27 May 2010

Know Your History; Keep It Fresh

Before we begin this post, allow me a brief disclaimer: An Affordable Wardrobe is strictly a one man operation. I act as author, editor, photographer, and model, wearing my own clothing. A slight air of vanity is sometimes unavoidable in presenting my point.

People often say that menswear doesn't change all that much. There's truth to that, but it isn't entirely so. The well educated (ne, obsessed) in these matters can always date a piece of menswear with reasonable accuracy. A healthy knowledge of the history of these things can be a helpful guide to dressing well. When scouring other peoples cast off garments in thrift shops, it becomes a downright necessity. The trick lies is knowing the history of a piece of clothing, taking something personally from that, and using the garment and your knowledge in a way that is personal and unique, so as to to avoid anachronistic costume dressing.

Today's example is this tan poplin suit from Brooks Brothers, a historic icon in many ways. Brooks Brothers led the way in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the development of lightweight summer suiting fabrics for men. In 1958, the Du Pont company famously approached Brooks with their new "Dacron Polyester", and Brooks Brothers introduced it, blended with cotton, in suits and shirts. I know, we all hate polyester. But this old suit is different. I remember selling poplin suits at Simon's, in tan, olive and navy. We called them 'paper suits', because they wore like a brown shopping bag. But this old number is soft and comfortable. You can tell Du Pont was making a real effort back then to assure people that plastic was a reasonable thing to wear. Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of the old synthetics, but I do like this suit. Besides, it cost $1.00. (Yes, it did.)
If you need further convincing, note the styling. That open patch breast pocket and 1/8 lining speak volumes to me. Coupled with the classic Brooks soft shouldered silhouette and lapped seams, they relegate this suit to a level of of casual-ness that it depends on to come off well. Besides being stiff and uncomfortable, those poplins I sold in the 90s were darted and cut like a business suit. That was their un-doing.

University Shop. This suit is not for the office, it's for casual situations, such as a college man might find himself in between semesters. Our collective concept of casual didn't always mean wearing pyjamas and underwear in public. I think this suit is pretty nearly an original poplin suit. Possibly late 50s, certainly no later than early 60s.
Wash and Wear... a decidedly 1958 selling point. However, this doesn't have to be strictly a costume piece.
Taken together with a blue striped contrast collar Brooks Brothers shirt (1980s vintage,$4.99), a black cotton knit tie (new, $5.00), a white silk driving cap by Stetson( bought new a few years ago, $12), and an orange square, you know, for punch, the whole thing has a whiff of the 1920s about it. Hows that for a conglomeration of historical influences?
To me, this club collar seals the deal. It's a proper club collar, short and round. I wish I saw more of these.

Below, we keep the whole look in the modern world with dark jeans and ever-just-so-tatters brown loafers.

Knowing something about men's styles of the 20s, 50s, 60s and today all contributed to the outfit I wore today. As I've said innumerable times, successful thrift shopping is a perseverance game. Wearing these clothes successfully requires an ability to both collect and arrange seemingly disparate items, while still imparting your own personality onto the result. A pain in the *ss? Yeah, maybe, but I think it's worth it.

Then again, I am a little weird.


Scale Worm said...

Weird rules my friend, weird rules.
Thrifting has been life long for me, initially by necessity financially, but now no longer financial being an issue, by necessity pertains to design, fabrics and history; as well made, design-loved, wearer respected clothing. The same holds true with my music, drink, and food. btw... thrift scored Vinyl rules.

Jake said...

I find it fascinating the things that were selling points in different eras. A friend of mine has a suit - a lovely hand-made suit from a big-name Savile Row tailor, that is at least 50% synthetic. Perhaps the Tailor would rather forget that period in their history, but there was a brief time when synthetic fabrics could be a major selling point. Of course, the main things is that the craftsmanship is clearly fantastic, since it's still in great shape several decades later!

Cyclo2000 said...

I have an early sixties Hugo Boss drip dry in tan terelene. Skinny as fek and very nice on.

Anonymous said...

That "Wash and Wear" label reminds me of that scene in the original Charade where Cary Grant takes a shower in his suit and proudly proclaims to a dumbfounded Audrey Hepburn, "wash and wear."

Dan said...

Where does one find affordable knit ties?

DSU said...

So where does one learn about such history? Any recommendations for sources?

davidsl said...

sweet find and it you wear it well. it actually looks better on you than on the hanger.

Young Fogey said...

This outfit definitely imparts your personality. It's a great suit, and I wish I could find poplin in my thrifts. I'll just have to bite the bullet and buy new--someday.

Since we both have summer on our minds, I'd like to share my most recent acquisition: a mid-gray cotton 1/8 lined jacket from (I can't believe I'm admitting this) Old Navy.

Truth be told, I found out about Old Navy's cotton jackets, and their being on sale, from Sartorially Inclined (which reads like it's written by the geekiest guy in high school trying to use all the cool kids' verbal mannerisms--steeze? Steeze? Grow up!). I decided to check out the jacket, and here I am.

Cons: made in China (but we knew that). Sleeves are too long (which is saying something, given my gibbon-like arms). Faux surgeon's cuffs mean than sleeve length alteration has to be done at the shoulder--not gonna happen. Only one interior pocket.

Pros: cheap for new (about $40 w/tax). Machine washable. Trim styling, including fairly high armholes. Too-long sleeves let me play with rolling them up (I kinda like it).

So I finally have an adult jacket for summer. I can dress it up with a tie (like I am today, with a $5 Lands End cotton plaid number), or dress it down with a short-sleeved shirt of whatever persuasion.

Let summer begin!

TheOldRoad said...

I love that club collar to begin with, but with that jacket and tie it is just amazing.

Thornproof said...

Great suit! I wish that I could find things that cheap around here, but so far, the cheapest suits that I have seen are $6.


Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Not weird, but wonderful. This is an amazing post and you've inspired me to pick up one of those poplin sacks. The photo is superb, though instead of the white Andy Capp cap I would wear a Panama, perhaps.

The Cordial Churchman said...

Have you worn the trousers with the jacket yet? Does it get too costumey then?

My seersucker suit feels very costumey to me this summer for some reason, so I've been wearing either the jacket with khakis or the trousers with a blue blazer instead of the whole suit.

Giuseppe said...

Not yet, Churchman.

I'm attending a daytime, outdoor wedding in August. I'm thinking this suit might just be the trick.

Tiaz said...


Young Fogey said...


Sounds like a good way to wear seersucker if you don't want to wear the suit. May I suggest both navy and white pants as other options?


Excellent choice for the wedding. Are you going to pair it with a wedding tie? Regardless of what tie you choose, you'll probably be mistaken for a member of the wedding party, but through no fault of your own.

3button Max said...

enjoyable post//
these seemed common thrifting nearly 30 years ago( 6 sizes ago) but i still have some bow ties- 1 thing i saw occasionally then was 3 button sack pincord ssometimes with patch p[ocket in a tan stripe too. take care