Long gone are the days when an English gentleman would sit with his tailor in the back office and discuss the coming season's wardrobe over a glass of Sherry and a digestive biscuit. And the Parisian no longer takes quite as much pride in his wines as he used to. In the United States, there seems to be a book published every other week on the decline of manners, morals and the quality of dry cleaning.
It isn't tumbril talk to note that style and taste are today almost regarded as character flaws. And tradition has become more a commodity, more a matter of decor, than belief. Even some of the button-down shirts in Brooks Brothers now have stubby little three-inch collar points! Fred Astaire must absolutely be rotating in his grave. The quality of mercy may not be strained, but the quality of quality certainly is!
All the anecdotal evidence suggests that quality is having a hard time of it everywhere, but even in our Age of Not-So-Great Expectations it's still possible to get the real thing. Amid all the shoddy clutter and haste couture, the genuine article can still be found: the proper navy blazer, authentic shell cordovan penny loafers, real khakis of Second World War-quality cotton drill. It isn't easy, since great steaming piles of frighteningly trendy gear have taken over even many of the better stores. But it is possible. We've done the dogged spadework, and here--for the greater purposes of removing doubts--are the results of our spirited off-the-rack sartorial excursion.
The prices listed are approximate; phone for the nearest venue.
The basic uniform of the business world is the suit. From the 1890s until the Second World War, the trusty blue serge held sway. Since then, however, gray flannel has been the cloth of choice among the cognescenti. There is a sense of sincerity about gray flannel that seems missing in slicker-looking worsteds. It never looks too sharp or parvenu, never loud or pushy. Good gray flannel has the built-in, old-money look that one associates with tradition and refinement. It's soft and easy, with a touch of depth and texture for interest, rather than being stiff and shiny. And what better foil for accompanying haberdashery and accessories?
Mid- to dark gray flannel is best, with a slight nap and a moderately soft hand. Single- or double-breasted is equally appropriate, but the latter has the edge as being a bit more formal and dressy. Previously, flannels were slightly heavier cloths, ranging from around 12 to 16 ounces, but new technology has allowed for what are called Super flannels, woven of fine merino wool, to produce exquisite fabrics with weights as low as eight ounces. The finest of these cloths are the Super 150s. (The higher the number in Supers, the finer the cloth.) These cloths drape beautifully, retain their shape and can be worn in all but the steamiest weather. ($3,500; Brioni, 212/956-4155)
There are a number of classics in the tie repertoire: the resplendent seven-fold, the silk knit, the woven Macclesfield, the redoubtable striped repp. But the classic whose revival we most look forward to enjoying--and it is once again being seen--is the challis tie.
Challis is a featherweight wool that is hand-block printed (originally from natural vegetable dyes) with geometric, paisley or sportif patterns. Occasionally the cloth is fashioned into particularly handsome dinner jackets, but for the most part it goes for neckwear. What is so wonderful about challis is that it ties well--firmness without bulk, for a knot that holds--and its muted colors are not reproducible in any other medium: dark Persian blue, dusky bottle green, burnt orange, rusty reddish browns and tawny yellows predominate. It is the perfect tie with tweeds of all sorts, natty with more casual flannels. ($70; Mariano Rubinacci, 617/407-0600)
The Dress Shirt
Business suits can accept a variety of collar styles, from button-down and tab to long point and rounded club. But surely the best looking is the spread collar: crisp and neat, flattering, adaptable, elegant. Popularized in the 1930s by the Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of Kent, it's a collar for the man who is known to dress well.
Modeled on the English detachable cutaway collar with its Edwardian sense of propriety, the spread collar's angular, wider than normal point stance has an unmatched dressiness. As such, it is often worn with French cuffs, and accompanied by richly woven Macclesfield neckwear. Often seen in a variety of stripes and checks--sartorially sensitive dressers occasionally opt for horizontal stripes--the spread-collar shirt done in a pure white superior oxford cloth is foolproof and unbeatable. The Italian firm of Borrelli, shirtmakers since 1895, cuts and sews its shirts by hand with extra-thick pearl buttons; the spread collar is meticulously fashioned, the white royal oxford cloth a silky texture, the French cuffs pristine. ($275; Borrelli Shirtmakers, 212/702-0136)
The Summer Suit
A number of lightweight cloths have, over the years, vied for the natty warm-weather vote: linen and silk are elegant, tropical worsted serviceable, seersucker jaunty. But our vote goes to the supremely comfortable and friendly tan cotton suit. Always single-breasted and usually unlined, the cotton shows its sophistication in its simplicity. A poplin weave is often used, but the best cotton for suiting is gabardine, which has the fine twill ridges that make it light of weight and soft of touch, yet strong and durable.
The neutral color accepts any accessory, from oxford cloth button-down to piqué polo and minimalist T-shirt. Of course, it must be the right shade of tan. Not too pale, like what the fellow wore in John O'Hara's short story "The Gentleman in the Tan Suit." Khaki or British tan, with just that hint of dusty yellow, is what's wanted. Unlined for coolness, easily laundered and looking the better for a few wrinkles, the jacket and trousers can easily be "broken up" and worn with other jackets and trousers, making it a decidedly useful item for travel. ($2,950; Kiton, 212/702-0136)
There are four crucial points to consider about the blazer: color, cloth, cut and buttons. A real blazer is navy blue ("Bell-bottom trousers, coat of navy blue," as the Second World War song "Bell-bottom Trousers" goes). Green is perfectly appropriate if you win the Augusta Open, maroon, gold and light blue tend to indicate real estate agents. A single-breasted version is acceptable, but double-breasted is best. Although blazers have been made over the years in everything from stone-washed denim to Fiji silk, the proper alternatives are circumscribed: cashmere, flannel, Super worsted, twill, doeskin flannel, tropical worsted or hopsack. Pocket treatment can vary--flapped, open patch, patch-and-flap and besom are all acceptable--but no yokes, fancy stitching or bi-swing backs please. The blazer is pristine of cut and simplicity itself--except for the buttons.
Blazers are the only sports jackets that take metal buttons: generally gold, silver or brass. Blazer buttons can be intensely individualistic and idiosyncratic, but are usually grouped into four categories: fancy (gilded-and-enameled crests), standard design (a navy anchor or a simple
basket-weave pattern), initialed or plain (often chosen, but not highly recommended because they scratch easily). Ralph Lauren, who is rumored to know a thing or two about classic dress, has combined these elements brilliantly and faithfully in his Purple Label double-breasted blazer: Super 120s merino-and-cashmere fabric, six-button (two-to-button) closure, side vents and handsomely crested buttons, handmade in England. Goes perfectly with flannels, khakis or jeans. ($1,795; Polo/Ralph Lauren, 212/606-2100)
Khakis and jeans have been the great levelers of the American wardrobe, the most democratizing items of clothing ever worn. Everyone, from film star and computer tycoon to dockworker, has a pair of jeans, and knows that Levi's 501s have never been bettered. But what about khakis?
For GIs returning from the Second World War, khakis were the all-purpose trouser; worn with a tweed jacket or a Shetland crewneck and button-down, they became an essential part of the civilian campus uniform. In the turbulent 1960s and '70s khakis were often replaced with jeans, but they held their own and, in the past 20 years, have reemerged as a staple of the wardrobe. These days every designer has his own spin on the genre--so tarted up in some cases that it would make an old Army-Navy store devotee shiver--and no outfitter of sensible clothes would be without a supply.
Genuine old-style khakis are made by Bill Thomas in Reading, Pennsylvania. Bills Khakis, as they are called with genuine simplicity, are the real thing: substantial, eight-and-a-half-ounce 100 percent twill cloth; full cut in the legs, seat and rise, from original Second World War patterns; deep 14-inch drill-cloth pockets; eight stout belt loops. Nothing fancy, just pure quality. Bill does a pleated model with a heavy brass zipper, but the pants that hiked across battlefields and athletic fields are the plain-fronted, button-fly model. These are the most comfortable and durable khakis you can buy. ($85; Bills Khakis, 800-43-KHAKI; Web site: www.billskhakis.com)
The Slip on Shoe
The classic slip-on, popular in the United States for well over a half century, is the penny loafer (so called because teenagers in the 1950s put a penny in each slot of the instep strap as a minor fashion statement). The classic model is moccasin style, a comfortable construction in which the top vamp section is sewed to the sides in a U shape. Although a variety of leathers are used, shell cordovan has always been considered the ne plus ultra: soft, supple and extremely durable; over time the patina of genuine shell cordovan only improves its unmatched luster. This leisure handmade moccasin has been made to perfection by the Alden Shoe Co. of Middleboro, Massachusetts--in the original dark oxblood and black--since the early 1950s. This is the original model, and the acknowledged master of the form: flawless in every detail, hand-sewn on the last, true Goodyear welting, vegetable-tanned shell cordovan of rich character. ($400; Alden Shoe Co., 508/947-3926)
It was the costume historian James Laver who conceived the theory that all modern men's clothing derives from either war or sport. It's certainly true of outerwear, as the parka, the trench coat, the polo coat, field coat and golf jacket remind us. These are coats that work, and have an added dash of style as well.
What has always been admired in a good, all-around outdoor coat is the combination of functionality and handsomeness. Leave it to the Italians to combine the latest technology with the higher calling of aesthetics to produce the perfect coat. The firm of Loro Piana has created a new generation of fabrics with its Storm System range. Produced from extremely fine, high-quality natural fibers--covert cloths, cashmeres, gabardines--fused to Gore Technologies' windproof and water-resistant barrier, the new line of outer coats repels rain like a duck.
Although Loro Piana designs several different sports-related coats, the most elegant and useful is its thigh-length "Horsey" style: double fastening, with superior zipper and horn buttons, drawstring waist, a dozen exterior and interior lined pockets (including a very convenient cellular phone pocket secreted away inside), a zip-out padded vest that's handsome enough to be worn by itself, storm cuffs, throat latch and tattersall lining. Designed to accommodate the precision of movement dictated by sporting activities, yet relaxed and smart enough for city wear, it is an extremely serviceable garment. ($1,320; Loro Piana, 212/371-2819)
A cashmere turtleneck is a staple of the good life. Incredibly soft and light, cashmere takes color better than any other fiber, producing hues that are at once vibrant and true without being in the least bit harsh. Along with the camel family of fibers (camel, alpaca, vicuña), cashmere is the warmest of fibers in proportion to its weight.
The finest cashmere has traditionally come from the Himalayan regions of India and Mongolia (the area where the little Kashmir goats thrive), and is generally processed in southern Scotland, in the region around Peeblesshire. Some say it's the water that makes Scottish cashmere the best; others attribute its quality to the expertise of the Scots. Whatever the reason, a hand-cabled, four-ply pullover from this neighborhood is definitely the real thing. ($1,295, in 80 colors; Ballantyne Cashmere, 212/736-4228)
G. Bruce Boyer, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).