Monday, September 1, 2014

Of Tan Suits and Shoulders. . .

Isn't there more serious stuff in the world to talk about at the moment than whether or not President Obama should, or should not have worn this tan suit the other day?

Looking around the menswear blogosphere, social media, and the online versions of the press the last several days, a few points have come up about President Obama's tan and presumably Brooks Brothers suit the other day that warrant some balanced response.

One, tan is a summertime suit color, and Washington, D.C. is still oppressively hot and humid at this time of year, late August-early September.   Good Lord, the man was dressed, wore decent looking shoes, and a necktie.  It's not as though he had an Italian silk paisley pocket square bursting forth from his outer chest pocket like some kind of silly popinjay.  The President actually looks kind of nondescript in his attire here, and isn't that what we should strive for, to some degree, with a suit?  Beau Brummel supposedly once remarked that the mark of a well-dressed man was not turning heads as he walked past.  Or something like that.

Two, there was a time when American presidents, male politicians, and those aspiring to political office appeared in different colored suits besides the now ubiquitous navy, charcoal, gray if we're lucky, or (shudder) black.  Or the dreadfully contrived rolled-up shirt sleeves, dad jeans, and no tie in an effort to resonate with the masses.  It wasn't always so however.  Find pictures of FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower to see what I mean.  They were also in office during tense, rather challenging times, and, as far as I know, no one called their leadership into question based on their choice of suit for a given day.   

Three, the armholes and shoulders do indeed look too large in the photo above.  No argument there.  But surely there must be a happy medium between a jacket or coat that is too large, and the current trend of guys with non-bodybuilder physiques walking around in sports jackets and suit coats that are far too tight across the shoulders, upper arms, and across the waist and hips, which invariably pulls into that dreaded X.  Right?  Or am I crazy?

Four, the length of this particular suit coat, to my eyes, looks about right on a tall, thin man like President Obama.  Once again, this is more in line with a classic look rather than the current and generic "H&M Trend" (for want of a better term) for short, skimpy, even tight jackets.  Let's not forget that current classic style luminaries like Dr. Andre Churchwell, Will Boehlke, and Luciano Barbera routinely wear suit coats and sports jackets that are longer than the current taste of the people as marketed to them by various fashion outlets around the world.  

Here's a little secret.  Fashion is not style, and only rarely do the two meet.  The former is fleeting and subject to the whim of designers and corporate marketing and advertising types, who change things up rapidly and sell it to the masses, most of whom part willingly with their dollars, euros, and yuan.  And then they toss the stuff out like sheep as soon as something new crosses their paths.  I read somewhere recently that the new cycle for this kind of thing is down to just a few weeks at a time in our globalized 21st century economy.  

That is fashion.  Style, by contrast, is more constant, refined, understated, individual, and developed over time.  The trick is to acquire enough knowledge that you become quietly confident where your own classic masculine style choices are concerned.  Doing so will enable you to walk your own path, turning your back on the mass produced, disposable, overpriced, and skimpy dreck that now floods the mass market.

Granted, someone at the store where Mr. Obama's suit was purchased should have suggested that he try the next size down for his coat, which might have helped where the overly large shoulders and chest are concerned.  He might also have had the coat waist suppressed a bit to do away with the baggy fit though Brooks Brothers stuff is notable for its traditional American sack cut, so perhaps that is a moot point.  

The President's coat sleeves look like they could be a tiny bit shorter too, but since the length of his trousers appears reasonable here, why the sleeves were left overly long remains a mystery.  I suspect it is just one more indicator that very few salespeople in clothing stores know what they are doing nowadays with regard to suggesting certain basic alterations that should be a matter of course with off-the-rack attire.

Ok.  But what's the point, Heinz-Ulrich?  Here it is.  Guys, when you purchase sports jackets and suits, make sure the shoulders fit above all else.  Many men in the United States, at least, wear jackets and suit coats that are far too large with sleeves and pants that are way too long.  Realize that, in many cases, you cannot depend on the sales staff to give you the right answers when you try on and purchase new items.  Most of these people in 2014 have no clue about proper fit and proportions, not to mention basic alterations to suggest.  You'll need to do your homework.  Increase your own knowledge base where classic male style and attire are concerned, so that you can make more informed decisions before you purchase anything, whether that is at thrift/charity shops, or at full retail prices. 

What does that men exactly?  Study the titles by Alan Flusser, Bernhard Roetzel, et al on classic male attire.  Examine countless pictures online of genuine style icons like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, JFK, Steve McQueen, and countless others.  Get a real sense of classic proportions and silhouette.  And find a good tailor for at least basic alterations -- sleeve length, waist suppression, and inseam -- before you wear those newly acquired items.  

Don't bother with trendy periodicals like GQ or Esquire either for information on masculine style and attire.  These once relevant publications are now nothing more than glossy advertorial rags that push the latest trends, much more appropriate for the Axe set than for adult men of style, sophistication, and substance.  Whatever you do, don't become one of the many clueless guys walking around out there, who wear their  sports jackets and suits a size or two too large, to say nothing of appearing in public with overly long pants that puddle around one's ankles.  

Likewise, don't force your 44 Regular bodies into a 38 Short suit coats with floodwater length pants/trousers to match either like so many of the peacocks on display at various men's clothing events around the globe, for instance the annual Pitti Uomo tradeshow.  There is a happy medium between the the extremes of too large and too snug, but you need to be able to recognize it, and there is a small learning curve.  However, don't let that put you off.  The journey to that pot of gold at the end of the menswear style rainbow is more than half the fun.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fall and Cooler Weather Are on the Way. . .

Since we are talking three-piece suits below, this graphic seems apt.  The Monty Python boys in action, circa 1970.

We are in the midst of the three-day Labor Day Weekend here in the United States, traditionally seen as the end of the summer season and the start of fall, although warm temperatures hang on in many places across North America until at least October, and Autumn does not begin officially until the Equinox 'round about September 21st, give or take a day.

Which brings us to clothing and today's thrift/charity shop find.  I've wanted a heavier weight three-piece suit for quite some time -- my father used to have and wear several during his executive days on Wall Street in Manhattan during the 1970s and 80s -- but have had no luck turning up anything locally or online.  And, let's be honest, male academics aren't really in need of a such a garment these days either.  Most of them look as bad as the students they teach.  Nevertheless, you can imagine my surprise when I came across a Polo Ralph Lauren suit, made in the good ol' U.S. of A., in heavy, very soft wool flannel during a quick stop at one of my two reliably good local thrift/charity outlets earlier today.

As you'll see once the camera has finished charging, and I upload a photograph or two, the suit is a lovely, mottled mid- to dark gray with chalk stripes.  The previous owner must not have worn it very much because there is no sign of wear on the elbows, across the seat of the pants/trousers, or anywhere else on the three pieces that comprise this suit.  No holes, snags, pills, or stains leapt out at me either as I examined everything in the shop before making the decision to buy.  

The coat is fully canvased and features a single vent.  It's even got a functioning boutonniere hole on the left lapel.  In addition, there are double forward facing pleats on the pants/trousers, which are lined to the knees, with brace buttons inside the waistband.   Finally, the young lady behind the cash register even threw the shaped wooden suit hanger into the transaction with a smile.  How's that for service?

The two coolest bits of information about this suit are yet to come.  First, it cost less than US$5, including tax.  Second, once I returned home and tried everything on calmly for a second time, it fit like it was made for me.  My wife, the Grand Duchess, confirmed it when I modeled the suit for her a short while later.  And as far as I can tell, only the waist of the pants/trousers will need to be altered.  It needs to be let out an inch or so, and I'll also ask my tailor Mrs. V. to remove the belt loops since I plan on wearing this with braces. 

Otherwise, the inseam and sleeve lengths are perfect, with the former having a medium break on the tops of my shoes, and the latter allowing about 3/4" of linen to show.  The vest/waistcoat fits snugly but not too tightly, and when buttoned the coat fits well with a neat upper back, shoulders, and chest.  It features a suppressed waist, but nothing too pronounced or tight.  Just right.  I suspect at this point that some wags might scoff and say "You'll look like Bertie Wooster in that get-up. . .  or an old-fashioned bank manager from the 1930s.  You had better get yourself a bowler hat and a black umbrella, old boy!"  Bowler hat notwithstanding, there are certainly worse things a guy could resemble.

The lesson in all of this excited blather about three-piece suits is that if you look long enough, you will eventually find that item you covet and at a rock bottom price.  Dressing with some classic style and sophistication need not cost an arm and a leg. . .  contrary to what many might think.  You must simply have a clear idea of what you want to add to your wardrobe and be persistent in your search for it.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Monday, August 25, 2014

What a long, strange trip it's been. . .

 Another view up Bascon Hill, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, toward Bascon Hall and the statue of Abe Lincoln with Van Hise Hall (my old stomping grounds) peeking out just to the right.

Today's post has nothing to do with attire, conduct, or, indeed, style in any sense.  Instead, it has to do with pure nostalgia.  It was exactly 20 years ago that yours truly left Pennsylvania and headed west to Madison, Wisconsin as a transfer student to the mighty UW-Madison to continue my education. Right about now in '94, I was starting a part-time work-study job in the Geography Library (in the beautiful and historic Science Hall below) and settling into the newest chapter in my life by exploring the isthmus downtown and mainlining plenty of caffeine in the various cafes that line State Street, the largely pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches from Library Mall at the edge of campus all the way to Capitol Square right downtown. 

 An autumn view from Van Hise Hall of part of campus and downtown Madison.

Notable courses that first semester included Masterpieces of Scandinavian Literature: Sagas to 1900 taught by the late Professor Niels Ingwersen, with whom I later worked closely as a graduate student and teaching assistant.  He was a mentor of sorts although he was not my official adviser.   There was also Russian History 417: The Middle Ages to 1814, and my absolute favorite, the first semester of Second Year Norwegian.  The less said about my computer science course the better.  Not especially interesting, exciting, or relevant. . .  even then.  But otherwise, what an incredibly thrilling time the next five years were.  

Van Hise Hall with Lake Mendota, University Bay, and Picnic Point beyond.

If I could change just one thing about those years in Madison, it would be to have met and spent time with my wife, the Grand Duchess, while I attended UW-Madison.  I had to go a short distance up Interstate 94 to Minneapolis-Saint Paul, to meet her at the University of Minnesota, where I continued my studies in a Ph. D. program in 2000.  Madison would have been amazing to experience with her beyond the occasional weekends we have enjoyed there since meeting and eventually marrying in '06.

 An old favorite on State Street close to Capitol Square.

As I think I mentioned here recently, my nostalgia for Madison always comes to the fore each August, but it is stronger this year.  If I could figure out an easy way to return and establish residence in the city, I would do so in an instant.  Barring that, somewhere in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Bergen (Norway), Berlin, Bremen, L├╝beck, or maybe Hamburg in Germany would do equally nicely, thank you.  All places with water strangely.  And then there is always Bolzano in Northern Italy where I've not yet been, but it looks delightful.  And Italian men know how to dress!  But Madison comes as close to feeling like "home" for me at this point in my life more so than anywhere else.  Funny how the mind and memory combine with pleasant life experiences to create these wistful longings for a certain place and time.

Back at the edge of campus, Science Hall at the foot of Bascom Hill, where I worked for three years in the Geography Library on the second floor at left through the arched windows.

On another note, imagine my surprise and delight to discover yesterday that I do not, in fact, begin teaching until Tuesday this week (tomorrow).  So, one last relatively carefree morning at home before the long summer vacation comes to an end.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Focus, focus, focus. . .

Another great, old Laurence Fellows illustration.  This is how it's done, guys although admittedly the white gloves and walking stick might be a bit, um, twee in 2014.

Whether it involves working to kick up your everyday style several notches, doing well in school, advancing your career, or improving some aspect of your private life. . .  Focus Grasshopper!  Ignore and avoid the butterfly tendencies that plague the masses.  You must focus.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Friday, August 22, 2014

Damn straight!

A snappy looking 1950s-era businessman.  Bring it on baby!  It's time to put the poorly conceived and invariably badly executed 'business casual' to bed once and for all.  If you look like hell, your attitude and efficiency in the workplace are going to follow suit.  Do you really want someone who resembles an itinerant worker, perhaps better suited to raking leaves in your yard and shoveling snow from your front walk, handling your business and legal affairs, to say nothing of keeping you healthy, running your country, or educating your children?

This was but one of many comments in reply to this question, posed a few days ago, on the Daily Prep blog: Will suits and ties return as a business staple?

"A coat & tie, heavy starched OCBD, shined Aldens,white pocket square,shaved, & barbered up represents a standing rebuke to the forces of moral & cultural relativism. It makes the great unwashed uncomfortable. To me, it constitutes an old school grownup, which all should aspire to be. Gravitas, maturity, & respect...speaking softly & carrying a big stick....a steaming dreadnaught parting the waves. Wear a sport coat every day & a suit on Friday's as a means of silent protest. When asked about the suit, I reply that I am having lunch with some grownups downtown at my club. They get the message and no follow up questions." -- Anonymous

Priceless.  And damn right.  While I do not secretly long for a return to the Cold War, the Red Scare, or second class status for women and minorities, it's time to stem the tide of the great unwashed and the attitudes that go with it.  Practicing basic standards of accepted polite behavior and professional appearance in the white collar world, as well as elsewhere in society, would be a sound idea.  Hey, a guy can dream right?

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BE a Guest for the Love of Pete!

A very funny old movie that is worth seeing.

This little tidbit of social info will seem decidedly anachronistic in our current era of extremely informal backyard barbecues and/or beer and all-you-can-eat buffalo wings, chips, and runny salsa for US$3.99 as you hold up the bar in the local sportsbar and stare mindlessly at the flat-screen TV on the wall without actually looking at the people to whom you are speaking, but it's still worth knowing if you aspire to kick up your everyday style several notches.  Sooner, or later, you will be invited to a more formal evening sit-down dinner with tablecloths and place settings.  So, you'll naturally want to come across as polished, urbane, and practiced in how you conduct yourself before and during the evening.  You don't want to embarrass yourself (or anyone else) after all.

When you are invited to someone's home for the evening, it is polite to bring some kind of tasteful host/hostess gift.  That should go without saying.  This item might be a small potted plant, a bunch of flowers, a small box of good quality chocolates, or the ubiquitous bottle or two of table wine.  You are showing your appreciation for the invitation with things like these.  Beyond that, and unless you are asked to do so specifically -- or if the event is one of those (usually. . .  but not always) godawful stand-up potluck affairs -- do not under any circumstances confuse the issue by asking "Great!  Now, what can I bring?"  

Assuming care and forethought have gone into the meal to which you have been invited -- We aren't talking about pizza and beer for the Big Game on TV with your best buds from college! -- there is no need for you to bring the salad, the rolls, the first course, the last course, the dessert, or whatever else might enter your mind in the middle of the night.  If you are actually asked to bring something for the meal, great.  If, instead, the answer is "No, thank you.  We've got it all taken care of," then accept that and stop insisting to the contrary.  You might think you are being nice, but the chances are pretty good that your host(s) have put some care into planning the meal, and what you bring might not fit in with that very well with the evening's theme or menu.

Besides that, a spate of nervous last minute telephone calls asking, "Are you sure I can't bring X, Y, or Z?", like the kind we invariably get from the wife of a couple with whom we are good friends whenever we invite them for dinner, is obnoxious in the extreme during the 90 minutes before arrival time as your hosts race through final preparations.  That's almost as bad as badgering someone for an invitation.  Don't do it!  You don't want your hosts to consider striking you from their mental future invitations list after the evening is over and everyone has gone home, right?  I didn't think so.

Nope.  It really is better when you accept a dinner invitation to purchase the host/hostess gift beforehand and leave it at that.  Be a guest for the love of Pete!  It might also be a good idea to shower, shave, clip your finger nails, and put on clean clothes before leaving home too.  Don't forget to tuck in your shirt and wear a belt either.  Remember.  You're not having a cold one with your cousin in the backyard after helping him install a new sump pump on a steamy Saturday afternoon in July.  A sit-down dinner is a more formal occasion and deserves to be approached as such.  Your hosts will appreciate your efforts. Even if they say nothing.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Earn Reasonable Grades in Your College and University Courses. . .

At least this professor has his shirt tucked in and wears a belt.  Some of the 30 to 60-something male professors at my small university look as bad as the students!

The following is a reprise of an earlier post from a year or two ago here at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style, but it seems like a good idea to revisit it in view of yesterday's post of dressing and behaving better on college and university campuses.  Here we go.

How do you succeed in my courses?  Easy.  Here’s how:

1)     Buy the required textbook(s) ASAP and bring it/them to every class.  Don’t show up without it.  Don’t wait three or four weeks to visit the bookstore or order the book(s) online.  Don’t depend on your buddy, teammate, or roommate to borrow his or her copy outside of class.  Buy it now!

2)     Come to class with writing materials (paper, pens, or pencils) for every class period.  You aren’t six, and this ain’t grade school.

3)     Do the assigned reading, exercises, and papers when they are assigned.  Turn the latter in on the days they are due.  And do not e-mail your work to me unless I request it.  It’s not my responsibility to supply you with paper, ink, and staples or try to open a corrupted file you’ve sent me.   And the old excuse “I e-mailed it to you, didn’t you get it?” is just that.  An excuse.  A very poor one.

4)     Attend classes routinely and listen attentively.  Surprise!  That means you put the laptops and I-phones away, unless they are part of the course design, stop doodling in class, stop trying to see the clock from wherever you are sitting, and look at me or whoever else might be speaking at the front of the room or lecture hall!  Finally, leave your ego and attitude somewhere else.  It does not matter to me that you might have gotten A’s in your high school courses with little or no effort.  College is a different ball game altogether.  The material is harder, there is more of it, and more is required of you.  Get used to it.

5)     Engage with the material and planned class activities for the day.  Show some initiative.  Don’t sit there like a bump on a log.  Ask questions and seek further clarification if you are confused or don't understand something.  Maybe attend my office hours once in a while?

6)     When you get a paper and a grading rubric back, don’t just grumble or whine about that low B or C grade.  Look at my comments and suggestions to you!  That is where you will learn what you might do to improve your grade the next time around.

7)     Seek out a writing tutor if and when you still have problems expressing and developing and articulating your ideas, whatever the subject matter might be, or if you still have various mechanical issues to eradicate from your writing.

8)    Turn in highly polished papers that present your ideas through interesting, well-supported, insightful discussion.  Your work should also be free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation problems.  This is college, not the first grade.

9)     Don’t have your parents e-mail or call me.  You are the one registered for the course and, presumably, doing the work.  You are also at least 18 years old, able to vote, serve in the military, behave foolishly now that you are away from home, and take responsibility for your actions when things head south.  You talk to me about your challenges.

10)  Don’t waste time, either your own, or everyone else’s.  It’s time to grow up and get serious about your future.

11)    Stop making lame excuses.  A large part of functioning as an adult involves doing what is required of you instead of bitching about it.  Make sure you do solid work and accept responsibility for your choices and behavior. 

12)  Realize and accept that not everyone earns (or deserves) an A.  A’s are awarded for exceptional work over and above the basic requirements laid out in the course syllabus.

That is, in a nutshell, how to succeed in my classes and finish with a passing grade (usually at least somewhere in the C range).  I'd stake money that these tips will help you do better in your college or university courses wherever you might attend school.  Hmmm.  I might just go through an abbreviated version of this with my own students when classes begin next Monday and Tuesday.  Now, there's an idea!

-- Heinz-Ulrich