If fine men’s clothes have a spiritual home, it’s England. It was there that coarse country cloth was first tamed by exquisite urban cut, giving birth to the modern suit and inspiring generations of dandies to study the rich lore of tweed and flannel. My own rather fuzzy wardrobe certainly testifies to a deep and abiding Anglophilia, enabled by New York City’s crisp autumns, frigid winters, and damp springs. The ubiquitous Stars and Stripes of Memorial Day, however, usher in a sartorial season as distinctly American as grilled hot dogs.
Anyone who’s ever forgotten to bring a sweater on a balmy British day knows that our Special Relations are generally spared the sort of roasting, soaking, oath-inducing crucible that is high summer for the well-dressed American male. Savile Row has long been outfitting its clients for equatorial elegance, but for most right-minded Americans, the imperial elan of the classic rumpled white linen suit has always been a hard sell -- at once too formal and too exhibitionist, and in any case a look more or less owned by Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, and Colonel Sanders.
With so few Old World cues to follow once the mercury starts rising, classic American dressers have long embraced homegrown traditions in hot weather, indulging peculiarly bold tastes with cheeky confidence. While we again have the British Empire to thank for introducing us to Indian seersucker and madras, both fabrics were popularized on this side of the Pond to such an extent that they’ve come to embody a uniquely American vision of privileged play and accomplished leisure -- less country squire and more country club. Surplus chinos and salty Nantucket reds, rolled at the beach or paired with a hopsack navy blazer in the office, impart the insouciance of minimally met dress codes. Faded pastel buttondowns, frayed belts of rope and ribbon, diligently dirty white bucks -- far more than braces or chalkstripes, these scruffy totems of high birth and hard work are the real icons of American power dressing, for our ultimate aspiration has never been elegance, but ease.
If it all just seems like one big Polo ad, remember that America was here first. For better and for worse, Ralph Lauren and his imitators have wrung the last drop of insider subversion from the classic WASP aesthetic, but it still represents America’s greatest contribution to the traditional menswear canon, and summer is the season to celebrate it.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]