January 31, 2012

Anthony Lejeune once wrote a survey of some of the more (and less) notable clubs in New York City, and at the outset of it he paraphrased Engligh wit P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional Bertie Wooster, and absent-minded fop: the convenient thing about New York is that it’s right there when you get off the boat. Mr. Lejeune travels to the city by airplane, not boat, but reaquaints himself with the city as quickly as if he walked down a gangplank onto cobblestones. Foremost among those things with which to be reaquainted: Coca-Cola.

The soda is an especial treat to an English clubman like himself, he writes, because most English clubs have purposefully little to do with it.  Some refuse even to stock it. “Two members of the Cavalry Club in London, after idly discussing [whether that club carried Coca-Cola], decided to put it to the test. Summoning the wine waiter, they asked if there was any Coca-Cola in the club. Drawing himself up to his full six-foot-two, he replied freezingly: ‘For drinking purposes, sir?’

New York has almost as many clubs as London – clubs for the old upper-class, clubs for alumni of Ivy League colleges, clubs for actors, clubs for writers, predominantly sporting clubs, small intimate clubs like the Coffee House and the Leash, [and] architecturally magnificent clubs like the Metropolitan.”

That predilection for Coca-Cola aside, Mr. Lejeune finds a good deal of commonality between clubs this side of the ocean and that: “The founders of the Union Club [Editor’s Note: formerly discussed in these pages] in 1836 specified that it should be similar in its plans and regulations to the great clubs of London, which give a tone and character to the society of the British metropolis. Like their British originals, some of the older New York clubs evolved from groups of friends who met in coffee houses and taverns. But if the clubs of St. James’s Street are haunted by the ghosts of Regency bucks and dandies, the New York clubs always seem… redolent of another period – the confident, firmly-rooted, literate, polite society of Henry James and Edith Wharton.”

American clubs, he pushes on to note, tend to be more well-appointed than their monarchist forebears: the leather chairs are less shabby, though the portraits on the walls – being newer – are generally worse. He typically feels comfortable at American clubs, and appreciates their efforts to foist company on any man solitary. The exception, Mr. Lejeune writes, is the lunch hour. “The Lotos Club may have been named, in 1870, after Tennyson’s Lotos-eaters, who came to a land ‘in which it seemed always afternoon,’ but I have found myself alone in the Knickerbocker at two o’clock because everybody has rushed back to Wall Street.”

Despite the cheerful welcome, the rules remain rigid at the better American clubs, and the social hierarchy a complicated gridwork of connections and chains to rival the Brooklyn Bridge. Certainly, the issue of pedigree is hardly unique to the Manhattan clubs:  a notoriously cantankerous aristocratic member of White’s Club, in London, complained in the nineteenth century that what he called “my tradesmen” were being elected to the club – by which he meant bankers and lawyers. Bankers and lawyers have always been socially acceptable in New York (not all lawyers, of course, and fewer bankers these days), but still Sumner Welles grumbled in the 1950s that “there’s no such thing as Club Society anymore. They can’t even keep in the men they used to keep out.”

The Old Guard, though it sometimes can’t even keep in the men it used to keep out, nevertheless retains its prim passivity: one member of The Brook, an old and much respected New York club, eats lunch at that club’s long communal table daily. The club allows no other tables, such that members must eat socially with one another. In protest, the old patrician insists on silently rising whenever a particularly gauche member arrives, and leaving. “He’s had a great many Brook Club soups,” observed a fellow member, “but he’s never yet gotten to the demitasse.”

Of coure, the menu has never been a reason to join any good club, and clubs have prided themselves perversely on serving the likes of what one clerical member once called “that piece of cod which passeth all understanding.” The point is conviviality, and a second point is the ability to take refuge from the vulgarities outside, where things are shiny and hard instead of muted and dark. As a result, many clubmen require at least two clubs, writes Mr. Lejeune: one in which to talk, and one in which to hide grumpily behind a newspaper.

The employees of a club also contribute to its fortunes. “The atmosphere of any club depends greatly on its servants, and the courtesy of an old-fashioned staff is particularly pleasing in New York, where the headwaiters in fashionable restaurants have been allowed – or so it strikes a visitor – to become extraordinarily autocratic and offhand.” A retreat from that brusque incivility is one of the most enticing aspects of any club, but even the alure of gilt-framed isolationism has run up against modernity, Mr. Lejeune writes.

“Rising costs, staff problems, and changing patterns of urban life have affected [clubs in] both New York and London. Bar profits are falling because of the current wave of puritanism, which is bad news for club treasurers. One reason why ladies’ clubs have never really worked is that women do not drink or lunch seriously enough for the clubs’ financial well-being.

This is no loss; the point about a club is that it should be private. Publicity is anathema. But the clubs themselves are still there, offering the quiet conviviality, the civilized manners, the refuge from uncongenial modernity that true clubmen seek. The surprising thing really is not that they have survived, but that there aren’t many more of them and that they are not more heavily used. Where else can a bachelor, a widower, or merely someone whose wife is engaged elsewhere, or a stranger in town—any solitary man who prefers not to eat and drink alone—go without embarrassment or prior arrangement to enjoy the company of his peers? Does any hotel now provide the simple amenity of a communal table, which every English coaching inn and every staging post on the Western trails used to supply?”

In closing, Mr. Lejeune recalls meeting an elderly American once in London’s Brooks’ Club. He said that when he was in London, he always stayed at Brooks’. When he was in Rome, he stayed at the Caccia. In New York, he stayed at the Knickerbocker. Since he didn’t much care for today’s world, he hardly ever went outside and was therefore never quite sure in what country he ever actually was.

The Gaming Room - Brooks' Club, London.


Hang Fire

January 3, 2011

Generally when flying I say a short, utilitarian prayer during takeoff, requesting safe passage and uneventful travels. Upon arriving intact, I give due credit and thanks.

On a recent flight home from New York I sat directly in front of an awful family: a father and his two adolescent sons, all three garrulous, abrasive and dumb. I forewent the prayer, reasoning that if the plane crashed those three would be wiped out and, plummeting, I could at least therein take comfort and find evidence of intelligent design.

I report with mixed feelings that such design takes apparently less interest in domestic air travel than it (It?) once did in Gomorrah.

The Brooks Bros. Bar

December 10, 2010

The Brooks Brothers’ holiday gala was held December 8th at the firm’s Manhattan flagship store, 346 Madison Avenue (namesake of the clother’s “346” line of menswear). Chief among the night’s grand unveilings was the Brooks bar, a lounge and pool hall on the fifth floor of the shop.

Observed In New York

September 18, 2010

Via the New York Observer, by John Pompeo:

For everyday New York men who strive to be reasonably well dressed, it can be a daunting experience shopping for clothes that won’t make you look like an ass.

Simply traverse the labyrinthine corridors of Barneys, Bergdorf and Bloomingdale’s, where the all-over-the-place mess hanging from the men’s racks is enough to induce migraines: Are pink ties metro or macho this week? Should slim-fit jeans really be this tight? Why do these scruffy flannel lumberjack shirts cost $300? And what’s with all the crazy stripes and extra pockets and ridiculous eagle prints? Things aren’t any simpler inside the showrooms of up-and-coming men’s wear designers, a casual survey of which might make a discerning fellow ponder whether he’d rather look like an urban vampire (Robert Geller), a coal miner (Gilded Age) or a confused sailor (Rogues Gallery).

All of which helps explain the current appeal of American “trad,” short for traditional: an Ivy League–inflected style that’s managed to retain an old-school sensibility without seeming dated or costumelike. Trad is, quite simply, a safe haven for sartorially selective gentlemen amid the ever-growing chaos of department stores and runways. 

Think Oxford button-downs (and that’s real button-downs, meaning collars that button down, not simply dress shirts, to which the term is often misapplied). Natural-shouldered blazers. Flat-front khaki trousers. Loafers. Bow ties, rep ties. Polo shirts in solid colors. Lots of madras plaid. Early Brooks Brothers. New England WASPs. F. Scott Fitzgerald.“Trad is sort of the antithesis of what’s happening in fast fashion right now,” said Michael Williams, 30, who obsesses over classic American men’s clothing on his blog, A Continuous Lean. “It’s like the opposite of what all the men’s wear designers are doing,” Mr. Williams continued. “It’s not fashion; it’s clothes.” 

THE ORIGINS OF trad date back to the turn of the century, with the founding in 1902 of the New Haven–based men’s clothier J. Press, considered the epitome of the style. The look became prominent on the Ivy League campuses of the 1950s and ’60s, as documented in the Japanese book Take Ivy, a rare photo collection first published in 1965 that’s enjoyed something of a revival in the past year. The term trad itself is said to have been coined by the Japanese, who have also been driving the current fascination with obscure U.S. clothing brands and Americana that’s taken hold at various men’s boutiques, department stores and on a handful of blogs akin to Mr. Williams’. (J. Press was acquired by a Japanese company, Onward Kashiyama, in 1986.)  

Perhaps you’ve noticed Lacoste polos, Ray-Ban eyewear, bow ties and hand-sewn camp moccasins on the streets of Billyburg?

Those who embrace the look say subtlety is key. 

“When done right, it should almost be invisible,” said John Tinseth, 52, an insurance broker and longtime traddy who’s been writing a blog called The Trad—anonymously, until now—for the past two years. He was on the phone from his West 57th Street apartment, dressed, he said, in L. L. Bean khakis and moccasins and a yellow university-stripe Oxford by Rugby.

“A guy should walk right by you and he’ll have the whole thing down and you won’t even notice,” Mr. Tinseth said. “That’s when it’s done perfectly.”

‘Imagine your best-dressed uncle throwing open his closet for you to frolic around in.’—David Wilder of J. Press

In New York, ground zero for trad is the J. Press store on Madison Avenue and 47th Street, one of the company’s four U.S. retail locations. (The others are in New Haven, Boston and Washington, D.C.)

There, you will find David Wilder, a polite 41-year-old sales associate and trad guru to scores of Manhattan males.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Mr. Wilder, who is tall and broad of build, with thin blond hair and Joycean spectacles, was toggling between register, rack and fitting room, stopping every so often to chat with familiar customers, who greeted him brightly by name.

He was trying to find a properly fitting $595 navy blue wool blazer for a young buck headed back to school at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.“I think this one’s going to be a lot better,” Mr. Wilder said, sliding a size 41-long onto the studious shopper’s shoulders.

Mr. Wilder grew up in Greenwich, Conn., “surrounded by Madras jackets and what we would call ‘go to hell’ pants, which are heavily patterned,” he said on his lunch break, over a quiche and a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale at a sandwich shop across the street from the store. “The type of stuff you’d wear to the Belle Haven yacht club.” He was wearing tasseled Alden loafers; English-made J. Press over-the-calf socks; American-made J. Press khakis with a one-and-three-quarter-inch cuff (the trad standard); a Lewin striped shirt purchased on Jermyn Street in London (a bit racy for a trad ensemble, he said); a flat-knit solid navy blue necktie; and a natural-shouldered navy blazer by David Cenci. (His J. Press jackets were at the cleaners that day.)

 AT YALE, Mr. Wilder studied 18th-century American and European history, and spent several of his summers working part time at the J. Press store in New York. “It was like working in your eccentric uncle’s genteel closet,” he said fondly. “Imagine your best-dressed uncle throwing open his closet for you to frolic around in. Like an insiders’ club for people who love the Ivy League look.”

After that, Mr. Wilder helped run a high-end personal stationery business, Therese Saint Clair, that his parents founded when he was 9 years old, and that he eventually sold in 2001.

About five and a half years ago, after a stint working as a concierge at the Delamar Greenwich Harbor Hotel, Mr. Wilder sent his résumé to the New York J. Press store on a whim. He was hired shortly thereafter, he said, and has been shilling trad style five days a week ever since.What is the difference between trad and preppy, The Observer wondered?“Preppy is a little broader than trad,” he said. “It’s more eccentric, more colorful.” (All those duck prints!)Trad’s entire purpose is to defy and transcend the whims of fashion, but inevitably some elements will be seen on the runways this week—likely during Thom Browne’s show on Sunday, Sept. 13, at his Hudson Street store (Mr. Browne got a massive plug when Vogue editor Anna Wintour recommended him to David Letterman on her Aug. 24 Late Show appearance).Since 2007, Mr. Browne—otherwise best known for encouraging men to expose their hairy ankles—has been designing a trad-oriented specialty collection for Brooks Brothers called Black Fleece.

This year’s spring/summer line was heavy on the madras, seersucker and paisley, with a predominantly navy blue, white and gray color palette. (A photo that surfaced on The Sartorialist blog in April 2006 of a silver-haired gentleman wearing a slim, short-cut navy blue blazer, a light blue Oxford shirt and dark gray slacks with an ankle-length pant hem ran with the caption: “O.K., Trads, you’re really closer to the Thom Browne aesthetic than you may want to admit.”) Like Mr. Browne, Michael Bastian, who is showing at Exit Art on Sept. 14, is a breakout men’s wear designer known to dabble in trad pieces.“Pick up a Browne or Bastian shirt,” said Mr. Tinseth, “and you can feel the heft of it and know it was made with care.”But a true traddy might opt for the more economical and authentic route of getting his dress shirts custom-made, perhaps by a tailor like Alexander Kabbaz, shirt maker to Tom Wolfe, Mr. Tinseth said. Likewise, a traddy would buy a J. Press suit over one made by a trendy designer.

“This stuff lasts forever, which I don’t think fashion people like because they need to sell new stuff,” said Mr. Tinseth, citing a pair of cordovan shell Alden wingtips he bought in 1986 and still wears today.Mr. Wilder, of course, concurred.“Traddies want something authentic,” he said, taking a sip of ginger ale. “Not something that’s a riff on something authentic.”

Flag Day

June 14, 2010

Americans celebrate Flag Day on June 14, a holiday during which we commemorate the adoption of the national flag of the United States by Congressional resolution in 1777. President Woodrow Wilson set that date aside as Flag Day in 1916, and in 1949 National Flag Day was adopted by an Act of Congress.

Though not an official Federal holiday, some states have adopted the date as a State holiday; Quincy, Massachusetts and Troy, New York annually produce nationally-renowned Flag Day parades, and the Wisconsin parade traditionally features detachments of the United States Navy.

Flag Day was first formally observed in 1885, when grade school teacher Bernard Cigrand held a ceremony commemorating the adoption of the flag at Wisconsin’s Stony Hill School. Today, a bronze bust of Cigrand sits in Wisconsin’s Flag Day Americanism Center.

On June 14, 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt saw a man wiping his nose with what appeared to be the American flag. Outraged that any American would be so disrespectful to the flag, especially on Flag Day, President Roosevelt began to beat the man with a stout piece of wood. After five or six hefty whacks, the President realized the offending fabric was, in fact, only a blue handkerchief with white stars on it. He beat the man several minutes more anyway, for getting him “riled up with national pride.”

Borrower Beware

June 2, 2010

The New York Times’ Ron Lieber made interesting, if implausible, points about student loans in an article yesterday. His primary thrust was to advocate for paternalistic accountability and oversight on the part of lenders, schools, guidance counselors… every interested party, that is, but the borrowers themselves.

Mr. Lieber drew heavily on statistical data: percentages of graduates struggling to pay back student loans, unemployment numbers, average increases in college tuition, and the rest of the usual suspects. The landscape was a bleak one of hoodwinked lambs pawning their diplomas frames. In Mr. Lieber’s opinion, student lenders and the financial aid offices of universities have acted in concert to advance oversized loans to students who are poor credit risks, convincing them a college degree was worth any price. He thinks collegiate financial aid offices at places like NYU should advise students to consider cheaper schools and lenders should be less willing to make enormous loans so freely.

Both ideas are good ones, but Mr. Lieber’s statistical analyses take no account of folk wisdom: buyer beware. The primary responsibility in the purchase of any item, whether a pencil or a college education, is the buyer’s. Interested parties like lenders and schools are just that… interested parties: they have their own interests and they work in the service of those interests. Buyers ought to know this. It’s the rare fool who thinks the salesman has anything but his own bottom line at heart, and a fool and his money are soon… well.

Colleges are wonderful places and contribute immensely to the cultural and intellectual fabric or our country. But colleges are also businesses, even if non-profit, and the point of business is not to turn away business. This is true of lenders, too. Consumer know this, or ought to, and so the onus is on them to exercise sound judgment in making a purchase.

Should banks counsel students and turn away default risks? Probably. Should schools make sure families know the risks of borrowing? Most likely. Should voluntary borrowers of any sort be primarily accountable for their own borrowing, knowing that lenders are for-profit organizations intent on money-making? Without a doubt.

It’s more important now than ever that consumers inform themselves as to the cost of their consumption, whether of gasoline or education. Is the product worth the price? Mr. Lieber leans heavily on a girl recently out of NYU, nearly $100,000 in debt. She earns barely enough money to meet her monthly expenses.

“She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It’s the highest salary she’s earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies. After taxes, she takes home about $2,300 a month. Rent runs $750, and the full monthly payments on her student loans would be about $700 if they weren’t being deferred, which would not leave a lot left over.”

The girl has a degree from one of the best schools in the country, which administers some of the best programs in the world. Its price seems justified, given its graduates’ comparative earning potential. Still, students need to take the initiative in charting their own finances; banks and schools cannot, and should not, be active co-pilots. Every customer of every product must decide: is the product worth the price, and can I afford the price?

If the product is an investment, like a college education, is it likely to be a sound one, returning profitable dividends? For instance, is “an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies” a product likely worth its price, or an investment likely to ever return anything at all?

Frank McCourt: 1930-2009

July 20, 2009

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, whose body of work includes Angela’s Ashes, Tis, and Teacher Man, died yesterday, Sunday, at age 78 of cancer in Manhattan.

Until his mid-60’s, Mr. McCourt was an amusement on the fringes of the New York literary scene: a beloved storyteller and entertainer, he worked as a creative writing teacher in the city’s public school system and was a fixture at The White Horse Tavern and other hangouts of the bookish set.

After retiring from the classroom in 1996, Mr. McCourt published Angela’s Ashes,  which tells the story of his life, starting with his impoverished Irish roots, and for which he was given the Pulitzer Prize. As the author puts it in his novel’s celebrated preamble:  “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives,” Mr. McCourt once noted. “I think I’ve proven him wrong. And all because I refused to settle for a one-act existence, the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”

Frank McCourt, right, with brother Malachy.

Frank McCourt, right, with brother Malachy.