Zero Sartorial

Small questions in clothing

My Grandfather’s Sense of Style

In the introductory post to Zero Sartorial, I mentioned my grandfather, David Barrington Edge. He was born in 1903, into a very different world from the one I know. He died in the summer of 1986, when I was 8 years old. My recollections of anything before 10 are pretty fuzzy these days, so it’s pretty likely that what I remember is more reconstruction than real memory. But that doesn’t make it any less of an influence, and it might make it more.

The main thing that I remember is that he wore a suit all the time. Dense, a rough surface, maybe a tweed. That’s almost certainly not actually accurate in technical terms, but it might not be far off. He wore matching trousers and jacket over a sweater, a light shirt and a string vest, and used braces (“suspenders”, for the American audience – those are something different here) as well as a belt. He wore shoes almost all the time, and argyle socks. He smoked a pipe, I know, and probably the occasional cigarette, as most adults did at the time. He often had a faint scent of soap about him; old-fashioned no-scent-but-the-soap soap.

I don’t actually know if he had more than one suit; presumably he did, but they must have been nigh-on identical. I do know he wore a “better suit” to church and to family occasions. I was never able to tell the difference between them. In very hot weather, or if he was doing heavy work – he did some fairly intensive vegetable gardening until only a year or two before he died – he’d take off the jacket, and work in his shirt sleeves, rolled well up. The sweater would have been left behind, but he’d still have the jacket until then. I have a clear memory of a spade standing with his jacket draped over it while he used a fork. He had Wellington boots for gardening, olive green, and would change them in the back porch before he went out.

The influence is twofold here. First, he’s the mental image I get when anyone says “suit”, it’s the default memory. So “suit” doesn’t really mean business to me, it means “Grandad”. I think I resisted wearing suits through my early 20s in part because of that; I didn’t want to be that grown-up. Second, he was one of the very few people I knew who actually dressed differently. In the early 80s in rural Ireland, few enough adults wore suits – only the old men, and the bank manager, and the solicitors, of which there were only a couple in any given town. Office jobs didn’t really exist. Farmers wore old, patched suit trousers, alright, but they wouldn’t have the jacket, and besides, when the garment was a Frankensteinian product of two or three fabrics, it was hard to think of it as a suit element at all. Corduroys were fairly ordinary, and jeans were starting to appear, though mostly among young people; the kind who also wore leather jackets. Slightly disreputable.

So there’s a degree to which suits appear to me to be old-fashioned. Not as in out of date, more as in comfortable, established, and maybe a bit on the un-modern naïve side. It is, in short, hard for me to take technical advice from someone wearing a tie.

But as I get a bit older (yes, yes, I know, mid-thirties whippersnapper) I begin to recognise that the clothes he wore were comfortable, and very well suited to his environment. He had multiple layers of solid fabric, which were a good practice in houses that had no central heating. He wore a vest so his shirt wouldn’t stick to him on hot days. He had plenty of pockets, at least one of which was big enough to accommodate a folded-over newspaper. His shoes were carefully chosen to be good for multiple purposes, and to last a long time, and he polished them frequently. He mended his Wellingtons with rubber patches, too. The braces meant his belt was never uncomfortable.

More and more, glancing at myself in the mirror, I see elements of him, in stance as well as in dress. And when I’m digging a new vegetable bed, I sometimes look up, and I really do expect to see a jacket hanging on the standing spade.

Reading Garment History

It probably seems like a strange thing to do, going delving into the history and particular distinctions of, say, jackets, just so that I can make a stab at why a particular ensemble of clothes looks good.

The reason for this is that people read clothes. It’s cultural, it’s not completely conscious, and it’s definitely unfair, carrying with it biases about socio-economic class, expected behaviour, and other unpleasantness. It is, however, something you can game, something you can, if you dare, play with. I’m dealing with this from a male point of view, because those are the clothes I wear and want to know about. But that in itself is an important point – clothes are strongly gendered in most parts of Western society.

Picture the following – you’re a man, headed to a meeting with a few people, to discuss a possible new project. You haven’t met them before, and indeed, you’re being sent there by your boss. It’s happening at a coffee shop, because you’re all busy people, and it’s a convenient place. You can dress however you want. If you wear:

  • T-shirt and jeans, and carry a small backpack: the other people will assume you’re the IT guy.
  • Cheap suit, slightly off-proper-colour-coordination suit and tie: the others will assume you’re a minor functionary.
  • Better suit, well-coordinated shirt and tie, cuff links: they’ll assume you’re upper management.
  • Sports jacket, shirt sleeves rolled up below the elbow, cravat instead of tie, deck shoes: they’ll assume you own the company, and further, that you’re pretty well off.

I have a great love for the combination of a sports jacket, good shirt but no tie, sweater vest, corduroys or slacks, the small backpack, and sleeves rolled above my elbow, because people do not know where to place me. “Academic”, maybe, but what’s he doing at a business meeting?

But those readings come from the history of the garments, and implications of formality, class, and wealth, and they’re just the surface. Particular subcultures have particular ways to read clothes. There’s the scarf code among goths (although I don’t think it was ever really taken seriously), there’s the Palestinian scarf, there’s the hipster horn-rim glasses, there’s the particular choice of t-shirt, or at the other end, what tie-pin you have. We classify these all the time, and take them more or less seriously, but we always read them.

This is something I was a late-comer to. My first school was small, and we all had around the same kinds of clothes. My secondary school had a uniform. So I was about fifteen, I think, before I realised that other kids, when we were going out, weren’t throwing on whatever non-uniform clothes were clean and had enough pockets. I did a very careful analysis of what people were wearing, and paid a note-taking level of attention to some music videos in the genres of the day – which was mid-grunge and heavy rock. And then I raided my father’s wardrobe, did some very careful shopping in charity shops, and melded into the crowd pretty perfectly thereafter – except that I have never been able to work out where people got the canvas sneakers from. But boots did fine, and I even had a conversation-piece pair of Swedish Army boots, square-toed and heavier than in any way reasonable.

Since then, I’ve paid some attention. I haven’t always had time to do so properly, and for the decade I worked in IT, I hadn’t any need to do so – comprehending other people’s programming was more important than what they were wearing, because they really had pulled on whatever came first to hand.

Now, I’m starting to question how these readings come about. Why do we interpret a good suit the way we do? Why does the cravat convey wealth? Why are cuff links more upmarket than buttoned cuffs, and why does the place on your arm to which you roll your sleeve carry any meaning?

And on a slightly different note, why is the current fashion nigh-on invisible now, and visible – and sometimes ridiculous – some years later? I knew grunge had a look, for instance, because I’d analysed it, but I didn’t realise how very distinct it was until I watched episodes of My So-Called Life in around 2005.  And suddenly, there was grunge in all its layered, plaid-shirt glory, utterly distinct from the styles of the early 2000s.

So those are some of the reasons for digging into the history; you can’t do a literary analysis until you know something about the genre.


Starting from a Sartorialist photograph of Carlos Castillo, I’m now looking at jackets. I wasn’t sure if what I was looking at in the picture was a sports jacket, a blazer, or… well, I didn’t know what else was out there. It’s not a suit jacket, I’m pretty sure.

The general gist seems to be that a suit jacket is a well-fitted jacket in a fine fabric, which is matched by trousers. It usually has two or three buttons, or four on modern suits. A sports jacket is looser, has more buttons, pockets, pocket flaps, and so on. Different colours, too, sometimes patterned or striped, and often textured. And a blazer is a very plain item, in a dark colour, often with a crest for a school or club. It would also, normally, have naval-style brass buttons. Based on that, actually, I’m pretty sure that a lot of garments I’ve seen referred to as blazers weren’t.

But there are finer distinctions.  The “odd jacket”, which is derived from the sports coat, gave rise to the blazer. The odd jacket can have lots of variations, it seems, including the velvet jackets which were popular in the 60s and early 70s, and with which the vintage shops remain well stocked. Then there’s the patterned sports jacket, which has distinct patterns, stripes, plaid, or the like. This is intended, apparently, to make sure that it’s not mistaken for a suit jacket. So based on that, I think the jacket in the starting point image is a patterned sports jacket.

The blazer, by now, seems to have passed out the sports jacket, and become slightly more formal than its parent – while still not as formal as the suit jacket (and block colour suits are more formal than pin-stripe – but I think the whole suit concept merits a post or series of posts of its own). The double-breasted, brass-buttoned one is old fashioned, and the single-breasted anything-but-brass-buttoned ones are more “modern”.

This is, of course, a small subset of the garments that get referred to as jackets. You’ve got denim, various rain-proofs, wax jackets, and so on. These are just the less formal descendants of the suit jacket.

So those are the technicalities. In terms of my own taste, I dislike blazers. They don’t seem to have much in the way of redeeming features as garments per se, and they’re very often worn in an exclusionary manner, as a badge of belonging to a school or club; always some kind of elite. They don’t even have the benefit of practicality that military wear has; they tend not to have decent pockets, or be in any way weatherproof – both things the sports jacket can at least approach.

I have two jackets which I can now confidently identify as sports jackets, neither patterned nor odd. I’ll look at the precise features of each in another post, and see if I can pin down why one of them gets worn through most of the summer, and the other has only been worn a few times – and might even be demoted to gardening use soon.

Starting Point: Carlos Castillo in Florence

My first starting point is going to be an image of a fellow called Carlos Castillo, depicted in Florence on The Sartorialist. Carlos has appeared on The Sartorialist a few times, and even a cursory glance shows some common elements of style there. However, I’m going to concentrate on that image in Florence. Here’s a small version of it; for the full version, go see the original.

A bearded man with a brown coat, a woolen vest, and a denim shirt.
Photograph by Scott Schuman

So, first off, Carlos has a beard. I have a beard, and therefore it’s reasonable to assume I like beards. I’m not going to so far as to say all men should have beards, because I’ve seen a few that were really not suitable, but in general, they seem to be good. More character than a clean-shaven face. Old-fashioned. Possibly traditional, although there’s a fair argument to be made that since the early 20th century, clean-shaven has been far more ordinary, and that’s a long tradition. So I may have to look into why the magnificent beards of the Victorian era went away.

Next, he has a very fine jacket. I’m not well up enough on fabrics to say what it is – a fine chequer of light brown and black, or maybe a darker brown. Except on closer examination, it’s not a chequer. It’s a very light brown background, with horizontal strips of alternating shades of darker brown, crossed by vertical strips of mid-brown. I think it’s probably a woolen fabric of some kind. The word “serge” comes to mind. I should identify what it’s actually called, in both material and pattern. I should also see if that kind of jacket has a particular name – I know of blazers and sports jackets, but I don’t know the exact differences. This one has elbow patches, which I think I like – they seem like a practical augmentation, but could be an affectation. They seem to make it more a working jacket than otherwise.

He has one button of the jacket done up. I don’t much like that – it looks kind of like the rest came undone – and in any case, I’m still much too large for that to work for me. From the distortion of the fabric, though, that’s not an element of the garment itself, just the way he wears it. He has a scarf in the pocket, too – a sort of fawn brown, lambs wool, maybe. There’s too much texture to it for cashmere, I think. There’s something in the left breast pocket of the jacket, too – it might be a handkerchief, or what I think is called a “pocket square”, or it might be a ticket or other piece of paper. Scarves are an interesting element of outerwear; they’re very practical in cold climates, and they function as accessories in terms of colour, texture, and so forth. I don’t recall seeing them in pictures from before… let’s call it the 1870s or so, but they can’t be that new an idea.

He’s wearing a vest or a sweater. I don’t know if those are useful terms for anyone else, but here’s how I use them: a sweater is a light woolen garmet, single piece, covering the upper body and arms. A vest is similar, but only covers the torso; the arms and shoulders are clear. I like vests, and the variant form which buttons up the front like a woolen waistcoat. This one is a very light brown, a few shades lighter than the scarf, and has a v-neck.

Under that, he has what looks to me like a blue denim shirt. It’s quite loose on him, and has translucent white buttons. The collar seems to sit fairly high, and there are buttons under the points of the collar, which are undone. Denim is an interesting fabric; it seems intrinsically modern, but I know it’s been around for at least a couple of centuries. I think it’s cotton based. It was very popular in jackets and shirts in the 80s, I think, but hasn’t been seen all that much since except in its native realm of jeans, and maybe in Converse sneakers, if that’s denim.

Trousers aren’t all that visible, and footwear not at all; I’m going to call them off-white slacks, and concentrate on the rest.

So what makes this look good? Well, colour coordination has a lot to do with it. Brown coat, brown scarf, brown vest – in different shades – and then the blue shirt to contrast. You won’t find brown on a colour wheel, since it tends in paint terms to be a mix of lots of colours, but orange is a close substitute, and blue and orange are opposites. The contrast is muted by having brown instead of orange, and so becomes less stark.

Also, Carlos has blue eyes, which makes the shirt work a little bit better again, and brown-toward-red hair, which helps with the other browns. This is a case of clothes which “suit” the wearer, and that’s actually a remarkably hard call to make. Eye, skin and hair colouring make a difference, but they’re only guidelines. I don’t think that’s a problem I can solve for anyone else, so apart from occasionally mentioning it when it’s as relevant as here, I’m not going to mention it much.

The shape of the garments also helps; there’s an echo of a three-piece suit in the jacket, vest and shirt, which gives a good air of solidity. The strong patterning of the jacket draws away from this, and gives the whole a slightly tweed-ish look. Of course, I don’t have a proper definition of tweed, either, so that’ll be something else to look into. It doesn’t look artificial or overly formal or constructed, so it keeps a friendly feel about it – something that’s often important for me, particularly in work clothes.

From this one outfit, then, I’ve a number of things to research: beards since the Victorian era, the name of the patterning in the jacket, and a guess or direction on what the fabric is called, the name of different shapes of jacket, a look at when scarves came in for men (if that can be traced at all) and what’s been done with them, and a look at denim, to see how far it goes back. That’s plenty to get started on.

Associated Research: Jackets

What It’s All About

Welcome to Zero Sartorial. It’s an experiment. It may not go anywhere. I’m not going to tell anyone about it until it has at least ten posts, because I have enough half-started never-continued blogs out there, and I’d rather not draw attention to another until it proves it’s not one.

To begin with, let me set out some influences and other things that have made me think about clothing – something that might surprise some of the people who know me. Then I’ll explain what I intend to do here.

I am halfway through William Gibson’s Zero History. It is a superb book, and I recommend it highly. There’s a lot in there about movements in fashion, the quality of timelessness, the relevance (and irrelevance) of brands,  and how people think, consciously or otherwise, about clothing. There’s a lot more as well, but those are the bits that I’ve noticed at this point.

I have recently begun reading Venkatesh Rao’s superb blog, There are about ten massive insights per post there, so it’s heavier reading than most blogs. The bit that has really made me think, though, is the notion that you can learn more from a small, precise, but leading question than you can from a large, broad study. To quote him exactly:

always start all your intellectual journeys with very small questions, growing them into big, ambitious, projects“.

I have long been a somewhat secret reader – or maybe a viewer – of Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist. It’s a brilliant, simple concept, with photographs of well-dressed people, and not a lot more. I consume it every few months in great tranches, going through hundreds of posts in one session. Most of the images are of people in motion, on the streets of cities, and the variety of outfits, colours, stances, and attitudes is stunning. As detailed below, I’ll be piggybacking a bit on Schuman’s work, and that of other street fashion photographers.

I’ve remarked a few times in recent years that I seem to be turning into my grandfather. It’s fairer to say that when I look for a good model for conduct, dress, or attitude, I keep arriving back at my memories of him. His name was David Barrington Edge, and he died when I was seven years old, having lived with my parents since before I was born. I don’t remember much from before the age of nine or so,  so it’s very possible that most of what I think are memories are reconstructions. I’ll write a longer post about him, and why the memory of him is important to this blog later, but for now, remember that an Irish Protestant farmer born in the early 20th century is an influence.

In a past blog, I set out to explore the world of politics and globalisation. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t a very good blog, for two reasons. First, I went into it with a far bigger, vaguer question than Venkatesh Rao would find suitable, and second, I went into it with a point of view derived from my old college career in science, where objectivity is almost a given (high-paradigm, to borrow another of Rao’s terms). There is no objectivity in politics, and it annoyed and confused me for a long time until I understood that. I don’t think that fashion and clothing is as subjective, but it’s certainly not an objective field. I’d like to think I learned from that experience, and I think my current study in the humanities should help with that.

Smashing Magazine is a web design blog/magazine site. My reading of it is a remnant from my past life as a web developer, although I’ve seen it crop up in many other contexts as well. Very recently, however, Espen Brunborg provided a post there about Trends in Web Design, which pointed out two interesting things. First, you can, with careful attention, pull out the trends and behaviours in any field, whether it’s informational, academic, visual, musical, or whatever. Second, those trends can be very superficial.

So, what am I going to do here? Well, I intend to start out with Rao’s small question, and see where it takes me, usually but not always coming back to the influences and ideas I’ve laid out here. I’m going to pick out a single image from The Sartorialist or another source, of men’s clothing that appeals to me, and I’m going to go through it item by item. The small question will be “Why does this look good to me?”. I’m going to try to find similar items in the catalogues on online retailers, and try to work out why particular garments appeal to me,  and how the overall work looks. I’ll also try to look at the history of garments and details of garments over time, and try to pin down elements of clothing that I like, and that are not just trends. That is, I have no objection to trends, but I would prefer my clothing to not make me wince when I look back on it in twenty years time, and tending toward the timeless quality that Gibson deals with in Zero History seems to be a good way to start.

I’ll also provide a few posts about items of clothing I have that I like – or dislike – and think a bit more about why I have them and what they do for me. Much of this will circle around practicality and quality, which are often higher priorities for me than appearance. Almost none of it will approach brand, because brand is pretty wholly unimportant to me except as an indicator of quality.