Friday, August 28, 2009

The Denim Discussion

Denim. We had to talk about it eventually.

Invented in France as a rugged, utility material, died with cheap indigo dye, it was the stuff of working class trousers, hardy and coarse. As it happened, the exact combination that they hit on was a moment of ingenious synchronicity – the fabric, whilst coarse, washes wonderfully and, as it ages it becomes wonderfully soft. The indigo dye, starts as a harsh dark blue, but, as it washes it also softens, taking on its own character, eventually to an ever paling sky blue and, finally, it turns almost white. In the latter half of the twentieth century we found that denim and washing machines are made for one another. And, if you fold denim trousers right out of the dryer, you don't even have to iron them.

But denim is more than merely convenient: it is poetic. A soft, old pair of pale blue jeans are as at home in the Rocky Mountains as a pair of khakis on the Serengeti. They speak of broad, blue skies and poetry in the forest. They are romantic.

So why do so many old school pundits of gentlemen's wardrobe still disdain jeans as belonging to those who mow our lawns, but are certainly not gentlemen? It is because of denim's working-class roots. Unlike khakis, denim did not have the Ernest Hemingways and William Buckleys of the world acting as full-time spokesmodels. Denim was included in Hollywood's reinvention of the Wild West and was worn by the likes of Roy Rogers and John Wayne in their hundred year re-conquest of the open prairie. Denim was tough and working-class, but it was not elegant.

And then the eighties came along, rescuing us from the polyester decade of the seventies and introduced the denim shirt. I am not talking about the denim work shirt or the denim western shirt, but, rather, the finished denim button-down, and it became the blue blazer of the modern age. It could be worn with a tweed sport coat, corduroy trousers and a coarsely woven necktie, and it was at home in the Ivy League classroom or the elegant chophouse. With sleeves rolled and the collar open, it can easily pair with Bermuda shorts on the beach. It is truly an all-purpose shirt. Given its resilience and resistance to wrinkles, it is the perfect travel companion. And its softness next to your skin will lend you strength at the interview for the Big Job as well. The wait staff at Les Halles in New York City wears denim shirts with spread collars and French cuffs – I have coveted these ever since I first saw them, but have never been able to find one.

All of this makes us think that, perhaps, we should reevaluate the ever present blue jeans.

In my opinion, the blue jeans are a perfectly acceptable casual addition to the gentleman's wardrobe, certainly west of the Mississippi. You need to be aware of the characteristics of various denim trousers, however, and make your selections carefully.

First of all, for most of us, Wranglers are completely inappropriate. If you spend a good deal of time in the saddle of a horse, either for work or play, then Wranglers are the blue jeans of choice, and you should wear them. They are very tight in the buttocks and the thighs for the purpose of avoiding uncomfortable wrinkles between you and your saddle. For those of us who do not ride in jeans, however, they are just trampy. It is like a lovely, busty maid squeezing into a tube-top: It puts everything on display, but not to the beset advantage. And, to make things worse, every country-bar dwelling pretend cowpoke dons the Wranglers in order to give himself some cowboy cred. It doesn't work.

Most so-called designer brands are also wrong for men. They are means of advertising your net worth on your bum, and, as dad had it, if you have to tell me that you are rich, you are not. Some designer brands, Ralph Lauren and Façonnable to name two, are excellent in their design. They are also startlingly expensive. L.L. Bean still carries excellent house-brand jeans, and the website,, offers designs that will suit every taste.

In selecting your blue jeans, remember the Aristotelian rule of thumb: Avoid extremes. You neither want your jeans to be too tight, nor too loose. Not too new, nor too old. On young girls, holes in the knees can be quite enticing, but never on gentlemen's jeans. Because I am cut a bit like a box, my blue jeans of choice are Levi's 505s. They are similar in cut to the classic 501s, but they have zippers in lieu of the button flies. I find that the button holes on the current breed of 501s are wearing out just about the time that the jeans are getting good, whereas the brass zippers of the 505s last a few lifetimes.

Once you have selected your jeans, wear them well, but not inappropriately. Wearing rugged jeans with a dinner jacket or a sport coat was creative and naughty in 1981, now it is back to being inappropriate. They pair well with sport shirts or tee shirts. With a crisp button-down they will take you to lunch at Ahwahnee, but break out the well pressed khakis and a blue blazer for dinner.

In short, every gentleman should have a dark denim dress shirt in his wardrobe. Blue jeans are less necessary, but they do make a nice alternative to khakis periodically. Just remember to be cognicent of the design and quality of your denim, and it will serve you well for years to come.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Shirts in Colors

For the bulk of the nineteenth century, a gentleman's dress shirt was white. Colors and patterns in shirts were the domain of the working man, something to brighten his life of browns and tans. The gay nineties changed many traditions of the Victorian era, and by the end of the century, gentlemen's dress shirts were available in stripes and patterns of tremendous variety. Innovation continued through the 1920s, and then, with the onslaught of the depression, as with so many things, innovation ceased.

But that is alright. The thirty-five years of shirt creativity left gentlemen with a wide variety of colors and patterns. There are any number of stripes and colors available to the modern gentleman that are perfectly acceptable.

For the most formal of wear, with the navy braided pinstripe or the Oxford grey chalk-stripe, you will want to stick with white shirts. White-on-white patterned shirts may be worn with the most formal suits, and they make subtle and elegant statements. Be aware of the pattern of your suiting and the necktie that you choose when opting for white-on-white patterns, as they can contribute to the busyness of the overall presentation.

Striped shirts of many hues are extremely handsome, but they are best worn with solid color suits, as opposed to striped suits. Striped shirts also play well with chinos and solid colored slacks excellently, as they do with blue blazers. They lend dash, style and elegance to your "intermediate" wardrobe – that which falls between an open collar and khakis and the formal suit.

Down the ladder of formality from the white-on-white and the striped shirts is a selection of pastel colored shirts. Most traditionally made of Oxford cloth and with button down collars, in pale blue, yellow and pink these are staples of the wardrobe. Again, they go excellently with khakis and blue blazers or solid blue suits. These can even be used to dress down a more formal suit. They work well with a variety of neckties. Beyond the most traditional colors, just about any pastel such as peach or apricot, pale greens and a variety of light blues work excellently. For the past twenty years a darker shade of blue, usually called French blue, has become fundamental – it is excellent and, like the white-on-white shirt, it tends to lend a bit of elegance to an otherwise more casual ensemble. Do not go darker in tone than the French blue – navy, burgundy and black shirt are great at the bowling alley, but not in the form of a dress shirt.

While colored shirts are most traditional in the U.S. with button down collars, they are perfectly appropriate with plain point or spread collars as well. Most traditionally they have plain barrel cuffs, though they are excellent with French cuffs as well when worn with non-button down collars.

In the spring and summer months, white collars and cuffs are acceptable on pastel and striped body shirts – especially with seersucker, poplin and pincord suits and, of course, with blue blazers.