Menswear, despite its permutations, variations, and evolutions through the years, always seems to maintain certain touchstones amongst its adherents. A great segment praise – with rose-tinted glasses, in my opinion – Ivy style and its particular expressions of button-down shirts or club ties. The fetishization of Italian sprezzatura serves as another instance of the common tropes of tailoring. A third segment, seemingly resplendent on every blog post at one point or another, is the “Golden Age” of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, featuring the same tired handful of black-and-white pictures of Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Sean Connery. Adjacent to this – indeed a more blue-blooded reflection – is the corresponding photographs of aristocracy from the same period, of which Edward VIII serves as the most (in)famous. It’s on that ostensibly distinct set that I shall focus.
There’s much to be said about the lingering appeal of aristocratic style – and the connection between the seemingly closed world of the aristocracy and the luxuriously aloof self-image of tailored menswear is not a difficult one to decipher. Images of besuited aristocrats appear to immediately represent, amongst much else, perfection in every way. They show an easy capability to indulge – in good taste – in all segments of what are otherwise merely clichéd, materialist interests: watches, cigars, whisky, and, of course, perfectly fitted clothes.
As with many iterations of fashion, particular details serve to highlight the essence of the style; regimental ties or colourful corduroys abound. But in an interesting twist, the most emblematic details are signs of tired and visible wear. When worn in even adjacently aristocratic milieus, these serve to confirm the special qualities of such upper-class circles. The worn collars and frayed cuffs of an old shirt serve as markers of age and wise investment. Grandfather’s relined and altered jacket, now worn by the grandson, proclaims a fascinating history and captivating story. Never mind that such occurrences often speak to the long-standing insolvency of the declining leisured classes. Rather, such details serve to confirm the authenticity of the wearer as belonging to that singular class of people. Each frayed seam is transformed into a mark of longevity, a sign of appreciation of superior values – not to mention an indicator of the quality of the clothing itself.
In benign appreciation, such clothing, and such wearers, serve as simple marks of a particular style. Both combine into exemplary showcases of English tailoring and tradition which are certainly worth following, should that be one’s preference. An extreme idolisation of the style, however, is an unfortunate warping of authenticity.
Far too often, amongst promoters of this style, there is a feverish approach that swings between extremes. One corner vehemently rejects anything new, proscribing instead a narrow dress code that hews to partly fictional interpretations of an age bygone. It has little interaction with the reality of the world today. Another copies without a thought the patterns, going only to the same makers and ordering the same items as a favoured aristocrats: only Prince Charles’ shoemaker is good enough, only Prince Michael’s choice of suit fabric correct. In both cases the effect can appear unnatural, as it belongs not to the wearer but to the wearer’s imagination of another.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy sense of appreciation for an aristocratic style. But it is not accomplished by venerating the British Royal family through slavish imitation of their appearance. Instead, if anything must be imitated, it’s through an imitation of their reality: to start where we can, to get the best clothes possible, for us, to wear them, to take care of them, but above all to simply carry on with our lives. I find Hardy Amies offers a sound perspective: “A man should look as if he has bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.” NWW/MM