Clothes-Wearing Men

This past weekend I ventured from Poynton House in the arcadia that is Upper Montclair and journeyed to Manhattan in order to attend “A Collection of Sartorial Excellence.” The event united the talents of Darren Beaman, an English tailor; Alexander Kabbaz, a bespoke New York shirt maker; Vass, a Hungarian cobbler; and Carlo Franco, two Americans who design and import Italian silk seven-fold and four-fold ties. Andy Gilchrist of the “Ask Andy Fashion Forum” was the gracious host. It attracted a host of dandies.

Before attending, I lunched at Fred’s in Barney’s with eight other dandies. Attendees had come from as far away as Texas. Each one is, to use Carlyle’s phrase, a clothes-wearing man. Now some observers, like Messrs. Baudelaire and D’Aurevilly, maintain that dandyism does not consist in a delight in clothes and material elegance. But these epigones of the philosophes think too much. I hold with Mr. Beerbohm, who also incongruously yet approvingly cited Carlyle, that a dandy is one who devotes all his time and his faculty to the art of wearing clothes wisely and well, to achieve the ideal: “the perfect flower” of outward elegance.

Only one attendee adhered to the Brummellian ideal of being a dandy and nothing else. Modesty prevents me from mentioning him by name. The others were, for example, accomplished writers, lawyers, and a concert pianist. But all are devoted to wearing clothes wisely and well. Almost everyone had a least one button on his jacket sleeve undone, signaling to the cognoscenti that the jacket is bespoke. Swatches of 50-ounce silk with hand-rolled edges jutted out from breast pockets. Over lunch, swatches of summer-weight wool, twill, and shirtings were passed around for inspection and fondling. We admired each others’ whole-cut shoes. We gossiped about tailors on the Row. We hovered over the fine horn buttons purchased that morning by one dandy to reinvigorate an old, favorite sports coat. These are, as I said, clothes-wearing men.

After lunch we went to the event. There is, you see, a great schism in dandyism, the biggest purely sartorial dispute since, well, the sans-culottes broke with the avec-culottes. Decorum dictates that I refrain from airing dandyism’s dirty linen in public. Suffice it to say that Darren and Alex had a nasty quarrel with the webmaster of a certain members-only site devoted to the bespoke arts. The nine of us, who are numbered among the elect, therefore attended the event informally rather than as an official delegation, except if you are speaking with said webmaster, in which case we were not there at all. In any case, off we went.

The euphoria induced at lunch by the brotherhood of dandyism and, in my case, a couple of Rusty Nails, blossomed into ecstasy at the exposition. We compared the knotting properties and thickness of a Carlo Franco four-fold tie with its true seven-fold. We extolled the richness and texture of a woven silk tie over the matte finish of a print. We marveled over two shirt cloths from the 1920s, long out of production, offered by Kabbaz. They were woven with, respectively, the tiniest of raised diamond and mini-paisley patterns. So what if they had yellowed a bit? Alex assured us that they would return to pristine whiteness after a wash. We delighted in the sparkle and thickness of Carlo Franco collar stays made from real mother-of-pearl. We gandered at a Beaman bespoke suit made of cloth with a diagonal stripe and a waistcoat with rolling lapels. We evaluated the look of the raised shoe toe cap, called the Budapest last, distinctive of Vass shoes. For the bling inclined, Darren showed a swatch of wool from the fabric house of Scabal laced with 24-karat gold thread. To dandies, clothes-wearing is as much about touch as it is sight. We thrilled to the hand of a pure cashmere shirt, which Alex offered at a mere $2,400; the gossamer feel of his voile shirtings; and the unbearable lightness of a swatch of cashmere/vicuna fabric that Darren intended for some lucky gent’s sports coat.

Other members of the elect, who did not make the lunch, met up with us at the event. H., a prominent dandy and reputedly the model for the lawyer Killian in Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, arrived in late afternoon wearing his new bespoke, self-designed twill walking coat with a pale orange, patterned lining. He quickly snatched up several ties and ordered a pair of shoes. Wine flowed, conversations sparkled, and we all ogled the female model wearing nothing but a pair of Zimmerli man’s pajamas.

My day’s work done, I left with eight Carlo Franco four-folds (I now own 36 of them), and visions of the Vass black-and-white spectators with raised top cap, which I had ordered, to be ready in three months.

Addendum:The provincials have reported in at the forum, labeling as twits the luncheon attendees of which I previously wrote, who wore their sleeve buttons undone, and pressuring them, in effect, to abdicate the title of dandy. You, sirs, are truly affected provincials.

Twits, indeed. Those who affect the garb of another age, such as Civil War re-enactors, are twits. Not these dandies. There was, I allow, some excess at the luncheon. One gentleman had his sleeve button undone although his jacket was made-to-measure, not bespoke. He should be spoken to. A blanket condemnation, however, of dandies dressing for other dandies — this is totally unwarranted.

The unkindest cut comes from Manton, who has authored a book that aspires to the title The Dandy and purports to teach readers how to break sartorial rules. J’accuse! He who sat among the nine and broke bread with us. Judas! Manton is a well-dressed man and cuts a fine figure, to be sure. Very scholarly, he sedulously interviewed the participants at the event to glean further knowledge, but he is more a Margaret Mead among the Hottentots than a true dandy.

One would nevertheless expect he would rally, however reluctantly, to the defense of his brothers. But what does he do? At the first opportunity he states that he was not one of those who left a button undone, thus disassociating himself from any charge of ostentation while insidiously indicating that he was wearing bespoke. Only one has sheepishly come forward, again elsewhere, to admit his practice. I am no Kazan. I will not name names. Let me tell you this, however: He was not alone. One of the offenders is a name known to all of you. Indeed, he is an arbiter elegantiarum, not a mere hopeful like Manton.

Manton points the finger at me. I confess that I am a Brummell en Caen, so to speak. My best days are behind me. My once golden hair is now white. My schoolboy figure long vanished, I can no longer slip comfortably into my bespoke duds. The family fortune is sadly diminished, inhibiting sartorial replenishment. Yet even in my crepuscular elegance I can still summon up a certain panache. That day, my necktie was tied a la Onassis — a four-in-hand with no visible knot — and draped over, not under, the crewneck cashmere sweater that was worn under my tweed sportcoat. And here is what Manton did not tell you: I wore the cuffs of my sweater turned back over my jacket sleeves. Yes, the buttons were unbuttoned, but they could not have been seen. One would have known that they were undone solely because unbuttoning is the only way to achieve this understated, and rather perfect, effect.

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