Saturday, September 23, 2006

Elvis Costello was right.

It's a black and white world. At least, as regards men's formal wear.

Check out my hot new idea for men's fashion: bracelets that will say WWFW? Meaning, of course, "What would Fred wear?" I see it in platinum or white gold. Maybe yellow gold. OK, if we must, rubber. Black and white rubber.

None of which would Fred Astaire have been caught dead wearing. But he did look natty, especially in white tie:

You know, as in the song: "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails." You know what I'm talking about, right? Well, just try to get the proper equipment for your husband when you're heading out to opening night at the opera, followed by the opera ball, and it's white tie.

First we needed to buy a suit. Pal Joke sent me the url to an eBay auction. It was from a rental place that was liquidating inventory. The suit was a buy-it-now auction for $139, with another $15 for shipping. Quel bargain! The fellow who owned the store emailed asking for measurements, height, weight, etc., etc., and I have to say, the thing fits beautifully. Now, I don't know the suit's fabric is, nor do I want to. It might be bad news. I'm pretty sure it's wool ... but it's not lovely, soft, drapey wool. It doesn't have the drape of the Brooks Brothers suits ... but they cost $1,200.

So the suit was taken care of. But then there was the whole question of the accessories. Now, you'd think with Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, and Paul Stuart all within a short walk of my apartment, I'd be sitting pretty, but unfortunately, getting my hands on the right accessories was a lot harder than it should have been. I've decided to write it all up so that that you, too, (or your spouse) can look snazzy in white tie.

The short version is that you will do a lot better at chain stores that have branches in the Deep South. Brooks Brothers has branches in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, both cities where full-dress balls occur with some frequency. Therefore, Brooks Brothers is in a position to special-order stuff from stores that stock it. Ralph Lauren and Paul Stuart are not in the same position.

We are located in Chicago, so we had to deal with a north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line lack of civilization. What follows is the story of where we got what we needed.

1. The white cotton pique shirt, preferably with a stiffly-starched detachable collar. Brooks Brothers is the only store that carries one. And the Chicago store had it out back, not out front where you could see it. They also don't sell it on their website. My salesman, Terry Higgins, special-ordered one for me. $225.

2. A white cotton pique bow tie. Brooks Brothers had one for $45, but it was one of those pre-tied monstrosities. (Excuse me, but What The Fornicate? Does this make any sense at all? Wouldn't somebody who was popping for full-on white tie want a tie that ... well ... ties?) I found the right kind of tie at Ralph Lauren's Chicago flagship. Pure and simple, no hooks to size the thing; you have to make it work by knotting it well. And it costs $95. (BTW, Ben Silver has a nice page of instructions for tying bow ties.)

3. A white cotton pique waistcoat/weskit/vest. This is worn instead of a cummerbund, to cover the top of the pants. My salesman at Ralph Lauren told me that they get these things in in December. The salesman at Paul Stuart didn't know what I was talking about, and tried to sell me one of those brightly patterned Four Weddings and a Funeral numbers. No, no, no! Once again, Brooks Brothers is the only store that carries it. It was special-ordered for me for $175.

4. Studs. You can't wear your yellow gold and onyx studs with white tie. You must wear mother-of-pearl or silver; otherwise you break up the lovely expanse of whiteness. I bought my husband a set of sterling studs and cufflinks from the vintagey looking jewelry case at Ralph Lauren. They were $560 marked down to $160. Otherwise, I'd have ordered these convertible studs for $275 from Brooks Brothers:

5. Shoes. OK, you might, like my husband, have made do with normal black (polished, please) dress lace-ups for black tie events, but honestly, if you're going out looking like Stokowski, and you've popped for the shirt, studs, tie, and the non-Four Weddings waistcoat, you need the right shoes. Do not worry that you will look fey. Anyone who finds your shoes funny isn't going to a white-tie occasion, anyway, so his or her opinion doesn't matter.

These shoes are correct:

These are (surprise, surprise) from Brooks Brothers. You can get the same shoe, but in black kid (which in my opinon is preferable) at Ralph Lauren, but, once again, only during the holiday season.

Brooks Brothers also sells those patent leather lace-ups that make you look as if you--at best-- play bass fiddle player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and at worst, like someone who rents his shoes. Go ahead and buy them if you must, but they are, to my way of thinking, a hideous compromise.

I sent my husband out to buy his own shoes--aren't I nice?--and Brooks Brothers didn't have any in his size. So he came home with a pair from Salvatore Ferragamo. They are patent leather slip ons with grosgrain trim, but no bows. Another compromise, I suppose, but they don't look rented. In fact, they look nice. Neither pimpy nor fey. And he said the important thing for him was that the shoes be something he'd only wear at night, with dress clothes. (By George, I think he's got it!)

6. It doesn't stop there. There is the matter of your socks. Dress shoes like those pictured above are cut rather low in the vamp, so you need to be wearing the right socks, which are black and don't have ribs. These are the right socks, courtesy of Brooks Brothers.

7. It goes on and on. You really need a black silk top hat, and you can get a silk opera hat at Ascot Top Hats. For a stick, I suggest you try an antiques store, or Ascot Top Hats. For gloves, which really are necessary with white tie, you're on your own. I bought the last pair available at the Fell Company in Winnetka. Thank goodness the Opera Ball is in September, so we didn't need to get a cloak, as I have no idea where to find one that wouldn't make my husband look like Mandrake the Magician. Or the Phantom of the Opera. Or an escapee from a Renaissance Faire. You can get linen handkerchiefs, three for $40, at Brooks Brothers, and Ascot Top Hats has nice instructions on how to fold them nicely for an ultra-natty finishing touch.


Joke said...

You know, you could have asked the one menswear know-it-all in your life...and I would have located and sent you all the requisite accessories. At the barest minimum I would have pointed you in the direction of purveyor's of men's finery with both the requisite inventory and an online presence.

It would have saved you time, aggravation and ducats...but then again, you wouldn't have this snazzy entry as a reward for your efforts.


Joke said...

P.S. But you go and throw a reference only I would get (to Mandrake (Mandrake!) the Magician) and I remember why I decided to put you on the kidney donation short list all those years ago.

Poppy Buxom said...

Well, you see, this is a shopping blog, after all. It's about the process. It's not the goal, it's the journey. It's not "I bought this here." It's why I bought it, and how fast it was delivered and how good was the service, and did it, when it arrived, live up to the catalog description. That kind of thing.

And I do think I bring two valuable bits of information forth:

1. Brooks, no matter how fallen, is still 90 percent reliable as regards correctness, as long as you get the right kind of salesman.

2. Chain stores located primarily in towns where white tie events are rarer than hen's teeth are not likely to have what you need.

Joke said...

You can stop selling it. You've GOT the kindey and your pick of my offspring.



Joke said...

* k-i-d-n-e-y

Bec of the Ladies Lounge said...

Wait - did you NOT buy the silk top hat? I *must* know.

(Also, we Australians love the Mandrake too - I was reading him in the Sunday comics well into my 20s...)

Bec of the Ladies Lounge said...

... I can admit that here, can't I, without fear of ridicule??

Poppy Buxom said...

Are you kidding me? Ridicule? Me?

My dear, I only ridicule myself. Oh, and Joke.

As for the hat ... we borrowed one. But I am determined to get him a nice topper. I'm telling you, all the men at my table looked so good I felt just like Mae West surrounded by chorus boys.

Joke said...

Get extra collars (Brooks Bros. carries them also) while you're at it. After a while -- and a damned short while at that -- they are past salvage.


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Anonymous said...

Fred did wear a bracelet
it was gold, slender and his own
he chose to sport it in most movies
watch his films
just look at his wrist
Cary Grant wore
a gold chain and a religious medalion around his neck
both men made personal fashion statements that were not altered by their directors in films but embraced
such as ties, Cary chose his own not wardrobe
Fred did the same but wore them around his waist

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