The “ECHL”

December 9, 2009

Author G. Bruce Boyer is best known as an essayist on the subject of classic men’s fashion; he is the author of several books on the subject and a contributor to, and editor of, The Encyclopaedia of Clothing & Fashion. He’s also the author of the short essay below “The English Country House Look”… or, ECHL, which first appeared on the web log A Suitable Wardrobe.

The Gothic Business Look (all laser-cut black suits and pointed shoes), the Made-in-America Blue Collar Look, the Neo-Japanese Preppy Look, the Neapolitan Relaxed Elegance Look. There are so many looks around these days to tempt a young man at the onset of his wardrobing life. What’s a fella to do?

May I suggest taking one step forward by taking two steps backwards: the tried & true English Country House Look (ECHL). It’s stood the test of time, has proven adaptable to virtually any body shape, continues to have enviable street creds, and can be worked and re-worked over and over infinitum.

Ralph Lauren & The ECHL.

In his distinctive book, On Decorating, Mark Hampton slyly puts his finger on the secret of the ECHL:

…rooms with old worn carpets and turn-of-the-century upholstered furniture which, instead of being newly reupholstered, is covered in loose slipcovers that look (and perhaps are) homemade. There are books everywhere and leather club fenders in front of smoke-streaked mantelpieces. This is commonly called the undecorated look. Sometimes it is the result of happenstance; sometimes a subtle effort has been made …

“Sometimes a subtle effort” would be a good title for a study of this subject that speaks to both interior design and to clothes. Since Mr. Hampton has noted the touchstones of the interior design genre, let’s look at the salient points of the ECHL pertaining to clothes.

  1. Aspirational gentility: the perceptive Ralph Lauren has, over these many years, firmly convinced us that our grandfathers all had mahogany-lined speedboats and polo ponies, even though they were in fact slaving away down some mine shaft or other. You can’t beat the past as a commodity.
  2. Disdain for technology: why would anyone bother with a Blackberry, cellphone, headsets, ipod, Kindle, or laptop when a simple Montblanc and Moleskin diary will suffice, and not ruin the lines of the suit. Let solitude be a time for thought.
  3. Untidiness trumps symmetry and organization: consider Nancy Mitford’s famous dictum: “All nice rooms are a bit shabby.” This applies to dress as well. Otherwise there’s the suspicion of calculation.
  4. A preference for the mildly tatty over the new and shiny. Flaunting new labels, or any labels for that matter, gives the impression of insecurity.
  5. Comfort triumphs: never sacrifice a cozy, warm, homey feeling to fashionable trends. You don’t have to.
  6. Eccentric within reason is charming: we preach individuality, but how refreshing to actually see it. Wear the orange cashmere tie and purple socks with the navy suit, or a plastic shopping bag for a briefcase.
  7. On the other hand, novelty is as unwelcome as excessive tidiness. Just because a person likes something is not a good enough reason to wear it. Denim dinner jackets and chinchilla bow ties are cute and whimsical. That’s the problem.
  8. Be sentimental: style is about attitude. Wearing Granddad’s old pocket watch from a chain through your buttonhole is a perfect touch, even if the face keeps falling out of it.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Ralph.

Advertisements

“A Favorite English Sentence”

August 26, 2009

Menswear expert G. Bruce Boyer, author and a former editor of GQ, wrote this vignette and collected it, with more, in his 1980 book Elegance. In addition to the propriety of Saville Row fittings it opens a window into, it’s wonderful writing and a pleasure to read.

“If you will kindly step through, sir?”

The first time I heard those words was on my second trip to London. I’d been there once before, when I was a student and had no money to speak of. None to even whisper about. There was a chain of shops called Burton’s selling good English-quality ready-made clothes, and I’d bought a wonderful checked Harris Tweed sports jacket off-the-rack. It was almost bullet-proof, and served me well for years.

Author G. Bruce Boyer.

Author G. Bruce Boyer.

But this time I was determined to have a real Savile Row suit, handmade with all the trimmings: working buttonholes on the sleeve, step-lapelled waistcoat, silk-lined trousers, boutonnière loop behind the lapel, the works!

So, on a wonderfully crisp Spring morning, a resolute young man briskly walked across Piccadilly and through the Burlington Arcade, marched down the Row and, bringing his courage to the sticking point, pushed through the heavy Victorian oak and beveled glass front door of one of the most reputable bespoke tailoring firms in the world — all the while thinking of the kings and presidents, film stars and international diplomats, Greek shipping magnates, English dukes, Texas oil millionaires, and Continental boulevardiers who had preceded him.

I was also wondering what I should do once the door silently but firmly closed behind me and left me standing inside the entrance of this august, intimidating establishment.

Not to worry, as the English say. Standing outwardly calm, but inwardly shaking like a wet dog, I was quietly approached by an elderly gentleman in impeccably-cut pin-stripes, who very properly and politely asked me if he might be of assistance. “Oh, I want a suit,” I brightly said. Trust me to say the right thing.

“Of course, sir,” he calmly replied, taking me gently by the elbow and ushering me down the worn and faded Persian carpet, between the long oak refectory tables groaning under rolled bolts of worsted and tweed. And did I prefer town or country suiting, he inquired.

I spent the next forty-five minutes or so going through the cloth swatch books, dozens and dozens of them – there must have been a hundred different patterns of district checks in tweed alone – some containing squares of cloth I thought I’d seen twenty minutes before in another book. My elderly guide stood demurely at my side, offering a word or two of encouragement or advice if I turned to him with a swatch between my fingers.

“Very serviceable piece of worsted, that is, sir. Perhaps a bit too heavy, though, for your climate at home, would you think, sir?

In one book I spied a handsome plaid of rusty brown with a lavender and Kelly green over pane. Did he think it was a bit loud?

“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say loud, sir. But perhaps it does tend to mutter a bit.” Scratch that one.

Finally, I settled on a mid-weight, grey cheviot cloth in a miniature herringbone pattern.

“An excellent choice, sir, if I may say so,” my well-upholstered counselor intoned. “You may be interested to know that this particularly cloth has been woven for us for almost a hundred years now. Had a suit of it myself when I was younger.” And then the magic request.

“And now, sir, if you will kindly step through?”. His outstretched arm directed me toward the muted elegance of that burnished wood cubicle with the beveled triplex full-length mirror and malt-colored flannel curtain: THE FITTING ROOM.

I’ll save the operations of the fitting room for another time. Suffice it to say here that it is a place of both magic and mystery, as well as considerable consolation and gratification denied even to prayer. And so the words, “And now, sir, if you will kindly step through,” have always had a spiritually transforming effect on me, as well as the slightly more prosaic literal one.


Prep School Wisdom

June 13, 2009

“Preppy” is a simple way of describing a style of dress associated with a type of American which is, tragically, “waning in Westchester” (as writer Joe Malchow puts it). The fashion belonged historically to the Eastern WASP establishment and so belonged also, in the public eye, to inherited money and privilege. The style took its name from New England college preparatory schools and the real preppies were the students there. Of those, the most authentic were the ones whose fathers and, for the luckiest, grandfathers had been students at those same schools, and who wore those old men’s faded, broken blazers and slip-on tassel loafers to class.

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

The legacies were the luckiest for having the old blazers and shoes because those things had a certain cachet, the way scuffed leather does, the way your wristwatch will never seem quite so adult and masculine as the one your father wore when you were young. That cachet was authenticity and authenticity was a badge which identified established families. The badge had little to do with money, although that was often a side-effect, but with taste: author Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. notes “the preppy ideal represents a collective yearning, with respect to money: yearning for a triumph of class over income, of grace over works, of being over doing.”

The ideal was apparent in the rumpled old blazer’s being held in higher esteem than the shiny new one because it was rumpled from generations of tradition. The blazer, and the shoes, were investments: an initial outlay of cash for quality meant a lasting return. Sound investments paid off: briefcases lasted, country homes were passed down along generations, children moved into their parents’ houses. The essence of the style was a disdain for showy wealth, of new possessions, because newness meant first possession. A new blazer couldn’t have been worn by a father or a grandfather to the same school as its current owner, so its owner must be a newcomer.

Author and professor G. Bruce Boyer writes:

“It’s better to have one good pair of shoes than a half dozen cheap ones, because the cheap ones look cheap even when they’re new, but the new ones look good even when they’re old. Quality by definition is the best you can get for your money. If you buy a pair of shoes for $500 and they last you 10 years, that’s $50 per year. If you buy a pair for $100 and they last you six months, which was the more expensive? I think the Old Money WASP guys were just cheap, so they always bought the best.”

“And the best always is the cheapest, if you have the money to buy it in the first place. The way we do it today is ask how much it costs. Nobody asks how much it costs over its lifetime — it’s just the initial price. And if you only look at the initial price, you’re going to get screwed every time. I think that’s what the Old Money guys thought, and I think they’re right. New Money doesn’t understand the appeal of old, worn family things.”

The lesson here is two-fold: frugality and taste. Sound, conservative investments will be rewarding, and ostentatious displays of wealth are deplorable. The wisdom of the prep students was to invest in tried-and-true quality, to avoid flashy affectation, to find value in tradition. Their traditions were their badge much more than any money ever was, and current economic climes might remind the rest of us of the value conservative traditions can hold, in dress as well as finance, and of the importance of function over form, and of substance over style.