Zero Sartorial

Small questions in clothing

Camel Coats

The new starting point is a pair of images of David Gandy. In these images, David is wearing a camel coat, and I’ve not done much, if any, research in coats before.

It should be noted that I don’t much like this example, at first glance. It does look good, but I feel its colours wouldn’t suit me, and I’m a little suspicious of heavy coats in light colours.

It’s claimed that it’s a product of one particular designer, coming from the Max Mara house, in Italy and has only been around since 1981. Naturally, it has been copied a lot, and Max Mara themselves had only made 145,000 by 2011 – the design pretty much unchanged. I’m none too sure if the Max Mara coat was intended for men or women; I see the more generic coats worn by both. The Max Mara website is so dire I can’t actually access it to find out, but an NYT article implies they think of it as a women’s coat.

I was fully expecting this to be something from the 60s or 70s, and probably derived from army greatcoats, but it looks like it’s been a different track – actually coming from a coat worn by polo players in the early twentieth century, and originally with a belt that tied. With variations, it crosses over with the Ulster coat, too. The lasting form, though seems to have lost the belt, and have the double breast. The “camel” bit was genuine in the original; the yarn from which is was made came from Bactrian camels. Nowadays, it’s just a colour, as far as I can determine.

As with many men’s garments, it’s more a vague category than anything defined. The “proper” version seems to be double-breasted, and a coat, not a jacket – Fashionbeans has a good illustrative spread of camel coats, and there are a few varieties there. Despite the origins as an informal, after-the-game garment, it’s now seen as being a formal, winter-y sort of an item, appropriate to wear over a suit. They do, unlike some coats, seem to be worn both open and closed. One detail that I do like in David’s example is the pocket high on the left breast; it gives a lot more definition to the shape of the shoulder there. The heavy stitch in the lapels is interesting too; it doesn’t happen in most versions of the coat, but works particularly well with the tweed underneath.

Go Again

It’s been nearly a year since the last update here; life and academia landed solidly on me in the meantime, and this blog languishes near the bottom of the priority list. Nevertheless, I’ve done some interesting things in the meantime, most notably starting to learn to make my own clothes for the Society for Creative Anachronism.

It should be noted that these are medieval clothes, and that nobody cares much about the neatness of stitches; the styles are definitively a millennium out of date, and the standards you’re trying to match are museum pieces. But it’s still teaching me a lot about the structure of clothes, and the way in which the pieces fit together. At the moment, I’m in the process of tearing apart and rebuilding a simple linen tunic, adding gussets (because it was tight under the arms) and gores (because it tends to ride up under a belt when it hangs straight from the shoulders over my ample belly). I’m adding them in different colours of linen, too, because I reckon that work-a-day clothes were more than likely made from what was available, rather than buying fabric for the purpose, and I have offcuts and bits in odd colours. Amusingly, my heraldry for the Society involves a badger, and the tunic will come out in plain (undyed), grey and black linen.

Anyway. On with the show.

Starting Point: David Gandy in London

My second starting point is an image (or a pair of images, even) of a fellow called David Gandy, appearing at the London Fashion Week Men’s Day.

David Gandy, for London Fashion Week Men's Day - urban scene

In this first shot, from the Facebook page, we can see him against a crowd. That’s a white shirt, probably in cotton, a rather narrow grey tie, grey tweed waistcoat and trousers (trousers in a different tweed?),  and a rather ordinary camel coat.

David Gandy, for London Fashion Week Men's Day, side angle with shoes.

The second image shows that he also has a tweed jacket under there – looks like it matches the waistcoat – and chestnut brown lace-up shoes. This image is from, of all places, Metro.

I didn’t cover shoes at all in the last set of research, since we can’t see Carlos’. So that’ll be an interesting line to start with. I’ll also be looking at tweed – again – and the issues of matching tweeds, or indeed, one part of a suit to another. The waistcoat will need a look, as a garment in and of itself, and I’ll take a run at the history and origins of the camel coat as well. And there’s more facial hair here as well, which is also a matter of style.

Plenty to get on with!

Denim: Research

I noted starting out that I think of denim as being an American fabric. Well, “denim” derives from “serge de Nîmes”, after Nîmes in France. And “jeans” comes from “Gênes”, the French for Genoa, in Italy. So not so much with the American.

I haven’t been able to place any specific reason it’s seen as informal – other than historical associations. However, one possibility is the way in which it wears, with colours dimming as the fabric gets rubbed or eroded. It is, however, definitely informal; denim can only make an outfit more casual.

It’s not that you can’t get denim suits, either – see this example. But it looks weird, quite aside from the anachronistic double-breasted long cut; the fabric stands oddly, and the colour and edging look off. This example, with a leather collar, is of a more conventional cut, but it’s still consciously strange. However, if you move away from something that’s taking on the shape we associate with Western formality, as in this Nehru jacket, the denim no longer looks alien. I think the problem with the denim fabric comes up when something we associate with formality is juxtaposed with something definitively casual. You get the same effect from runners with a suit, although the assumption there is that it’s more convenience than mistake, and that the wearer has “proper” shoes with him.

However, runners with a suit – or at least, something in the Converse line – has been used as a fashion statement in recent years, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll see some more widespread use of denim in that borderline, slightly rebellious area of menswear in years to come.


Clothes Maketh The Man

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times about how clothes affect us. Apparently, if you wear a doctor’s white coat, you gain heightened attention to detail. But it only works if you know it’s a doctor’s coat; if you’re given the same garment and told it’s a painter’s coat, there’s no effect.

It’s not news that different clothes can set your mood, make you more confident, or the like. But having it make a difference at an apparently cognitive level is very interesting – and it’s even more interesting that it works on the immediate associations of the garment, rather than the recognition of the garment. So suits and business dress might really make people more business-like, more focussed – but only because they know it’s a business suit.

It’s a little peculiar to think that identifying someone’s outfit as not actually a business suit – whether true or not – could affect how well they work while wearing it.


The next piece of research I want to do is around denim, based on the shirt Carlos is wearing. In advance of that, I want to set down some thoughts about the fabric, before I start getting biased by what comes up in the research.

Denim is a cotton-based fabric. It’s quite stiff, it’s usually in dark colours, although it gets lighter with age, and it copes well with fraying and tearing. To my mind, it’s a uniquely American fabric, and it’s tied up quite strongly with the 80s. It’s very definitely seen as an indicator of casualness; there is no formal denim clothing. Even something in the shape of an odd jacket, say, would still be seen as a very informal (and possibly somewhat strange) garment. It carries with it associations of visible stitching, and metal buttons, or the rivets used in jeans.

The American thing is pretty easy to pin down – there is no garment that is more identified with the US, especially the west, and the association of denim and cowboys is probably a pretty permanent thing by now.

The 80s thing is less clear. I’m pretty sure that jeans were really seen for the first time in Ireland in the 80s. Certainly, I remember my parents not considering them suitable wear for me, and I distinctly remember my father being a little sheepish when he bought a pair in the mid-nineties. The first memory I have of them being mentioned as a distinct stylistic element was when teenagers whose parents my parents knew were telling stories of shrink-to-fit jeans,  and someone’s father’s horror at the concept. That would have been in around 1987. I’m aware that jeans have been worn consistently since, but I think the denim jacket, particularly, and the denim shirt to a lesser degree have since declined.

So there we go: casual, somewhat dated, and distinctly American in my mind.

Laver’s Law

An unlikely source (he probably doesn’t want to be named here) pointed me at Laver’s Law. It’s a table that summarises the view of fashion over time, and was coined in 1937 by a chap called James Laver, a fashion historian. It goes like this:

10 years before its time is: Indecent
5 years before its time is: Shameless
1 year before its time is: Outré (Daring)
The ‘Current Fashion’ is: Smart
1 year after its time is: Dowdy
10 years after its time is: Hideous
20 years after its time is: Ridiculous
30 years after its time is: Amusing
50 years after its time is: Quaint
70 years after its time is: Charming
100 years after its time is: Romantic
150 years after its time is: Beautiful

And that’s amusing, because it’s reasonably accurate – or at least, it was in Laver’s time. It doesn’t take account of something that has happened since then – the spread of colour media in magazines, films, television and the internet has contributed to this cycle speeding up, and getting caught in its own cycles.

I don’t know enough to look forward, and I suspect that not everything currently labelled “indecent” and “shameless” will come into fashion. Indeed, I’m not sure what we label indecent and shameless now, if I’m being honest.

Looking back, however, 1 year ago is, well, still not significantly different for me. Younger people than I were then and are now in the midst of some kind of 80s revival, although I don’t think the 80s had quite the range of hair colour available now.

Ten years ago was 2002. I’m not sure I could pick out the fashions of 2002 now, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t call them hideous. I’ll test that later, if I can find images to compare to.

Twenty years ago, though, was the early 90s. And there I can definitely say that early grunge looks a bit ridiculous. Not badly. Just a little.

Thirty years back, early eighties. Amusing. Yes, yes it is, but I’d also land “hideous” in here. Maybe it’s my own personal taste, but I find 80s clothing to be pretty awful in general.

Fifty years ago. 1962. Quaint. That, I think, is fair. And I’m pretty sure that given just a few more years, the punk era of the 70s will look quaint too; it’s already on the way there.

Seventy years ago was 1942. 40s-era clothing is indeed in the “charming” category, and I refer you to my grandfather. To add to that, there was a very definite post-war element in shop-windows about two years ago, so that one may have cycled back in and back out again already. There’s also a good bit of WWII memorabilia turning up in interior design at the moment – especially the “Keep calm and…” signs, and all their many variants. And the GIY (grow it yourself) movement gets some inspiration from the WWII “Dig for Victory!” campaign.

A hundred years ago, 1912. I don’t think there’s any denying that the Edwardian period set our expectations of romantic clothing. It’s also worth noting here that in the UK, the Teddy Boy subculture of the 1950s wore these clothes, just around the time they were passing from “amusing” to “quaint” in Laver’s terms. In that era, they were a rejection of post-war austerity as much as anything else – the Edwardians were notorious party animals.

And finally, 150 years ago was 1862. The middle of the Victorian Era. The beginning of subcultural dress in the Artistic Design Movement. Huge skirts for women, and for men, the advent of the ditto suit – a novelty three piece suit where all components were in the same fabric. That sounds familiar, given my recent research. However, looking at the fuss that’s made over period TV costumery, we do indeed identify the 1860s clothing as “beautiful”.

I think there are subcycles overlaid on Laver’s Law now, and I’m not sure they were there in the 1930s. I suspect a lot of these are to do with subcultures, which often seem to harken back to older styles of clothing – possibly because subcultures are populated by younger people, who don’t have much money, and 40-year-old clothing is cheap. I do think our commerical mainstream culture may be working to change that at the moment; the cheap clothing I see now is from twenty years ago, not forty. But I suspect that some closer study will show me some smaller cycle within Laver’s, which someone has almost certainly already pinned down, catalogued, and named.


The Jacket Aesthetic

I’ve been looking, fairly closely, at the sports jacket. As discussed, it’s an off-shoot of the suit jacket, which in itself gave rise to the odd jacket, the blazer,  and a few other variations.  Now, I want to take a step back, and consider not just the history, which is worth looking at in and of itself, but a broader aesthetic, that of respectability.

We’re talking here about a class of garment which has some distinct characteristics. It’s fairly form-fitting. It covers the arms. It closes with buttons, partially, down the front, with lapels above that. It has a distinct collar, which merges with the lapels. It has pockets (well, usually; I’ve seen tuxedo jackets that don’t). It’s in a slightly stiff fabric; enough to hold its shape.

Within the class of garments, there’s a hierarchy of formality – the tuxedo jacket is more formal than the suit jacket which is more formal than the blazer which is more formal than the sports jacket which is more formal than the odd jacket, more or less.

What makes that look more respectable than, say, an anorak? Obviously, there’s an element of usage in here; it’s respectable because it’s worn by respectable people, who wear it because… it’s respectable. We’re not getting anywhere on that line.

Are there elements of the actual physical shape of the garment which make it respectable? I think there are. Consider this, for a start: it’s very hard to hide anything under such a jacket. The FBI just about manage to get underarm holsters in there, but hiding them under the lines of the jacket is non-trivial. Anything more than a leaflet in the pocket distorts the lines, and it’s worth noting that the fit gets tighter and the pockets less of a feature as the formality increases. So there’s an element of safety there; the person wearing the jacket is not hiding anything.

Considering they’re worn for business and politics, that’s amusing, but the basic ideas of our clothing culture were, I suspect, set in an era when violence was more of a worry, and whether the man you were meeting had a hidden weapon was a real concern.

The fact that the jacket opens down the front may also be significant; it allows access to inside pockets. It is a garment which allows things to be kept safe, but still accessible. Papers, say. So it still allows the keeping of secrets – that goes some way toward explaining the business and politics usage.

It’s clear, then, that the garment is heavily stylised to carry meaning. The meaning comes down to “I am not going to hurt you, and I can keep secrets”. Broadly, that describes a respectable man. There are, of course, further nuances with specific kinds of jackets, and I’ll look into those in more detail in other posts.

Sports Jackets in Brown Plaid

I spent some of the weekend looking for sports jackets like the one Carlos is wearing. It’s more difficult than you might expect, for two reasons – first, the description “brown plaid sports jacket” is very, very broad. And second, there don’t actually seem to be many out there that even come close to being similar.

eBay turned up some decent results, though, and I’m sure that sooner or later I’ll come across some kind of menswear search engine.

First up, we have what’s described as a “Mens Vintage 70s Brown Plaid Skinny Slim Mod Blazer Sport Coat Jacket 40 Short“. Which is quite a mouthful. It matches the description, but it’s more in the line of what I’d expect from “plaid”, and therefore something I wouldn’t wear, myself. It has a definite retro mod feel about it, so it might appeal to someone – but it’s a dead end in terms of the look from the starting point.

This “Haggar Sharp Brown Plaid Check Two Button Blazer Sport Coat Jacket 40S” is more like it. It’s an actual check, as the Americans put it, and it looks more like Carlos’ jacket. It has a yellowish cast to it, picked up by the sweater it’s displayed with in the picture there, which doesn’t appeal to me, but it might work well for someone with darker colouring than my rugged Viking shades. It’s close enough that it could work.

And finally, a “vintage 70s mens plaid TWEED jacket blazer sport coat wool skinny small 38 S“, which is interesting. On the one hand, it’s a little further off from the starting point image – it has more definite colours, and it looks like a heavier fabric. But on the other hand, those bolder colours look good, and I’m using the picture as inspiration, not a template. The blue of Carlos’ denim shirt wouldn’t work with this, but I suspect that given a dark grey sweater and a light-coloured shirt, it could look very well indeed. Of those I found, this one – at least in cut, fabric, and colour – is the one I’d go for.

We will ignore the fact that I’d have a rough time getting into this size of garment, mind. I am many things, but I am not small. Oddly, a great many of the sports jackets on eBay are in this range.

Finally, one other item appeared during my search, this “Sand Sport Coat” in brown plaid. The main image gives no impression of plaid; only the close-up image of the fabric shows it. The overall impression there, from the waistcoat and tie in the same colour, is much like that of a Western – you can imagine some slightly better-dressed character, a lawyer or doctor, wearing something like this in the Old West. That’s a long way from my own image of the sports coat, but it still fits under all the definitions.


Fabric Patterns

Having had little enough trouble finding out what kind of jacket Carlos is wearing, I set out to see if I could name the pattern on the fabric. This is… a bigger issue. The patterning depends to some degree on the fabric, and there are 269 different fabrics on this word list. And that, as far as I can see, includes no artificial fabrics like polyester or acrylics, not that I think Carlos is wearing anything like that.

Thus, it’s a bit more of a maze. However, I might be able to work at it the other way. It’s not a chequer; that’s a pattern like a chessboard.  It’s not quite a tattersall; that has very thin lines crossing over each other on a background of another colour, but it’s not a million miles away. It’s not a madras, either; that has alternating widths. Nor is it what’s called a Border tartan, and it’s definitely not a full-on tartan.

Except that, looking closer, it might actually be a tartan after all, because it has a very broad definition: “a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours”, according to Wikipedia. Digging out the particular tartan name is beyond my capabilities, but I’m not unhappy with a description somewhere about “brown plaid pattern”. It’s pretty clear that actual names for patterns vary a good deal in any case, with only a few like “paisley”, “argyle” and “check” being universally recognised.

So the pattern implies that it’s a woollen of some kind, certainly something woven. It’s probably quite thick, too, looking at the texture. I’m not sure I’ll get anything more detailed than that, so the next step will be to go and look at some online retailers, and see if I can locate anything like it.