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)


Too Stylish to Stay at Home—Or Go Back There

German Police Jacket

While attending the annual meeting of the Copyright Society of the USA in Newport, Rhode Island last year, I walked into a military surplus store and came out the owner of a Swiss military field jacket. I had found a row of them crowded into a single rack. All were a bit malodorous (often a hazard when buying often questionably stored surplus clothes), and although none bore a size label, all were unworn. The first one I tried on fit almost as well as something my tailor might have done up for me, and so, sacrificing the eight-dollar purchase price, I took it home. Much of the summer was occupied with airing it out, but with the first chill of autumn, I wore it on the streets of Manhattan.

It hardly drew a notice from my dinner companion that evening, which was a bit discouraging because she was Swiss. But the payoff came next time out, during a horrid day of wind, chill and rain. The jacket, intended to keep hearty Swiss conscripts dry and toasty in the worst Alpine weather, answered its calling brilliantly. Weaving among New Yorkers who stomped along in the wet ground as if persecuted, I kept up a merry pace, as warm as if I were wearing a space heater. I thought that the nipped-waist, gray-green, single-breasted, many-pocketed jacket, which would have enabled me to blend in seamlessly in an Alpine pine forest, was also quite stylish. It was undeniably practical: there was even space for a Swiss Army knife. But when my prize at last emerged from the foul weather again to rest under the sweet lights of home, my wife had this to say: “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”

That intramural sartorial challenge next led me to a website where I found a green German policeman’s jacket. This wardrobe caprice set me back a relatively dear eleven dollars plus shipping. Also unworn, it bore the fading hang tag of its manufacturer under the name it was called during the days it was a state-run enterprise in East Germany. The jacket appeared to date, however, from a time near the end of the last century when the cops in the German state of its origin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to you geography buffs) switched to much cooler SWAT-team coats of blue. Indeed, these green jackets do tend to make even the most warlike German Polizist look like a bureaucrat—which might well have been the intention in a nation grown uncomfortable with symbols of armed authority.

This time, the outerwear debut took place in the parents’ lounge of the Deutsche Sprachschule (German Language School) attended by my first grader on Saturday mornings. Everyone recognized it, and I got quite a few compliments, but a room full of German expats is not exactly a statistically supportable random sample for this stylistic boundary-pusher. As my son and I were heading up Lexington Avenue on our way home, we saw Eliot Rabin, who owns and designs menswear for the sophisticated Peter Elliot stores. He was busy on his mobile phone, but the moment he saw us, he excused himself to his caller, put down the phone and ran over to say, “That’s a great jacket.”

I was suddenly feeling the kind of confidence in my taste that is unmatched by any male who has not done a turn as the GQ Style Guy. As my wife opened the door for us and caught first sight of my new success, she said, “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”

So much for the old spousal imprimatur. I’ll take that under advisement–even as I troll the web for something chic in a size 38 that is a leftover from the Soviet navy.

Credit: Alan Behr


A Belly Full of Good Fashion

Shirtless sexy male model lying alone on his bed

As everyone knows, male fashion lawyers tend to be hunks. I was a bit late getting the memo, but on the insistence by my German doctor, I finally started exercising, and being German myself, I of course overdid it, to the point that my shirt maker (Turnbull & Asser) had to adjust my pattern and my tailor (Henry Poole) is on notice that it will need do the same. Because both usually expect rounding middles by the time customers reach my point in life, that made me feel quite good. But what I next sought to do in the name of fashion was of no concern to either of them.

It would be hard not to notice that the trend is for less body hair on men. When I was growing up, what was said about something that toughened you as a man (such as strong drink) was, “That will put a little hair on your chest.” Nature dutifully made me quite fashionable in that regard, but since that time, things have regrettably slid the other way. Beefy young men in fashion advertising display pectorals and abdominals as furless as a those of a baby. One recent print ad showed a pack of lovely women measuring every inch of a young man wearing only his undershorts and showing not a blade of hair below his perfectly formed cranium.

Would that real life were as equally correctable in Photoshop. Instead, off went this hirsute attorney in search of a more practical solution, which is how I ended up at Olga’s laser emporium. A slave to tradition, I decided to keep the hair on my chest, but I agreed to sacrifice all between the sternum and what Olga told me was my “bikini line.” She first shaved my abdomen, thereby defoliating that previously forested tract that no one had seen since I put on my bar mitzvah suit. Then she set her laser to work, and after a twelve-minute ordeal in which I felt like the target at a flame-thrower practice range, I stood up and had a look.

To my surprise, what had lay hidden under that vanquished mat of virility was, after daily workouts, a surprisingly pleasing set of washboard abs—not quite a six-pack, but something like a four-pack on its way toward picking up the two missing cans. There you go, I thought: a fashionable belly at last. The problem is that there are not that many venues in which a fashion lawyer gets to show how fashionably toned he has become. Going shirtless in the firm’s boardroom seemed not quite in keeping with our mission. I suppose I could arrive at a fashion show with my shirt as open as Keith Richards’, but that style just does not speak to me. I do not even swim topless anymore but wear a rash guard (swim shirt) with an SPF of 50. So I have done what women have done for millennia: I have suffered for beauty—beauty that must, in a guy’s case, remain both skin deep and out of view.

At least my doctor is pleased. As I lay on the examination table, she kneaded and pounded my abdomen as though hoping to strike oil and said, “Very tight. There are two possible explanations. Either you are finally exercising as I told you to do—or you have serious liver damage.”

In fashion, nothing worthwhile comes easy.

Credit: Alan Behr


A Man’s Moment

Ferragamo-Loafer-Black

Designers have been famously cautious not to offend men’s perceptions about masculinity. The old axiom that men will not buy clothes bearing the names of women led to some novel solutions. Jhane Barnes was born Jane Barnes, but by the time men had figured that out, they were sold on her clothes—even the many who assumed from the name that they were wearing clothes designed by a man. Kate Spade’s line for men came out as Jack Spade.

Then there are the brands that started for women and have migrated successfully to selling to men. Salvatore Ferragamo may have built a reputation as the shoemaker to the women of Hollywood, but my wife’s devotion to Salvatore Ferragamo handbags is mirrored by my policy that all my business shoes come in red boxes.

When it comes to individual styles, however, the crossover path is not always easy. Late in the last century, women started wearing fitted tights. That never caught on with men, even those with fantasies of playing Robin Hood. There was some initial hesitation by men, but after women had given up on stockings and started wearing beach sandals (flip-flops) around town and just going barefoot at home, men eventually followed along. I bought my first pair of flip-flops since my age was in single digits, and no sooner did I wear them out of my building, on a late-night milk errand, than I caught my doorman trying to do his best not to stare at my toes. It was a hot night and those toes did feel rather nicely chilled by the milk fridge’s chill, so I could see that the comfy factor was indeed in play. But at the end of the day, I just have to go with the obvious: light and delicate things like thong sandals may look correct on women—but on guys: you know, those black Ferragamo loafers I am never without are looking better than ever.

Credit: Alan Behr

Photo Credit: Salvatore Ferragamo

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Boys Gone Wild–Sometimes

New York, NY, USA - July 15, 2015: Models pose at the Gypsy Sport 'The Jade Helm Collection' presentation by Rio Uribe during New York Fashion Week: Men's S/S 2016 at Skylight Clarkson Sq, Manhattan

We have heard that men are the new women, that menswear is growing faster than womenswear, a business and cultural phenomenon that has seemingly taken nearly everyone by surprise. We consider many reasons for that: social media and reality television have made men more aware of the potential power of good style; online dating places a premium on appearance (your make your first impression with photos and a few lines of self-congratulatory text); and there is nothing like a worldwide economic downturn to make a guy consider carefully what he has to wear in order to get and keep a job. It may be for those reasons that menswear designers are offering all sorts of novelties at fashion shows. They appear to be following much of the same strategy as has long been used for womenswear: show something exaggerated or controversial on the runway and, when the buyers come by right after, explain how all of that will be modified into saleable condition (which is to say, something people really will wear) as soon as orders are placed.

It is perhaps for that reason that, as I examine the photographs of menswear runway shows and the editorial pages of fashion magazines, I have had increasingly greater difficulty winning a game I call I Can Wear That. To win, I have to find a complete ensemble, as shown on a living model, that I would wear, head to foot, watch to cufflinks. I can only attribute my defeat at that form of solitaire to the creativity of designers. There are looks that critics call androgynous that I cannot imagine androgynous men would be willing to wear around town. There are floor-dragging coats paired with short pants, making the model look like a schoolboy who has stolen his father’s overcoat. I suppose it is good that designers are showing no fear of color; but I just have not seen too many men grabbing those chartreuse shirts and lilac pants from retail racks.

All of that is healthy, of course. Show a bit of flare and excess, and when it comes time to make a sale, tame it down to what the market will bear. We can go back to 1962. In that year, Rudi Gernreich had no sooner created the “monokini,” the topless bathing suit, than knockoffs appeared with attachable tops. (That was, at least, the explanation my mother gave me for the one my father, a lifelong garmento, had picked up for her at a Seventh Avenue showroom.)

As for my game: when going through WWD, GQ and other publications, I indeed rarely win now at I Can Wear That. But when I go into stores, the shelves and racks are filled with things I can wear and would gladly buy. So everyone must be doing something right, and the fashion pages are always useful for inspiration. Now let me remember—what kind of coat goes best with chino shorts…?

Credit: Alan Behr

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The Blogger Blogged

Alan-Behr-Ralph-Lauren-Purple-Label-NYSocialDiary2015

As everyone knows, lawyers have far too many stellar qualities to enumerate here. We have a sense of humor. (Who can forget, after all, the priceless nugget of wit that goes: “What do you call one hundred lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.”) We are sure there must be just as many good ones about chiropractors, occupational therapists and entomologists.

And lawyers are media stars. Whenever an attorney is convicted of a felony in the line of duty, doesn’t it always make headlines? Lawyers are also highly respected for their assertiveness, as knows any lawyer whose application to rent an apartment was mysteriously and inexplicably denied.

But who knew that lawyers could also be fashion trend-setters? So it appeared from a blog several months ago, in which the author of this blog was blogged. The post was in the form of a column about accessories worn by attendees at the charity benefit held on the opening night of an antiques fair.

The site is New York Social Diary, in which David Patrick Columbia, combining the roles of Edith Wharton and Henry James for an earlier generation, chronicles the real life moments that those earlier writers drew upon for much of their fiction. The blogger in the guest column was Alison Minton, a friend and queen of New York style, who reports for the site on accessories. In my debut as a fashion icon, you can clearly see the Ralph Lauren necktie and pocket square that were the objects of the author’s attention, along with a fair bit of the Henry Poole bespoke suit that they accented and almost none of my face. As my earlier appearances in New York Social Diary and elsewhere have shown, that omission was no loss at all to the reader. It did, in this instance, force all attention on not who I am but on what I had chosen to wear in the expression of who I am. It demonstrates in pictorial form that what each of us holds as our personal style is both a part of us and an abstraction of us. We are what we wear, but what we wear is also a part of us and a metaphor for how we wish to be perceived.

It also reminds me that, as someone who will on occasion take this forum as a soapbox on which to stand and proclaim what is and is not good style, acting as a fashion authority is uniquely hard work. A theater critic need not act or direct; an art critic is not expected to paint or sculpt; but we all wear clothes. A style critic, therefore, is always in danger of being held accountable for his or her own style success and failures. (And we all have both, to be sure.) This line of work is not for the faint-hearted—but neither is any job in fashion and accessories. Would any of us have it any other way?

Credit: Alan Behr