Welcome, dear readers, to the start of a new series entitled “An American in…”. Each column, I’ll be looking into one unique city and address one simple question: if I was so lucky as to live here, what would I ask my tailor to do for me?
How appropriate to start in the city in which I currently reside, Edinburgh. From the first moment, the capital of Scotland presents a beguiling sight. Emerging from the subterranean depths of Waverley train station, one finds oneself in the very center of the city. All around are the perched and perfectly framed monuments. Looming above are the jutting, rocky heights of the Crags and Arthur’s Seat (both remnants of an ancient volcano) and every institution of note in the city. It is a truly arresting picture.
And I, through both real life and now this very column, have the privilege of spending one year to explore all that the city holds, and to be dressed for that task.
As cities go (capital cities in particular), Edinburgh is a slight oddity. With less than 500,000 souls living in it, suburbs included, the city has the effect of feeling like more of a glorified country town. One is never more than twenty minutes from the countryside, and a turn around each corner of the city reveals a new vista of the rolling green fields and heather-covered slopes beyond. In case I’m accused of exaggeration, this impression is not mine alone. The Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Stevenson (author, most notably, of “Treasure Island” and “Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde”) saw this dichotomy too: “Half a capital and half a country town, the whole city leads a double existence; it has long trances of the one and flashes of the other; like the king of the Black Isles, it is half alive and half a monumental marble.”
Of all aspects of its double existence, the rural texture of Edinburgh stands out the most. And this is not only limited to areas of nature, such as the various parks, with their multi-colored, wild growth that reflects the variegated texture of tweeds. It is the architecture of the city itself, with its mighty jumble of buildings, unplanned and organically sprung up like a twist of brambles along the rises of Edinburgh’s seven hills that gives one this impression. Even the materials of the city, the rough-hewn stones from nearby quarries that are only ever so slightly more refined than their wild forebears. How does one meet the demands of such a natural, not-quite-urbanized, yet not-quite-rural city?
Firstly, one requires a lounge suit, cut along easy lines. The fabric for this is a Glen check (the name of which derives from the Glenurquhart valley in Inverness-Shire in Scotland) in a mixture of light taupe and dark brown. A good weight is a necessity. Not only does a heavier fabric provide better drape, but the weight allows it to be worn nearly year-round. In a city as wet and windy as Edinburgh, there is no alternative.
The cut for this is double-breasted, draped, with slightly extended shoulders. With wide lapels (no lapel buttonholes for me), wide trousers, and a generous length the suit plays with the original 1930s drape silhouette. I would pair this with cordovan Oxfords, plain white shirt with pointed collar, and black silk knit tie.
The second thing I’d ask my tailor for is tweed.
British cloths are known throughout the world for their quality. Hard-wearing, refined, and often quite conservative in color and style, British cloth isn’t just used on Savile Row but is embraced by tailors all around the world seeking the kind of stolid dress the English seem to have made their own. Certain spots within the United Kingdom have become synonymous with their specialty cloths: Huddersfield for worsteds and Somerset, increasingly, for flannels. Scotland, too, produces its own regional fabrics: tweeds and cashmere.
These tweeds are, in fact, unique throughout the world. This uniqueness is even protected by law. The most famous of these is Harris Tweed, still woven in the Outer Hebrides, a chain of small islands lying off the west coast of Scotland. There, the fabric is still made as it was centuries ago, on hand-powered looms, woven by locals in their homes; the very definition of a cottage industry, wiped out everywhere else by the rise of mechanization and the Industrial Revolution. Harris Tweed is so unique that it has the rare distinction of being protected by an Act of Parliament. Nothing except the genuine article can be called Harris Tweed, and if I (or anyone else) is to be living in Edinburgh, taking advantage of Harris Tweed is a necessity.
For the cut of the jacket, I’d choose a single-breasted three-button with notch lapels. The tweed itself a green and russet herringbone, with variegated and speckled tufts of yarn that add, at close inspection, a wild array of colors. As a nod to the original use for tweeds, on the coats of gamekeepers and for the rough thicket of the hunt, it has bellowed patch pockets.
The trousers to match are cut from a taupe cavalry twill, pleated, with cuffs and two rear pockets. The shirt: a light blue oxford-cloth button-down, with a dark blue tie made from cashmere, Scotland’s other famous fabric.
The final piece I would hope to commission from my tailor is a suit that taps into that old British conservatism: charcoal gray flannel. Unfortunately, I can’t sit around all year in a pub, cafe, or holed up in a museum. (Though wouldn’t that life be great?). It’s a necessity to have a standard suit that is as appropriate for the workplace as it is for nearly any other function. Though they are quintessentially British, I have to count pinstripes out of the running. For me, they have the unfortunate association of Halloween costumes of 1920s gangsters or seedy 1970s businessmen. So this is simply a plain, no-frills flannel. In my mind, keeping the materials simple and classic helps ensure that the suit never goes out of style.
It’s also appropriate to keep the cut conservative: double-breasted, wide lapels, extended shoulder, and a nice drape in the chest. It has the standard details of two vents and no ticket pocket. The only idiosyncrasy will be the lack of lapel buttonholes. The trousers are pleated and cuffed. The shirt, a plain white, with a dark brown, raw silk tie to provide a bit of matching texture with the flannel. The shoes, black oxfords. Not only does this nicely tap into the traditions of British dress, but it serves particularly well in the wet and windy environment of Edinburgh.
That’s all for this first column, readers, but keep an eye out. I’ll be popping up at another city in Europe, ready to share my thoughts. Until then. NWW/DC