31 October 2013

Happy Hallowe'en

I vant to suck your blood......
Vintage 1949 midnight blue 4x1 double breasted tuxedo with silk shawl collar and forward pleated trousers, tailored by Hickey-Freeman for F.R.Tripler of New York, $24.99, thrift shop; pleated Brooks Brothers formal shirt, $4.99, thrift shop; black (gasp) tassel loafers by W.S.Foster and Sons, made in England,  $9.99

BOO! Seriously, though, in these days, when the hell else am I going to get to wear something this awesome. Happy Halowe'en.

29 October 2013

The Jams : Prodigal Sons (equipment edition)

I got this KLH Model Twenty-Four record player and FM radio at a thrift store (of course) a long time ago. For years, I had it set up in the basement of my house where I ran the AAW online store. Now it sees active duty in the AAW physical shop.

The vintage 1960s toothbrush actually came with it. You all know that I'm a vinyl snob/nerd, and I have a particular soft spot for old KLH, the Cambridge Massachusetts company that went on to become Cambridge Soundworks. This is a good unit, perfect for a small room. Trouble is, I never had the speaker. I've been using an old pair of plastic speakers that originally were part of a folding portable record player. Not the best, but they do they have the matching inputs and they get the job done. 

Then the other day, these turned up at the very same thrift shop that the record player came from in the first place. Heavy wood and heavy tweed.

The actual speakers that belong with the stereo. What are the chances? 

Thrift shopping can be aggravating in a way that "normal" shopping is not, but it also offers the fun of moments like these, the thrill of chance and the element of surprise.   There's nothing like a family reunion when the prodigal son decides to return.

25 October 2013

Brushing Off My Tails (alternate edition)

In the first weeks of having my Shop open, the going was pretty slow. One fine Saturday as I sat alone in the place, I decided to go downstairs and get some fresh air. After about ten minutes, I went back up to find Jade Sylvan, a friendly young lady (young fellow? I'm as open minded as anyone in Massachusetts, but I admit the terminology still confuses me sometimes. Beg patience) from the yoga studio down the hall, in my shop dressed in a vintage 1920s tail suit I had at the time. I have a weakness for old formal wear, but as a businessman I realize I should avoid it. It's so hard to sell, given that we live in a time where "dressed up" means little more than tucking in your shirt and wearing your "good jeans." This particular suit had been with me a long time. It's hard enough finding a guy who fits a size 36 short, never mind one who will ever attend a party in full evening dress. Imagine my pleasant surprise then when this affable drag king and I crossed paths. Not only did the suit fit her perfectly, but she just happened to have a release party for her new book, Kissing Oscar Wilde, coming up, the perfect occasion to be an to be a drag king in an antique suit.

Of course, dressing in drag is nothing new for bold women with strong personalities. Dietrich and Baker showed us the way back in the old days, when suits like this were new, and actually worn with some regularity, mostly by men of course. It may not be as shocking to us now as it was then, and that's a good thing. It means we're collectively getting over it. But it's still just as cool.
Marlene Dietrich in men's full evening dress, 1930s
Josephine Baker in men's full evening dress, 1920s

Jade may not be as famous (yet) as these two, but she certainly deserves to be ranked in their company. I am pleasantly surprised, and honored, that nearly one hundred years after the trail was blazed and this suit was first tailored, something I provided wound up being a part of it too.

22 October 2013

One man's costume...

The Halloween season is a thrift shop's annual cash cow, in much the same way that Christmas functions for any new retail store. Many thrift shops will stockpile certain items in anticipation of Halloween in order to build a dedicated section at the front of the store.  These racks will be packed full of things like surgeon scrubs and military uniforms, as well as hopelessly awful polyester clothing and pre-made costumes. But they are always worth a look for anyone who is a fan of traditional East Coast style menswear. For example, a Halloween rack can be a great source of tartan trousers and brightly colored corduroys, as well as embroidered "critter pants" and even tweed caps.

The jacket pictured above was recently discovered on a Halloween rack. Made in England of real bullet proof tweed in a classic British gun club check with a rust and red overcheck, it has a 3/2 darted front, single button cuffs, horn buttons, and hacking pockets. Apparently, 99.9% percent of the world looks at this and sees a funny plaid jacket. But you and I know better, don't we? It's all about context.

Happy Halloween

19 October 2013

Reader Questions: The Middle Ground

Reader Rob writes:

Hi Giuseppe,
I've been reading your blog for at least a couple years now and I have to say I am still mystified by suits.  I think mainly from a lack of hands on experience.  I do my best to make a decent appearance, despite being a chronically underemployed recent college grad, but I the only real occasion to wear my solitary suit is funerals. 

What really has me stumped is the fit/cut trends.  I'd really like a well fitting conservative suit, but all I seem to see is the shapeless suits all the dads wore when I was a kid in the 90s and the ultraslim/too small fit that's currently trendy.  What do I need to look for or ask for to get at that middle ground?  Can you give me a rundown of the general evolution of these trends over the decades that I'd be likely to see thrifting? 

Rob's question speaks to on of the core issues that faces those of us who favor classic clothing when out thrift shopping : the avoidance of overt trend and fashion. This is true for wearers of classic styles who shop new as well, but doubly so in the world of thrift shopping as the fashions and trends one encounters are dated and passe. The photo above is a good example, showing many of the late 1980s styles that are currently represent a large portion of whats available second hand these days. Big shoulders, low button stance, and lots of pleats. It can be tricky finding something that works for you in such circumstances, but not impossible.

Truthfully, thrift stores can contain a wide range of cuts and styles from different decades. Trim cut 1960s jackets with razor thin lapels share space with broad lapeled polyester pieces from the 1970s , big shouldered 1980s clothes, bad full cut 1990s things, and even newer stuff. And a lot, if not most of it, is bad leftover stuff that wasn't good in the first place. So how does one find the middle ground between the too tight, too short, too small look of today and the "boxy" old stuff in the thrift shop.

As with so many questions in menswear, it all comes down to finding a good tailor. When you search the thrift shops, look for suits made of quality cloth in conservative colors like navy or grey with a moderate lapel. Knowing good brands is helpful, but not necessary. Remember that a good suit is a good suit, regardless of band, as much as a brand name can trick you into accepting something of lesser overall quality. Some of the best stuff to be had in a thrift store originally came from small local men's shops you may never have heard of. Try them on until you find one that fits well across the shoulders and chest, then have a good tailor alter them, taking in the sides if necessary and removing some of that undesirable boxiness. It will cost extra, but in the end you will have a better fitting good suit for a fraction of the cost of a new one. And don;t forget, some what we now call "boxiness" may actually just be proper shape. In our current climate of too small/too tight, anything with breathing room can look baggy. Being comfortable always looks better than holding in your breath.

Above all, be persistent. Thrift shopping well takes time and determination, but the payoff, when it comes, is always worth it.

16 October 2013

Lifestyle: Autumn Cocktails

Many of you know that my "day job" (which actually occurs from 3-11pm most days) is working in a fine wine shop. I generally take care of the gourmet food department and offer wine advice. But in my capacity as the teams "utility infielder" I occasionally conduct a cocktail tasting.  The most recent was last Saturday, and we've had a few requests to share the recipes online. I thought this was as good a forum as any.

This recent tasting featured three cocktails perfect for Autumn. Two were our own takes on old classics, one just a direct old classic. Apple, cinnamon, and maple featured heavily, but in a more understated way than the all-too-prevalent-pumpkin-spice-everything fiasco that has gripped the United States this year. The recipes that follow require few ingredients and are relatively simple to prepare, not unlike the best cooking. And, not unlike the best cooking, will leave your guests with the impression that you are some sort of culinary superhero, even a "mixologist" ( read: good bartender), if you will.

The Normandy Cocktail

1 Part B&B, dash of maple bitters

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake well and strain into a cocktail (martini) glass. Garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry. Think of it as something of an "Apple Manhattan".

Autumn Old Fashioned

Dash of cinnamon simple syrup, dash of apple bitters

Combine ingredients in a glass off ice and stir until chilled. Strain and serve over fresh ice in a tumbler, garnish with half a candied walnut. (note: cinnamon simple syrup is easy to prepare. In a saucepan, combine equal measure sugar and water with two or three cinnamon sticks. Boil until the sugar is dissolved. Discard cinnamon sticks. Keeps ins the refrigerator up to one week)

Hot Mulled Cider

Fresh apple cider, mulling spices (cinnamon, clove, allspice, star anise)

Combine cider, spices, and a healthy drop of  maple liqueur in a sauce pot or kettle and heat to a steaming simmer, being careful not to boil as this will result in a bitter drink. Serve in a mug or coffee cup with a good helping of Privateer Amber Rum (or other suitable rum/bourbon/brandy of choice) Bonus points: your house will smell fantastic as guests arrive. Best served from a punch bowl or crock pot.

You see, there is a bright side to the falling temperatures aside from being able to wear tweed and flannel. You get to have a cocktail party just so you can serve drinks like these.


11 October 2013

Fall Casual

Fall Casual, or, British-public-school-algebra-teacher chic.
Ralph Lauren shirt, $5.99, Brooks Brothers khakis, $5.49, Viyella tie, $1.99, Barbour jacket, $150 new at outlet, Donegal tweed cap, $1.99

It can be difficult to dress well when its simply a matter of choice. You can learn to get over the feeling of being overdressed as compared to everyone else around, or even the feeling of being inappropriately dressed for the conventions of modern life. Guys who dress well, or "dress up"" as the rest of the world calls it, tend to go full tilt into it. Generally I believe that if you wear a tie, you should also wear a jacket, even if that jacket gets removed and hung up immediately on arrival. But there are times when a casual midpoint is just the thing, and I find that Autumn is just the time for that. 

In my job, there are time when I have a lot of work to do, and being too dressed up is simply not appropriate for that. But an outfit like the one pictured above works nicely. Its basically comprised of sturdy casual cotton pieces, all derived of either work or military origin.

The addition of a solid tie in a soft fabric makes me feel more finished, without feeling overdone. This tie is an unusual one, made of old Viyella, 55%cotton/45%wool. Recently acquired for $1.99 at a thrift shop, I can already tell it will be a frequent player this season. The undone button down collar is a hopeless affectation...
...as is the tie tied with rear blade a bit longer than front blade.  Blame the internet, or the Italians, but I had to do something to keep the fuddy duddy math teacher vibe of such an outfit \in check.
These old penny loafers could use a shine, but I'll save that for the next time I wear them with a blazer. A whiff of the old wear and tear isn't always undesirable.

Fall really is the perfect time for these mid-casual outfits. The days are sunny, and just chilly enough to feel comfortable in moderately substantial clothing. A Barbour jacket or similar has a way of making just a shirt and tie look less unfinished, and a good tweed jacket with denim is pretty indisputably classic by now. Embrace the chill.

p.s. my apologies for my recent absence here. Technical difficulties of every kind this week.

p.p.s. If you are in the Boston area this week, the annual Honk festival is happening in Davis Square. The weather looks to be just right for some activist marching bands, and maybe even a trip to the AAW Shop for some Fall Casual.

02 October 2013

Plain Ball Caps

I like a plain color baseball cap, especially in sunwashed "preppy" colors.
I like a fitted cap, but I can settle for a nice buckle.
And I'm sure I have broken who-knows-how-many inviolable sartorial laws by combining khakis, suede driving mocs, bare ankles, tennis shirt and said plain ball cap in one outfit. But what can I say? Dressing well for a hot day (82 Fahrenheit) in October ain't easy. And as I've said before, I don't really much care for the imaginary rules.

p.s. new stuff in the Shop. It will be cold one day, so stock up now.

01 October 2013

Legend and Reality

A "Brooks Brothers Man", circa 1980s. Via The Trad
A current "Brooks Brothers Man". Photo via BrooksBrothers.com

There is a lot that continues to amaze me about the thing we have taken to calling, for lack of a better term, the "online menswear community". The very existence of such a thing in the first place is enough to astound anyone old enough to remember what life was like before such large portions of it were spent in front of any one of a number of screens. At the age of 37, I just barely make that category, but I can still remember stretching the phone cord down the hall from the kitchen to my room for some privacy.

 By and large, the world of blogs and websites devoted to menswear, or anything else, has proved to be a largely positive thing. There is no end of information readily available on any subject, and with it comes an even wider range of opinion and comment. All that's good, but it can lead to a blurring of the lines between legend and truth, and can foster a spirit of extreme narrow-mindedness about rules, regulations, and traditions, be they real or imagined. Nowhere it seems is this truer than in the circles of menswear enthusiasts, with Brooks Brothers so often saddled with the dual personality of Vanguard of Tradition/Soulless Traitor, or rather Legend/Reality.

If you're reading this blog, chances are you have at least once encountered a blog or website where some one happened to mention that Brooks Brothers clothes are not precisely the same as they may have been some time ago, which was quickly followed by a torrent of comments bemoaning everything from the difficulty one has in finding a dartless jacket to the absolute downfall of civilization as we know it.  I would never say that there is no meaning attached to the things we were, but the fervor over the smallest minutiae that tends to occur when discussing menswear, particularly "traditional" menswear, can be staggering. Too bad, really, as this sort of thinking misses the point entirely of dressing well or with style. 

Pictured above are two men representing Brooks Brothers. The first is from a mid-1980s catalog, the second from the current website. Both men wear a charcoal striped business suit. The first, a three piece, no doubt in a conservative, natural shouldered, three button "sack" (dartless) cut with flat front trousers. His hair is grey, distinguished. He is a grown up, no kidding.The second man's suit is cut in a more modern "trim" style. Some might say that his clothes look to small, and I would agree. But remember, he is a model on a website, not you. There is nothing stopping you from buying the same suit he is wearing in a size that fits you more appropriately. Lets not forget also that the first man is not  real person, but a watercolor painting.

You know the drill, you've heard it all before : "That suit is deplorable. Brooks should be ashamed.", "I blame the Italians.", or best "Why can't Brooks Brothers make things like they used to?" I mean, god help them, don;t they know there are literally dozens of us who would buy a frumpy sack suit from them, as long as it also met a further list of minute requirements?

The fact is that the world is not the same place it was forty years ago. Brooks Brothers is a huge international company making business decisions based on things bigger than the tastes and proclivities of an increasingly small pocket of men in the United States. Simple as that. You may hear people bemoaning what they see as the death knell for Brooks all over the menswear blogs, but as far as I can see, from a business stance, they seem to be doing just fine. That is, after all, what businesses do. Besides, so many of the Legends of Brooks Brothers could stand to be tempered with a healthy brick of salt. The "rules" that are regarded as sacrosanct when it comes to this stuff were never really so strictly observed by the real men of New England who wore this stuff.

I was reminded of this recently while on a consignment house call in an affluent Massachusetts suburb. The clothing I was looking at belonged to a deceased surgeon. It was all very traditional, lots of Brooks Brothers. There were grey sack suits and three patch pocket blazers, plenty of striped ties. But among the stacks of khakis, cords, and moleskins, I found as many pleated fronts as flats. There were button down and point collar shirts in the same closet. Some jackets had darts, some didn't. And they were all worn together by the same man, a real "Brooks Brothers Man" if you will. True, there was a traditional East Coast consistency in his style, but nowhere did I see rigid adherence to minute rules.

The "sack suit" has been romanticized to represent some sort of lost ideal of manhood, maybe, or something. But let's not forget that the undarted jacket and flat front pants, even the two button cuffs, were likely cost saving decisions made so long ago by Brooks Brothers, when the sack suit was the first off the rack clothing available. I love a good sack suit as much as the next traditionalist, but you might say those details also represent the inception of mass-produced clothing. We can thank Brooks Brothers for that, along with the  introduction of Dupont Dacron Polyester. Look where those two innovations led. These facts are easily ignored or forgotten in these discussions. So can we really be surprised or blame Brooks Brothers for paying attention to the market and making business decisions based not on the grousing of a few but the potential to sell as many items as possible? Isn't that kind of what they've always done? Legend/reality?

If what I've said seems negative or bleak, it shouldn't. There is a positive in all this. The world will likely never require men to dress as well as they once did, but that makes doing all the more an act of individuality and self expression. Where the suit was once a type of conformity, it now as frequently represents the opposite. So don't get bogged down in silly rules regarding pleats and vents and button down collars. Let your tastes guide you. Real style never had much to do with rules anyway. Dressing well should be enjoyable. I believe we should venerate what is good in our past, and that these days the "new" is so revered for its own sake that we tend to neglect the past. However, pining for an idealized version of the past and constantly whining about change neither venerates the past nor respects the present or future. It only shows you've missed the point. Don't confuse legend and reality.

Dress well and enjoy it. Otherwise, what's the point?