Why Fashion Still Means Something


On the morning of June 14th, 1940, Parisians woke up to the sound of a German-inflected voice telling them, in French, that they were not to leave their buildings. The German Army was invading Paris, first entering from the Porte de La Villette and making their way towards the city's center by way of Rue de Flandres. Soon, German soldiers took over the main intersections, while tanks rumbled down Champs Elysees. By the time of the invasion, nearly two million Parisians had already fled for the countryside and south of France. But among those still trapped in the capital, millions more despaired as they watched a giant swastika flag being hoisted underneath the Arc de Triomphe. That evening, the German Army imposed a curfew from nine in the evening until five in the morning. At night, the city went dark. This was the beginning of life in occupied Paris.

The occupying Germans had big plans for French industry. For generations up to this point, Savile Row had been the center of men's tailoring, while Paris was the heart of haute couture. It's said that a single dress from a leading French courtier at this time was the equivalent of "ten tons of coal," while a liter of fine French perfume was worth "ten tons of petrol." Germany, however, wanted to relocate French haute couture to the cities of Berlin and Vienna. To achieve this, they set up administrative offices back home, introduced subsidies for German manufacturers, and demanded that leading French fashion figures move to Berlin, where they were to help establish dressmaking schools.

Fashion isn't just crucial to the French economy; it's central to the French identity, so many in the trade protested. So many in the trade protested. Lucian Lelong, president of French couture's governing body, Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, defiantly declared that "couture is in Paris or it is nowhere." And even as the German government imposed humiliating rationing standards — transforming the French economy to serve Germany needs, first by shipping away food, then clothing, and finally coal — many Parisians found ways to boost their morale. Ingenious French women wore hats made from blotting paper or newspapers — sometimes cleverly designed to signal their political allegiances — and blouses cut-and-sewn from parachutes. Young French men known as les zazous sported billowing zoot-suit-esque fashions to provoke the Vichy government. In her book Fashion Under Occupation, Dominique Veillon quotes one of the workers at Reboux, the largest milliner in Paris at the time, who described the attitude of her fellow workers:

We all wore large hats to raise our spirits. Felt gave out, so we made them out of chiffon. Chiffon was no more. Alright, take straw. No more straw? Very well, braided paper. Hats have been a sort of contest between French imagination and German regulation. We wouldn't look shabby and worn out. After all, we were Parisiennes.

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The Rise of Korean Fashion

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When British economist Alfred Marshall was looking out of his window in the late-19th century, he saw a country full of cottage industries and industrial clusters. In the Scottish Border towns up north, thousands of spinners, weavers, and knitters were making robust tweeds and soft cashmere. A little further south was Manchester, where steam-powered mills produced so much of the world’s cotton, the city was known as Cottonopolis. In the East End district of London known as Spitalfields, the descendants of French Protestant refugees and Irish immigrants were toiling over looms to make some of the world’s most beautiful silks. When those silks were woven, they were then transported to Macclesfield, where artisans decorated them with hand-blocked patterns.

Marshall wrote about similar clusters in his book Principles of Economics, which not only became the standard economics textbook in England for decades to come but also sparked an intellectual revolution. Most econ students will know Marshall as the man who transformed economics from the philosophical works of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx to the rigorous mathematical field it is today. Marshall helped lay the groundwork for neoclassical economics, as well as developed the supply and demand graph. But in Book 4, Chapter 10 of Principles of Economics, there were also a few paragraphs about the benefits of spacial clustering — an idea that would come into greater prominence about a hundred years later and helped to shape developmental policies.

Clustering is the idea that firms benefit from sharing infrastructure, suppliers, and distribution networks. Companies that supply components and support services can fit neatly into each other like Lego bricks. When you have a cluster of businesses, skilled workers can also share knowledge and move between firms, which helps soften the blow of unemployment. Back in the day on Savile Row, tailors across the many firms gathered at the pubs after work, where they would imbibe, gossip, and share ideas. “They were all enormous drinkers,” Thomas Girtin wrote of them in his book Nothing but the Best. “When they had been paid, they would ‘go on the cod,’ indulging in monster drinking bouts — drinking like a fish, perhaps — from which there was no recalling them until they had spent all their money.” Tom Mahon of Redmayne tells me that he remembers how much fun he used to have with other tailors at the pub, as well as how tailors shared knowledge by sketching out drafting patterns on the back of napkins.

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The Much Reviled Baseball Cap

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About a month ago, as I was walking home from work, I made a mental note to call my barber and make an appointment sometime that weekend. A friend of mine’s wedding was approaching, and I was two weeks overdue for a cut. But on March 16th, when seven Bay Area counties issued a sweeping stay-at-home mandate, all non-essential services in my neighborhood were shut down overnight. Truthfully, even if the quarantine order was lifted tomorrow, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable going to the barbershop anytime before June. So I’ve resigned myself to looking like Shaggy Rogers, the lanky slacker in the Scooby-Doo franchise. By June, I suspect I’ll look like an ugly version of Fabio.

I’m still unsure how I should dress when living under quarantine. Online, I’ve seen some people go as far as wearing a coat-and-tie, but I mostly wear the same uniform Bruce Boyer describes for himself in this Drake’s article: “either khakis or jeans (the older, the better), a casual button-front shirt (chambray, flannel, drill, or whatever suits the season), and camp mocs (again, the older, the better).” The only difference is that I also wear a baseball cap (like the rest of the uniform, the older, the better). These days, when I start feeling cabin fever — which is often — I find it helps to out for a brisk walk around the neighborhood (safely, of course, and away from other people). Going out for a walk keeps my blood moving, clears my mind, and keeps me feeling connected to the outside world. Since these outings are brief, however, I don’t want to style my hair. So I’ve been throwing on a baseball cap, which is currently my only wardrobe essential.

The baseball cap is the only headwear style to have made it out of the 20th century unscathed. Its popularity can be explained using the same themes that have driven the history of men’s dress: democratization, the confluence of commerce and art, and how something can be used to express tribal identity. Most of all, the style has become so ubiquitous in American culture, you could call it America’s national hat. In an ode to the style published in The New York Times, Troy Patterson called this sporty headpiece “the common man’s crown.” 

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Recommendations for Life at Home

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By now, you’re probably buried in reading recommendations, Spotify playlists, and suggestions for films you can watch on Netflix. Well, let me add a few more to the pile. As millions of people across the United State and abroad are subject to stay-at-home orders, outlets have been busy publishing ideas on what you can do to bide the time. The two most creative stories I’ve read come from isolation experts – Scott Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who spent a year in outer-space, and Billy Barr, who has been living alone in an abandoned silver mining town for almost fifty years (both agree you should follow a schedule). Over at StyleForum, my friend Peter published a list of things you can read, watch, and eat (other than despair over the news). Peter has better suggestions if you want something closely related to men’s style, but if you’re looking for other ways you can settle in at home, here are some of my favorite films, cooking shows, songs, and books. Hopefully you can find something here to distract you. 

SOMETHING TO WATCH

Crip Camp: The latest Barack and Michelle-Obama produced Netflix documentary, Crip Camp, is a rousing and rare look at the disability rights movement. The film is about a group of young teens who attended a Catskill summer camp for the disabled in the 1970s, where they bonded over mealtimes and warm-weather flings. For camp attendees who usually feel excluded because of their conditions, this gathering was a bastion of acceptance and community. It also helped spark a movement. Coming out of the camp, many attendees went on to become nationally visible disability rights activists. Ultimately, this is a film about inclusion, intersectionality, and how inspirations found during one’s youth can lead to world-changing results. If you need a break from all the bad news, this feel-good story will make you optimistic about the future.

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Hearing From Small Businesses

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Last week, as I was reading Sendhil Mullainathan’s article in The New York Times about the importance of small businesses, I felt like I was reading my own story. Mullainathan is an Asian American who grew up in California, where his mother owned and operated a small video store. “She survived a major economic recession, two riots that rumbled past her window, and even the opening of a Blockbuster nearby,” he writes. Eventually, however, her business succumbed to the changing times. When her customers moved on, she felt she was ready to let go too. The difference, as Mullainathan notes, is that there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses today under threat, but were flourishing just three weeks ago. Their owners are not yet ready to move on. Their customers want those businesses to continue. And more importantly, their employees want to work.

Mullainathan’s article made me think of how many people in the United States have experience either owning a small business or working for one. On the block where my parents ran their video store, there were other Vietnamese families just like us. I remember playing in the back alley with kids whose parents owned the neighboring grocery store, bakery, dentist office, chiropractic office, and phở restaurant (why nearly every Vietnamese commercial block has this same exact mix of businesses, I have no idea). “I take the plight of small-business people personally,” writes Mullainathan. “Perhaps you do, too.”

Over the weekend, I reached out to some people behind small menswear operations to see how they’re doing. These are the people behind bespoke tailoring workshops, ready-to-wear boutiques, and even factories. I’ve been worried sick about what the crisis will do to small businesses. Instead of wondering what challenges these people face, and how others can support them, I asked business owners directly. Notably, since this crisis is moving so quickly, some details have since changed (Kiya at Self Edge, for example, noted that the quarantine timeline was looking to be months, which is now uncertain). But the contours of these concerns remain largely the same. Here’s how seven small business owners are thinking about the crisis.

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Sometimes Distractions are Good

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I was supposed to jump on a flight to Mexico later tonight to attend a friend’s wedding. I had the flights booked, a hotel room reserved, and a cat sitter was waiting in the wings. But like many people around the world are finding, the coronavirus outbreak has not only disrupted plans, but also changed the rhythm of daily life. Cities around the globe have instituted curfews, shut down schools, and banned large gatherings. Every regular activity nowadays feels like it comes with a new moral complication: how do you not only keep yourself safe, but also slow the spread of this virus and thus not endanger people in your community?

This past Monday, seven Bay Area counties issued “stay in place” orders — the strictest measure of its kind yet in the continental United States — directing all 7 million residents to stay inside their homes for the next three weeks. Businesses that don’t provide “essential” services have been instructed to send workers home. Grocers were already struggling to keep up with demand last week, but things took a turn after Monday’s announcement. Hours after the press conference, grocery stores were all but cleared out. Bins were scraped empty and shelves picked clean. The once busy thoroughfare near my home is now ghostly quiet, nearly all shops are closed, and without a daily routine, I find it’s easy to lose track of time.

So far, the focus has been, rightly, on the spread of the virus itself. But few people have discussed the psychological effects of the 24-hour news cycle and quarantine measures themselves. Here in the Bay Area, it’s too early to say what life is like under quarantine — things still feel hazy and new — but some lessons can be taken from the Toronto experience, where 15,000 residents were put on lockdown in 2003 after a SARS outbreak. Those living under quarantine were instructed not to leave their homes or have visitors. They were told to wash their hands frequently, wear masks when in the presence of others, not share personal items (e.g., towels, drinking cups, and cutlery), and to sleep in separate rooms from other household members. In addition, they were required to measure their temperature twice daily. If any symptoms of SARS developed, they were to call Toronto Public Health or Telehealth Ontario for instructions.

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A Guide to Spring Tailoring

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Reginald Jeeves is a fictional, dry mannered valet in a series of comedic short stories by PG Wodehouse. He serves at the behest of a charmingly clueless man-child named Bertie Wooster, a wealthy, idle Londoner who’s the very definition of Baudelaire’s dandy (“The wealthy man, who, blasé though he may be, has no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness”). Wooster’s immense wealth allows him to indulge every whim and fantasy, including matters involving his wardrobe, which he views purely through the lens of personal expression and sartorial originality. He wears grape-purple socks and green Alpine hats decorated with pink feathers, often to the chagrin of the more conservatively dressed Jeeves, who tries to steer him towards better decisions.

In the short story “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Wooster wakes up and asks his valet if his new mauve shirts have arrived. Jeeves confirms they did, but he sent them back because they would not “have become him.” “Well, I must say I thought fairly highly of those shirtings, but I bowed to superior knowledge,” Wooster silently reflects. Nevertheless, Wooster springs out of bed and heads to the park to do his pastoral dances, bringing with him his whangee, his yellowest of shoes, and an old green Homburg. You can almost sense Jeeves inclining his head gravely. “In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove,” the young master’s voice cheesed. “So I have been informed, sir,” his valet dryly replied.

I thought about these stories recently as I was flipping through swatch books at an I Sarti Italiani trunk show. In the fall and winter months, it’s much easier to choose a tasteful tweed or corduroy sport coat. Fall materials are often conservative by nature. The colors are cooler and easier to wear, and even the boldest plaids are blunted by the fact that they’re expressed on fuzzy woolens, rather than hard-finished worsteds. But come springtime, it can be a challenge to find something beyond your basic tropical wools. When spring is in the air, it’s easy to swept up by the romance of a brightly colored, bold patterned linen or silk-blend. But most warm-weather fabrics are questionable, perhaps even Wooster-like.

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Three Strange Colorful Histories

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Over at J. Crew, you can find over fifty shades of grey, ranging from “obsidian” to “vintage dove.” The company describes their granite-colored Ludlow suits as “coal,” but that color shouldn’t be confused with the cooler, stone-like shade of their 9" tech shorts, which are also labeled “coal.” Neither of those should be mistaken for J. Crew’s “Bedford coal,” which is different color entirely. In the past, the Americana outfitter has used all sorts of exotic names to describe very ordinary colors. There’s been “dried fig” (green), “surplus grass” (also green), “natural kale” (again, green), “spearmint sprig” (once more, green), and “fresh water” (blue). Reading through these colorful words, you’d struggle to know whether you’re scanning a J. Crew catalog or a farm-to-table menu at a hip Brooklyn bar-restaurant.

To help eliminate the confusion, some people have tried to standardize the ways in which we describe color. Albert Henry Munsell devised a three-dimensional mapping system for color in the 1880s. A. Maerz and Mr. R. Paul built on Munsell’s work but also incorporated common names for various hues and shades. They published their book A Dictionary for Color in New York in the 1930s. Across the pond, the British Colour Council produced a series of color indices from the 1930s through the ‘50s. Their first book, a two-volume set titled Dictionary of Colour Standards, was published in 1934. The Council hoped that it would do for color what “the great Oxford Dictionary has done for words.” The book “would mark,” they wrote, “the great achievement of modern times in assisting the British and Empire industries with colour definition,” thereby giving the British trades a competitive edge.

Shortly after the book was published, The Dictionary of Colour Standards was used as the official reference everywhere from the Royal Horticultural Society to the British Army to the Royal Institute of British Architects. Dermatologists, art curators, and map printers relied on the dictionary to produce important documents. Part of their success was due to the fact that they labeled every printed plate with an evocative name and reference number, much like you’d find in a Pantone guide. They also included fabric swatches for textile designers. Chartreuse, after all, registers sightly differently on paper than it does on fabric. So for the first edition of their book, the Council included carefully dyed silk ribbons. The follow-up edition, released in 1952, came with woolen yarns.

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California Sunshine and Noir

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There are two stylized images of life in Southern California. One is an exotic fantasy that was first communicated through surf films such as Gidget (1959) and Beach Party (1964), where the entire Golden State was distilled to the few beach towns that radiate up and down the coast. In these wholesome coming-of-age-stories, there’s always a group of athletic teens with sun-bleached hair that laugh and smile as they get into freewheeling antics at some late-night beach party. Sometimes there’s a romantic misunderstanding or a rivalry with a vicious, but hilariously stupid, group of bullies, but their lives are otherwise uncomplicated. As the endpoint of westward expansion in the United States, California is the geographical and symbolic opposite of the East Coast. Whereas New England’s gloomy weather inspires a kind of pensiveness, California is a place where you can live without a care, sometimes not even a thought, in the world.

The other representation of Southern California is darker, grittier, and more dystopian. In his book City of Quartz, historian Mike Davis paints a picture full of Dickensian extremes. Downtown Los Angeles has a monumental architecture glacis that segregates the rich from the poor. Wealthy neighborhoods in the canyons and hillsides are isolated behind guarded walls and electronic surveillance systems, while homeless people sleep on the street in a district known as Skid Row. In Hollywood, celebrity architect Frank Gehry apotheosized the siege look with a library that resembles a military compound.

Over in Watts, there is a series of shopping centers modeled on panopticon architectural systems, which English philosopher Jeremy Bentham surmised would help institutions control large groups of people with minimal resources. Seven-foot-high, wrought iron fences surround the largest shopping center while a private security force patrols the perimeter, and an LAPD substation is located inside the central surveillance tower. (Developer Alexander Haagen defended his design by saying the fence is inspired by a similar barrier that surrounds the USC campus, which separates students from community residents. That barrier has since only grown with new ID checks, fingerprint scanners, license plate readers, and surveillance cameras). This is a picture of a city girded by fear, and, as William Whyte observed of social life in cities, fear invariably ends up proving itself. In his chapter titled “Fortress LA,” Davis writes:

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Can You Spot Bespoke?

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I was recently having a discussion with my friend Voxsartoria about whether there’s a practical difference between bespoke and high-end ready-to-wear. He thinks the difference is not only night-and-day but claims he can tell when someone is wearing something that was made for them. I don’t believe him. 

Writers who cover bespoke tailoring will often breathlessly swoon about the Old World fitting rooms on Savile Row and how it feels to have a tailor stretch measuring tape across your shoulders. In the foreward of Anderson & Sheppard’s vanity book, A Style is Born, Graydon Carter says a client’s bespoke pattern is more honest than any autobiography (Carter’s foreward is beautifully written, but not that critical or technical). On the topic of whether bespoke lends any advantages, one of the most sensible and grounded articles I’ve read is by David Isle, which was published some years ago at No Man Walks Alone (a sponsor on this site). 

As David notes, comparisons between bespoke and ready-to-wear tailoring are usually complicated by “different makers, different fabrics, different wearers and all manner of other variables that could matter.” In his post, he compares a RTW Formosa sport coat to a bespoke one, both made in the same workshop, according to the same standard, and with the same fabric. The only difference here is that the RTW jacket is cut from a standard pattern and made-up as a finished jacket, whereas the bespoke one is cut from David’s pattern and refined through a series of two fittings. 

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