There’s something profoundly organic about the way proper care revives good clothes. Wrinkles fall out with steam. Cremes nourish dry old shoes, with wax burnishing their rough scars into smooth depth. Anyone who’s ever pressed his own shirts knows that very specific satisfaction of crisp, fresh renewal. I may not be entirely sure that brushing down a coat accomplishes much, but like brushing my teeth, I do it daily - a modest offering of time at the altar of longevity. Dandies have made high religion of perfecting these rituals with country washing and champagne glacage, but it’s perhaps a bit more balanced to regard them as the small virtues of a sartorial Tao, meditations on maintenance in the face of entropy.
Things do fall apart -- not least our own bodies. It has always been a major function of clothing to conceal this unhappy fact. A Greek chiton or Roman toga draped as gracefully from bony old shoulders as from rippling young muscle, and there has perhaps never been a more refined science of anatomical improvement than tailoring as perfected by Savile Row (which until recently was understood to be the proper context for a discrete nip and tuck). Traditionally, a successful man came into the means for fine clothes about the time his physique began to thicken, trading ephemeral fashions for a more mature ideal, fixed in flannel and worsted. In our own mercurial and sartorially attenuated age, to even speak of fine men’s clothing is to salute the timeless, the enduring, the immutable.
These eternal forms are, of course, rendered in mortal materials, and subject to mundane abuse. Collars fray, elbows shine, cuffs collect shoe polish, shoes collect scuffs. Sprezza-tyrannical orthodoxy may embrace a genteel few of these imperfections, but too many clotheshorses grieve over virtually undetectable moth holes, gravy spots, and cracked uppers. The secondhand clothing market thrives on the first-rate cast-offs of dandies who refuse to retain anything less than perfection in their wardrobes. Case in point: a pair of Anderson & Sheppard trousers, pictured above, picked up for a song on eBay because of a repair on the lower leg. It’s a beautifully executed repair: a perfectly matched patch that’s all but invisible to anyone but a shoe-shine, worthy of the maker’s name, perhaps even their work, and I wear them with pride. What else about my appearance is perfect, and a bit less so every day?
As opposed to the fundamentally mercurial and disposable culture of female fashion, the verse and chapter of fine male dressing cultivates a very close identification between a man and his clothes: buy the best you can afford, placing quality before quantity; if possible, have them made for your body, according to your taste, but within strict standards of propriety; wear them for a lifetime, pass them down to posterity. In cloth imbued with such gravitas, each stain or snag can be an intimation of mortality, a reminder that even the most well-cut clothes -- like the somewhat less well-cut bodies inside them -- decay. Embrace this. Good men’s clothes, much like men themselves, age well in part because they show their age -- the telltale marks of long wear that lesser garments would never survive if they received it at all.
Over time, all that conscientious scrubbing and brushing and buffing and pressing imparts the dull sheen beloved by gentlemen as patina. It’s nice on clothes too.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]