Wednesday, January 21, 2009


World War II ended and the soldiers came home. With them they brought the military contract work trousers that had taken them through Germany, North Africa and Southeast Asia. They were tough as steel and, eventually, soft as flannel and remarkably dashing. The best part was that they looked good with a uniform shirt, but they made the transition to a sport-shirt easily.

Then, sometime in the 1980s, Levi, Strauss and Company got hold of them and made them into Dockers. The pants became more tailored, the fabric less resilient, and the construction became that of Chinese national slave labor. What had once been unabashedly American, became trash.

Fortunately for us, for a price, good khakis are still available. Bills Khakis of Reading, Pennsylvania produces real, honest-to-God World War II style khaki pants. And you pay for them. They cost around a hundred dollars a pair, but, given the devaluation of the dollar and the quality of these trousers, they are truly well worth it. These get better with washings and soon your oldest pair will be your favorite. Bills Model 1 is cut in the 1930s style, full in the seat and legs. Gentlemen don't need pleats, though Bills does offer them, should you so desire.

The best part is that Bills now offers this traditional off-the-rack cut of slacks in a variety of fabrics and colors including corduroys and woolens.

These pants are definitely not your Dockers – the cut is full, the waist is high, the pockets are deep and the fabric is engineered to take Guadalcanal. Your grandkids will be fighting over these babies.

Cuffs or no cuffs? Personally, I like the look of cuffs on my slacks, mainly because that's the way Dad did it. When they were elements of uniforms, of course, they were finished plain. Plain hems give a more streamlined look to your trousers, but Bills Model 1s are not streamlined pants – they are baggy high-waisted pants. I think that cuffs give a more opulent look to the trousers, and Bills deserve to be showcased richly, so cuffs it is.

You will need to have several pair of khakis – a pair of crisply pressed khakis and a pair of faded and worn khakis. These are the staple of your wardrobe. Well pressed with a dress shirt, a necktie and a blazer these will take you through most interviews and dinner at the club. A bit rumpled with a sport-shirt and a pair of Top-siders, they will take you to the cocktail party at the marina. Truly these are the most versatile trousers in a gentleman's wardrobe, so don't skimp on them.

If Bills are unavailable in your area, look for trousers made of pure cotton – polyester/cotton blends, while better than they were two decades ago, still look cheesy. Plain fronts are better than pleats. Look for a full cut to ease movement. Details like watch pockets and flapped rear pockets are nice. Quality of construction, as with every element of your wardrobe, is essential. If they have advertising or brand names on the bum, carefully remove it. Rule of thumb: With the single and notable exception of blue jeans, you do not want advertising on your clothing.

The Blue Blazer

The backbone of any gentleman's wardrobe is the navy blue blazer. The historical roots of the blazer are lost: some claim that it is based on a uniform favored by the captain of the HMS Blazer in the Victorian era, others claim that they were once brightly colored jackets worn by the crews of Oxford, producing a blaze of color. Whatever the historical precedent is, it is not so significant; today it is the quietly dashing foundation of the man's wardrobe.

Eventually you will have several blazers, but you will start with one. I recommend, for your first lone blazer, a decent quality worsted wool model with subdued brass buttons. The cut should be an un-tapered three-button, cut to have the middle button fastened normally and the top and bottom buttons left undone. Patch pockets at the hip level are traditional - this jacket is the heir to a working-class tradition, so the simpler construction fits. The reason for the lack of taper is twofold: 1) for comfort in a variety of situations, and 2) to facilitate layering over sweaters and heavy shirts.

Your blue blazer may be worn with khakis and a sport-shirt for a dashing casual look, or with our best dress shirt and dark gray flannel trousers as a substitute for your most formal suit. With a crisp dress shirt, a conservative silk necktie and a pair of good gray flannels, a blue blazer will take you to the most formal of affairs.

Once you have your wardrobe established, you may wish to expand your blue blazer collection. You should have a good quality heavy "doeskin" flannel single-breasted model as your most formal winter jacket, and a hopsack blazer for those summer picnics. If you like, you may include a double-breasted blazer, but not your most formal models - double-breasted jackets are best reserved for deck parties on the yacht or the cruise. Avoid the urge to don a skipper's cap.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Gentleman's Wardrobe

I have been reevaluating my wardrobe of late, and I have found that much of what a classic wardrobe is has been lost on modern sales staff. Even at places like Nordstrom, the help in Gentlemen's Suits have little idea of what a gentleman's wardrobe should have.

I am blogging here in order to discuss the basics of a man's wardrobe, and some talk of the extras that a gentleman does not need, but may enjoy.