John Chauvin, Stephen Visser, and union-man Joe Schiavone all worked on the 20+ member strong Visual Merchandising team at Filene’s downtown flagship store in the 80’s. I joined the men’s styling squad there while still in art school. Those guys taught me to rig a men’s bust-form. Pull the suit first, select the shirt to compliment the suit, and choose the tie (the item available in the widest variety) to link the two previous items together through color as well texture and luster.
I used to love the last moment of a rig. Sliding the tie-knot up under the collar spread. To get to that point you had to select the combination, spot-clean the bust-form, steam the suit three floors down in the alterations department, starch-iron the shirt and pin it to the form back in the studio. Joe Schiavone used over 30 pin positions on the shirt, but then again he was getting paid by the hour. That effort was only paid off at that last tie-sliding moment.
Years later at Timberland we obsessed about the idea of layering. When they team at Polo put a leather jacket under a wool duffle we were jealous of their inspiration. Within the extremely limited range of expressive motion in the world of rugged casual menswear, a move like that makes all the difference. I understand the concept of layering differently now. A mix of my rugged casual Timberland days, years in the men’s suit department at Filene’s and decades of unpaid people-watching which began when I was about 12.
For me now great expressive men’s style is about setting up the strata.
Strata isn’t a fashion term obviously. It comes from geology. Contrasting layers of color and/or textured material.
For me this way of looking at it clarifies layering’s real pay-off. These are the extremely compact zones of expression and styling attitude that are born of layering decisions but which deliver nearly limitless impact despite the restricted space in which they actually occur.
This way of looking at it also clarifies the legacy of Beau Brummel whose understanding of how to maximize the dramatic effect of an individual outfit’s strata zones always struck me as self-evident. For me it also explains how dandyism can be at once minimal as well as flamboyant. Flamboyance being compressed and enhanced by the pressure of menswear’s overriding minimalism and stylistic restraint such that it bursts through these small areas with even greater force. Like increasing the water pressure of a garden hose by holding your thumb over the nozzle, or pressurizing a lump of coal into a diamond.
A simple image-Google of the sartorial legend makes the point pretty clearly.
So today we continue to accept and even embrace the practical restraint of menswear silhouette as well as it’s more limited overall use of intense color, print, translucency, shine, movement and float. Attempts to break out of these restraints remain historical novelties while the traditional restrictions represent the immutable mens style norm.
And on the street you can see, or at least I fancy that I can see, the manipulation of mens strata yield endlessly diverse style attitudes. For the Beau it was a shirt, a brocade vest, a silk cravat, a jacket and frock coat. Today it might be Polo’s cleaver use of leather as a mid-layer or some kid’s impulse to layer three tee shirts over each other. Headphones replace neckwear and untucked undershirts and boxer-short waistbands replace waistcoats and watch-chains.
It really doesn’t matter what end of the menswear spectrum I’m looking at, when the strata’s been well managed it makes all the difference.
From the pages of Alice Cicolini’s The New English Dandy or the pages of August Sander’s Homme du XXe Siecle or the pages of any of Schiffer Publishing’s Military Uniform tomes, the effect can be easily researched. The dandy, the worker, the solider, and an infinite number of style tribes in-between set up the strata in their own way because the possibilities for utterly individual style are limitless despite its seemingly very limited physical parameters.
Considering the creation of personal style on these terms also reinforces for me what the wisest arbiters of individual taste have always said. It has absolutely nothing to to with money. Those ” …contrasting layers of color and/or textured material,” from the geology book gain even greater expressive momentum when their contrasts are spontaneous and eclectic and feature the hallmarks of both personal finesse and lighthearted experimentation. Menswear vintage, military surplus, heritage workwear, second-hand designer, and any other source are all within the rulebook. And it’s a sincere kick to try and break down how guys with great style are managing their strata and what highly nuanced cultural and sub-cultural signifiers they employ to pull their look together.
And it consider some of it’s historical DNA.