08 September 2014

Sunday Best

Recently good friend James of 10 Engines gave me this suit, straight out of his own closet, to do with what I could. It's the very definition of a stalwart classic, a charcoal grey single breasted suit in a three season worsted wool. It's been said that a man's suit is like armor, and this one bears that point out.
At first glance, it's a trad/ivy/preppy thrift shop/ebay score dream: a vintage 3/2 sack suit from the Brooks Brothers University Shop, likely late 1950s vintage. It's the kind of thing the trad/ivy fanatics dream of at night. But I won't be selling it. It's well worn, and in it's wear and tear lies a story and a soul.
The tips of the cuffs are worn through, and a few of the buttons are broken...
The trouser hems are frayed beyond repair, but check that old style big cuff on a narrow leg opening...
The edges of the trouser pockets have been beaten so hard in sixty or more years of active service that someone saw fit to have them reinforced with a grosgrain strip...
And a crotch worn straight through was at some time seen merely as a call for some old time thrifty repair rather than a ticket to the trash pile.

While this suits condition may render it useless to almost anyone, it has value in it's own way. Indeed, it's value lies in the very defects and repairs that make it an unsalable vintage piece. This suit speaks to a reality in the past that vintage fetishism tends to ignore, and it hints at a story that's worth bearing in mind, especially if you spend any amount of time hunting for and reusing old things.

In the strange world that is the online #menswear community, we tend to think of the Brooks Brothers of bygone days as something of a holy cathedral. It is viewed, along with a small handful of other old purveyors, as something of the supplier or royal armor to the knights of the #ocbd. And indeed, in most ways, it was. But there is another side to that story, and this suit is a strong piece of evidence.

What follows is all pure conjecture on my part, but I beg you hear me out. I think that the man who owned this suit didn't have a lot of good clothes, or a lot of money, but he did have values. He probably scrimped and saved in the late fifties to buy this suit, knowing that quality was worth the time and effort it took to earn it. He likely purchased this simple charcoal grey suit on virtue of it's versatility, usefulness, and probable longevity. It was probably his Sunday Best, and he probably wore it to every important occasion of his life for decades. He might have been eighteen when he bought it; he danced in it with his sweetheart at the Spring semi-formal; he wore it to his high school graduation; every holiday, every Sunday at church. He put it on for his grandmother's birthday that time they surprised her with a trip to the city for dinner in a fancy restaurant; he put it on to pick his wife up from the hospital after his son was born; he wore it to both of his parents funerals.

He wasn't a business man, definitely not a man who wore a suit all the time. Had he been that type, we wouldn't see either the wear or repair that we see on this suit. He appreciated the value in it since it's original purchase, and had it repaired as best he could every time it was needed by a little town tailor who was resourceful in his work. Despite the suit becoming increasingly ragged, he kept it clean and pressed, and every time he had occasion to wear it, that same sweetheart he danced with in the Spring semi-formal told him how handsome he looked in it.

Maybe that's all a bit maudlin, but I hope you see my point. In the romantic past, when everyone wore suits, even poor guys had to have some Sunday Best. In a very strong sense, I'd bet the guy who owned this suit valued it far more than any guy with a lot of suits values his clothes. It was his armor, his good clothes, and though it may have been a bit ragged, it wasn't any less of a grey Brooks Brother suit. Old clothes sourced from a thrift store are great for being well made quality things had for a fraction of their worth. But they also have a story and a soul. For some that's a turn-off, but for an inveterate cheapskate like myself, it's where the beauty in this lies.

06 September 2014

Size Matters

As the author of this blog and a seller of second hand menswear, I am frequently asked questions regarding the measurement and sizing of old garments. In the age of the internet, more clothing than ever is bought and sold sight unseen via places like ebay and online shops like my own. In the interest of a "Reader Questions" style post, here's a guide and explanation of how sizing works and how to use measurements to successfully shop for old clothes.

Most modern clothes are sized on a tag. These measurements can be anything as vague as "alpha sizing" (S,M,L,XL) or as specific as tailored sizing (42 Reg., for example). While helpful, these sizes are best used as a guide rather than a rigid fact. In truth, there is fluidity in such sizes, and different manufacturers or brands often use the same numbers on clothes which are not physically the same size. Add to that the fact that many older and vintage clothes are either missing these tags or were never sized that way in the first place, and things can get pretty confusing. While it's helpful to know about what "size" you are, it is infinitely more helpful to know your measurements, or even just the measurements of an article of clothing that fits well. The numbers on a measuring tape are marked out in inches (or centimeters if you live anywhere but here), and there is no arguing with them.

Jackets
Most suit jackets and sport coats are sized by chest measurement and length. For example, I generally wear a 42 Regular. The number (42) refers to the circumference of the chest, in this case 42 inches, while "Regular" refers to the length of the jacket measured down the back. Generally speaking, there are five measurements to know on a tailored jacket. The chest can measured by laying a jacket flat and measuring from armpit to armpit, or "pit to pit" as you'll often read in online listing, then doubling. Bear in mind that is a differential to be considered, and few extra inches need to be left for freedom of movement. The jackets I have that I consider 42 chest measure between 22 and 23 inches across, or between 44-45 inches around. Shoulders are measured across the back from point to point. This can vary between makers and styles, but it can't be altered, so know what fits.A little variance is ok here. For example, I can wear anything from 18-19 inches in the shoulder. Length is usually listed as Short, Regular, and Long. While there is no hard rule about these lengths, I generally consider a "regular" to be about 31 inches from the bottom of the collar to the hem of the coat, short to be about 30, and long to be about 32. Again, the terms are subjective, but the numbers are not. Sleeve length is measured from shoulder to cuff, and sometimes a waist measurement will be given by measuring across the closed buttoning  point. These can be helpful, but remember too that sleeve length and side seams are easily altered. A good seller will list how much cloth there is to accommodate these alterations, or at least be able to tell you should you ask.

Trousers
Trousers are easier, with the most important measurement of course being at the waist. This is measured much the same way as the chest of a jacket, across the waistband, doubled, with room to move. For example, what I would consider a 36 waist would actually measure about 37 inches. Length is measured from the crotch to the hem down the seam. This is easily alterable in most cases and a good seller will tell how much extra cloth there is to make adjustments. If you're looking for trim or fuller cut trousers, it's helpful to know the leg opening and thigh measurement. A leg opening between 9 and 10 inches is fairly classic, with 8 inches being trim. 13-14 inches at the thigh is classic, less would be considered trim cut. If you like a trimmer look, trousers can often be tapered in a bit, but you'll need a good tailor, not just the local dry cleaner. Remember that honesty with oneself is important. You may like to say you wear a 34 waist when you really need 36. Vanity is a funny thing. It should motivate you to wear clothes that look good rather than squeeze into uncomfortable clothing that's too tight.

These things are not only helpful in the world of online shopping, but also in the physical realm. Take a measuring tape with you to the thrift store and ignore tagged sizing. If you see something you like, measure it and see how close it comes to the measurements taken from a well fitting garment you already have. With experience, you'll begin to see the relativity in tagged sizing. I personally own and wear trousers sized from 34 to 38 inches, and jackets ranging from 40 to 44 in tagged sizes, and yet they all fit. Know measurements, not your "sizes".

p.s. A Note on Blog Posts

You may have noticed that posting here has become less frequent, lately only happening once a week, usually on Saturday. As some of you may know, I have taken a writing job with the style blog at ehow.com. This job, paired with the running of both my online and brick and mortar shop, has made it difficult to keep posting here as frequently as I would like. Going forward, I will be working out a more regular posting schedule for the blog, likely twice a week. Until then keep checking in and bear with me. I truly appreciate your readership and will continue to offer the kind of content you've come to expect. Thank you.

30 August 2014

#Menswear 1970

Lately I've been catching up on all the old movies I'm supposed to have seen but actually haven't. Last night  it was Five Easy Pieces. An excellent movie to be sure, but since this is a clothing blog, I'm going to focus on vintage 1970 menswear style via Jack Nicholson's character Bobby Dupea. Amazingly, he manages to wear an excellent and stylish example of nearly every #menswear trend popular today. Times may change, but #menswear, or what was then called menswear, doesn't.
We have the Well Curated Authentic Heritage Americana #workwear thing nailed down tight. Red Wing boots, selvage denim, American made heavy flannel shirts, it's all there. The only difference between 1970 and today is that this character works on a oil rig in California, as opposed to a tech office in a converted Bushwick warehouse loft with a Foosball table and a place to take a nap during business hours.
We have the #ivy #preppy thing to the hilt when he puts on a tweed suit with a natural shoulder, 3/2 roll, two button cuff, and flat front pants. His #ocbd has an epic collar roll and pairs perfectly with a knit tie. The only difference between 1970 and today is this character comes from old money, and as such learned how to dress this way from a source other than the internet.
An excellent dose of New England casual is served up in the form of a turtleneck and brown corduroy jacket, again with natural shoulder, 3/2 roll, and two button cuff, worn with selvage denim. The only difference between 1970 and today is that his jeans appear to be washed when they get dirty.
And bonus points for the maroon satin jacket with knit collar and cuffs, worn in the iconic "Chicken salad sandwich hold the chicken" scene. The only difference between 1970 and today is nobody called this jacket #streetwear.
We even get a whiff of pretensious #menswear style in the form of Bobby's brother Carl. The only difference between 1970 and today is that apparently being an ascot wearing snoot got you a broken neck, rather than fame and accolades as a leading #igent.

Also, back then people only used words that were in the dictionary, and the "hashtag" was known as a "number sign".

23 August 2014

The Virtues of Perseverance

Back in the 90s, my Dad had a subscription to GQ. This was in the end days of GQ being a publication for professional men interested in adult topics, rather than a pop rag full of twenty somethings in clothes that don't fit. I read it back then, and even though I may hate to admit being influenced by a magazine, I was. All those now famous Polo ads from the heyday were there, and the clothing photo spreads featured some pretty great stuff. Sure, the models were young, athletic, and handsome, but the clothes fit properly and it was obvious that the demographic was grown ups.

I'd see an outfit like the one pictured above. The model would probably be photographed descending a flight on stone steps on the front of an old official looking building, briefcase in one hand while checking his watch or hailing a cab. Or maybe he'd be in the park buying a hot dog from a street vendor while an attractive young lady in a business suit admired him from behind a newspaper. The caption would read something like this:

Dashing and simple, you can't go wrong with a good grey suit and blue striped shirt. Suit by Polo Ralph Lauren, $1295; shirt by Brooks Brothers, $149; tie by Robert Talbott, $125; belt by Coach; shoes by W.S.Foster and Sons.

I lusted after those things then, and I did my best in my teenage way to fake it with bargains and thrift shop purchases. In retrospect I missed the mark by a mile, but I was a kid and still just learning. I stuck with it, kept what was good and discarded the rest, in terms of both clothing and knowledge.  All these years later, I finally have the Polo suit, the Brooks Brothers shirt, and the Robert Talbott tie, albeit for a lot less money. I sometimes buy hot dogs from a street vendor, though I'm not sure how many attractive young ladies in business suits are admiring from behind a newspaper.

Perseverance is a virtue.


21 August 2014

The Jams



In Boston, we are fortunate enough to have excellent jazz programming on the radio every day from 5:00 am until 1:00 pm, thanks to Harvard's radio station WHRB. It may be hopelessly old fashioned, but that's still how I find out about a lot of the music I eventually come to love. I hear new things on the radio, write down the names and seek them out. Add to that my late-to-the-party discovery of discogs.com and we have a potentially dangerous situation. Most recently I discovered the album "Puttin' It Together" by the Elvin Jones trio, currently on it's way to the house. "Sweet Little Maia" is from that album. Besides being a mega-jam, this performance serves a triumvirate of style lessons, hence making it loosely appropriate for a clothing blog.

Elvin Jones, the groups leader and drummer, keeps things simple and classy in a plain tuxedo, not unlike what he often wore during his six year stint with the massively influential John Coltrane Quartet. The tie tucked under the shirt collar may be a dated, and the barrel cuffs on what appear to be a normal white shirt rather than a pleated formal one remind of that old style casual black tie that we lost sight of in the last forty years. Despite how you might feel about these inconsequential transgressions, playing the drums as well as Elvin does kind of gives you a pass.

Jimmy Garrison, also late of the John Coltrane Quartet, shows us that maybe, just maybe, there are situations in which a Nehru jacket and turtleneck can be not only acceptable, but downright cool. Those situations include being Jimmy Garrison and performing jaw dropping bass solos in 1968. Don' try it at home.

Joe Farrell presents a style anomaly. His look is very high school chemistry teacher, and I can almost feel the thickness of his polyester through the screen. But he proves that just because you're a badly dressed white guy playing a soprano sax doesn't necessarily mean you're painfully lame. This of course flies in the face of Kenny G.'s entire musical career.

Can't wait for this record to arrive. Once it does, I can almost guarantee that it will be in regular rotation on the turntable at the AAW Shop. Drop by some Saturday if you want to give it a listen.

16 August 2014

New Old Boston : A Visit to Bully Boy Distillers

Bottles of Bully Boy "Boston Rum" being packaged at the distillery

Remarkably, for all the years I have spent in the business of selling booze, I had never been to a brewery, winery, or distillery. Just the other day I decided to change that with a visit to Boston's own Bully Boy Distillers. Hidden away in a nondescript aluminum garage, across the street from the back side of an elementary school no less, I may never have even found the place if it weren't for the  fact that the weather was warm and one of the doors was partially open, and I could see a stack of oak liquor barrels inside.

I've been familiar with Bully Boy spirits these last few years they've been on the market, selling them in the store. Initially only white spirits were available, as the "brown goods" as we call them take some time to age. I knew they were small and local and the liquor was good, so I was happy to recommend them. A few years later when a dark "Boston Rum" and an aged "American Straight Whiskey" hit the scene, I was hooked, being more of a brown goods guy myself. 
To call them "small batch" almost doesn't describe it. This place is tiny. A two door garage, divided into two rooms. On the right, a tasting bar, office, bottling and packaging line, and the still itself fill one room. 
In the other room, barrels of whiskey and rum line both walls, stacked to the ceiling. Large plastic fermenting tanks take up the center of the room, along with tanks of molasses and pallets of grain. In the foreground of this shot, a tank of molasses undergoes initial fermentation on its way to becoming rum, while another tank holds a fermenting "mash" of 45% corn, 45% rye, and 10% wheat that will become whiskey. It's a tight squeeze, but brothers Will and Dave Willis obviously run a clean, tight ship.
It all gets distilled in tiny batches on a German made copper still. Running the still for an entire day, Will tells me, yields only a few gallons of raw liquor. That's something to think about when considering the price of a good bottle.

Bully Boy's story is a good one, and as I speak with co-owner Will Willis his passion not only for craft distilling, but also for history, and the city of Boston, is clear. Will tell's me that Bully Boy started with an interest to bring back Boston's long lost but storied distilling tradition. He and his brother Dave grew up on a farm in Massachusetts, where they discovered an old family vault containing a rare collection of old liquor bottles, all locked up there apparently as a secret stash during prohibition. The name "Bully Boy" was the name of a favorite horse of his Grandfather's, and references not only Teddy Roosevelt, but also the old Bully Boys of Boston, the hard working folks who did the dirty work for Boston blue blood "Brahmin" society. The brothers take their cues form these old bottles, and offer a set of spirits that have a fun nod to history and an inherent "Boston"-ness about them, while still remaining unique and somewhat modern. All of this is offered at a very fair price at retail, no easy feat.
Old bottles found in vault at the farm. "Cow Whiskey"?!? Bully Boy used these as inspiration for the design of their own labels.


The white spirits all retail for roughly $30 per bottle, and are clean, direct expressions of their ingredients and the brothers attention to quality. The vodka is clean and bright, despite having been distilled only once rather than the multiple times common these days, proof you can get it right on the first try. The white rum has a glycerin texture and just the right sweetness without being heavy, great with tonic and lime. The white whiskey is perhaps similar to the vodka, but has more of a biscuit bread note to it. I've actually had it in a margarita in place of tequila and it was quite good.

The brown spirits are a whiff more expensive, but still quite reasonable at around $35. Their American Whiskey qualifies as neither Bourbon nor Rye, being only 45% corn and 45% rye, shy of the 51% of either of those needed to bear the names. As such, it bears some of the better attributes of both: the sweetness of bourbon tempered with the spicy qualities of rye. It's got plenty of flavor, and a good bit of chew, yet it's light on it's feet and mellow at 84 proof. Great as a sipper, I also like it mixed with lemon juice and club soda, garnished with peach slices.  "Boston Rum", the same initial distillate as the white rum, finishes it's aging in the charred whiskey barrels once the whiskey leaves them. It's dark amber in color, rich and chewy, and being made from molasses really hearkens back perhaps more than any of their other products to Boston's old liquor history. We are a port town, after all, and sailors love rum. Sip this one in a snifter or try it on the rocks with muddled lime and sugar.

You won't find Bully Boy far from Boston, at least not yet. If you're a local and you haven't tried it, get out there and do it. Any good bar in town stocks it by now. If you're visiting Boston, do yourself a favor and take some home. It makes a way better souvenir than a Red Sox t-shirt made in china that you can get anywhere. Bully Boy distillers is a real taste of the New Old Boston.

15 August 2014

AAW on WGBH

Amanda Kersey of WGBH, Boston public radio/tv/news source, kindly visited the AAW Shop a couple of weeks ago. A few days later, she tagged along on a "hunting trip" with me, where I did a lot of pontificating from the drivers seat. The result is this nice piece at the WGBH website. Thanks, Amanda. It was fun working with you.