two—button suit has stolen favor with the best—dressed crowd, often shown with a slightly higher button placement than styles last seen in the 1970s and 1980s.

Investment Dressing
Throughout its history, the vest has added a certain flair to men's attire (see dandies from the Compte d'Orsay through Oscar Wilde to Cecil Beaton), whether worn casually and unmatched with tweeds, or more formally, as part of a three—piece suit. According to Samuel Pepys's diary, the vest, or, as it the Brits more formally know it, the waistcoat, was first worn by King Charles II of England in 1666 and came down to the thighs. However, its current form—cropped at the waist—comes to us from a less regal source: England's nineteenth—century postboys, who rode and guided coach horses. The more utilitarian form matched well with the business suit, to inspire confidence. And while it's part of the perfect banker's or politician's suit (witness British prime minister Anthony Eden), when worn unmatched, vests serve as a way for a man to have a little fun and express his individuality (see Fred Astaire in Top Hat). While they last spread through the masses in the polyester double—knit world of the 1970s, today vests, as well as elegant sweaters worn under jackets, are occupying a more tasteful environment.

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.