Dressing for . . .

It was on my first trip to England that I came to understand that what we think of as formal wear, business attire, and sports clothing was originally designed to be the most comfortable possible clothing for the circumstances. The circumstances in this case being the climate, technology, and infrastructure of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Without central heat interiors were going to be chilly, but even if you were quite frugal with your wood or coal they would not have to be really cold.

Given those indoor circumstances, and given that you had to make do with wool, silk, linen, and cotton (because there were no synthetic fibers), you would quite naturally end up with just the sort of garments that we now think of as being part of formal wear—wool coats and vests, silk bands to wrap around your neck, and so on. Sport clothing, of course, was for the sort of sports the English aristocracy engaged in: riding and shooting. Tweed and leather were very practical.

It seems obvious now, but it was something of a revelation to me. When I was younger, I always thought of that sort of clothing as being uncomfortable.

Partially that’s because such clothing is only really comfortable if it really fits. You don’t need a bespoke suit for it to fit correctly; even today good men’s clothing is routinely altered to fit. But clothing purchased for a child will never fit for long (and often never fit at all, because the child knows neither how the garment is supposed to fit nor how to articulate any issues discovered during the fitting).

Perhaps more important, such clothing is only comfortable in the sort of very cool environment for which it was originally designed. If your interior temperatures are around 60°F, you will be more comfortable in a wool coat over a wool vest than you would be in shirtsleeves. At 70°F it will be the other way around.

My attitudes toward such things has also been influenced by Jackie’s work with fiber. In my youth, my experience with wool was that it was scratchy, uncomfortable stuff (totally aside from it being made into garments that didn’t fit and were wrong for the climate). Now I’ve learned about the many different kinds of wool—starting with merino, of course, but by no means ending there—that are not scratchy. Now I have wonderful vests and sweaters, made to fit, from premium materials.

Of course, the top layers are really the last thing to think about. Comfortable clothing begins with the base layer. There again, my experiences as a child turned me against a whole very useful category: long underwear. Any clothing that you’re going to put another layer of clothing on top of needs to fit exactly right. An outer layer that’s too loose can be tolerated. But a too-loose under layer is going to get bunched up and shifted away from where it needs to be: Intolerable.

The ill-fitting hand-me-down long underwear I got as a child turned me against a whole category of garments that doubtless have an important role to play in comfortable dressing. I’m only now, more than two decades after returning to the Midwest, beginning to accumulate items for an appropriate cold-weather base layer. (I’ve made do up to now by having a wide range of top-layer options: spring jackets, fall jackets, winter coats, parkas, my Alaska pipeline coat.)

As a young man, I think I’d have been perfectly happy to wear nothing but shorts and t-shirts, and simply crank up the heat to make up the difference. My attitude has changed. If I had the money, I’d be very pleased to get and wear wool coats and vests, silk cravats, smoking jackets, and the like. Not because of the fashion statement they’d make (which would be a rather silly statement, however much I’ve come to appreciate a fine tweed), but because they’d be very comfortable.

Wore a tie

It happened this way:

We were going to brunch with Barbara at Windsor, where they prefer that people not wear jeans in the dining room, so I wore khakis. Then, since I was wearing those, I decided to wear my khaki linen shirt. I don’t wear it much, for various reasons. (It’s long sleeved, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s hot, but it’s linen, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s cold. Plus, since it’s linen, it needs to be ironed. Plus it’s been ever-so-slightly on the snug side, but I’ve lost a little weight, so it’s now fitting quite well.)

That outfit was going to have me looking just a bit dressed up, so I though maybe I’ll go whole-hog and wear my tweed jacket. That, plus the fact that the linen shirt has a button-down collar, made me think that maybe I wanted to wear a tie. And then, since it was the day after Christmas, it occurred to me that I could wear my Christmas tie—a very red, very shiny tie that my mom made about 30 years ago. It’s so red and so shiny that there’s not really much other opportunity to wear it.

To go out, I wore the trench coat my dad gave me last summer. It used to be just a bit on the snug side as well, but fits just fine now (even over my tweed jacket). But it’s not quite as warm as a parka, so I added the grey scarf Jackie wove for me last year. It’s the newest of my many handwoven scarves, and perfect for when one of my more colorful scarves would be insufficiently understated.

I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Wow. I look just like a grownup.”

Then I put on my grandfather’s homburg and headed out to brunch.