Sartorial Notes on Elegance and Vulgarity
Some things must be experienced to be understood…such is the case with elegance and vulgarity. However, if it is possible to paint a picture with words of these opposite concepts, then I will give it my best effort.
~ On Vulgarity ~
I’ve never liked the word menswear.
In fact, if you say the word menswear, my mind will instantly tune out of the conversation.
As an American, perhaps the word menswear leaves a wry taste because of the ill-famed “Men’s Wearhouse” commercials that I felt forced to watch before I could edit out commercials with the help of TiVo and Ultimate TV.
I instinctively knew that:
1) No man would admit to buying a suit from Men’s Wearhouse without a wave of blushing, heated-redness rushing to his face, and
2) selling thousands of suits as if these suits were rotting on the vine and turning moldy left me feeling like I needed to shower.
~ A Story ~
Men’s Wearhouse Experience, by firstname.lastname@example.org, November 7, 2011
I dread going into Men’s Wearhouse. Aside from my overall hatred for clothes shopping, I also can’t stand over-zealous retail employees. And Men’s Wearhouse combines those two entities better than anyone. I don’t even have my second foot in the door, and I have someone in my face, “How can I help you?” I know what I’m looking for, so I say, “Just looking, thanks.”
I head for the rack of discount shirts, and peruse for, oh, two minutes when I hear “Can I help you find anything, sir,” asks a different salesman. “Nope, I’m good.”
A few more minutes dissecting which bargain-bin shirt I’ll wear to my next formal event, I decide to look up and see if they have any other shirts around the store that might be up my alley. “Sure I can’t help you find anything buddy,” the second sales associate inquires. “No, I’m still OK, thanks, though.” I’m trying like hell to get out of this store as fast as possible, but I won’t let their anal sales practices drive me into a shirt purchase even I won’t wear. So I pick up a couple of shirts and hold them up…”Hi, have you been helped,” the polite, teenage girl asks. Yes, she’s the third different employee within a 7-minute period to ask me if I need help. Oh, and there are about 6 employees working, and only about two customers in the store.
Finally, I pick out two shirts that will hopefully last me 20 years so I never have to do this again (I had a gift card and it was buy one, get one, which is why I was there in the first place.) I get to the checkout counter and hear, “Did you find everything OK?” And I’m thinking to myself “What do you think?”
Listen, I get it. You want to have great customer service and be attentive. But you have to draw the line somewhere. Now, Men’s Wearhouse line is apparently nowhere to be found. Hopefully, you aren’t running your business like this. It’s one thing to be attentive, it’s another to be ridiculously annoying.
If you have been fortunate enough to miss the Men’s Wearhouse advertisement experience, but curiosity gets the best of you, then search “Men’s Wearhouse Commercial” on YouTube to view.
I realize that it is true that plenty-a-fellow could be down on his luck financially and feel fortunate to be able to buy a suit anywhere, whether it be at Men’s Warehouse or WalMart. But somehow to me, the idea of going to a thrift shop and buying a forgotten but elegant suit left over from a bygone (but classic) era seems much more tasteful and even less hard on the wallet than scavenging through a Men’s Warehouse full of sad sloppy suits.
Now, with this example of vulgarity complete, to break on out to the other side, and explore elegance, we must take a hard U-turn in the opposite direction and enter a most sacred place located in Greater London, UK.
~ On Elegance ~
Fast-forward to another world…a completely different world…the world of fine men’s tailoring. Move now into a magical place steeped deeply in history that creates a mental image of Winston Churchill strolling down an enchanted street of London in an understated tailored suit, carrying a fine umbrella that sways to the rhythm of his step with his head topped with a hat that seems to wink at you as you pass each other on the sidewalk. Well, this is the stuff of interest…because we move away from merely discussing “clothing” into a realm of experiencing a persona.
In London, there is a mesmerizing place on this planet where every man in the world should step foot on at least once. And, perhaps every other women would want to go there as well. This wondrous place is called London’s Savile Row.
If you don’t know what Savile Row is, first commit the pronunciation of the word Savile to memory. “Savile” rhymes with “gravel”, and Savile Row is the dream street in London for the ultimate craftsmanship in tailoring for men who want to dress their absolute best.
Savile Row is in Mayfair (Central London) and is famous for its traditional men’s bespoke tailoring. And of course, several of the streets surrounding Savile Row have equal appeal in regard to meeting the highest standards in providing expertly crafted bespoke tailoring services and goods customized down to the finest detail for each customer.
Does it seem silly to make such a big deal out a thing such as a suit?
Perhaps making a big deal out of a suit does sound silly. But, as a woman, I have had the pleasure to own a custom tailored suit and I can tell you that the experience itself can be addictive. Let the tattoo addicts have their ink, but give me my next custom-made piece.
There is a group of men who know that acquiring a suit is a serious thing and that you become a believer in tailoring once you have experienced how finely woven cloth, selected specifically to your taste, cut precisely to your size and sewn one stitch-at-a-time to accommodate every turn, twist and curve of your body feels as you step your legs into the trousers and slip your arms into the welcoming suit jacket. And, after a third or fourth fitting to adjust each detail to your liking, every part of you…just…says…yes.
~ An American Perspective ~
Now, I feel baffled and even a little reluctant to tell you that many men in America have absolutely no idea what “bespoke tailoring” is. American men have heard of Henry VIII and how Ben Franklin lost his loyalty to the English and defected to America. And of course, our men from the U.S. are quite aware of the identity of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and even know about Big Ben and the Eye.
But, ask the average American guy what bespoke tailoring is, and most likely you will be met with a blank stare. And, if you take the inquiry a step further and ask if he has heard of Savile Row, the response will most likely be a groan at the thought of getting a boring history lesson and his mind will drift towards trying out the pastrami reuben with russian dressing at the newly opened Jewish Deli two blocks over.
But, of course, there are some real exceptions to the oblivious American man. Notably…
Moreover, it was a proud moment in our very own New York city when the ever elegant Duncan Quinn, opened the first Duncan Quinn Store in NoLIta in 2003, bringing to the states a taste of the spirit of Savile Row.
Duncan credits his father, who passed down to him some time-tested 1960s tailored pieces made on Savile Row, for developing his keen interest in bespoke tailoring.
~ Long Live Savile Row ~
I cringe a little to repeat the following definition because it has been a bit over-quoted, but repeating the bespoke definition is really unavoidable. “Bespoke” is understood to have originated in Savile Row when cloth for a suit was said to “be spoken for” by individual customers.”
But wait a minute! Isn’t the term “spoken for” associated with actual people who are in love and commit to each other? How could the term “spoken for” apply to men’s garments? A gentleman named David Melita (A Gentleman’s Guide to Sartorial Elegance) expounds on the point:
Coined around the late 17th early 18th century, [spoken for] refers to the practice where a customer would choose fabric which was then made unavailable to any other client until the entire suit had been cut, assembled and sewn. During this process the tailor would refer to that particular fabric as having ‘been spoken for”.
Now, turning attention back to Savile Row’s own Patrick Grant of Norton & Sons, Patrick offers solid advice to men (and women for that matter) who are serious about finding and expressing their own style.
When asked what advice he would give a man on how he should dress, Mr. Grant offers the guidelines that he goes by himself:
“There are no rules. Wear what works for you.” says Patrick. ” I tend to wear one or two colours as a base and then a little pop of something else. I try to make sure everything is harmonious.” (Patrick Grant, The Guardian / The Observer, May 28, 2011).
Mr. Grant also offers his personal philosophy about the current climate of style in an interview by The Observer, Saturday 28 May 2011:
British men’s fashion is coming back to life. We were a dominant force right up until the Peacock Revolution, then the Italians took over. There seems to be a real momentum behind British menswear houses now * * * There’s a backlash against a couple of decades of scruffiness. There was a revulsion during the Thatcher era towards fat cats and suits. Now men are sharpening up again.
Savile Row is a quite special place,” Grant says, “Every important and well-dressed man in history has strolled along this street.
~ Final Thoughts ~
Once I shared a dinner with a venerable elderly lawyer dressed to the nines and I asked him how, after all these years, he found the motivation to consistently dress well when he went out.
He told me that people around him came to expect him to appear a certain way. And, when he came to understand that how he appeared was important to others, then he began believing that when he respected others, that he also showed respect for himself.
And I realized he was right, the way we dress is a way to show respect to ourselves and others. Brilliant.
We communicate vulgarity or elegance or something in between each time we meet another person. When we recognize this point, then presenting our best selves takes on a whole different perspective. Suddenly we can be inspired by something as simple and yet complicated as clothing. And when we finally realize that our body is a canvas that offers us the opportunity to communicate the workings of our inner self, a whole new world is opened for us to discover.