A recent piece by David Isle steered me to The New York Times’ oddly behind-the-times prognostication about the death of the necktie, to be replaced by the suit with open shirt. For the NYT, precision about pretentious details and wrongness about the larger picture are par for the course, but even for the Gray Lady (or as Gore Vidal termed her, the Typhoid Mary of American journalism), announcing the birth of a look that was current 15 years ago is a new low. (Will it recommend untucked striped shirts next?) Today the suit without tie look is a tired cliché, as passé and dubious as a Judith Miller byline, the businesswear equivalent of what a notch-lapel tuxedo worn with a dark necktie is for black tie. Nonetheless, the article spurred me to think about a topic I’ve brought up when Isle, Léon Philippe and I get together to Netflix and chill (What? We watch movies and hang out over drinks. Are you suggesting this means something else?).
Those of us who are not The New York Times’ readers or reporters may have noticed that in recent years the fashion for tailored clothing has led to a renaissance of the necktie, a reflowering of an accessory whose death has been predicted since the rise of business casual workplaces 20 years ago. Now natty ties, the more soporific the pattern or obscure the maker, are fashionable, at least to a segment of the population. Indeed nattiness, itself – for avoidance of the word “dapper,” is momentarily fashionable.
Any moment has its end. My fear is that fashion, having swept the suit itself (not simply the tie) to the forefront of menswear for the last 15 years, will wash it back out again. The current wave of dressiness has surged to the point of flamboyance. Excess breeds avoidance. So it is that the so-called tailored look became in its more debased recent exercise cinched, curtailed and shrunken, singularly uncomfortable-looking (think the suits in the more recent Bond films). A debasement of what tailored clothing is, a caricature of what is supposed to be clothes made to fit an individual’s body. We’re already seeing fashions chafe at this priggishness in what is supposed to be “the coming thing,” as Brisco County, Jr., would say: that awful neologism “athleisure.”
This portmanteau word is a portmanteau fashion, a fusion of athletic (wear) worn for leisure, a descendant in spirit of the tracksuit chic that’s been around the dark alleys and mob social clubs of fashion since the 1980s. Now, however, fashion media are recommending that track pants (or even, another nasty portmanteau word, moga pants) be mixed with sportcoats and suit jackets, in the name of a comfort that would have been there all along, if only we were wearing clothes, tailored or not, that fit.
As so much else in fashion bears out, there’s nothing new under the sun. This year’s The Rake recommends stretchy knit jersey (similar to the usual sweat pants material) to wear in or with tailored clothing, something Gentry magazine was proposing 60 years ago. And, as for wearing sweats with tailored clothes, the picture above shows that none other than America’s best-dressed president in living memory, Ronald Reagan himself, would occasionally sport the look in an unguarded moment. Well, maybe he thought Star Wars was guarding him.
It’s true that no matter how well your tailored clothes fit – and ideally, well-fitted tailored clothes should feel as effortless as pajamas – comfort is always a compromise. Stretch and elastic replace precision of cut or make with the easy pleasure of stretchy approximation – that’s why it’s easier to fit into shoes that have elastic sides instead of laces or buckles. Of course, over time the stretch gets stretched out - if you keep the garment that long - and the points that stretch may not always be the most flattering. Like Reagan, I may have swapped suit trousers for a pair of warm-up pants at home once or twice. Some have gone even farther. #Menswear idiot savant the Duke of Windsor wrote that he preferred to drop trou and walk around in nothing but his shirttails at home. While he explained (if I recall correctly) that it was to keep from wrinkling his suit pants, he may have been free-balling, since he had many suit trousers made with underwear pre-buttoned inside (I have the unkind suspicion that was because he may otherwise have been too dense to remember to wear it).
Where does this roiling tide of ridiculousness, rolling from extreme to extreme, leave us? I don’t know about you, but I’ll be wearing what I usually wear, like I was a decade ago when dressiness was the province of a few enthusiasts on our secretive specialist forums and “sartorialism” was an unborn neologism, content now to become once again a mildly foppish eccentricity on the sidelines. I don’t believe in timeless style, I believe in wearing what I like. Don’t sweat it.