Not My Bag(gy)

It had to happen, and it did in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. Late in February, Jacob Gallagher contributed an article persuasively advocating for a new appreciation of baggy pants. Even as The New York Times obsessively writes about President Trump (Not long after the inauguration, I counted twenty-six pieces revisited to him on The Times‘ home page.), here comes the more conservatively leaning Journal to bring us news we can use: the ins and outs of wearing slouchy trousers.

Menswear runs in somewhat erratic cycles, with lean and trim tailoring having been the look in (roughly speaking) the years following WWI and the 1960s and much of this century, with looser cuts, often led by trousers with pleats, having been in vogue in the decades in between. Risking a generalization, when youth dominates fashion and popular culture, slim is in. Consider The Beatles and all those earnest young and lesser bands of our present era. Giorgio Armani rose to fame when he helped end that earlier cycle with his looser cut suits that draped, rather than seemingly adhered to, Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). In his Journal story, Jacob Gallagher quoted Patrick Grant, the designer for E. Tautz (London): “A lot of people are just not built for skinny trousers, particularly those of us who have a few years under our belt.”

All well and true, except when it isn’t. As Mr. Gallagher just barely hinted, baggy is hard to pull off if you are what he politely termed “vertically challenged”—which is to say, you can all too easily end up looking like a bar mitzvah boy forced to wear one of his father’s suits. I am not short but not anywhere near tall and not in my first youth. Having slimmed down to my high school weight and buffed up in the gym, however, I slide into the trim, Italian-inspired Brooks Brothers Milano cut like a cartridge into a revolver breech. My London tailor, Henry Poole & Co., had to snip my pattern down to comply with the requirements of my new physique. I trimmed the trousers of the Henry Poole suits already in my wardrobe and have gone down two waist sizes, even as I only buy slim cuts in casual wear. A leading fashion stylist who had worked hard in the svelte-deprived ’90s to get me to puff out now says I look great while deflated back to slim. Who wants to upset that?

And so: a thank you to The Journal for letting me know that slouchy has again gone mainstream. This time, I am having none of it. As I said in these pages before, I realized late in life (as a Uniqlo customer), that I have the taste and build of a Japanese teenager. Every other guy can and, if it strikes him as correct, go baggier than Bozo. This fit but not so tall guy is sticking with the trim cut that suits him best.

As my partner Helene Freeman has blogged, we await word from the Supreme Court about what standard will be used to determine what designs on cheerleader uniforms are properly protectable by copyright. (Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al.). That case could have wide implications for anyone whose after-school activities include jumping up and down in decorated tennis dresses in front of football bleachers—and potentially for many others as well. The debate on the cut of trousers, shirts and jackets will, happily, be unaffected. In the USA, despite sincere efforts to change the law, the pattern (outline) of a garment is unprotected as long as it is a functional element—which it nearly always is. Designers and their customers have free reign to go baggy or keep it lean, without interference by lawyers or judges. The question, I am happy to report, is one of taste, not of jurisprudence, at least under American law. Apply your own style sense or consult your own personal stylist, and best wishes with that.

Credit: Alan Behr

Photo Credit/Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland (Creative Commons)


Remembering Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham MCNY Winter Ball 02-25-15

The term fashion photographer typically brings to mind a specialist who works on assignment for advertisements or editorials and who brings to each shoot enough equipment to light a stadium and enough digital photographic gear to document a war. Bill Cunningham, who died on Saturday at the age of 87, did it all differently and in so doing became the essential visual chronicler of fashion in the USA.

Bill worked for The New York Times, but there is no external evidence that he took direct orders from editors—or that he deferred to the wishes of designers, subjects or anyone else. His method was to go around Manhattan on a bicycle, wearing a purposefully utilitarian and unfashionable outfit: blue French worker’s jacket, khakis and sneakers. At charity benefits and other social goings on—which is where I usually ran into him—he would switch into something black, not to be fashionable, but to blend in, rather like a stalking ninja—which, photographically, is rather the role liked to fill. His camera was typically an obsolescent (to a photojournalist) 35mm film model, and I never saw him trouble himself to carry more than one lens. He was balletic in his movements, turning, twisting, weaving and sometimes seeming to float among chatting socialites, popping off at what interested him. He was all business: if you called out, “Hi, Bill,” you were lucky to get a nod and a smile in response before he seemingly had slipped under the dress of the grandly frocked blonde next to you and emerged unseen to snap one just like her a few paces beyond.

The protocol was to pretend you did not see him even if you did, even as you silently pleaded with the gods of fashion that you had worn something worthy of Bill’s attention. (As a middle-aged man in a Henry Poole dinner jacket, I never held any such illusions.) The payoff was to have your picture in The New York Times, most often in one of the short videos Bill filed, narrated in his typically avuncular style—his high voice effusive with enthusiasm at trends and fads, some of them not known to almost anyone until he announced their ascendance.

Bill was no photographic stylist. As long as the image made his point about what was being worn, it was good enough for him. And because his eye for fashion was so unfailing, it made no matter. As Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, frequently acknowledged, “We all dressed for Bill.”

If Bill photographed you, by all means, accept the honor and cherish it. Under law, you have no right to compensation for it: if he snapped your image at a benefit or on the street, you had no expectation of privacy, and so he did not need the one thing he never appeared to have concerned himself to get: a model release. Sometimes people claim that, in some published photograph or another, they were made to look bad and so try build a case around that. With Bill Cunningham, sorry: he would only photograph you if he thought you looked fantastically unique or simply fantastic. If you did look bad or (almost as unsettling) commonplace, he just passed you by. Conversely, if you managed to photograph him at work, as I did for my series of photographs of the Upper East Side party scene Naked at the Ball (the picture is above), he did not care—just as long as you did not get in his way when it was his turn.

Bill Cunningham was indeed one of a kind. The fashion world will miss him.

Credit: Alan Behr

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Photo Credit: Photograph Copyright © 2015 by Alan Behr