Today’s topic has everything to do with bastards, illegitimate marriages of heretical ideas that could make #menswear purists blanche. As with much of what’s viewed as heresy or blasphemy against classic menswear, the garment pictured springs forth from the 1960s, both directly and indirectly. Bastardization, of course, is all about that indirectness, that genealogical “collateral” line. And yet mutts are sometimes the most beautiful and intelligent of animals… at least to this beholder.
I came to my #menswear cropper through a love for 1960s vividness, even recognizing that its Technicolor thrills were largely phenomena confined to a privileged middle and upper class. Still, the cinematic glories of Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, David Hemmings and others made an impression on my suburban adolescent self, as did David Bailey’s photographs. And, of course, Connery’s Bond. Today James Bond is trapped in a postmodern funhouse mirror of reboots and reimaginings, licensed more to retail brand names than to kill. The more stylish heir to Connery’s infamously politically incorrect Bond is the gloriously profane cartoon hero Sterling Archer, he who coined the portmanteau word “tactleneck”, the tactical turtleneck in the deepest black and the finest materials that accompanies him on all his most sensitive missions. In a review of Archer’s and Bond’s shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser, I noted that T&A are missing out on what could be a fruitful collaboration with Archer, being as they are the inventors of another glorious bastard turtleneck from my 1960s period of inspiration.
Warren Beatty and Hemmings, who famously sported searingly striped shirts (another T&A staple) as a fashion photographer in Blow-Up, modelled it, but it was Lord (not Edward) Snowdon who made this design most famous when he was turned away from a soirée in New York City for wearing it: a tuxedo shirt made out of silk with a turtleneck collar without any space for a bow tie. The design was bizarre but awesome: the simplicity of a turtleneck meant no studs, cummerbund or waistcoat, or the aforementioned bow tie. To my mind it’s aged rather better than the ruffled front tux shirt George Lazenby sports in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
According to my pal @voxsartoria, this shirt’s design was the brainchild of T&A’s creative cutter at the time, Robert Clark, who had come up with other bizarrely inventive models, such as the Clarney, a hunting shirt with a cravat in the same cloth as the shirt built in. There’s no word on whether he also designed a shirt called the Charney, after Dov of ill fame, that would sexually harass the wearer.
I hate tying a bow tie, even if thanks to Bruce Boyer’s latest book I now know that it more or less ties like a shoelace, so I wanted to have my own tactleneck, my tactical response for dealing with black tie that cuts through the fuss and bulk of putting on a dress set and a cummerbund, among other things. But bringing back an inspiration had its issues – as Jurassic Park suggested, every resuscitation results in some genetic variation. For one, T&A only offered it as a bespoke model and never came out with a ready-to-wear version, even though T&A’s currently doing all sorts of archive editions of famous designs, so it’s a design only available custom. However, as with other items of bespoke gimmickry, apparent simplicity hid significant artifice. In order not to show its closure, the T&A version buttoned up the back, something impossible to do on my own in my valet-free class and age.
No, additional bastardization was called for. I had my own shirtmaker create a new pattern for a turtleneck-collared shirt that buttoned up the side, keeping the closure out of sight but far easier to do up, rather like the buttoning on old fencing jackets (they use Velcro now). That inspiration also came from a 1960s T&A design, in this case the side-buttoning Cossack-style shirts that they popularized after having made models for Omar Sharif to wear in Doctor Zhivago (Omar was a loyal fellow who continued to patronize T&A for decades thereafter). The collar still has to button around the back, but that can be done on my own with a lot of swearing.
In true bastard fashion I did not go back to the source, to the Churchill Room at Turnbull & Asser to have this shirt made. New customers at most English shirtmakers are required to place a minimum order of three or six shirts, and I don’t have any call for that. I instead tested one of my current shirtmakers’ skills in asking him to create a completely new pattern for an odd shirt design. Among other things I knew I could trust him to fit a test shirt on me before making the actual shirt up, something the British don’t do.
A more practical query would be why I didn’t just use a knitted turtleneck in cashmere or cotton, since those stretch and don’t need to be cut and fitted. Even at their finest, however, knits can still add more bulk under a sportcoat than a woven cloth, and they just don’t have the sheen of silk. Nor do knits usually have French cuffs for cufflinks. (For some reasons, the original T&A design had button cuffs despite being made for black tie; I changed that.) Good silk for making shirts is rather hard to find; even though 50 years ago it seems to have been the material of choice for better business shirts and formal wear shirts, to judge by mentions in those Bond novels that helped launch Connery. Nonetheless, silk is far more delicate and difficult to clean than, and generally doesn’t breathe nearly as well as, cotton. There are wonderful cottons available now that have some of silk’s luster and fineness, but in homage to my inspirations I too wanted this shirt in silk. I know that the cloth house David & John Anderson has a book of silks called “Jade” (their finer cotton books are named after diamonds and emeralds, so “Jade” is obviously a bow to China where silk weaving first originated). That book might as well exist in name only, as it was impossible to obtain, but DJA’s sister company Thomas Mason had a fine ivory silk twill that we made this up in.
The result, an obvious bastardization of black tie – tieless, waistcoatless, sashless. It looked and felt exactly as I had intended – different and yet somehow elegant in its own way, at least in my own mind – the offwhite ivory color less severe than a pure white would have been, the silk’s sheen and softness elegantly replacing conventional collar and bowtie. A tactile tactic better, in my own admittedly biased view, than the dark necktie or other inglorious bastardizations that pass for creative black tie nowadays.