Above: Andrew Ramroop's first suit from 1969. The renowned Master Bespoke Tailor Andrew Ramroop runs Maurice Sedwell No. 19 Savile Row and is the first black tailor to own a Savile Row tailoring shop. Twice he has captured the title of "Best Men’s Wear: Design, Cut and Fit" at the Golden Shears Awards, the Oscars of tailoring. Picture © Gentleman's Gazette
Perhaps this message to "lighten up" our attitude about almost everything began in the 1990s with the book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff--It's All Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. This dictum has its merits; but, these days, plenty of men find nothing wrong with taking some things quite seriously -- specifically when it comes to dressing well. And dressing well they do-- with willing moxie and pluck, and with no complaints from women.
Choose any point in history and envision that time period. It is likely that the pictures in your head include how people dress. We "predate" ourselves in having an earnest yearning to express our individual style and wanting to feel at least slightly impeccable. Put simply, we all want to look our best, whether we admit it or not.
Yet in recent decades--just like the stunning reptile, the Golden Toad who has not been seen since 1989, somehow our verve for style found itself on the verge of becoming extinct.
Like it or not, society cares about what people wear. Flashback to the year 2009 when Google displayed 9 million entries regarding Michelle Obama wearing shorts as she exited the Airforce One. Although poll results showed that 80 percent found Michelle's attire acceptable (yes, even with major events occurring in the world, there is poll about the First Lady's shorts), the truth of the matter is that deep down people want the First Lady to have a slightly magical and regal presence, and there is a bit of mental confusion that occurs in seeing her appear as a Disneyland tourist. Notably, since this uproar, Mrs. Obama has been on her best sartorial behavior.
The "Casual Friday" epidemic has found its way onto Airforce One.
Since the donning of the first loincloth, it is safe to say that we are aesthetic beings. Men and women alike, appreciate design and function, by our very natures of being.
And if you fast forward from the day of the loincloth to the medieval era, we notice that by this time, clothing became so important, that codes were put into place dictating how people dressed. At that time, it was a privilege to wear certain items, and what your wore represented your core identity.
Even Medieval peasants had great concern for their garments. [Medieval bronze caster. Image licensed under Creative Commons by Hans on Flickr]
There were strict rules governing who could wear what in medieval and Renaissance times. The general rule was that the poorer someone was, the simpler their clothes were: a simple belted tunic for peasants...made of wool or linen. Both men and women wore ‘hose’ - leggings like long stockings without feet.
Nobles had access to any fabric they liked, including the exotic silks and velvets brought back by crusaders and merchants, but only royalty were permitted an ermine trim. (EducationScotland.gov.uk)
Steady as a beating drum, free people across the world continued for centuries to hold the way people dress in high esteem (of course our neighbors in Russia and China and many Arab countries suffered a true repression of self-expression).
In free countries (often inspired by well dressed Presidents and Royalty during the 1700s and 1800s), men and women all over the world savored the opportunity to dress for self-expression, and to dress in order to make an impression.
Dressing well as a way of life, late 1800s. Oregon Public Library historical record.
In the early 1900s, when many a man traded in his horse-and-carriage for his first petrol-powered or Model T car, "dressing well" catapulted into a global obsession. Perhaps the glamour of cruising in style in these miraculous automobiles proved to be a motivating factor; but, whatever the reason (with exception of the time period of The Great Depression), for many years to follow, the pursuit of style held strong.
Hollywood brought images to us that inspired and motivated the masses. There was a feeling of believing that each person could create his or her own persona--that "wearable art" was limited only by the imagination. People were happy to present their best selves, as it was a pleasure instead of a burden to do so.
Silent film star Rudolph Valentino, 1920s
Of course the rest is history. We have all seen the sharp dressed men and women of the 1940s and 50s. And, television glorifies the rakish working man of the 1960s in shows like Mad Men.
Even the clothing of the 1970s, with all its 'Make love, not war' influence, had a certain thoughtful rebellion to its look of playboy leisure suits and bandanas and bellbottoms.
Tommy Nutter design exclusively for Ringo
The 1980s felt like a schlack-coated red candy apple with a lot of Wallstreet shine and glory with little substance, but still; overall, even with the overdone braces and oversized MC Hammer suits, the intent to look our best remained. Throughout the 1980s, we loved to follow the swaddle and swathe of our Princess Diana and somehow, we still cared about what we wore...and then came the 1990s.
I like Nirvana. When a Nirvana song plays, I feel an intense sense of nostalgia and appreciation for a stand-alone (even if troubled) performer. That said, my first inclination in trying to put a finger on the downturn of concern about style is directly correlated to Kurt Cobain's preference for grunge wear.
The "first thing to come out of the closet" look
To turn to a more technical theory, analyst have blamed this downturn in concern for style during this period on the recession of the 90s. And maybe, like the time during the Great Depression, people really did put attention to style on the back-burner because they simply had other priorities.
"The recession came and after that fashion and beauty became rather more pared down. One of my first jobs after moving to New York was to make up Kate Moss for the Calvin Klein Obsession fragrance campaign and I just used moisturizer." --Kay Montano, Makeup Artist for Kate Moss
Staying in the musical world for a little while, I am now reminded of the U2 song lyrics "Stuck in a moment and can't get out of it". Even after the 1990s recession softened, in the decade that followed, a polished appearance seemed to be forgotten and along with the golden toad, the quest for style seemed to practically disappear.
Prompted by a "Skinny Girl" Liquor advertisement glorifying the nonchalant modern day women, Monsignor Charles Pope wrote a thought-provoking post lamenting our lax modern attitudes regarding the way we comport ourselves in public. Here is an excerpt from his article:
"...but as the commercial rolls on, I think we see that we have lost a lot. The picture flashes away from the elegantly dressed woman, careful for modesty and dignity (though excessively portrayed), to the modern scene where we are suppose to rejoice and approve at how far women have come.
And what do we see? Half drunk women, with painted nails and flip flops, liquor bottles in abundance, and the indelicate and boorish behavior of those who have been drinking too much. Further there are numerous displays of immodest dress, immodest posture and unbecoming behaviors. In effect, if you ask me, it is a celebration of all in our culture that is boorish, immodest, indelicate, and excessively informal."
The bespoke tailoring business is on the rise. Men and women alike are becoming more concerned with the form, function, style and quality of what they are wearing. And, counterfeit items are beginning to be seen as lackluster by the general population.
But most markedly, men are discovering the power of developing real personal style and for many males, the allure of the technical and aesthetic side of the style industry is as strong as the fascination for power tools and Monday night football (or a good Rugby match, depending on preferences).
What prompted this change away from the nonchalant attitude towards men's style? What has ended this long walk in the men's style industry desert...and brought us to this cusp of an oasis which has thrived for centuries, only to fade and finally reappear?
As I begin to research the answer, I hope to gather other responses and theories about the revival of men's interest in high-handed style. A few explanations are evident.
Perhaps the strongest influence in regard to the turnaround from a sluggish to a keen interest in men's style may be attributed to televised shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, which have given men a new eye for pocketsquare folds, vests, pant pleats and cuffs, lapel design, and tie knots. This phenomenon has been extensively covered by the media and reinforces the idea that with change, in almost every case, the starting point is awareness, followed by knowledge and action.
Another less obvious explanation to the skyrocketing interest in men's style may be attributed to age we live in, specifically the age of technology. While swimming in the world of the internet, we find that almost every convenience is at our "keyboard fingertips".
In essence, it is possible to exist for years in a single room with a bathroom and have every need and whim delivered to our front door. Even our business may be conducted from the very bed we fall asleep in at night, and rise in during the morning hours. We find ourselves in a state of virtual life that many times feels as real as if we were physically somewhere else. We can skype our family and friends, conduct business, order products and even fall in love in front of a rectangle screen, without stepping foot outside our humble or not-so-humble homes.
With this cerebral life in full-force with not even a trip to our old-fashioned mailboxes necessary, we long for a real reason to make contact with the outside world. The fact is that technology cannot produce a tailored-made suit from the confines of our bedroom.
With thousands of combinations possible for design, we can feel the tactile satisfaction of placing our hands on different fabrics, feeling our arms slide into a sample coat jacket and imagining being cloaked in a custom designed piece.
And so it is an intriguing and adrenaline-producing thought to have the very human experience of commissioning a custom ensemble -- a quest requiring several fittings with each piece sewn specifically for the individual, until the final product is produced, of which there will be only one of its kind in the entire world.
With this new avenue discovered that produces and unrivaled human experience in the world of style, we fall for the allure of the experience itself. And it feels right.
With the escalation of interest in custom clothiers, the future should see a continuation of what I have termed high-hand branding by mass marketers.
Already, we have seen a broadening and loosening of once sacred terms like bespoke, tailor-made, hand-crafted by order, hand-tailored, by appointment, made-to-measure, custom-made, made-to-order, Fatto amano su misura, and sartorial, to name a few.
The result of the misuse of these sacred terms shows disregard and even disrespect towards the skilled craftsman who has spent decades refining his or her art to earn the right to use these esteemed labels and descriptions which have been tagged for exclusive use for the custom clothiers and shoe makers alike.
Mass marketers are likely to water-down quality and use clever marketing terms to reel in uneducated customers, commanding high prices for pseudo quality and even convincing customers that items are "bespoke" or "tailor-made" which in reality, is not the case.
The pursuit of true bespoke quality is growing and the media is paying attention, as demonstrated in The New York Times September 2012 article What's a $4,000 Suit Worth?
And so, while the custom clothing market continues to grow, attracting a wider age range and demographic group, mass marketers will attempt to ride piggy-back on this runaway train and only the most discerning customers may get what they pay for in the mad world of threads, button holes, and silk linings.
The future may also see a whole new career world opening up for young men and women who are looking for an alternative to the earning the masters degree and securing a corporate job. As the demand for custom clothing increases, obviously more skilled craftsmen will be needed to produce high level clothing and shoes. From tailors to cordwainers, the market of custom production will open up to welcome new artistic, financial and managerial talent.
Young Justin Fitzpatrick moved to Europe from the U.S., to learn more about the world of bespoke shoe-making. He opened his shoe shine concession in Gieves & Hawkes on Savile Row and is currently preparing for his ultimate aim to launch his ready to wear men’s shoe collection.
There is a clear celebration occurring which recognizes master craftsmanship and true high quality market offerings. Finally, more of us seem to be developing an eye for quality and at last retiring our cargo shorts and cheap shoes in favor of the idea that less is more when it comes to selecting quality over poorly constructed items.
Moreover, vintage shops with treasures of years past are popping up with fervor and finally, the media is beginning to recognize real elegance when it presents itself. The result is that we find when we begin to select our clothes with the same criteria we may select a car or a home, we just feel better. And, ten or even twenty years later we may discover that the clothing and shoes we bought decades earlier still perform quite well and that our bank account is also no worse for the wear.
Sonya Glyn Nicholson