Mind Over Matter

There’s a certain masochism in most classic dressers’ stubborn adherence to tailored clothing as the mercury rises and the humidity settles in. We justify having distinct seasonal wardrobes with satisfyingly technical appraisals of weight and weave, making a nuanced science of dressing for the weather. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the “practical” dimension of classic summer attire isn’t suffused with a romance all its own, based on quaint and somewhat delusional notions of how effectively gentlemen keep their cool.

Starting from the top, anyone who’s ever worn a real Montecristi Panama knows that those impossibly tight weaves create little equatorial rainforests on one’s head, undisturbed by the smallest molecule of breeze. This quality does of course encourage frequent doffing of the hat to mop one’s brow, which is perhaps half the fun, but I have to concede that a fine Panama is a classic instance of form over function.

Moving on to the quintessential American summer fabric, I’m deeply suspect of seersucker’s actual hot weather performance. The corrugation which ostensibly provides that unique air circulation would also seem to simply put more cloth on one’s back, and rather tightly woven stuff at that. More to the point, since when is a trapped layer of air supposed to provide a cooling effect? Isn’t that precisely why knits and woolens are warm?

Although it’s my personal favorite of the summer cloths, linen’s delicious crispness lasts about three and a half minutes into any day that truly calls for it, at which point its defining virtue switches to an unmatched absorbency which (along with an undershirt) at least helps prevent rivulets of sweat from streaming down one’s backside. Whatever the irresistible charm of a three-piece linen suit, let’s not pretend that it makes any sense whatsoever.  

Since at least the dawn of menswear clothing forums, the summertime “dressers’ cloth” of choice has been Fresco -- J. & J. Minnis’ proprietary high-twist, open-weave wool fetishized by the iGentry for its ability to admit a cool summer breeze. It only helps Fresco’s obscure legend that, like a cool summer breeze, it’s not very easy to come by, being a strictly bespoke option. Whatever its uncertain merits on muggier occasions, I respect that it breeds intense loyalty: I have seen Fresco enthusiasts nonchalantly sweat through their lapels rather than admit defeat. Clearly a club worth joining.

Perhaps the ultimate sartorial bill of summertime goods is Solaro -- another proprietary cloth popular among bespoke connoisseurs. Around 1905, Italian-born Louis Westerna Sambon, a lecturer at the London School of Tropical Medicine, introduced a new light tan fabric with a subtle red underweave inspired by African native dress and based on “the theory that [red] pigmentation affords efficient and natural protection against the ultra-violet rays present in sunlight, especially in tropical regions.” Despite being neither particularly lightweight nor breathable, Solaro was nevertheless seized upon by imperial explorers and colonial tourists as the height of rationally fashionable adventurewear for the fair-skinned (rather like Patagonia fleeces today). Although it scientific properties have long since been debunked, Solaro retains an artery-clogging richness of history which no iGent can be expected to fully resist.  

Why do classic clotheshorses -- a tribe of fussbudgets if there ever was one -- subject themselves to such uncomfortably damp attire? Mainly, perhaps, because that’s just the way it used to be done. We can’t help but see ourselves as the latest in a long line of gentlemen proudly bearing the soggy burden of decorum that our grandfathers would have recognized as a responsibility and a privilege of prosperity.

More fundamentally, however, I suspect we wear these mildly impractical summer clothes because we choose to see them not as challenges, but as solutions. G. Bruce Boyer once described his dressing routine as an exercise in “problem solving.” This initially struck me as a somewhat prosaic approach to sartorialism from such a master, but I’ve come to realize that in addition to capturing the balancing game of color, texture, and proportion we all play every morning, Boyer’s analogy describes one of the deepest alibis of male sartorialism: the daily need for small environmental challenges -- mainly of occasion and climate -- that can be more or less perfectly addressed with well-chosen attire. In other words, we choose our clothes to be as appropriate and comfortable as classically possible, even if the vast majority of men today would consider them neither.

With the right perspective, that seersucker suit you’ve sweat through isn’t oppressive so much as it isn’t shorts and a T-shirt.

[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]