29 July 2011

Cheap Commodities

 As the author of this blog, I'm constantly amazed by the amount of junk and freebie offers come into my inbox from pr firms. Many of them get junked right away, like the ones that just outright ask me for a free plug. Others get read, if it seems to be something that might be of interest. A small few get a response and maybe give me something to review. These offers I gladly accept, with no guarantee of endorsement, but mostly I ignore this stuff. Lately, I've been flooded with stuff about swimsuits. When the currently "it" brand Orlebar Brown contacted me recently, I nearly asked for a sample. After all, these do look like nice trunks, and a lot of people are drooling over them.

I was particularly interested in this pair, the classic "bulldog" as they call it. A nice short inseam, pockets, and old school side tabs, available in good looking colors. But ultimately, I decided to leave this one alone. You see, the trunks in the photo above retail for $240, and there is no way I could recommend such a thing in good conscience. No matter how much disposable income you may have, spending such a sum on swim trunks is unforgivable, no matter how nice they may be. Allow me to explain.

A few weeks prior to being contacted by the semi-clueless pr firm hired to shill these outlandish trunks I had purchased these two new from Lands' End. True, I may make a lifestyle out of living in other peoples old stuff, but swim trunks, like underwear, should be new. These were on sale at the time for $24.50 each, available in a flight of classic, bold colors. They feature side pockets and one hip pocket, just like the Orlebar Brown trunks, plus a very comfortable mesh lining constructed without a seam up the middle, which is, you know, comfortable. They're made of space age quick dry material, just like the Orlebar Brown trunks. True, they eschew fancy side tabs and a zippered fly for the standard draw string waist, but who cares?

In fact, with their six inch inseam and vibrant colors, they are every bit as classic and old school as anything. They're comfortable and stylish, and they look well with an old white or navy blue tennis shirt and battered canvas sneakers, my full beach uniform. They dry quickly, and I don't tend to mind wearing them like a pair of shorts most of the day if that's how it turns out. I guess the main difference lies in marketing. Good old Lands' End doesn't seem to be looking to rape the last vestiges of this preppy trend whore market we currently find ourselves in, and as a result, they garner my respect...and they didn't even give me a freebie. From where I stand, Orlebar Brown seems to be making a fast buck on the fashion worlds obsession with Steve McQueen and everything a size too small. Don't fall for it.

To be fair, I've never actually seen an Orlebar Brown bathing suit, but I can't for the life of me figure that it could be ten times better than these ones, given that they cost ten times as much. Maybe I just can't see the point of fancy swimwear. It's not a suit, after all. Maybe, being married with two kids, I'm not so concerned with impressing people at the beach. Maybe I just can't believe anyone would pay $240 for swim trunks. If you frequent the beach in Summer, as I like to do, a good couple of bathing suits ought to be a cheap commodity. Take the money you save and spend it on beer, hot dogs, lemonade, ice cream, and sunscreen.

p.s. fresh items available in the Shop

25 July 2011

The Jams

It's been such a long time since I've been excited about the purchase of what might be called a "punk"record by a band I've only just discovered that when the occasion does arise, it's momentous. All the more so when the record is so good it makes half the "punk" records I still respect sit down and shut up for a minute. Such is the case with Death.

 A real rock nerd, record collectors delight if ever their was one. The story goes something like this: Death was a Detroit based band in the early 1970s, who recorded a record that faded into obscurity and never saw print. In 2009, it was un-earthed and finally released (thanks, Drag City).It's full blast power trio proto-punk from before punk existed, with just enough riff rock elements and a hint of psychedelia to keep it infinitely cooler than most punk, which tends to be the exclusive province of suburban white kids who are pissed about....God knows what those kids are pissed about. I never did figure that part out.
Best of all, the band is three black brothers (as in, the same family), David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney. They were an R&B band, until they saw Alice Cooper. Their mother bought them their instruments, but made them promise to practice at least three hours a day. Audiences in Detroit's black clubs couldn't figure them out, and neither could the white kids. The session was produced by Jim Vitti, late of Parliament Funkadelic fame, by sheer chance. Clive Davis of Columbia Records wanted to sign them, if only they would change their name. A band called "Death" was still a bit much by 1974 standards. David Hackney famously told Clive Davis to go to hell (GTH, you know, like the pants...). David died in 2000. Dannis and Bobby live on a farm in Vermont where they run a recording studio, host punk shows in the barn, and play in a reggae/hippie/jam band, which I would normally disdain, except when these guys do it, I can't help but be filled with respect. Available on CD or as an MP3, if you don't care how music should sound. If you do, it's on vinyl, and it comes running out of the wood speakers to beat the sh*t out of you, and leave you smiling at that.

The list of reasons to devote yourself to this long gone band are endless. Get it, because I said so. You won't be disappointed.

21 July 2011

Secrets of Thrifting: On Luck and Perseverance

Successfully navigating the world of thrift stores is not for the faint of heart, or lazy. To do it well requires perseverance, patience, creativity, vision and a little bit of luck. Usually, luck has the least to do with it, other times it's everything. To wit:
You also have to know the rules, and when to break them. A lot of suit jackets turn up "orphaned" at these places, forever estranged from their matching trousers. Many times this means game over, as in the case of pinstripes or glen checks, even solid greys and navys. These jackets will always look like the truncated half of a suit that they are. Stay away from these, no matter how nice. They will never look right without their pants. Summer clothes, such as the pincord jacket in the photo, are a different animal.

And what an unusual pincord this is. Pincord is sort of like seersucker's kid brother, featuring pencil thin stripes that appear as a solid color from a distance, most often found in cotton or cotton/poly blends. The most common color for these is oxford blue/white, with tan/white coming in second. This one here is really tan, but has a wonderfully distinct pink cast to it. Only the pants are missing. No matter, because pincord, along with seersucker and khaki or olive poplin, actually fake it well as sports jackets, best paired with white duck trousers or tropical worsted in charcoal grey. The orphaned trousers of these same suits exist well alone, too, with navy blazers or just a tennis shirt.

This isn't to say that all hope of a suit is lost. Frequently, as I've written before, the pants can be found separated from the jacket in another part of the store. Whenever I find a really great suit coat missing the pants, I take it with me to the pants rack to find a mate. This works maybe 25% of the time, generously speaking, but when it does it's worth it.Such was not the case with this number, but I nabbed it anyway as a nice Summer jacket. If only you could see the ones I throw back, it would break your heart.

And then...
A full ten days later, at the same shop, the pants turn up. This almost never happens, but it speaks to the importance of perseverance. You can't expect to hit big in these places by only dropping by occasionally. You have to be relentless, and visit often, and not be discouraged if you strike out, a lot. In other words, you have to be kind of nuts, driven by a certain madness to devote yourself to this. Being a cheapskate isn't a hobby after all, it's a lifestyle choice, or an addiction if you'd rather.

Or you can use the internet and pay a small premium to let crackpots like me do all the time consuming dirty work for you. (Cripes, Giuseppe, talk about a shameless plug).

This suit does not fit me, by the way, and will available in The Shop soon. Meanwhile, other new goods have been added recently. Check it.

18 July 2011

Great Moments in History

You all know I'm not usually one to use this blog as a place to gush about my family, but today's triple header of special occurrences simply could not go unremarked:
The Boy, by his own choice, decides to wear a bow tie for the first time today. For this historic event, I offered a vintage Indian madras number from Trimingham's of Bermuda. A great look for a four year old boy with a blue oxford, embroidered khaki shorts and crocs...definitely not for grown ups, but I'd say he's headed down the right path.

The Girl discovers  her love of the Ramones, particularly Blitzkrieg Bop, which was played at top volume half a dozen times before bath and bed tonight. Stripping naked and dancing frantically to the Ramones is great for a two year old girl...probably not for grown ups, but I'd say she's on the right path.

Mrs. G. decides to take up chess. She's brand new to it, but I haven't played in so long we're nearly equals. Sure, I beat her twice, but she did put up an impresive fight...but bragging is not for grownups, forgive me.

All in all, not  a bad day.

14 July 2011

What's In A Name?

Brand names are a tricky beast. In America, we live in a culture obsessed with them, so obsessed, in fact, that grown men and women now wilfully walk the streets in cheaply made t-shirts emblazoned with nothing more than a large brand name advertisement. It is, I suppose, easier to try and impress another person with a big bad logo, rather than the vagaries of quality and style. Why tell a person who you are and who you'd like to be in conversation when you can just cut to the chase and wear a t-shirt with the name of the beer you like?

In fairness, though, I'm just as label conscious as the next guy, in my way. In my various adventures in the world of other people's junk, I have my favorite things to look for. But the last thing I want is to have my brands written in large silkscreen on the outside of the clothes. No, I look for certain brands as a benchmark of quality and a guarantee of style. Take Brooks Brothers, for example. I know how an old suit from them will be cut, how well it will be made. I know that they're aesthetic is one I gravitate toward, and that the quality will be good, in an old piece. But brand name isn't everything, because I also know that they haven't turned out much of  anything worth a damn in years. So what's in a name, really? The answer is everything, or nothing, or something in between. Like so many things in life, a healthy knowledge of brands and what they are can be a helpful guide, but a total unbending allegiance to them will be your death knell.
There are times when no brand at all will do just fine, as is the case with this pair of shoes. Plain toe pebble grain leather bluchers in what might be called English Tan...you know, that light orange tinted shade of brown. Always a favorite of mine, no matter how against the rules it may be, with a navy suit. If you happen to be a grown up, such a pair of shoes is hard to beat with jeans, too.

Big bad gunboats, with big bad leather double soles. As I was paying for some other things at a thrift shop the other day, I spied these behind the counter on the floor. Someone else had decided against them at the last minute, so I asked "those brown shoes, are you just going to put them back out? What size are they? How much?" My size,$7.99, less my 30% off coupon= $5.59. Sold, American.

These shoes have no discernible brand name. I suspect it has worn off the insole liner at the heel. However, my experience with trusted old brands like Florsheim's and Allen Edmond's has taught me to recognize the quality of these shoes. The leather is top quality, inside and out. The style is classic, and combined with the double thick soles, leads me to believe they are likely made in USA. Beyond this, it's clear that the previous owner cared for them well, probably kept them on shoe trees. In a case like this, a lack of any brand name was hardly an issue for me, nor should it be for you.  Get to know quality. True, a brand name can help you skip forward a few steps, but it takes a back seat to real quality every time.

 Another kind of extreme is exemplified by my purchase of this sweater. A nice cotton crew neck in wide navy and white stripes, just the thing with Nantucket reds, boat shoes, and a tennis shirt for al fresco rum cocktails on a deck behind a seaside restaurant. We've got a family vacation planned in Maine in a few weeks...hopefully kid brother will come up for a night of two, so me and the Mrs. can do just such a thing one night...we'll see.
 Nicely woven, heavy weight cotton. As old as it is, the white is still white and the navy still vibrant. I'd say this piece was $1.00 well spent,but...
it's from the Gap? and it was made in England? How old is this thing, then? 1970s? When did the Gap ever have English made sweaters? I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I find the Gap repulsive, mostly. It's a crummy chain store in the mall, largely responsible for our current reliance on cheap sweatshop labor overseas, and largely responsible for our collective love of the big store logo sweatshirt. True, there may have been something very bad-ass about the first Gap in 1969 selling only Levi's and vinyl records, but that's long gone. What can I say, though, this is a nice sweater, and for a buck, I'm willing to ignore the brand and go with it. I wouldn't wear a Gap logo hoodie for a buck, not even for free, likely not even if you paid me, but this sweater...sure, why not? True, I have no idea what the phrase "100% authentic guaranteed fit" means on a size "Medium" store bought sweater, but who cares? No one has to know, and my dollar went to charity anyway.

In short, know your brand names, but don't let them fool you. At best, they will guide you towards quality, at worst they will lead you to sacrifice in exchange for an easy out. Often, the best stuff is unbranded or simply unknown. Let quality be your guide rather than mass appeal.  Know the difference and tread lightly, and good luck.

p.s if shoes are your bag, a  whole raft of them just went up for sale in the shop, along with other new items, of special note, some great beach-worthy vintage windbreakers. Have a look, and thanks for supporting my brand name.

11 July 2011

Io Chiamo Giuseppe (sul patrimonio)

Let's all forget about clothing and other superficialities for a while;

I may be a full blooded American, but I grew up in a house with people who barely spoke English, people who lived a culture from a far away land, a mystical place most often referred to as "the old country". My grandparents (Nonna e Nonno), and indeed many of the other old folks in the neighborhood from the generations preceding my parents, were Italian, as in they came from Italy. Growing up in a house with two working parents, attending Catholic school, these old folks played a large part in raising me, my brother, and many of my oldest friends. It's the reason why we tend to consider ourselves, rightly so, to be, in some distant way, Italian. 
 Nonno & Nonna
Giuseppe & Elvira, Italy, late 1940s
These are my mothers parents. Growing up, we lived in the second floor apartment of a two family house, they lived downstairs. Coming home from the local Catholic elementary school around 2:30 in the afternoon, while both my parents were out working, my kid brother and I spent as much time downstairs with them as we did upstairs with our parents. Their story is one for the ages.

Giuseppe (my namesake) grew up in a single room stone house on the side of a steep hill,  a small farm with a few sheep, chickens, and a patch of vegetables.He could read, write, and do simple math, but had little formal education past the age of eight. At the age of 19, in 1934, he came to the United States, settled in East Boston,  then a largely Italian enclave ("the old neighborhood", or, "Easta Bost" as he tended to call it). He quickly made some friends, learned the trade of concrete masonry, and played a lot of bocce. Trust me, the man was a force in bocce. I only wish he had lived long enough for me to beat him, just once.

After "the war", he returned to Italy to visit his parents, and was stricken with appendicitis. He was soon laid up in the hospital in Sulmona (incidentally, the home of Ovid, Publius Ovidius Naso, or simply Naso as he's known to the locals. I read him in Latin, in Latin class). His mother and father, being poor farmers, simply could not afford to visit him. Enter Elvira.

Elvira was the youngest of ten children, her father the mayor of Sulmona, a wealthy man. She grew up attending the opera, frequenting wild parties in the late 1920s, wearing the finest clothes, and generally living the high life. During World War II, the Nazis sent her family to live in the basement of their house, the grandest one in town, so they could house the upper rank officers there. They lost much of their money in those years, but none of their class. Nonna was well educated, she could read both Latin and Greek, and was fluent in French and English, as well as Italian. This was in the 1930s, when French was the language of diplomacy and English had yet to become an international necessity.

Elvira's sister was laid up in the same hospital at the same time as Giuseppe (Peppino to her and all his Italian friends, Joe to the folks he met in America). Elvira visited her sister daily, and began to notice that no one came to see this poor (handsome) fellow across the hall, and she became smitten. She started to stop by and check in on him, they talked and laughed and became quite fond of one another. She was nearly ten years his senior, bit it didn't matter. They fell in love, married, perhaps to Elvira's fathers chagrin, and came to Boston.

Eventually, they took up in a rented apartment. Nonno worked concrete masonry, early morning hours. He was never a hard line boozer, but rumor has it that in the colder months, with a days work outdoors ahead of him, he would take a shot of Seagram's VO with a raw egg in it before heading out the door at 5:00 a.m. Nonna, aristocratic as ever but never too proud to pull her own weight, took up as a seamstress in a local clothing factory, back when there were actually clothing factories in the city of Boston.

After numerous attempts, pregnancies and, unfortunately, miscarriages, my mother is born to them in 1950. Elvira was 39 years old. I can still remember being a kid, and saying my grandmother was 80, when all the other kids grandmothers were 65.

In 1964, they bought a house, and moved in with my 14 year old mother. In 1972, my mother married my father, and they moved into the other apartment in that house. I was born in 1976, my brother in 1979. We lived upstairs, Nonna & Nonno downstairs. She hardly left the kitchen. By then, she lived to cook for and feed others. She took real joy in that, you could taste it in the food. He was retired by then, a proud member of the Union. His vegetable garden, behind the house, was his pride and joy, bursting and abundant with all manner of herbs and vegetables.
Nonno & Nonna
Giuseppe & Elvira, Italy, early 1980s

Here they are as I knew them. Peppino, rugged and bald, Elvira, brash and full of color, yet sincere and wiser than anyone.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time downstairs in their apartment. Every Sunday, after Church, we would come home to a princely spread, the sort of meal that took hours to consume, all of it her cooking, all of it from scratch and made with more love that there is in the world. In the Fall, she would hang sausages to cure from the ceiling of our enclosed back porch. Most of the pasta she prepared was made by hand. Ravioli were cut by hand with tailors pinking shears, and as big as bed pillows. We had a peach tree in the front yard when I was a boy, it was his pride. And the tomatoes.... garden fresh, and then canned in the house each year for use all Winter in making sauce, or "gravy" as Italians in America tend to call it. Cripes, we even cured our own prosciutto in the cellar.

These days, my parents still live in the upstairs apartment, while I live downstairs with my wife and children. My kids represent the fourth generation of my family to live in that house. I wouldn't have it any other way.

So, "heritage" and "Italian" are two things I dig, deep down to the guts. All this could explain my infatuation with "oldness" and "truth", no?

12 July 2011, Corrections: the title should read "Io mi chiamo Giuseppe. Thanks to those of you who pointed that out. Also, she was four years his senior, not ten.

09 July 2011

Dress Pink

As my last post made perfectly clear, I sure do like some crazy pants when it gets hot and sunny on a regular basis. My "go to" pair will always be the classic cotton chinos in the color known as "Nantucket Red". ( Please, no discussions about Murray's Toggery Shop and "real" reds...we all know about that already). While what is essentially a pair of pink pants for men may seem self indulgent to some (most?) guys, they're actually fairly laid back once you get in the swing of wearing them.  With a white or navy tennis shirt they're no fail, add a blue blazer for the full nautical theme. A sun washed Red Sox cap tends to work well too.

But what about Reds and a tie? Being an inherently casual item of clothing, the correctness of this is dubious at best. However, if done with care, and only occasionally, I see no reason why this can't work. Once again, the fact that I dress this way by choice shows itself to be an asset, as this sort of thing would surely be unacceptable in nearly any work situation that required a jacket and tie. And once again,  American style remains unsurpassed in it's  singular ability to combine dress and casual elements in a way which has become it's own form of traditional.

Up top, a navy blazer (J. Press, $7.49), a white pinpoint shirt and a pale yellow foulard tie. Admittedly, a big rolling button down collar would have been best here, but not only was this one clean, but also a lightweight pinpoint weave. Most of my button downs are heavy Oxford, no good on a hot day...and this from the kind of guy who wears a blazer and tie on a hot day by choice. A note on pale yellow ties: I do like them, especially in combination with navy and white, so long as the navy is only a blazer. White shirt, yellow tie and navy suit screams "I work at city hall and shop at Men's Wearhouse" Don't do it, ever. 

This particular pale yellow tie is particularly nice, from Liberty of London. Not bad for $1.99
Reds almost always demand a surcingle or striped ribbon belt,  but given my perhaps ill-fated effort to dress them up a pinch, I opted for a vintage leather Coach belt (made in USA, $1.99). Dressy, but appropriately beaten, this is also my preferred belt with jeans.

Reds are a cinch with bare ankles and Quoddy boat shoes ( recently acquired for $4.49, more on that later.) Perhaps penny loafers being something more of a proper shoe would have been in order, given the blazer and tie, only...nah, I like these boat shoes.

Maybe this is all wrong, or pushy, or something. But isn't it fun when pushy is comprised of a complete collection of classic, conservative elements? 

p.s new stuff in the shop this week.

05 July 2011

Controlled Chaos

With Summer comes a big fat does of color in a mans wardrobe, most noticeably perhaps in the form of extreme plaid madras trousers. Outrageous though they may be, they are in a way a form of controlled chaos. Their natural counterparts being almost invariably the very staid combo of white tennis shirt and navy blazer, they come in varying degrees of outrage...but there is a method to the madness.
At the "introductory" level, we have a pair like this. For many men, this may be far over the top...not just a little, but climbed-the-ladder-and-jumped level. I say kids stuff. In only one plaid, albeit a large one, a pair of trousers like this can be the stepping stone to that which lies beyond...the dreaded, and much revered, patchwork plaid.

 Level two sees us in these, a patchwork pair from J.Press. Patchwork can seem rather crazy, but there is almost always a clear pattern to the assemblage of patterns. In my humble opinion, these are barely more than lightweight. Comprised of merely three different plaids in what is clearly a checkerboard repeating pattern, they're hardly a jump from the single plaid. The overall feel is one of dark colors, too, the pants being viewed generally as olive green or navy.
 Level three continues the thread, but adds more separate plaids to the mix, this time eight. The crazy factor gets a further tweak by the bright primary color scheme. Yet, as before, the pattern repeats clearly. This pair is old, but this particular grouping of plaids has been fairly ubiquitous in the last few Summers of our "preppy-Americana-heritage-revival" trendiness.
The pinnacle is reached in a pair like this. We'll call this Level Four Patchwork Go To Hell. A real old pair from the early 1960s, made of real vegetable dyed "bleeding" Indian madras, and cut nearly stovepipe straight. Look closely at the repeat, if you can find it. Each column down repeats five different plaids, but no column repeats across. And yet, there is a consistency of color and scale that keeps them in check, maybe even better than the pair in level three, almost certainly better than level two. The higher the level of chaos, the steadier the control of the wearer. It's almost as though the more daring you're willing to get with this stuff, the better you'll pull it off. Keeping your mouth shut and behaving as though there is nothing unusual about those crazy pants you're wearing makes all the difference.

In a largely conservative and old fashioned wardrobe, the best place for a man to indulge in a pinch of controlled chaos is in his pants.

p.s. #s 1 & 3 are available for sale in The Shop, along with some old seersucker and other things. 2 & 4 are mine...eat your heart out.