27 September 2012

Knowing the Difference

The classic grey flannel suit, hefty, soft and warm, 3/2 undarted front, half lined....

A two button cuff on such a coat is typical. Three button is rarer...

Flat front pants with a relatively straight cut, of course....

Made in USA, likely in the 80s...
From Simon's Copley Square of Boston Massachusetts, my high school job. $14.99 at a local thrift shop.

I worked at Simon's Copley Square on weekends when I was in high school, from 1992-1995. I loved that job. Already an incurable clotheshorse, Simon's not only provided me with an excuse to wear suits, but also allowed me to play with clothes all weekend. I used to love getting dressed on Saturday morning and taking the subway into the city. I miss that.

These days my own personal style leans towards the classic American look, albeit with a bit more foppery than the rules would entail. But this wasn't always the case. Back in high school, I was stuck on a more 1940s vibe. I watched a lot of old movies on cable back then. Think broad shoulders, ventless backs, double breasted, high waist pants with deep pleats and braces, wide brim hats, Brylcreem, and tons of those awful wide ties with garish geometric designs. I used to shop at Keezer's and the real Filene's basement for size long suits despite my 5'10" height, because the longer coats and higher rise pants had a more 40s feel. At least I though so on my 17 year old brain. I had it down to a science, and I knew I looked sharp. Mrs. Simon felt otherwise.

I was there in the final years of that business. In its prime, Simon's like so many other faded and gone places, specialized in traditional East Coast menswear. It was all undarted jackets, flat front pants, repp ties, button down collars, Shetland sweaters and GTH pants on the weekend. In the early 90s, things were different. Pleated pants were the norm, and we sold more Countess Mara ties than we did repp stripes. These things always upset Mrs. Simon, but her husband Harold and son David were desperately trying to keep the store relevant in the face of places like Jos. A. Bank and Mens Wearhouse, both a block away in either direction, who were stealing so much of there business. She would counter that Brooks Brothers was also a block away, but by then even the Brooks Brothers customer, and look, was becoming unrecognizable in a sea of homogeneity. Still she erred to there judgement, and things chugged along.

I would dress the displays with the hands in the pockets and the jacket pinned back. In the window I would sometimes furl the tie and pin it to look like it was blowing in the wind. This was too much for her, and she would frequently make me undo a display and dress it conservatively, with the jacket hanging straight and the trousers laid down in front.

My clothes drove her mad, but in my youth I never knew why. After all, I dressed like the 1940s, right? She and Harold were young and dating back then, right? He dressed like this, right? Nope. Wrong. Dead wrong.  Anyone who has read the now classic book Class by Paul Fussell knows what I mean. When I read the parts of that book on clothing again recently, memories of Mrs. Simon's disdain for my baggy, garish clothes kept coming back to give me a chuckle. She wanted Douglass Fairbanks, and all I could muster was Tom Cat. I just didn't know the difference yet.

22 September 2012

Milestones and Gratitude

A few days ago, An Affordable Wardrobe passed the two million mark in  number of page views. I can't state how humble and I grateful I am to all of you. In celebration, I offer this old school, original style AAW post:
With temperatures tending towards cool and comfortable, it's a perfect time to indulge in some classic New England style layering. It being early in the season, I chose to do this with a collection of lighter weight pieces, all of them old favorites from the closet, save one. My favorite "gossamer" blazer by Southwick ($5.99) has been a near constant companion throughout the Summer, but a man could do worse. A pair of lightweight tan worsted trousers with forward pleats by Kilgore,Stanley and French (ed. Kilgour, French and Stanbury. Thank you, Zach.) ($4.99) is often paired with it.
Non-iron shirts may be a sacrilege, it's true. But this striped number from Brooks Brothers ($5.49) has served me well, especially under a sweater. The oh-so-pretentious ascot ($1.99) makes a cameo appearance. But these are all trusted old friends from the AAW closet. It's the merino wool pullover in gold that I'm all jazzed about.
Made in Ireland for J. Press, $1.99 at a local thrift shop. A welcome and useful new piece, just in time for Fall.

Long time readers may remember when all my posts read this way, prices and all. Over the course of five years, this blog has evolved. While I try my best to continue to focus on dressing well for the man of small means, I've let the blog dictate itself a bit. Family, food, the raising of children, and my own take on life as a mixture of old values and modern convenience frequently take the fore. Through this blog I've managed to launch a small but successful online business, and your continued support is what makes it possible. The Top Shelf Flea Market has been going strong for three years, with it's sixth iteration currently in the planning stages for October. Not bad for a blog that started when some good friends cajoled me, at the time largely computer illiterate, into the then budding menswear blogging community as the voice of the stylish poor. Two million visits later and we're still going strong.

Thank you, more than you know.

20 September 2012

Basics: Honest Shirts

A few weeks ago, while ironing a shirt, I noticed that the collar was getting frayed enough to have gone past the level of "shabby chic" into to plain old shabby. The same thing has been happening to a number of my shirts. You may remember that desperation drove me to the outlets, an experience that can only be described as sour at best. But what to do? I still needed some new shirts.
Enter Lands' End, my favorite online source for honest and simple items like these. I picked up two recently, for less than $25 each.
One in soft pink royal oxford, a dressier version of the sturdy old oxford cloth, with a touch of sheen. It's a well made shirt of good fabric with thick buttons and a knock out collar roll. Certainly as good as the standard shirts offered at Brooks Brothers these days, and probably better than many of the shirts at that awful outlet store.
The other is a navy and hunter green tattersall check in soft twill, a bit heavier and great for Fall with a tweed jacket or wool sweater, Again, the collar roll is a huge selling point.

Shirts can be surprisingly hard to come by if you're like me and shopping regular retail is out of the question. Brooks Brothers frequently offers $3/$200, which isn't bad, I guess. But $200 is a big chunk out of my weeks wage. Mercer makes a great shirt, and so does the Andover Shop, but again, those are not even on my financial radar. Off price stores like TJ Maxx might have something, if you're lucky, but then you have to suffer the experience of shopping there. Not my thing.

Of course, there's always the thrift shops, which we all know have served me well, but that can be a crap shoot. Besides the randomness factor, there's the wear and tear. Shirts are made of thinner fabric that most other clothing and suffer more wear, being close to the body. Additionally, they get washed frequently in hot water, starched and pressed.Old shirts are great, and thrift stores offer the possibility of getting old styles that are no longer available But the shirts will already be worn, and likely won't last that long, certainly not as long as a new one. Thrift shops are great for finding a wonderful old tweed jacket or well made pair of shoes, but shirts get worn, get worn out, then get tossed.

 The shirts I got from Lands' End are honest good shirts. They aren't especially spectacular, but they're well made and styled traditionally. Sure. they may be made in China, but they also only cost a fraction of what some other makers are charging for similar quality. If you're a man of modest means who wears dress shirts with some frequency, these shirts are a steal. Save the big money for long lasting tailored clothing you can hand down to your sons. Shirts should always be good, but they don't need to be so precious.

p.s. Shop News. Occasionally, I get an item to sell that is rare enough that I will auction it rather than sell it through the store, such as the vintage morning suit I recently acquired. Items like these will be listed on Ebay. Any current Ebay auctions I'm offering will be visible through links in the sidebar at right Thanks.

16 September 2012

Tartan and Tweed

The air was crisp, clean and brisk this morning for pancakes and bacon on the porch with the kids. Looking forward to some tartan and tweed, and their friends flannel and corduroy. Here's to Autumn.

12 September 2012

Good Morning

photo : internet
Getting married in 1939? Have an audience with the Queen? Maybe you're invited to Royal Ascot next year? Wear a trim 38 regular? Then I have a suit for you.

Recently, I was in New Hampshire sorting through the collection of a serious vintage clothing collector. I cam away with a number of really great items, but the best thing among them was unquestionably this full morning dress suit, made in 1937. For all the great items I find through these channels for myself or my shop, it's these rare vintage formal pieces that are far and away the most fun to come across.
The suit is complete, and in excellent shape for its age. Here we have the cutaway coat in soft charcoal grey flannel, with beautifully cut peak lapels and close fitting, darted body construction, and flat front wool trousers in black and grey stripes.
The back features the curved seams at the shoulders indicative of quality in such a garment...
Hooked center vent and closed pleat running the length of each tail. Split body construction, the right way to do it.
The lining needs new stitches at the seams in a few spots, but there are no tears. Note the taped flannel sweat guards at the armpit.
Dated July 13 1937, consigned from the granddaughter of its original owner, recently dry cleaned.
Included is the original matching waistcoat, with six button closure and satin back...

as well as this additional waistcoat in dove grey doeskin, an excellent example of bygone tailoring, with peaked lapels and six button double breasted closure.
There is one tear on the back, along the seam. Easily repaired and worth doing on such a rare and special garment.
Vintage 1930s from Rogers Peet Company.

The trousers are made of a similar soft flannel in a grey and black stripe, the classic pattern for formal day trousers. Flat front with button fly, brace buttons and (oddly) belt loops. They are in excellent condition as well, though there are some very slight marks on the seat showing where they have been let out. The hems are plain, with a slight angle cut.

As I've done in the past with formal items as special and rare as these, I am offering these four pieces as a unit here rather than in my online shop. Remember, they have value as antiques as well as just clothing.

The coat will fit a man who wear a 38 regular, with a trim waist of about 32. The trousers measure 34 waist, though they have been let out, 32 being their original size. Inseam is 31 inches. Whether you've got an event coming up that might actually merit such an outfit, or you're just a serious collector of real antique menswear, please consider giving this suit a good home. Interested parties may contact me with offers at anaffordablewardrobe@yahoo.com. Bids will be accepted through the end of the week.

Update: this item has been moved to Ebay. Interested buyers may bid for it here.

p.s. plenty of other new items in the Shop this week. Stop by.

05 September 2012

Reader Questions : 3 to 3/2

Reader Will writes:

I've got a suit-coat question that I thought you might be able to answer. Can you convert a standard 3-button jacket into a 3/2 merely by rolling the lapel down a little before pressing it? Or does the underlying construction of the jacket dictate how many button holes you show? I've got a 3-button that looks a little stiff on me, and I thought I could relax its presentation by rolling it down to a 3/2. My tailor says no dice.

The answer to your question, Will, is not so direct or easy, as a lot of little factors must be taken into consideration on what appears on the surface to be a relatively simple matter. That's long-hand for "good question".

To start with, a little history is in order. Lapels are a standard feature of a man's jacket. They remain, regardless of the whims of fashion. As with so much in menswear, they are a derivative vestige of military detailing. Flip up the collar or your jacket and hold the lapels closed and its easy to see how they were once the rolled back front pieces of a military tunic style coat. Extra, unused buttonholes derive from this as well.
This illustration shows tunic style military coats buttoned to the neck.  Side note: the indispensable navy blazer with gold buttons also derives from uniforms such as this.
This photo of General Ulysses S. Grant shows how the unused top button hole on a 3/2 jacket got it's start. Grant wears his tunic style coat open at the neck, revealing a shirt and tie, and creating what we know as a lapel. Perhaps we should refer to this look in nerdy menswear parlance as "18 x 5 (9 roll 5) undarted double breasted front with natural shoulders".
The style of having a three button coat "rolled" to the center became a noted detail of American menswear in the middle of the twentieth century. Brooks Brothers, as with so many things in American menswear, was right at the center of it. This vintage Brooks Brothers suit has essentially four evenly space button holes, with the second from bottom the focal point. More modern ones have three button holes spaced roughly from just below the belt to just below the chest. Jackets like this one were cut with this button stance in mind. But, can a more straight cut three button be converted?

Construction of the jacket will have a lot to do with this. Often, lapels are cut specifically to sit one way or another, and changing that can throw off the lines and proportions of the entire jacket. It's not as simple as just ironing it differently. Canvassing, chest construction and the construction of the lapel have been set to drape a certain way.

Then there's that pesky third button hole. If you look closely at the first photo and the last photo, you can see clearly that the top button hole has been finished on the inside. This is because it was meant to be seen from that side, rolled back into the lapel. If a jackets button hole is not neatly finished on that side, then the suit wasn't meant to hang that way and no pressing will ever really get it to look right in that stance. You might be able to soften the angle at which the lapel rolls, but you won't get a true 3/2 out of it.

Lastly, if the tailor says no, than I guess the answer is no. He knows better than you, or I, do.

03 September 2012

"Premium" Outlet Shopping

Architects rendering, lifted from the website of
the Budweiser Brewery in Merrimack, NH

Recently, a large number of my shirts have been getting frayed at the neck all at once. I don't mind (more than) a bit of wear and tear on my clothes, and even embrace that thrifty Yankee habit of wearing things well past their expiration date. It's helpful when all you own was owned before to have a romantic justification for the fact that your stuff is basically just worn out and, you know, old. However, with a few extra bucks in the bank account, I decided some new shirts were in order. Being the consummate cheapskate I am, I headed not for a reputable retail store, but to a favorite thrift shop forty minutes North in New Hampshire. Please don't think I'm being a snob. I desire new things as much as anyone. It's just that over the course of so many years of thrift shopping and being a skin flint, I tend to stay away from the places where new stuff can be had, and then it takes a chisel to separate me from my money.

Along the way, I noticed a bill board for  Merrimack Premium Outlets, just another ten minutes up the road from the thrift shop. I immediately figured being a new outlet mall of "premium" brands, there must be a Brooks Bothers and  Polo store there. Those two brands don't miss a trick, especially when it comes to appearing high end while dealing low end. I suppose I do the same thing, no cracks please.

The trip to the thrift shop turned up nothing in the way of shirts, though I did get a pretty good pair of forward pleat brushed twill chinos for $3.99, by none other than Polo (of course). Afterwards, stationed in a booth in the McDonald's across the street, while my children ran and screamed in the Playzone, while parents shivered in the ice cold air conditioning, I looked up the outlet mall, and sure enough, Brooks Brothers and Polo were both on tap.  Having just bribed my poor kids with junk food, I decided to subject them to some straight up American retail shopping, something they are not used to when in their father's charge.

I suppose when we passed a huge complex of a place, some sort of factory, belching smoke and steam, looking like a relic of the late 1960s, not in a good way, that turned out to be the outpost brewery of Budweiser, I should have read the omen and turned tail. Make of that what you will.

Upon arrival, I found the immense sprawling parking lot so bursting with cars that men in orange vests were directing traffic with dayglo wands...and still I refused to read the writing on the wall. Apparently, it was some kind of holiday this weekend, the kind with big sales or something. Having worked in retail so long I never enjoy these three day weekends. Having avoided shopping retail so long, I forgot the ugliness that is a massive American "Sale" holiday. I can only hope to forget it again soon. Bodies everywhere, children whining and screaming ( my own included), people laden with bags and bags full of brand name goods they almost certainly don't need, all of it under a cloud of false superiority lodged firmly in the overt labels stuck like glue on the surface of cheaply made, wasteful goods.

 Eventually, we found a space and I dragged my none-too-thrilled into what my five year old son called a "fake store town" and located the Brooks Brothers store. There were plenty of shirts, all non-iron. I'll wear non-iron in a pinch, but I'm not about to pay $47.50 for it. Finally, I found a small display, practically hidden in a corner like a bastard stepchild, of thick oxford wrinkling cotton shirts in white, blue, yellow and pink. For a moment I was happy, and ready to buy, before I realized the only sizes available were 14 neck and 17 1/2. Tiny and huge. I guess average sizes like 15 1/2 go quick in a holiday shopping 25% off frenzy. Or something.

I found a Brooks Brothers employee, a fine fellow ten years my junior dressed in puddling long charcoal slacks and a huge non iron button down, open at the neck with no tie. I asked him, already fairly certain of the answer, about these old oxfords that unfortunately seemed so incongruous in their native environment if there were any others besides those on display. He immediately began to actually apologize for the fact that these shirts were not non-iron, as though he were embarrassed for me that I should ask about these, of all things. "We probably won't carry them much longer" he stated, then proceeded to compliment my "ink" and tell me all about his. Ugh.

The whole time, my kids were tugging at my belt, talking at the same time, fighting with one another, running and throwing themselves on the floor. All this among wall to wall people consumed with materialistic avarice.

Not having learned my lesson, I decide we needed to hit the Polo shop. More of the same, with the avarice and brand name label orgy multiplied exponentially. After what may have been the longest and most unpleasant hour of my life, we left. As I dragged (literally) my two wailing banshees with me back to the car, I considered throwing in the towel and dressing myself in only sack cloth and horsehair if this is what it would take to do otherwise.

I did get some nice socks, though.