Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Trad-Ivy Tuesday: Nuanced Authenticity

I’m amazed that with the attention span of a gnat, I developed early-on an eye for nuance. Nuanced Authenticity…yep…I think that’s what I’m gonna try to speak to in this story. Nuanced authenticity defined as operationalizing a set of standards but not necessarily being so rule-bound that the dogma ain’t flexible.
Flexibility within the standard allows I suppose; a degree of Trad-WASP sprezzatura. Not that the Trad-WASP tribe would ever seek sprezzatura on purpose. If ever there was a club that would, if you could even get them to admit it, argue that insouciance is an outcome, not an objective, it would be the stereotypical Trad-WASP gang who drank cheap Scotch, drove beat up cars from Detroit and wore their clothes to death. Sprezzatura says prosciutto and melon when you stop by. Trad-Wasp insouciance says a box of Triscuits and some kinda cheese spread. 
And I did have at eighteen years old an eye for nuance and authenticity or at least what I thought it to be. Nuanced authenticity is perhaps true in other genres too. As I type this, suddenly I’m convinced of it. Authentic horse-farm people…you know; the ones you see at the Safeway in Middleburg with hay and shit on their muck boots can spot a poseur a mile away. I reckon the working cowboys out west can suss-out the drug store cowpoke faker in a heartbeat too.
Singleton’s, the Trad mother church where I became fully addicted to all of whatever this Trad-Classic-Ivy stuff is, opened its doors in 1927 and it was through those same doors that I strode with my father when I was old enough to go places without soiling myself. Men of his generation didn’t change diapers. By the time I began working there, the store’s patina was legendary. At least it was in my mind. The shelving and cases had been updated in 1947 when the owner, Harold Creel bought the place from Clyde Singleton after he returned for the War. And I kept those shelves and cases spic-and-span. If you’ve ever been in J.Press Cambridge then you’ve entered Singleton’s. Of all the rag joints I’ve been in here and in England, it’s the closest thing to my mind’s eye recollection of my hometown store—if you reduce the square footage by half.
I wish that I could find some photos of Singleton’s but they are just not, yet at least, to be found. The best I could do, given that even I no longer own one stitch of anything with a Singleton’s label, was to beg my buddy Marvin Woodrow to check his dad’s closet back home to see if there was any Singleton’s signage therein. And he came up with two private label neckties and photographed them for me. I immediately knew the maker of the ties. It was a, shall we say, a maker of the more popularly priced goods and the salesman was the son of the owner. I’ll leave it there for now because it’s an entire story with legs all its own.
I lived a happy and provincial life in Florence and by the time I was old enough to get clothes crazy and large enough to buy mens sizes, Singleton’s was all that anyone my age would need. Especially if one’s provincial existence to-date precluded ever setting foot in New York, Boston or other cities that could have broadened my awareness of the proverbial next level of Trad kit.
Keep in mind that when I was eighteen years old, Brooks Brothers didn’t exist in malls. They remained exclusively in about a half dozen cities in the States. It would be another two years when I attended a Kappa Alpha national conference in Atlanta that my maiden walk through the doors of the Brethren would manifest courtesy of the old Peachtree Street store. My stomach was turning when I walked in the door. The Peachtree Road Brethren Patina made my Singleton’s 1947 shelving veneer seem twee and chrome and Blue Light Special-ish. And it would be two more years before I’d make it to New York to experience Brethren Mecca at 346 and its Trad-ier counterpart around the corner, the old J.Press location.
 I regret very little in life but I do lament missing Chipp, who was across the street from the old J.Press store. Something tells me that of all these shrines, Chipp mighta been my go-to store.
So with innocently limited context that kept my aperture narrow, Singleton’s offered me everything I needed to develop my lens and filters for Trad Authenticity. The Singleton’s line-up included Gant, Pendleton, McGregor, Allen Solly, Corbin, Haspel, Hart-Schaffner and Marx, Berle, Sero, the old Haas Tailoring company in Baltimore for made-to-measure. Singleton’s sold private label stuff from various makers including that hot bed of lower end makers down in Bremen Georgia where for years, Murray’s Toggery had their Nantucket Brick Reds cut and sewn. When you are eighteen years old and have never been anywhere, the aforementioned baseline for becoming a natural fibered soft shouldered devotee was a gracious plenty.

But then I began to notice little things. Differences. Things that didn’t shout or even whisper. They didn’t have to. They just were. Different. Florence had a gaggle of lawyers and doctors and another smattering of professionals who all shopped at Singleton’s and I delivered, usually within walking distance, new clothes and altered older clothes to every law office and county courthouse chambers we had. And I can still name the only few at that time, lawyers who went to either an Ivy undergrad or an Ivy law school. And I bet I can name the half dozen kids, either my age or slightly older who went to prep schools…mostly Woodberry Forest. And it was from this little subset, as well as one other customer, LLH, a finance company executive who looked like he was going to die of a freaking stroke any minute, that I noticed two nuances especially, that told me there was another...a subtly different sartorial level…another Trad realm.

I noticed these particular two nuances either in situ on these customers or in the clothes they would bring by for some little alteration…a seam repair, take-in or let-out or in some cases with the tightest of penny pinchers, a hail mary final go at piecing together clothing that shoulda been given to Goodwill. It became obvious to me that even though these customers bought a good portion of their clothes at Singleton’s, they also shopped elsewhere. Their custom included places that in my mind were probably even more authentic than Singleton’s. And I wanted some of it. If I’d seen the old style Brooks Brothers artist illustrated catalogues, I’d have been on the way to sorting it all out but I hadn’t and the other thing I began to suspect  was that there was another level of Trad WASP-dom to which I did not belong.
I noticed Dr. Ed Mc_ _ _ one day in the store with a shirt pocket like the one above. My radar immediately told me that it wasn’t Gant. My line-up of all cotton button down oxford cloth standards were one-hundred percent Gant and the pockets weren't rounded like that. But Gant at twenty bucks a go and at half of that to me, courtesy of Mr. Creel’s benevolence, I was just fine. Until I saw that pocket. These people drank from other sartorial oases  from time to time. And I wanted a sip.
The squared-angled shape of my Gant shirt pockets said Florence and public schools and family travel exclusive of airplanes. It said our old wood framed un-airconditioned second row beach house at Ocean Drive instead of the coat and tie dining rooms at Sea Island, Jekyll or Ponte Vedra…places I wouldn’t frequent till I was thirty years old.
But the one that really got me was this. An olive gabardine suit and a tan poplin one that lawyer Boone A_ _ _ _, III would wear as he jauntily cut through the store, tattered manila portfolio in hand, headed to the courthouse. What was it with those seams? And that quirky, hooked vent? Our Haspel goods, probably the most authentic Trad product in our shop, didn’t have this additional level of what looked to me to be the needle and thread equivalent to industrial strength riveting. All I knew is that I wanted something like that and I didn't even know what the hell it was or why I wanted it. Was it flinging upon me a craving for strange ? It wasn’t that I was inauthentic and absent any and all nuanced personal style. I had some game. But I was again reminded that these people, even though they were for the most part, my people; really weren’t. These two little nuances…these mild provocations that inched open my world view only slightly more, told me to feel that way.
Onward. Hooked. But mostly double vented.



Anonymous said...

AS Phil Silvers once Van Nuys, Van Nuys Indeed.

I think I bought a couple of Chipp ties close to the end of their regular run, but couldn't afford much more. A few years ago I actually called up there and got a guy who said he had the challis fabric over in a warehouse, but his price for making a pair of trousers was too long-distance for me. Mr Winston, I bleeve his name is. He is probably still around. But I have to give a big Plus One for that hooked vent. Especially over there in the Gabardine Proving Grounds.

Molto Graze for another Great Post

Mr Sprezzo, just back from Brooklin

Karena said...

This truly resounded with me. From a large family;I started saving my babysitting money at an early age. It was for clothes and so frequented a little boutique not far from home.

The died to match wool skirts and sweaters, the details. I was also the first of my friends to add Brooks Brothers Ladies to my wardrobe.

It IS the small details. I just found a lovely end of summer dress lined beautifully, the fabric a lush silk with a gorgeous hand. Hidden zipper.It was designed to flow just perfectly! Ahhh...

I have been remiss ADG, the perfect post to return!

Art by Karena
2012 Artist Series

The Leopard said...

Another evocative post, it reminds of John O'Hara's style (also a BB devotee). I think I would have titled this piece "The Journey,a treatise on style evolution". I envy your ability to integrate the nuances of style into a personal narrative, keep up the good work.

garden and gun said...

Great Post...can I relate..
I left my job in a small trad men's dept. in one of the finest family owned dept. stores in Upstate SC for a job as a furnishings salesman at Brooks, 134 P'tree St, tne old Rhodes Haverty Bldg., next door to C&S Bank down the street from Dunkin D'nuts in 1976, what an experience. I'll never forget how I felt and how the store smelled the first time I entered that hallowed ground...but like you said that story in itself has legs....thanks for reminding me. It was different and was a great education in all things trad!!

ADG said...

GunGardener...I was there a bit later than 1976 but I bought a shirt...my first Brooks purchase, from a furnishings sales guy whose patina matched the stores. "C&S Bank"...that in an of itself is a talisman of a time long gone in the South.

Leopard...I'm gonna do a John O'Hara BB post soon.