Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Part One: Shock and Awe

For my recent Very Important Birthday, my spouse gave me a bespoke suit. She could not, of course, present me with an actual, corporeal suit; it doesn’t exist yet. A bespoke suit doesn’t come into existence until there have been discussions, negotiations and several fittings with your tailor. The gift is really a promise of a suit, a suit made for me, only me, in accordance with my measurements and my preferences, no matter how quirky either may be.

Bespoke clothing has long been a means of expressing individuality as well as, or sometimes instead of, good taste. As per his wish, Richard Burton was buried in a red suit which I assume was made for him, given the general dearth of men’s ready-to-wear red suits. Theater critic George Jean Nathan’s jackets buttoned from right to left, which must have greatly bemused those who noticed. When the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson toured England in the sixties, he had a Savile Row tailor make him a two-tone suit – shades of grey in a harlequin quadrant. On him, it looked good. Like a trip to Burger King, the bespoke experience is a chance to have it your way.

Accordingly, the promise of a bespoke suit means that, if you’ve never thought about what you’d like in a suit, it’s time to get serious about the issues. Do you prefer a high gorge or a low one? Two or three button front, or are you thinking double-breasted? (It’s just my opinion, but unless you’re slim, don’t) How deep should trouser cuffs be? (Before you shout out “1¼ to 1½inches,” let me tell you that a friend of mine wears trousers with cuffs less than an inch wide. He had to cajole and hector his tailor to make such narrow cuffs, but they look swell, especially after they’ve been pointed out to you.). A visit to a custom tailor, in other word, requires a certain amount of preparation, especially if you’ve never contemplated these things before.

I’ve been contemplating these things for decades, because a bespoke suit has long been tops on my list of things to acquire, visit and/or eat before I die. My plan was to get one when my ship finally comes in.

My ship has not finally come in. At least I hope not, for that would mean my ship is a dinghy beached in a hidden cove. I mean, there is no singular triumph to cheer, no windfall to justify a celebratory expenditure or buffer its impact. But what the hell.

I’ve decided that the gift itself is something like that ship. In fact, it’s better. It symbolizes my wife’s generosity as well as our mutual determination to seize the day – the suit, actually – instead of waiting around for some metaphorical vessel which will probably never materialize. In other words, my suit has finally come in and, as my son might say, I am down with that, totally.

I’m ready, too. Here is a chance to draw upon my decades of rumination about fabric, lapels, desired number and depth of vents, if any, and other vital concerns that have been on my mind since the tenth grade, when a classmate showed me the functioning button-holes on his sports jacket, a hand-me-down from his natty dad. I was hooked. I ingested every word of Mr. Wolfe’s seminal essay The Secret Vice, about custom-made menswear and the men who live for it. A friend and I – the fellow with the narrow cuffs, actually – once had wide ties made to order for ourselves because we couldn't find any in the shops; this was a year or two before the Peacock Revolution swept the land and big “kipper ties” were popular for about ten minutes. I still have the tie, my only truly custom garment. It’s navy blue with white polka dots and about 3.5 inches wide, only a little bit wider than normal these days, which goes to show that in matters of fashion, as well as in matters of life and death, Paulie Walnuts' observation after learning of Johnny Sack's death – words variously quoted online as “Ride the painted pony, let the spinning wheel turn,” “Ride the painted pony, let the spinnin’ wheel glide,” “Ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel turn,” and “Ride the painted pony, let the spinner wheel fly” – obtains.

This clothes consciousness didn’t just appear out of nowhere, of course. In high school, I wore a tie and jacket five days a week and believed that adult life would, in all probability, involve a similar dress code. As things turned out, I work at home for the most part, and to say that I have little need for a fine suit understates the reality on the ground. Except for walking the dog and the occasional errand, I could probably get by without pants.

But if my personal style these days lies somewhere between comfortably casual and downright slovenly, my dreams are dapper as ever. I can’t wait to get started. I’m thinking of a light grey with perhaps a hint of a sheen, but subtle, nothing flashy.

All I’ve got to do is visit the tailor my wife selected and we can get started. An appointment is required, and somehow I haven’t gotten around to making one, even though I’ve been really eager to do so for every single minute of the three months that have passed since my Very Important Birthday.