Thursday, May 22, 2008

Esquire made me do it.

Esquire used to be my favorite magazine, once upon a time. But these days it has devolved into a sort of masculine-manqué manual for those newly arrived to New York.

Anyway.

They published a list of 75 things a man should know or be able to do and #12 was How To Buy A Suit. The problem with the advice is that it's mostly "sound and fury, signifying nothing" and anyone who goes by the strict letter of it will likely wind up ill-suited.

So.

Uncle Joke is going to help you out. If you're a regular, chances are this won't be so bloody new to you, but in case you run into someone who may profit from this, you may want to print this out and hand it to them. It'll seem more authoritative than your telling them the same thing because, as we all know, no prophet hath honour in his own land.

Of course the simple and sensible thing to do is sprint to a tailor accustomed to arraying civilized gentlemen, but that is neither quick nor inexpensive. Still, there is something to be learned from them as you go purchase suitable raiments.

The single most important matter in selecting a suit is its fit, and the most important aspect of fit as relates to the jacket is the shoulders. Pretty much anything else "wrong" with the jacket has a remedy, but if the shoulders are off, no amount of tailoring will set it right. In fact, you'd probaby spend as much as a MTM* suit in trying to fix this in vain. So if it doesn't fit your shoulders let it go and never look back.

Now, as far as fitting your shoulders go, there are two factors to keep in mind: width and pitch. Width we all know (or should, you caveperson) about: the shoulders should be wide enough for you to hug yourself, but not so wide it looks as if the epaulets are stitched on the wrong side. Pitch is something a bit more difficult to pin down. Basically it's how the jacket's shoulders slope as you get further away from the collar.
The cheap way to do this is to go in a straight line, regardless of what ideas your own collarbones may have in mind. In order to look good you need to stand ramrod straight at all times which, unless you have some spinal condition or nervous tic carried over from military school, you won't be able to do for long. Your shoulders have, to one degree or another, a measure of, well, slouch. Your jacket's shoulders ought have a similar curvature. Incidentally, when it comes to shoulder pads, you want almost none on your prominent shoulder (right, if you're a righty, left if you're a lefty) and just enough on your opposite shoulder to make the jacket symmetrical.
Delving deeper into the "bones" of the suit -- and I'm sorry, this simply wouldn't photograph well for me, so just play along -- the armhole (or scye) should be shaped like the silhouette of an egg. This is to afford you maximum freedom of movement with minimal fabric and padding and all that. With ready-made stuff this is less likely, so just aim for something as oval as possible. While you're at it, look at the way the shoulder is attached to the body. It should be obvious from the silhouette where the body ends and the shoulder begins. Like a tiny little speedbump. Look for what are basically very subtle pleats on the shoulder, this indicates it was sewn by hand and will have a more yielding (i.e. comfortable) feel than something hacked together by machine.
OK. There are many touches that distinguish something worthwhile from something so-so. Look at the lapel. Its width should be such that if you kept going straight from its outer edge it would neatly bisect the width of your shoulders. If it swallows up the pocket square it's too broad, if it reveals all of the breast pocket it's too small. Look behind the lapel. If you see a little loop of silk to hold the stem of a flower in place, it means the tailor took extra care to make this jacket. Never mind you'll never wear a flower, someone who has bothered so much with an invisible detail will have really sweated out the big stuff. This is good.
Now look at the breast pocket. (It's a crummy picture, so make an effort, will you?) Most of the time it will be a perfectly oblong strip of fabric perfectly parallel to the floor. Ideally it will slant slightly downward from the shoulder side to the chest side, and even more ideally, will be "boat shaped" meaning the outer seam will be, instead of a pair of right angles, a +/- 75 deg. at the top and 105 deg. at the bottom.
Move over to the other outside pockets. Now, I happen to like the smaller "ticket" pocket, but it's OK if you don't. (You are under no obligation to maximize your stylishness.) Note the pockets flare slightly at their rearward edge. This a) keeps them tucked in when you want to go for a more "continental" or sleek look and b) make it easier for you to work your way inside the pocket to reach for something. This is another of those details that add up.
Now flip the jacket inside out. The more handstitching you see (you can tell because the stitches will be visible and ever-so-slightly irregular, as opposed to the invisible precision of machine-sewn) the better. There are two ways to go on the inside of the jacket. One is a half-lining, which is pretty posh because it requires all of the exposed seams to be neatly finished, which adds hours to the garment which jacks up the price. The other is with a full lining which can be pretty posh, if you select silk over the more pedestrian rayon, for example. I tend to lean towards a full lining, because it makes for a smoother dressing experience and less friction between jacket and shirt as you sit, move, turn, etc.
If you look carefully, you'll note those little touches...a pen pocket, for instance. Or the interior pockets fastening with a button and loop which is cheap and easy to replace were it to fray or tear (as opposed to a buttonhole on expensive silk lining, which isn't either).
Turning the jacket right-side-out again look at the sleeve cuff. In a custom/bespoke/MTM jacket, there should be working buttonholes -- this is so that you may wash your hands without having to take off your jacket -- and this means if the jacket sleeves match your own (i.e. they stop just shy of your wrist bump) the garment was made for you exclusively, blahblahblah. This sort of sleeve in pretty unalterable, which means the jacket is not really wearable by anyone else. Yes, I s'pose you could detach the sleeve and reattach it at the correct length but for the expense it would run you you might as well get a MTM suit.
Anyway, some off-the-rack (or off-the-peg) jackets will have an open seam at the sleeve that it may be altered to fit you and then have buttonholes cut thereinto. Go for those if you can find them and they fit your budget. Do not, of course, go for those which already come with working sleeve buttonholes.
When it comes to trousers, the crucial fit factor is the waist. Easy enough. Not just the size of the waist, but how high it sits relative to your own natural waist. Ye Olde Classiques used to sit fairly high up, say, at the navel latitude. The European stuff sits, jeans-like, at the hip. Go for the Goldilocks effect and aim for something that sits at just below your navel. Given that our waistlines will fluctuate somewhat no matter what we do, and given that belts are far too much the hallmark of a sartorial rube, you want some sort of side-tab adjustment. There are two kinds, the slide-tab and the button tab. The slide tab has the advantage of being infinitely adjustable, but the disadvantage of needing not-infrequent adjustment. The button tab (featuring 2, maybe 3, buttons per side) is set-and-forget, assuming the buttons are sewn in the correct spots. I like the button tab arrangement better. Also, if something went awry, I could sew one of the buttons back on...dunno I could work my magic on the slide mechanism.
Incidentally, you needn't opt for suspenders (or "braces") but they do add a serious touch of style.
While we're down there, look at the front of the trousers, where everything fastens together. There should be something called a French fly (now, now class...) which is basically a longish, diagonalish tab that is affixed with a button on the inside of the waist. This keeps any extraneous bulges to a minimum, lest the little old lady whom you help to cross the street thinks you're particularly happy to see her.
Once you're all buttoned up -- or zipped, your call -- we get to the matter of pleats. You can't really see it clearly in the picture, but these trousers have their pleats opening up towards the center or "inward" pleats. 99% of all the pleated trousers out there are OUTWARD pleats (i.e. opening up towards the hips) and these are wrong. Flat-front trousers are really only flattering on the slimmest of men (31" waist, at most).
The legs of the trousers should taper gently, like your own legs do. Flared, straight and pegged trousers are all wrong. Figure the width at the knee of +/- 22" and +/- 19" at the cuff. Oh, and speaking of...the trousers must be cuffed (except for formalwear): 1.625"-1.75" depending on your height. (The taller, the cuffier.)
When it comes to fabrics, you want nothing lower than Super100s wool. If the label makes prominent mention of the mill where it was woven (Sherry & Holland or Loro Piana, for example) this is a very good thing. Stick to fad-proof colors and patterns. Navy or dark grey (pinstriped, micro-herringbone, "nailhead" or plain) are always good, and you may accessorize them to meet the whims of the zeitgeist or of your own peculiar satrorial proclivities. Once you have an inventory of some basics, you can move to more advanced options, such as linen fabrics or glen plaids or houndstooth patterns. Single- or double-breasted is your call.

Of course, if you're feeling flush you can just saunter to, say, Alan Flusser and have something custom/bespoke (meaning the pattern has been created exclusively for you and your measurements) or, if slightly less flush, made-to-measure (meaning all the same measurements are taken, but the pattern is a standard one adapted to said measurements).
-J.

*Made-to-measure, you philistine

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What passes for modern dandyism in some quarters these days...



Sounds like he's talking about this collection.

-J.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More than I could Handel

As you may know, Uncle Joke is axle deep in High Culture.

As a consequence, Uncle Joke likes attending (and therefore has a box at) The Opera. That said, it doesn't mean that Uncle Joke checks in his own idisyncratic tastes at the box office. There's stuff he likes and stuff he does not.

This is about the latter.

Now, as every opera subscriber knows, every season sees a couple (sometimes three) of The Usual Operas. You know...Tosca, La Boheme, La Traviata, Carmen. That sort of stuff. Then you have a couple more of the lighter-rotation stuff, but still things a somewhat sentient layperson would dimly recognize: Cosi Fan Tutte, Die Zauberflote, La Cenerentola and so forth and so on. And, then, of course, you have The Wild Card.

This is an opera that is a complete and utter unknown quantity. Either it's one of those "modern" things such as That's No First Lady, That's My Wife! about some torrid love triangle between Jonas Salk and Eleanor Roosevelt and Douglas MacArthur, or it's something that's not really known by one of the usual composers.

This year we had two of these. The first was The Pearl Fishers. Which I enjoyed. Then we had last week's Julius Caesar. I'd never really thought of Handel in terms of opera, so I was curious. This production featured Leah Partridge who, above and beyond being a hottie, also has spectacularly amazing pipes.

So I was favorably predisposed.

Now, this opera usually features at least a brace of counter-tenors, and that takes some getting used to. Apparently, Handel wrote a goodly number of things with castrati in mind and these days we assign those roles to the counter tenor, who normally don't get a lot of airplay, and definitely not en masse. Anyway, this production had three (Brian Asawa as Tolomeo,

John Gaston as Julius Caesar and Jason Abrams as Nireno) and they all sang amazingly well, especially Gaston, who belted out his arias with agility and superb clarity.

Once you get past that whole counter-tenor thing (my wife couldn't, but that's just the way it works) that's fine too.

Then there is the instrumentation. Which is rather "of its time" with clavichords and harpsichords and whateverchords and lutes and what seemed to be a sitar with a gland condition, as well as assorted other plinky things that often remind one of the better sort of music box. The conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, brought this off without a hitch. I really enjoyed this aspect, also.

Again, once you get past the relative novelty of it, that's fine too.

But here is where the wheels begin to wobble. The sets, which remind me of the "Memphis" movement of the early 1980s in their galling minimalism and smallest-box-of-Crayolas color scheme, and the costumes which are -- save for Cleopatra's which were culled from Cyd Charisse's in Singin' In The Rain -- exactly what all the minor Death Star characters wore in the original Star Wars in 1977, really were a letdown. Sesto and Nireno, more than the rest, looked like Two Surgeons In Bondage.

But where I really, really failed to enjoy myself turned out to be all Handel's fault. Let me explain:

Being the utter lout I am, I classify operas in two categories (this is unscientific and wildly unlearned, but stay with me) in the first you have singers whose arias or duets actually convey information to keep the narrative flowing:

"This guy came over/
he yelled at me/
I yelled back/
He said to bugger off/
I gave him the finger/
He threw a rock at my head/
It hurt like a mother#$%&er/
So I pulled a knife on him/
I accidentally cut myself/
he screamed like a wuss/
I fainted from blood loss/
Then I fell on top of my beloved/
And I stabbed her/
So I'm all bummed out."

Then you have those operas where there is a whole Hell of a lot of singing, and coloratura, and orchestral fireworks but nothing is really being said. Like so*:

"I stabbed her!
In the heart I stabbed her!
In the heart! In the heart!
I stabbed her, I stabbed her!
In the heart! I stabbed her!
In the heart, I stabbed her!"

and so things wear on for 11-12 minutes at a stretch. It would take half an hour for one guy to say "How are you?" and the other to reply "Just fine. You?"

The subtitle screen would go blank for minutes at a stretch because the lyrics were not conveying anything that would advance the plot whatsoever. When this happens (Aida is another example) my Philistine mind wanders aimlessly. The fact the music (orchestra and singing, both) are doing monumental service to the composer's work cannot, in my mind, cover for the fact the composer himself is dragging me into a comatose stupor.

Our boxmates -- for the first time in two years, that we've noticed -- left at the end of Act One, probably thinking that whatever Caesar Augustus did to Cleopatra was well deserved and likewise wondering if Brutus wasn't perfectly justified in ventilating Julius Caesar's torso, if history was anything close to the Handel's account of it. Half the folks in the adjoining box left also at the end of Act One, and the rest followed by the end of Act Two. I could peer below me and spot a massive exodus, like a nouveau riche Grapes of Wrath, by the end of Act Two.

Handel was hemorrhaging people out of the theatre. The only way more people would have left more quickly would have been for the police to announce that a suspicious briefcase had been found making a ticking noise right next to one of the building's load-bearing walls.

We? We stuck it out because I'm too well-bred to walk out, especially when the artists are reaching dizzying heights with material that, honestly, didn't deserve the love and skill being lavished upon it. The singers, in particular, sang their lungs out. Not just Partridge and company, but also Elise Quagliata (Cornelia) and Katherine Calcamuggio (Sesto) sang beautifully, especially given the rather somber material with which they had to work.

As it was, I worried about the nearly one hour hacked off the running time (Nireno, in particular, bore the brunt of these excisions) but given that:

1- We had an 8pm curtain after a long Friday and
2- That an extra hour probably only represented an additional paragraph of information, and
3- That if people were already fleeing the theatre as if vials of anthrax were being lobbed indiscriminately at only a +/- 3 hour running time,

there might have been a riot if it ran a picosecond longer than that.

Fortunately, there were enough people (I'd say half the house, down from a near-sellout at curtain) to give Partridge, Gaston and Wedow the richly deserved standing ovations they earned in spite of Handel's conspiring against them.

That's that.

-J.

* I'm riffing off Jackie Mason on this.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In praise of the polo tennis shirt.

A while back, I touched obliquely on the ideal tennis shirt and how it may only be obtained on eBay.

Still, some background is in order.

These days, alas, most people foolishly refer to this style of shirt as a "polo shirt." Which it is emphatically not. Not that long ago, most folks called this shirt "an Izod" or an "alligator shirt" because for all intents and purposes there was only one, the very highly coveted Izod Lacoste shirt.

The alligator part was wrong, too. It was a crocodile, the mascot of the shirt's inventor, French tennis star René "Le Crocodile" Lacoste, who used to slap images of the reptile in question -- as can be seen heah -- on pretty much any raiments he wished to wear.

Today we call this style of shirt a "polo" not because polo players wear them (they don't, the true polo shirt has a collar the same fabric as the body and hemmed sleeves) but because a certain Mr. Ralph Lauren cornered the market on this tennis shirting when there was fractious upheaval between the Izod and Lacoste contingent in the late 1980s-early 1990s. This is why the "alligator" shirt disappeared for a long time and only now is available as a Chemise Lacoste, which ain't the same thing.

The original Ralph Lauren version, to distinguish itself somewhat from the (then) Izod Lacoste version was made of a pima cotton interlock knit, while the I-L version was made from a cotton piqué knit. The former wore down to a softer and fuzzier finish, while the latter became cooler and crisper. I happen to prefer the latter, myself. Apparently, so did Mr. Lauren, because the Polo line barely carries the interlock-type, and mostly is seen in a piqué variant. Either due to the staple of cotton used, or the specific sort of piqué knit, it doesn't wear down as crisp-n-cool as the old I-L, but there ya go.
The question, then, is where are we to find the "good" shirts today if we don't want to go eBaying? For some people, eBaying is a problem. The I-L shirts tend to shrink over time and even when new, the XL (or "grand patron") is not much different from a biggish Medium today, so imagine what it's like after 15 years of laundering.
If we want an piqué knit tennis shirt, with
1- Not overlong sleeves (an unfortunate tic of the mid1990s) with ribbed edging
2- Proper "tennis tails" (i.e. the back tail is longer than the front of the shirt)
3- A two button placket -- three buttons are more golf/polo territory
4- That will launder down to a cool and crisp finish our options are somewhat limited. Brooks Brothers' "Golden Fleece" version carried the torch for a couple of years after the Izod v. Lacoste divorce, but BB has been bought and sold more often than can be recounted, and these shirts have been among the casualties. Polo is not among the desirables, for the reasons enumerated above (although RL's Purple Label is quite good if you can stomach the wallet-eviscerating prices).
Preppy standbys like LL Bean are only adequate if your neck is longer and thinner than average, because LLB fetishizes models that must have a few giraffe chromosomes. Joseph A. Bank is OK, but the "oversized" cut and lack of tennis tails is troublesome; although the prices -- especially on sale -- can be bargains.
The closest thing to the classic of yesteryear, today, is Lands' End's "Men's Banded Original Mesh Polo Shirt" which has the advantage of not carrying a logo and being available with a monogram (for $5) and at $20-$25, the price is right and the cut is close-enough, even if the sleeves are a teeny bit long. (If you can find their "Summer" polo shirt -- and good luck with that -- you'll have the ideal shirt.)
I have spoken,
-J.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Click unto me.

My latest is up at Vinapedia. Please click (early and often), and keep me in free wine.

Thanky much.

-J.