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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Things I’m Excited About

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With spring officially a month away, new collections of airy polos, linen popovers, and loose-fitting safari jackets are just starting to hit stores, ready to be tried-on, coveted, and perhaps even purchased. For the next three months, brands will try to convince us that we need specialized outerwear to deal with the heat. “Get something unlined!” goes the mantra. This is mostly true until about June, when the sweltering swamp that is summer weather brings nothing but pain and regret. And yet, we’ll continue to wear those lightweight jackets because we bought them. Plus, we look better in outerwear.

For the time being, it’s still cold enough for the kind of clothes that generally excite people: warm scarves, chunky cable knits, Melton outerwear, and the occasional tweed. Friends of mine at StyleForum are already talking about what they plan to buy and wear this coming season, but I’ve only been thinking about how much I still enjoy my cold-weather gear. If you, like me, are still stuck in a fall/winter mindset, here are some things I’ve been excited to wear, and what I’m looking forward to wearing later this year.

COVERT CLOTH SUITS

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The Age Old Problem

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In the fall of 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper was casting about in a dusty thrift shop looking for a special gift to give to her friend for her 55th birthday. After having rummaged through piles of old books, clothes, and knick-knacks, she settled on a vintage red fedora, which she purchased for $7.50. She packaged the gift along with a copy of Jenny Joseph’s famous poem, “Warning,” which opens with: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” Cooper gave the gift to her friend as a reminder that she should grow old playfully and on her own terms. 

A year later, inspired by that same poem, Cooper founded the Red Hat Society, which is hat-quartered in Fullerton, California. Today, the light-hearted social organization boasts over 35,000 members, most of them women over the age of fifty who are looking for fun and friendships. These middle-aged ladies are organized into local chapters with whimsical names, such as the Scarlet Harlots, Terrific Tootsies, and Sassy Hattitudes. They get together every once in a while to attend brunches and Broadway shows, sing to residents in nursing homes, organize pool parties and picnics, and otherwise eat, drink, and be merry. If you’re ever out and about, you’ll know when you’re in their presence by their laughter and unusual garb. For their get-togethers, they wear red hats in every imaginable shape and style — cowboy hats, berets, and of course, fedoras — which they pair with silly purple outfits decorated with feathery boas or satin sashes. The Red Hatters know they look ridiculous, but they dress to cheer each other up and cheer each other on. 

They’re also quite protective of their group. In 2008, a sour New York Times journalist wrote about them cynically, saying she understands the group’s spirit, but not the uniform. “For one thing, the Red Hat Society appears less a grass-roots rebellion than an increasingly sophisticated, for-profit licensing and marketing operation,” wrote Paula Span. “And there’s my other problem. Isn’t it supposed to be the very young, teenagers all suddenly deciding to pierce their nostrils, who are prone to declaring nonconformity in unison? […] When I’m old, I’ll probably wear mostly black, the way I do now. And I’ll call the group I have dinner with “my friends.”

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The Liberty Cap

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A lot has been written about the death of suits, along with the accompanying necktie, but the first piece of traditional men’s dress to have disappeared is the hat. It’s been said that men stopped wearing hats en masse when President John F. Kennedy declined to wear one at his inauguration. Neil Steinberg, I think, has a more nuanced and convincing account. In his book Hatless Jack, he traces the slow disappearance of men’s headwear back to the late 1800s. Changing social norms and technology probably had more to do with it. Plus, after the Second World War, hats were increasingly seen as stodgy and conformist. In an age when informality is equated with authenticity, the fedora and its cousins can feel phony. 

Costume designers, however, continue to use hats to great effect. A hat can be the quickest way to say something about a character, communicating something just below the surface about how the person feels and thinks. Earlier this month, Apple TV+ debuted their new eight-part mini-series, Little America, which puts on-screen the moving portraits of real-life immigrants. These stories, which were collected by Epic Magazine, are about the essential goodness of America’s promise. “Everyone here came from somewhere else,” Epic’s editors write. “Even Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait at some point. This is the basic American idea — an identity open to all — but it can be easy to forget from inside. And that’s when politics can turn ugly, as it has recently, with our political narrative becoming a story of blame and fear. Little America is meant to counter that narrative with a fuller portrait of our most recent arrivals." 

In an episode titled "The Cowboy,” Conphidance plays the Nigerian graduate student Iwegbuna Ikeji, who came to Oklahoma during the early 1980s to study economics. Ikeji’s open enthusiasm and frank dislike for certain parts of American culture put him at odds with his fellow students, as well as a snarky tutor. He doesn’t understand why Americans privilege the individual over the community, and some of the tensions between him and his peers are aggravated by racism, even if not totally motivated by it. 

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