Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Trad Ivy Tuesday: Cabot Lodge, Jr. and Cotton Poplinosity


I’ve already written rather extensively on the role of seersucker in my sartorial life and I gave Haspel their due in one of my New Orleans reports. But one of my lengthier posts on poplin was lost when my blog crashed and I accidentally deleted forever the first one hundred-plus stories that I’d ever written. The good news is that a loyal reader was able to send most of my stories back to me for re-posting. My poplin post wasn’t one that could be resurrected. Probably a good thing though. It was a gut wrencher of a story—NOT the poplin part—the parts about my two years in New Orleans and the circumstances regarding my departure. So it’s poplin proper time y’all.
Poplin…probably the only fabric in a Trad wardrobe where a hint of synthetic fiber in concert with cotton is acceptable. Why? Because one hundred percent cotton poplin shatters with wrinkles like spun sugar Hollywood prop glass. You look at it on a hanger from a hundred yards away and an instantaneous spider web of wrinkles cascades before your eyes. Don’t believe me? Go to J. Press and purchase the all-cotton poplin suit offered above. It will look like crumpled legal pad paper before you get out of the store with it. And it’s not the “guaranteed to wrinkle”… the desired and expected creased subsets of fabric topography shifts that are de rigueur with seersucker and linen. Wrinkled poplin is uglier and less desirable. Phyllis Diller for some reason comes to mind.
I love linen and my summer sportcoat line-up includes four of them. But linen is that anti-poplin and seersucker is poplin's cousin who attended slightly better schools. Linen is more elegant and less provincial than poplin and if you want the skinny on linen from someone who loves it more than me, go over and visit my best buddy Toad. He’s always tinkerin’ with flax but in the shot above, he's sporting poplin from Cable Car Clothiers. Oh, and my “poplin is provincial” bias pretty much gets debunked towards the end of this story.
 So the standard poplin suits of my earliest Trad years had just enough synthetic fiber content to play the wrinkle blunting Sargeant-at-Arms to the Grand Master Cotton. Brooks the Brethren of course, was the go-to source for the poplin suit color trifecta…tan, olive and navy blue. Brooks wasn’t in every shopping mall when I got my first poplin suits so mine came courtesy of the little Trad shop that I grew up in. And they were private label house brands made by a little factory in Georgia. That same factory by the way made for years, the Nantucket Brick Reds that the Murray family sold/sells in their Toggery shop. It always kinda cracked me up that this New England Yankee iconic trouser was made in Crackerland. And leave it to LFG's pal Alan Flusser to offer a snazzy alternative to the formulaic poplin with a button down collar edict. Here above is Flusser's rounded collar interpretation in tandem with the standard.
These mostly cotton utilitarian poplin things I reckon, came to light amidst the same utilitarian desperation that spawned seersucker and pincord suits. The pre-air conditioned South was beyond oppressive from late June till Labor Day and men had to find options for business attire that wouldn’t have them fainting from heat stroke. Folks, I grew up in the air conditioned version of that world and I can attest that the heat at its most humid peak, is nauseating. Nowadays of course, men just wear wife beater t-shirts and butt-crack winking shorts and rubber flip flops to work. I mean it’s all about comfort, right?
And poplin suits at least to me, seemed more utilitarian and less stylish than seersucker. In an “it’s ok neighbor, we are all just trying to trudge through the dog-days intact” kinda way. Seersucker, even before you segregate it into style centric categories of single or double breasted options, has more syncopated swagger just lounging there as a bolt of cloth. The alternating colors and the warp-weft deliberate looseness that creates its seersuckling piccolo washboard of texture is gonna dictate more √©lan than poplin from the get-damn-go. Seersucker begs seven additional minutes of thought about whether to wear white bucks, spectators or some other shoe. Poplin says “either put your damn Weejuns or your Alden Tassels on and let’s get this over with.” Seersucker says “top me off with a Panama”. Poplin says “you might wanna grab an extra cotton hanky…not for show…but for brow wiping.” Shut up.
So the poplin suit ain’t steerage but it knows better than to show up on the upper decks, even as an employee. TinTang over at the Trad mentioned showing up for work one hot London summer day at Lloyds in some heat forgiving cotton suit and was at once interrogated about whether he was going on Safari that day. I can’t remember but they might have sent him home to change. Bottom line is that a poplin suit has its place and its limits. Fancy styling options? Not so much. Bespoke? Why in the world would you do that unless you had more money than sense?
 So what about styling? The construct and options for poplin is about as basic as the fabric itself. Three button sack—hook center vent—flat front trousers…hemmed with no break. A slight puddle of extra linen cloth on trousers a bit too long might be forgiven till you can get back to the tailor for a tune up. Poplin trousers with a break…poplin gathered in non-puddling, poly-cotton accordion-osity can’t be allowed out of the house. And…No ticket pocket no open breast pocket no double breasted nonsense. Get it? The Brooks interpretation did have patch and flap lower pockets but that's about it-styling nuance-wise. Remember the objective here. We are trying to avoid heat stroke, not win a preening contest. I’m all about having at least a white cotton handkerchief in my breast pocket. But a poplin suit seems to be an exception to even this basic sartorial rule. Poplin…the anti-fuzzy. And thanks to my buddy over at Heavy Tweed Jacket for the image above  that I stole from his site without permission.
 I wore the hell out of my tan and olive poplin suits when I was a sales rep in the Carolinas during my mid-twenties. I’m not sure what happened to them but by the time I moved north and worked indoors all day, they were absent my closet. I had plenty of lightweight tropical wools and as always, one seersucker suit, but no poplin. And it seems that my olive poplin suit was always rigged with an Argyle and Sutherland rep tie and a blue button down. I rarely wear button down shirts with suits but anything but the OCBD classic with poplin seems wrong.
And then I moved to New Orleans. Oy. I grew up in the South but had never set foot there. I agreed to a two-year assignment that would have me visiting state agencies and legislatures and legislators and advocacy groups and spending more time in and out of places than sitting in just one. All of that previous shit is code for being a lobbyist and shill for big pharma. Kinda of a Daumier version of Robert Macaire or a "reverse Ratapoil." I was fairly streetwise before rolling into New Orleans but nothing…and I mean nothing…prepares one for doing THAT kind of work in THAT kind of city and state and in THAT kind of heat. I think I’ve mentioned before that it was time to leave my thirteen year career after this assignment. I couldn’t shower long enough or often enough to rinse off the smarm.
But until the smarm calculi became unbearable I shilled. In poplin. It was May and things were already uncomfortably warm and sticky humid. I commented to an office worker who had been there all her life that even in our plush, hyper air-conditioned office, everything seemed “wet.” I’d pick up a memo or a report and it seemed limp like overcooked pasta. She just laughed.
By this time my Flusser bespoke habit was well in place but I couldn’t wear even my lightest weight tropical wool suitings. There was a Joseph A. Banks on St. Charles Avenue and over there I went. This was by the way, before Banks lost their way…before they became the Men’s Wearhouse…back when a reasonable but declining argument could be made that they were the “poor man’s Brethren.” I hadn’t yet discovered Perlis and I was in one of those “any port in a storm” predicaments so Banks set me up with one tan and one olive poplin suit. These two options that became my uniforms for that summer and the next one. Trad icons, yes. Fuzzy style preening platforms? Nope. Not poplin. Plus, the last guy who preened excessively in the Baton Rouge Capitol building got shot.
So what motivated a poplin post? Unequivocally I can say that the young man above, one Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was the catalyst. Obviously not the exact photo above but I’ll start with it because it speaks volumes of an era and a man who like all of his ilk…cared about what they wore and how they looked. But not too much. Point collar. Pinned thru and anchoring a woven, grenadine maybe? …tie. Strong. Lodge passes typical WASP Ascendancy muster including a St. Albans and Harvard legacy, World War II distinction as well as a long history of public service. The only tweak I'd have made to this WASP's ensemble would be to tuck that white breast pocket linen in just a bit more.
I’m not interested enough to learn too much more about Lodge Jr.’s one-year stint as JFK’s Ambassador to South Vietnam but I can speculate that it might not have been his easiest year. I will at some point, enjoy listening to Lodge Jr.'s firsthand account of  his South Vietnam tenure over here at the WGBH Media Archives.
What I will say is this. The man sported one hell of a poplin suit while glad-handing those who might overthrow the corrupt puppet leader and while reconnoitering the local terrain. I suspect that Lodge Jr. probably felt that there were days during this year-long assignment when he couldn’t rinse away the taint of South Vietnam instability and corruption. Puppet leaders and protracted instability post Lodge Jr.’s one year visit didn’t seal South Vietnam’s fate but it didn’t help it. But I digress to more world changing topics. Let's get back to the superficial. If duende could ever manifest in poplin, this would be exhibit one at the Duende Poplin Possibilities Trial. Open patch pockets all the way round. 
Sleeve linen showing just so. Trousers hemmed short but not Thom Browne child molester short. High middle button stance vectors the three-two roll. Trousers appropriately covering a middle age paunch but in no way tries to hide it. Those may not be Belgian shoes but damn they look close. The swagger here says "South Vietnam is headed down the shitter and I've got a paunch. Wanna make something of it?" This is poplinessence all to be damned.
So do you think he had this one made in Hong Kong or back home by some east coast purveryor? Three-two roll. Open patch pockets. It’s way too Yankee for me to assume that anyone on Savile Row would acquiesce to such requests. And it defies the formulaic edicts of Brooks, Chipp and J. Press poplin. It says "Where I'm headed is hot in more ways than one." It says that "Even though these straw man scenarios and puppet leader whatevers are gonna test me, I'm at least gonna have trace elements of style amidst the drudgery."  Style he had. And I like it.
Finally, this is off the poplin topic grid but Happy Birthday two days ago to George Frazier. Happy Birthday to the man who won the Bowdoin Prize courtesy of an all-nighter at the typewriter. Happy Birthday to the man who wrote scorching, edgy stuff for Downbeat Magazine when he was in his mid-twenties. Stuff that smacks of what Rolling Stone editors would have lapped up like catnip if they’d existed in the 1930’s. Happy Birthday to the man who wrote Esquire’s epic treatise… The Art of Wearing Clothes…a treatise on men, some of  whom most probably wore poplin when appropriate and who cared about how they looked. But not too much.
Onward. Sans poplin and will probably remain so. Because I don’t wear suits very often and you never wear poplin as a sport coat. And five gets ten that Frazier never wore poplin of any ilk. Maybe shorts on Nantucket. Maybe.

ADG II
 And speaking of puppets.

16 comments:

Mink80 said...

ADG:

Once again, you nail it. Off to the office every dang day in the summer in my Haspel poplin...navy, olive, khaki and stone. Throw in my one blue pincord and a seersucker on Friday, and you have my daily roll. Alden tassels. An insouciant bow. Your local boutique business banker. I look forward to going to the summer stuff starting about April 20th...and by Labor Day I am happy to be back in the tropical weight wool and Church's cap toes.

Anonymous said...

Never as a sport coat? How 'bout tan poplin jacket w/ patch pockets paired with charcoal grey trousers? Classic....ever venture in Terry and Juden on Carondelet St. during your tenure in NOLA?

ADG said...

Mink80...I reckon I could have created a one paragraph post that simply said..."If you live in hot/humid places, poplin is your best friend." But the Lodge Jr. photo from Life just got me going. Your uniform and mine were identical back when I was slogging around the Carolinas in the eighties...when the temps were often in the hundreds.

Anon...No can do re the tan coat charcoal gray thang. But that's just me. I think Terry and Juden mighta been gone by the time I rolled in to the Easy.,

Pigtown*Design said...

I can attest to Mink80's sartorial qualities. He's very sharp.

The Leopard said...

Living in south Texas, I still wear tan polin suits in the summer, down here you either wear light weight clothes or suffer the consequences. However I agree with you that they lack the panache of seersucker, there's just something about that fabric, I don't know if it's the subtle gentility or what it's just downright ennobling. But you're right poplin is more of the workhorse, it makes people less nervous than if you walk in to their office in all of your seersucker splendor, so polin stays in the game.Changing tracks is anyone going to mention Ambassador Lodge's white socks? talk about the elephant in the room. Great post.

Anonymous said...

A rather clever blog said of Lodge & this suit & photo: "Here he is on the cover of the magazine, teaching us a lesson about fit, if we ever needed one. And that is, stop wearing your suits as soon as you become larger than they are." (http://asuitablewardrobe.dynend.com/search?q=Lodge)

Anonymous said...

ADG,

I noticed the white socks Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was wearing with his green poplin suit in the photographs. They looked like silk. What do you think of his socks ? including the color with that suit ?

Regards,

SM

Anonymous said...

I think a tan cotton spote coat would be OK, were it in some kind of twill or canvas and you planned to wear it with jeans and/or corduroys, maybe even moleskins- in that time of the year when wool tweed is too much and poplin (or linen or seersucker) is not yet ripe. Or in that delicious time when it looks like Fall, but it definitely doesn't feel like wool.

The problem is, the temptation to invert the ancient and honourable navy blazer and khakis only makes you look like you are standing on your head. Or worse.


But right now, just about anywhere, it is poplin time, y'all.

Honi Soit, &c,

Leonard "Pop Len" Cambric-Nott,
Sodden -below- Thames
Herts.

PA2Florida said...

Great timing... I ordered "4" J.Press Polin suits when they went 30% off last month, at the tailors now... Glad to know I am going to look like wrinkled legal paper...

Mink80 said...

Thanks MFF!!

heavy tweed jacket said...

Maxmaximus, Feel free to borrow from HTJ. Who made ole' Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.'s suits? I have only two poplin suits these days, an olive and a navy one. I just don't wear poplin as much as I did 20-25 years ago. Great post.

ADG said...

Heavy Tweedmon...Thanks. And I'm still on the case re who made his togs.

PA2Florida...that paragraph was one big ass pile of hyperbole. You'll look just fine.

LenCambricNottmon...inverted navy blazer thang. Can't now get that out of my head.

Leopard...I'm with you re poplin. Now on to the topic of Lodge's white socks. I bet he wouldn't wear those socks or shoes back in the Boston area. Methinks it was a Saigon One Off Thang. (Sounds like a drink you'd get on a cruise ship)

MegTown...Do you know everyone in Smalltimore? I can't come back up. They've banned me.

ADG said...

OH...and Anon A Suitable Wardrobe Lodge Post...I couldn't disagree more. I have great respect for Will and I enjoy buying things from A Suitable Wardrobe but I think Will is dead wrong on this one.

It's a matter of personal style and it's a matter of opinion. In this case, mine.

gentleman mac said...

What is the best blend, then, of cotton and poly for this?

ADG said...

GentlemanMac...there usually isn't an option .... re..."Brooks is 75/25 and Cable Car is 65/35 , therefore let me shop around" etc. It's always preponderantly cotton with a 25ish, maybe, splash/twist of the petroleum derivatives.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful NYT article today that I thought you might enjoy. "Living In The Past":

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/15/arts/design/living-in-the-past-is-a-full-time-gig.html

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