Thanks for the help, Trads: An essay on suits

Dashiell.Valentine

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Thanks for the Help, Trads: An Essay on Suits.

(first post, sorry it's so long)

A good suit is where it all begins, right? The one thing that no classy man should be without. The manly counterpart to the woman's little black dress. Our fathers wore them. And our grandfathers. James Bond wore them; so did Cary Grant. And if you wear one, it won't steer you wrong. Wearing a suit when you don't have to is a classy thing to do. A masculine thing. And the benefits will outweigh the costs. You don't have to be a ***** to wear a suit. In fact, the more non-*****s who wear suits, the better off we'll all be.

This is just a random story of how, at 30 years old, I came to be interested in suits. My first suit was purchased years earlier at a vintage shop in Seattle for what seemed like a fortune at the time, $70. Until recently I couldn't identify the suit beyond the adjectives blue and stripey, but I have since identified it as a Lanvin midnight blue, center vent, two button, flannel with chalk stripes, built on Saville Row. And I seem to recall it fit more or less perfectly. Not bad for a dumb kid blindly picking out a first suit. I still wear that suit now, though it's gotten a bit snug (more from muscle than from fat, I like to claim, but I daresay it could be a little of both).

I was earning a living at the time as a variety entertainer, doing magic tricks, telling jokes and doing some knockabout comedy at cabarets and local theaters and halls in Seattle. I was working weekends at the Pike Place Market magic shop and teaching at the School of Acrobatics in South Seattle: a truly great job where, instead of flipping burgers, I flipped kids. I was constructing a comedy spaghetti juggling act and a comic trapeze act on the side. I frequently wore my one suit on stage. I wore it with my grandfather's opal cuff links, a thrifted reflective crimson and gold Wembley tie and a pair of black vintage bowling shoes.

I got married at some point, and had a baby. My wife bought me a silver swiss quartz watch for Christmas replacing my digital Timex, and the next Christmas she replaced the fake Louis Vuitton wallet that I bought in Cairo with a real one. (I was so in the dark, that when I bought it, I had never even heard of Louis Vuitton, I just liked the checkered pattern. What was I doing in Cairo? Working with the Soviet founded Egyptian National Circus, naturally). Following that, and inspired by Daniel Craig's impeccable turn as James Bond in Casino Royale, I picked out a second suit. This one new, 50% off, made in Turkey and off the rack at Express; a double vented, charcoal gray, three piece, flannel with chalk stripes and a slick burgundy lining.

By this time, eBay was not only an established way of life, it was a gerund (as in: “Are you eBaying again?”) and I was temporarily living in a city with limited vintage selections (it shall remain nameless here). It occurred to me that maybe I could get a nice suit at a good value online. So, knowing nothing about suits, I put a $125 bid on an (in hindsight) obviously counterfeit Armani. Luckily for me, I was outbid. What poor bastard outbid me I wonder? With a little research I realized what I had almost done, and I vowed to never do something so stupid again. Hundreds of hours of research ensued (you know what it's like, style forums, knowledgeable department store clerks, eBay guides...) For months, my measuring tape and I were rarely apart.

Then I bought four suits in fairly rapid succession. (I was still learning mind you, but getting better.)

Gray worsted, windowcheck, ventless, one button from Armani Collezioni for $76,

Charcoal gray sharkskin, two button, center vent, from Burberrys for $35.

Chocolate brown, two button, center vent, also from Burberrys for $55,

Black/smoke gray, twill, one button from Armani Collezioni for about $100.

I began studying for a Masters degree at the American University of Paris and with my daughter now one year old, I began wearing suits 5 or 6 days a week. But I was wearing them to death, especially some of them, since my first two suits were only suitable for the winter.

So I acquired back up in a package deal from a fellow 40R, at about $65 each.

Light gray flannel, center vent, 3/2 button, pleatless, 3 piece Brooksgate from Brooks Brothers.

Navy tropical worsted, windowcheck, center vent, 2 button, from Brooks Brothers mainline.

Medium gray, 2 button, center vent, subtle plaid from Burberrys.

Gun metal gray nailhead, 2 button, center vent, from Burberrys Prestige collection.

Now, with a crazed addict's gleam beginning to form in the corners of my eyes (and deciding I preferred Brooks Brothers to Burberrys and Armani), I picked up a couple more.

Olive/Tan birds eye, 3/2, sack suit, pleatless, from Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece for $30.

Charcoal flannel w/ light blue pinstripes, 2 button, center vent, Brooks Brothers mainline for $26.

I didn't even really want that last one, it was just too cheap to pass up. Then, I picked up one more.

Gray, glenplaid, three piece, 2 button, sack from Corbin Ltd for about $40.

I was out of control. The bargains were just too good. I had to stop. At 13 suits, I had enough, and couldn't justify any more purchases—bargains though they may have been. I remembered the old expression I had heard in my youth, that “no bargain is a bargain if you buy something you don't need.” Thirteen seemed like as good a number as any—lucky number 13—a baker's dozen. And that was that.

I still wanted to try some other brands I had learned about like Canali, Zegna and Brioni, but on the whole was a little unsure about the cockiness of the Italian suits. I'd especially like to try an Oxxford, but that would have to wait. Some suits fit like gloves, but I had a few waists taken in, a few sleeves taken up or down, a few jacket waists suppressed, and other snuggings up. Some of the pants hems I altered myself with a needle and thread and an iron. One jacket was virtually reconstructed (the nailhead Burberrys—it must have been a 40 long, and I'm on the short side of regular). My tailor (the Turk—he's 7 feet tall if he's an inch and speaks as much English as I speak French—un peu—agreed to shorten the length for a song and in the end it made for an interesting low stance 2 button.) But even after alteration costs and shipping costs the price of the suits averaged well under $100 each.

I had a few white shirts from Ross Dress for Less (some with French cuffs, some without) and since I was in Paris I picked up a pink shirt and a blue shirt at a department store for 50% off (about 12 Euros each) and the fit was nice and fitted, better than any shirt I'd ever worn in the states. I had a bunch of argyle, striped and houndstooth socks from sales at the Gap. And on my first father's day, my wife had upgraded my underwear selection from Hanes boxer briefs (which stretched out entirely too fast) to an assortment of higher end boxer briefs from the fashion houses.

Knowing Paris would get cold, I picked up a Brooks Brothers Makers Charcoal/Black Chesterfield Coat with Velvet Collar for about $100 on eBay to replace my hopelessly huge Pierre Cardin overcoat I'd thrifted years earlier. I picked up a pair of black derby styled rubber soled Ferragamo Studio shoes for about $20 (still learning, mind you, but they look good and are very comfortable). I got a pair of dark red zip up Beatles boots at a market in Paris for 15 Euros, and a pair of burgundy chester wingtips from Allen Edmonds in great shape for about $40. Along the way, I assembled an assortment of pocket squares and a couple of sweaters with gift cards and American Express points and such. I bought a few assorted ties at Ross Dress for Less, and then picked up 36 Yves Saint Lauren ties in one lot on eBay for $16.

I have a couple of nice scarves that were gifts and I'd still like to find a sleeveless sweater vest and a fawn covert coat for fall and spring. But honestly, I think I'll have to slow it all down now. I don't have much money. I'm still a grad student and my wife takes care of the baby. Maybe in a couple of years when school is out, if I find a good job, I can reassess. But for now, I think that's about it.

The only way I was able to justify this spending was that I told myself I'd wear these suits for about 20 years, and I intend to stick to that, more or less. Oh, I'll probably pick up an Oxxford at some point, or celebrate a good job with a Parisian bespoke suit. But notwithstanding some sudden monetary windfall, it's time to let go of my addiction of buying great vintage suits at low low prices. To think I wear a BB Golden Fleece for less than the cost of a pair of slacks at Target. I highly recommend it.

The second justification of the spending was that I had essentially no clothes. For about half a decade, as I worked as a street performer and vaudeville variety guy, acrobat, juggler, magician. I wore the same pair of patched oversized trousers, white double cuffed shirt --sans links, suspenders and cap for years. For formal occasions I added a crimson polka dot tie and brown jacket with elbow patches. Mega formal occasions got the blue flannel suit. It was what I called the Stanislavsky method for clowns. While it served a lot of professional purposes, it literally left me with nothing else to wear. Role models Burt Lancaster and Cary Grant both began as acrobats; and magicians have provided me some stylish role models as well like Nate Leipzig and Paul LePaul, but those names never became household ones.

I appreciate that in photos of me and my daughter, I'm usually wearing a suit. I think that is a gift to her, and years from now she'll see those photos and see that her father had class, or at least dressed like it. Which is really all I can say of my ancestors who, in those old photographs, just look classy as hell. I don't know much about them, but they dressed with style.



These are some things I've learned:
  • With fashion houses, you pay for the name, not the quality. But on eBay everything is pretty cheap.
  • As standards of quality fall, if you can't afford bespoke, vintage is a perfectly acceptable and logical solution.
  • I don't mind the old fashioned look of pleats, but sometimes they cause me trouble by puffing up the crotch like an inflatable bouncy castle when I sit down. I wear suspenders with the most severely offending ones, and that helps a little.
  • I've learned that although I am 5'10 in shoes as they say, my torso is short so I always look like I belong in a James Cagney movie or in pugilist shorts.
  • My arms are a little short, too.
  • I like the look of a gray flannel suit and a narrow black tie.
  • Too much accessorizing, I fear, would lead me down a slippery slope to dandyism and foppishness.
  • Not enough accessorizing, and I fail to appease my need for attention to detail.
  • Sack suits have an unpretentious quality that I have come to admire. Similarly, Allen Edmonds shoes just have that humble stamp of quality that seems to represent America in its prime.
  • By competing in haute couture, Brooks Brothers is treading a dangerous path.
  • I like a 3/2 rolled lapel as much as the next guy, but there really isn't much point to the top button.
  • If I had functional sleeve buttons (someday, maybe) I'd leave the bottom one unbuttoned, just like I leave the bottom button unbuttoned on the jacket, the top button unbuttoned on the shirt, and the bottom button unbuttoned on the vest. Or conversely, for a special occasion, I'd button them all (well, not the bottom suit button, I suppose).
  • Ventless jackets get a bad rap. Edith Head put lots of the guys in the old Hitchcock movies in ventless suits and I think they look good. A bit impractical, maybe, but nicer looking then people say. But, as much 1950s as 1980s.
  • For me, French department store shirts are a great way to go.
  • My ass, (all muscle, though it may be) is too substantial to really pull of the double vent.
  • I had mysterious skin problems and when I threw away my Barbisol shaving cream and switched from three blade lift and cut cartridges to single blade safety razors and shaving lather, the problems vanished.
  • I am prepared to someday defend myself with my umbrella.
  • For now I use a square fold, because I'm not old enough to pull off poofs or peaks.
  • On the Fred Astaire vs. Cary Grant style debate...sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't.
  • When asked why I am wearing a suit, I respond with the line, “this is Paris, what am I a farmer?”
  • You shouldn't take any s*&! for looking nice.
 
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LeicaLad

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Nice piece, and thoughtfully personal.

Ignore the arrogance of the jaded.

We could use a few more reflective pieces that chart the progression of personal taste.

Thanks.
 

Peak and Pine

Connoisseur
Am inclined to avoid those super-long posts where the poster talks endlessly about himself (as if we cared). But yours wasn't that. Very well done, particularly your conclusions at the end (but should you credit Alec Baldwin for the farmer line?).
 

RipRoar

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Great leadoff home run. Don't feel bad about mixing in some bunts or bloop singles over the course of the season ;)

I don't remember my intro post, but it is certainly shamed by this doozy. Well done, and welcome. Cheers!:icon_cheers:
 

Trip English

Honors Member
Am inclined to avoid those super-long posts where the poster talks endlessly about himself (as if we cared). But yours wasn't that. Very well done, particularly your conclusions at the end (but should you credit Alec Baldwin for the farmer line?).

Actually, the Alec Baldwin line is "Good lord, it's after 6pm. What am I, a farmer?"

Still probably Baldwin inspired, but I don't know how MLA would have you attribute it.
 
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