Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, After All

(Pattanaphong Khuankaew/EyeEm/Getty Images)
In which our correspondent goes shopping for a regimental-stripe tie

Earlier this year, I began to do something strange from time to time: I put on a tie before going to work.

That is not so strange for the many men who for years have been getting up at the same time every day, fumbling in the dark with the alarm clock, putting on an IBM-approved white shirt and tie, and going off to an office like their fathers before them. But I am a writer. I work from home.

On many days, I do my work entirely incommunicado, on others by telephone.

When work takes me out, I dress for the occasion. Sometimes, that means hiking boots, sometimes it means a suit and tie, and, every now and then, it means a tuxedo. One reporter I used to know kept a hideous pink tie in the glove box of his car (“glove box” — now there’s a vestigial expression!) for unexpected runs to court, a habit he began when a judge threatened to throw him in jail for showing up in his court without a tie. The older I get, the more the 1990s seem like the 1950s.

Putting on a tie makes me feel like I’m going to work.

I’ve never been one of those guys who hate suits and ties. Like most men, I look better in a conservative suit than I do in anything else. Consider the case of Jason Statham, the famously fit action star, who generally plays the same character in every film (the taciturn man who drives very fast in a dark European sedan in between homicides), and he is usually dressed and groomed in the same way: buzz cut, carefully manicured stubble, and an extremely well-cut suit. Now, go look him up on the Internet, and see what he looks like dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt: He’s as fit and handsome as a man can be, but Jason Statham in cargo shorts is a schlub compared with Jason Statham in a suit.

That lesson should not be lost on the rest of us.

The conventional wisdom holds that there are three ways for a man to get dressed up: dapper, dandy, or dashing. The last you can dispense with: If that’s you, you know it already, and — most important — you don’t care. That’s just how dashing works. Being a dandy works if you are Tom Wolfe, even if his famous white suits and cocked-just-so hats were as much a uniform as any salaryman’s corporate pinstripes. Perhaps it is inevitable that our own dressed-down time is also a great time for dandies, who are in eternal rebellion against sartorial conformity — whether it was the rigid conformity of Gilded Age business attire or the slovenly conformity of 2018. Think of Dwayne Johnson’s Spencer Strasmore in Ballers, a man 50 inches around the chest wearing one of Robert Mata’s loud, plaid three-piece suits. Conor McGregor is a great dandy. Roger Stone, too. The cautionary tale there is too obvious to require expanding on.

For most of us, the best we can hope for is dapper — which is to say, correct: Daniel Craig as James Bond in all those perfect Brioni and Tom Ford suits, Idris Elba in a double-breasted tuxedo at the British Academy Television Awards, David Beckham whenever. But that’s the world of celebrity, the world of Virginia Postrel’s Power of Glamour. If you take a few steps toward the real world, you might encounter Spain’s well-dressed prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, or Senator-elect Mitt Romney, recently of Utah, who is nothing in this world if not correct.

These are the times that try men’s souls. Which means that these are the times for Brooks Brothers.

The famous menswear store, which turned 200 years old this year, is very proud of its heritage. It boasts of being the first firm to bring to market ready-made suits, and it recently has introduced a button-down that it says was inspired by its original “polo” shirt, which the firm haughtily describes as “the most imitated item in fashion history.” (Take that, Mr. Lifshitz.) But the truth is that the company fell on hard times. In 1988, it was acquired by the British firm Marks & Spencer, which spent more than a decade slowly turning Brooks Brothers into Banana Republic. The results were ghastly — and, for Marks & Spencer, unprofitable. The Italian entrepreneur Claudio Del Vecchio (heir to Luxottica, the company that made pretty much every nice pair of sunglasses you’ve ever owned, irrespective of the brand) was then able to buy Brooks Brothers for a paltry few hundred million dollars. He has two things going for him: One, he is an Italian businessman, a member of a very well-dressed tribe, and, second, he loves Brooks Brothers, having filled his closet with their products when he was sent to New York as a young man to run the North American province of his family’s eyewear empire.

I stopped in to buy some ties a few months back and had a conversation with a clerk that I found reassuring. It went approximately like this:

“I’m looking for a tie.”

“What kind of tie?”

“A striped tie. A regimental-stripe tie.”

“. . .”

“. . .”

“Which regiment?”

I should probably mention at this point that I don’t really know the difference between a repp stripe and a regimental stripe. But, apparently, there is and has been an ongoing etiquette controversy about wearing regimental-stripe ties: They were, and in some cases are, associated with particular British military units, which in theory makes wearing one the moral equivalent of sporting Navy SEAL insignia because you think it looks cool. That’s the kind of controversy I can get behind: According to legend, Americans first embraced diagonally striped ties after a 1919 visit from the Prince of Wales, who wore his regimental tie, though Brooks Brothers claims to have introduced a variation on the theme a decade before that. Whereas traditional military ties slope from left to right (“from heart to sword”), Brooks Brothers sloped theirs in the opposite direction, making the garment fit for democracy. I left with a tie identified as an Argyle and Sutherland regimental-stripe tie, though my guy tells me that this is incorrect and that my navy-and-burgundy neckwear is properly associated with the Household Division. It goes with my blazer. It is correct.

“Correct” is not a synonym for “boring.” Christopher Buckley jokes that his father had the “fashion sense of a country parish priest,” but think of that famous photograph of William F. Buckley Jr. at the helm of his sailing yacht in a sweater and chinos, or the one of him riding down Lexington Avenue on a Vespa in a coat and tie: He was a man who lived the life he wanted and dressed for the life he lived. One might have quibbled with the way he wore his clothes. But his clothes never wore him, tie askew or not.

I’ve always worn what I wanted and never minded being noticed for my clothes. I have more Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens in my closet than a man my age probably should — and more in my closet in general than I probably should. (“How many pair of shoes would you say you own?” Rich Lowry once asked me. I wouldn’t.) I suppose I have reached the point where that’s beside the point, where I’d prefer to make a different kind of impression. The last time I was in Brooks Brothers, I found myself admiring something called a Madison 1818 suit, charcoal-colored, maybe a little warm for Texas much of the year but just right for the autumn. Gregory Peck was great as the man in the gray flannel suit. Works for me.

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