Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Because we’re all worth it…

Some years ago, we were on holiday with our Swiss friends in eastern Switzerland. Alfred decided he wanted to see inside a particularly venerable old hotel in the area, so when we passed it one day, he strode up to the reception desk and asked to have a look around. Even though none of us was remotely dressed for such a venue and clearly had no intention of checking in, we got our (unsupervised) look round, no obligation expected. Indeed, I sensed pride at this evidence of the hotel’s reputation. It is social fearlessness like this and other similar incidents, that gradually made me conclude that the Swiss are relatively unencumbered by the kind of class consciousness that might prevent many Britons from doing similarly in their own country. But then, Switzerland was founded precisely on the democratic rejection of its medieval overlords, and they seem to have kept the faith ever since…

The interesting thing about the Swiss is that despite their nation’s wealth, they mostly do not ‘do’ social showing off. Their shops abound with high quality products – even their bargain stores rarely sell complete rubbish – and yet it is hard to detect much social snobbery. (As I was told by a Swiss, “flashy” in that country is only done by expat incomers). Buying things is not widely seen as a form of recreation or statement – but when it happens, quality is to the fore. This does not seem to be regarded as the preserve of the wealthy, rather something that is just normal. Most people seem to live unostentatiously, but they still expect high quality homes, clothes, food, and services, and seem unselfconscious in their patronage of prestigious brands. “Because I’m worth it” does not have the narcissistic overtones that it does in Britain: maybe L’Oréal misjudged its message here? Compared with British consumers, the Swiss seem very considered; restrained, if quite demanding – and in control of their own behaviour.

I have seen similar elsewhere too – and I concluded, not for the first time, that it is the British who are the outliers. Somewhere, in their eagerness to consume voraciously there lies a hint of servility or guilt, as if we can only define ourselves by how much we buy. While many continental countries excel at producing high-quality commodities – with prices to match – what seems relatively absent is the idea that one is buying social status, rather than just a very good product. Whether it is an effect of their republicanism, or a lasting memory of the troubles wrought over the centuries by their elites, it seems to me that many continental nations have shed much of the class consciousness that many Britons still accept as a fact of life – that is, when they are not failing to notice it at all. It is not studied over-compensation that makes the point (which would in any case defeat it); it is just not there in any strength in the first place.

Politically-correct modern Britain, of course, denies such weakness – but a recent poll of my late-teenage students revealed that even as they claimed to be “unintimidated” by posh accents, they knew precisely what I was talking about, and perceived those who had them as “not like us”. Social class is not only a hangover preoccupation of the aristocracy – those on the other rungs still know their place just as well…

I strongly dislike this: it seems incompatible with the principles of modern democratic life which should emancipate people to be themselves – and depresses the expectations that many appear to have of their own lives. Hence the widespread tolerance of low standards and the mass-market blandness that allows producers to cut corners in pursuit of excess profit. Conversely, the attention given to conspicuous wealth feeds the status anxiety that defeats the liberating objective of genuinely good living.

As with all these matters, finding convincing explanations is difficult – but I suspect the “not for the likes of us” mindset (which is also permanently primed to snipe at anyone who disagrees) really is a legacy of enduring social polarisation, a highly uneven distribution of wealth, and perhaps a state education system that does not place enough emphasis on the non-utilitarian aspects of its purpose. We might also throw in for good measure an echo of a puritan past, an instinctive self-denying philistinism, and a climate that hardy cultivates the sensuous side of our nature. We just don’t do La Dolce Vita

So, it seems this nation is no closer to democratising its quality of life than ever. We seem utterly unable to dissociate high quality from social elitism, let alone to realise that the best way to disarm it is to refuse to be excluded by it. The masses have been encouraged to focus on the false economy of buying cheap and often (but not so cheerful), by an overly strong retail sector on which the nation’s economy is heavily dependent. Those who do take notice seem more concerned with joining in the showing-off than disarming it, encouraged (staple-gun in hand) by the battery of aspirational makeover shows on TV. But for all the national emphasis on acquiring money and prestige, there seems to be precious little collective idea what productively to do with it once one has it. Meanwhile, the real elite is left to browse the boutiques of Chelsea in peace…

The objection of expense is often raised, but this too this is something of a red herring created by flawed basic assumptions – in particular, that Quantity is important. It fails to see that buying less but better is more satisfying, and you can sometimes substitute piles of cash with thought and effort. This is surely a lesson we all need to learn, if only for the sake of the environment. 

I am mindful, though, of those for whom the only ‘choice’ available is between anything and nothing; it cannot be easy to exercise higher judgment when you are holding down three zero-hours jobs just to put food on the table. But even here, the general pressure towards conspicuous consumption can hardly help, while making different choices possible – for example by ensuring universal access to fresh rather than over-priced ‘convenience’ food must surely help. The potential gains are probably bigger at this end of society than for those who already live in the lap of luxury. For me, discernment is about thought, education and autonomy, not money – but for all the talk of good lifestyle choices, British society is still not good at helping people to make them.

A lesson from the pandemic might be that doing less but better does work. But I suspect that our conditioning is so complete, that even such rationality will struggle to overcome the blockages in many minds for why, as I have argued in the previous instalments, we too are worth it.

In the years since I could take my good mental health for granted, the things that can support a good quality of life have taken on a greater importance. It’s a tricky issue, and perhaps why many seem to duck it. It is probably dishonest to claim that our appreciation of a piece of fine cloth is only ever to do with its lustre and tactility, and never how it will make us look when we wear it. It is probably human nature to revel in our advantage and succumb to a little pampering. But I wonder whether the issue need be as convoluted as it often is in societies such as mine, that labours under the weight of centuries of ingrained social prejudice; perhaps others simply carry it more lightly.

So, to conclude this sequence of posts, here are some ideas to help combat that natural British sense of anxious self-deprecation, for which we then rush to overcompensate…

Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Parmesan?

Is there any difference between using cheddar cheese or parmesan with Italian food? It is hard to say no – though the reasons why are complex and may be seen as a matter of culture or pretension as well as practicality. ‘Authenticity’ might have something to do with it – but even this can be read in several ways.

Next: is it better to have a block of cheese rather than a tub of ready-grated powder? Once again, it is hard to disagree on taste (those in the know will realise that the ready-grated dust often comes machine-crushed from the rind-ends and rejects, possibly not even parmesan at all…) – but being “in the know” is as much a social as gastronomic position… And is it better for that block to be freshly cut from a round by a cheesemonger, than shrink-wrapped from a supermarket? Experience says yes again (and once you know what happens in the packaging process, it is no surprise…). At each stage, as we refine our sensitivity, it is difficult to argue against raising our game, though it may come at increased cost. A matter of self-evident freshness and flavour it may be, but that is not necessarily enough to deflect potential accusations of food snobbery…

Those who never make such journeys will never know that, once tried, something like this becomes quite literally a simple matter of fact – but it still may not be enough to stop them from condemning others for discerning in ways that they do not consider important.

What applies to cheese can apply to anything else where degrees of discernment are possible – and with it, inevitably, come the social inferences. Those who discern will, in some places be attacked for their elitism or condescension. In others, evident good judgement may be more a matter for admiration and respect. In some places such views may be associated with social pretension – but in others it might not even enter the equation. As well as individual cases, this polarisation can also been seen in wider public opinion: the art gallery built a few years ago in my local town was widely criticised as a “waste of money”, rather than being welcomed as a rare opportunity to bring something special to the local community.

The more prevalent status-seeking is, the greater is the risk of perceived snobbery, because anything that raises one’s game risks being seen as socially pretentious even if it is not intended that way. As a Briton, I have repeatedly noticed the comparatively low level of preoccupation with social class that seems to prevail in certain other European countries that I know well, compared with my own where it seems such issues are never far beneath the surface. There seems to be more acceptance of people’s right and ability to express their own taste, and less assumption that doing so is simply an exercise in social badging.

It can be seen in subliminal national habits: for example, emphases in advertising are not the same everywhere. In some places, products are promoted on their social cachet, and in others more on their aesthetic desirability. Claims of exclusivity, showing off or ‘getting ahead’ seem to feature less strongly in marketing in some countries I know, than others. In some, shop staff seem more willing than elsewhere to venture personal opinions – which is perhaps easier if you are commenting on the item rather than the buyer. In the UK, going into the ‘wrong’ shop, restaurant or hotel can still risk being a socially intimidating, even humiliating, experience…

The implications of this are significant, and amount to how much of one’s life one is prepared to have dominated by the need for external approval. Where great, this suggests to me a life that is insufficiently rich in its own experiences and insights to be self-justifying – and it may explain the railing against those who do better: inverted snobbery at work again.

To buck social approval can require strength of mind – and a knowledge of what to do instead. It is a matter of having a “growth mindset” – of being motivated to explore one’s own horizons rather than yielding to the limitations of herd rule. It can be a path to personal independence through increasing complexity of understanding, and thereby informed judgement. The fear of criticism diminishes as confidence grows, though all but the most determined will probably concede that there are probably limits beyond which it would still be hard to go. Many British men still have ‘issues’ with wearing pink – and in many cases, dressing with visible care at all. Yet ultimately, what marks those who scrub up perfectly well but mostly do not bother, is not the visual effect but the personal ease with which it is carried. What characterful people have in common is the confidence to do (and be) their own thing.

The real journey to discernment is neither pretentious nor self-indulgent – the two criticisms often levelled at people who undertake it. It is not about foot-stamping when we cannot have ‘the best’. Rather, it is about informed decisions when compromise is necessary – but not accepting it when it is not. It is an earnest desire to know, to live life to the full, to do things well – and to learn to appreciate such good things as come our way. It is about taking the trouble humbly to do nice things for others too, not just trying to impress them. It is as much about avoiding poor choices as making nit-picking ones.

A risk is that the more one discerns, the more intolerant and dissatisfied one can become – but it is also possible to see discernment as a form of mindfulness, even gratitude for being alive, since it involves savouring experiences rather than taking them for granted, knowing and appreciating their real nature rather than worrying about the social consequences. The only alternative is to live devoid of such rewarding experiences. They can be found, after all, in the most unlikely places, not just the currently fashionable ones, because it is ultimately more about how than what we like.

This is not something that British culture at any level encourages us to do: to yield to the innocent appreciation of sensual pleasure, quality and self-affirmation. Sadly, we do not educate for this: even school lessons about food are “Food Technology” – focused on careers, business and money-making, rather than the simple enjoyment of an essential that would be more beneficial to more people. I wonder how many parents educate their children in such things. The French for one, do (or did) it differently…

The same philosophy can extend to growing our personal skills, qualities and behaviours – something else that distinguishes self-developers from those seeking social validation, where only the outward appearance and marketability matter. The acid test is what people do when no one else is looking – for one’s quality of life does not require any audience but oneself…

Achieving such complexity does require effort – but the rewards are proportionate. This is why some will indeed make considerable efforts for a piece of fresh cheese, a certain cloth, specific music or company, when others may not. It is why they may be concerned with issues of authenticity and the minutiae of fine distinctions. It is why their language may appear obscure, and sometimes even intolerant. It is why they may choose sunglasses that others then misjudge.

Sadly, misunderstanding seems widespread. The Good Life seems to be regarded as a matter of wealth and prestige. Good things are treated as the preserve of the privileged or greedy rather than a valid and pleasurable part of any life. Treating life as an economic rather than creative experience is partly to blame.

Again, this does not seem the same everywhere: it is not only the aristocratic French who care about good wine or food, not only affluent Italians who dress well. Here, by contrast, it is more usual to encounter murmured, self-deprecating disclaimers about a lack of knowledge of the niceties. Stodgy conformity trumping individual character.

Those other countries seem to have greater consensus about what makes for a good life – and the acceptance that it is, at least in theory, generally desirable. This is only possible when it is not treated as a social marker. This often seems painfully different in the U.K., where such preoccupations are often treated with scepticism or ascribed to social cliques.

The resultant “not for the likes of us” thinking can become self-fulfilling. Given the misperceptions about the function of good quality, it is perhaps not surprising that Britain has relatively few of the desirable product-lines that come from France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia. Such high-quality British brands as do exist – from Jaguar to Burberry – almost always come with indelible aristocratic associations – but then, almost anything of quality sold in Britain normally comes with at least a faint whiff of social superiority attached – while the rest settle for indiscriminate ‘convenience’ as a way of avoiding harder choices.

The truth is, much of the British population remains eternally confused by a system where every action potentially has social before aesthetic connotations. In such a minefield, where any overt decision potentially entails disapproval from one quarter or another, it’s just easier not to bother…

It is, however, easy for others to fill such vacuums – most obviously commercial operations, for whom genuine diversity presents a supply problem. Taste is much more marketing-led that is often thought, and it is all too easy to steer the thoughts and behaviour of compliant people who have few strong ideas of their own.

This is where the silent oppression of the majority comes most forcefully into play. The collective failure of assertiveness to insist on high standards and reject low, makes it all the more likely that those who do try do differently will be ignored. The more homogenous society becomes, the more they will both stand out, and perhaps attract disapproval or misunderstanding. In a society where social judgement comes first, producers may even provoke such comparisons: it is easier to appeal to the market’s snobbery than its discernment.

Yet those who do make the journey may come to realise that social display and aesthetic value are not as interwoven as they can seem: access to quality is not always a matter of (high) cost: you can be discerning about potatoes (and the consequences of failure to do so are instantly noticeable…). Truly good eating is probably more dependent on simple, good ingredients than complex recipes. The ingredients give the authentic sensory experience; while they can certainly delight the eye, fancy dishes are more often about display. The real enemy, however, is once again the (overpriced) taste-free processed ‘convenience’ food that, judging from what one sees at the checkouts, many still accept as their lot. As with food, so with much else; the worst deceit of all is mass-produced items masquerading as artisan products – an increasingly common deception into which we might read a lot.

Judgement of good quality depends on setting aside social pressure; those who seek status-display often fail to see this – there are more than enough examples of grotesque taste to show that wealth does not buy good judgement. The person who strives even occasionally to attain something above their norm will perhaps appreciate it more than one who takes “the best” utterly for granted. ‘Luxury’ – inasmuch as it is a desirable quality – is a relative, sensory experience, and having excess of it only brings accustomisation and complacency.

I believe that it is worth striving to fill one’s life with good experiences. Seeking the good in every aspect of daily life need be neither showy nor greedy – but what it does do is remind us of the value of each day. Life can be difficult enough for it hardly to be sinful to celebrate and take pleasure in its good side. Things of substance tend to bring longer-lasting satisfaction that those that are insubstantial and shoddy. Carefully chosen things are more likely to endure, are less likely to bring disappointment or boredom, and can lastingly shine back to us the identity and story of our own lives.

Ignoring this suppresses the quality of life through the rejection of pleasurable things because of their social connotations but equally, the assumption that Quality of Life is something that can be bought, rather than achieved through personal growth. Instead of despising or sniping at others, it might be better to claim a slice of the action for ourselves. Every life is a potential work of art; what each needs is a good artist.

Elitism is often seen as an undesirable quality; certainly, its outward expression can be abrasive, divisive and insulting. Material display is often little more than a show of greed. It seems a particularly sore point in mainstream Britain, though this is not so surprising when there still exists an elite that keeps many of this nation’s best things to itself, with an unspoken code to exclude the rest. Those who are, or who aspire to be, part of it can elicit sharp disapproval. Most people do not spend their time openly sneering; they are more likely to draw private conclusions – and continue to self-exclude. This kind of self-deprecation only makes it all the easier for real elite to prevail: their existence relies on the collusion of those who are excluded to perpetuate it. The only way to combat it to refuse to be excluded; the thing to question is not whether good things exist, but whether they necessarily can only belong to a minority.

There remains, however, a dilemma for those on the receiving end of inverted snobbery or minority discrimination: should they ignore it, or capitulate? In the end, it is probably a non-issue: if you have learned deep appreciation, it is not something you will easily give up. There is no other course than to take the hit in the name of the democratic rights of all minorities.

I strongly disapprove of both social elitism and plebianism – but I have a great deal of sympathy with learning personal aesthetic discernment, which has the potential to enrich any life that allows it. We can all go on the parmesan journey, even if only occasionally. Aesthetic self-fulfilment is much less a matter of money than this Affluenza-riddled country seems to think. It can be found in something as simple as perfectly ripe fruit or a beautiful sunset. It can be found in our own qualities, not just in the things we buy.

It should not be an elite, minority preoccupation.

Sartoria

A Tale of Two Tailors

I have long hoped that somewhere in Italy there must be makers of good quality clothes for people who like to dress well but can’t or won’t pay designer prices. But I had never found any – until recently. Even more than in Britain, there is a hole where the middle-market should be. Online searches reveal low-priced disposable fashion – and then the top end. The difference lies in the proportions of the two: less of the former, and more of the latter – at least when it comes to selling online. Classic style is hardly the dominant concern in modern Italy that the rest of the world seems to believe: as the clip below shows, there are plenty who default to the international uniform of jeans/chinos/cargo pants/trainers (and they are not all tourists…), but equally, one still sees more people who clearly do fare la bella figura, certainly compared with the U.K., where it’s no longer done to dress ‘up’ except at weddings.

Maybe we’re just not seeing the whole range. It would not surprise me if the Italian online clothing market is a mere fraction of its British equivalent – and much of what there is seems aimed at high-spending Americans. Whatever the style, in Italy, sartorial purchases are perhaps too important to be made so lightly…

There are department stores and the like: La Rinascente is perhaps the best known – but generally, they seem nowhere near as dominant as in the UK. People there seem more likely to buy from the many small retailers, certainly if they want anything other than the usual globalised fare.

An acquaintance in the trade confirmed my impressions of the top end: the tailors who make Italian menswear the envy of the world seem quite content to continue charging premium prices and see no need to head downmarket just to please we less affluent punters. That would seem more condescending that it is, were it not for the fact that plenty of Italian men seem prepared to spend amounts on clothes that would bring tears to the eyes of the average British bloke – and to be fair, I see no reason why skilled labour should come cheap just to satisfy the likes of me. But this still leaves a problem for those of us who admire the style without being able to spare £950 for the exquisite Canali jacket I saw in a shop window a few days ago…

I’ve tried every which way to solve this puzzle. There are plenty of British clothiers who buy (and flaunt) their Italian fabrics. Moss Bros, for example, offer fabrics from Cerruti, Zegna, Barberis and more – but the problem comes when they get their scissors out: the items they produce are, well, just dull… They lack the ‘edge’ that makes Italian tailoring work. Sadly, the same largely goes for Tyrwhitt. I suspect that such chain-retailers are hardly buying the best quality to begin with: anything so long as they can add a price-hiking label – and they certainly don’t indulge in the time-consuming niceties that give Italian clothing its distinctive appeal. I suppose they would argue there’s no demand for it in this country. But then, they often offer such items only in sizes that would fit a skinny teenager…

A new discovery was Pini Parma, founded by Thomas Pini, an Italian living in Paris. His ready-to-wear clothes are beautiful, and very good value (though still not cheap) – but once again, they are only offered in a limited size range.

I have tried a couple of the growing number of online made-to-measure services, many being based in India and offering (not?) surprisingly low prices. Despite some ethical concerns, I concluded that I might as well cut out the middlemen and pay the makers direct: at least that way, I have a little knowledge of the source. Some are using Italian fabrics, often from previous seasons or ends of rolls to keep the overheads low, and they do allow the buyer to customise items, such that quasi-Italian style might be achievable. I’ve now bought a few pairs of trousers this way over the years: they have all been well-enough made, the fabrics are indeed good, and – importantly – the fit is pleasing. What’s more, they solve the problem of the somewhat more middle-aged north European size that I need. The styling, however – while acceptable – is clearly not done with an Italian eye…

It is of course true that one generally gets what one pays for; the bargain end of the spectrum tends to have synthetics in the mix, which almost always means garments will lose their shape quickly. Pretty much what you would get from a high-street product. Better to stick to natural fibres – though it is still possible to acquire a decent pair of made-to-measure trousers for not very much more than the price of a better high-street pair – and a few weeks’ wait.

This summer, however, having foregone a holiday for the second year in a row, I decided to push the boat out and see what they could do with a higher-quality fabric from a named Italian mill. An order was duly placed with Studio Suits – a company in Mumbai about which I have seen mixed reviews but have never personally had any issues.

A few days later, before these had arrived, I chanced upon the website of Barocco Italia – which describes itself as a digital platform dedicated to supporting Italian artisans and widening their markets. It is in effect a broker for multiple smaller manufacturers – precisely what I had been seeking for so long. Some of the prices are still pretty eye-watering but surprisingly, less so for their trousers: still more than many would consider paying in the U.K., but not for once, utterly out of the question. We need to remember that we are buying custom-made, hand-sewn craftsmanship here… I decided to live dangerously and so also ordered a pair of trousers through Barocco from Neapolitan tailor Massimo Corrado. Each maker has a biog. on the Barocco website. Having spent time working for the big labels, some years ago, Corrado set up on his own: just what I was looking for. Again, measurements were dispatched, and the order duly confirmed.

Both pairs of trousers cost within a few pounds of each other – about double the price of a better high-street pair – and both arrived within a few days of each other. A good opportunity to see how the respective makers compared.

The Indian pair arrived first. Made from super-110 ivory summer wool (though it feels finer), they are indeed a very good item. The fabric by Reda is excellent, almost crease-free. They arrived soft-packed, and needed a careful press, but fit well, have a decent half-lining, feel robust, and left me wondering whether it would be possible for the Italians to do better…

The Indian pair

The Italian pair arrived a few days later, in a carboard carton and nicely wrapped in tissue. They didn’t need a press. In this case they are in super-150 summer wool, something I have not previously come across in person – amazingly fine. I had also decided to push my limits a little and opt for pale turquoise, which turned out to be more intensely err, Mediterranean than expected. A lovely colour – most definitely not your standard-issue British dull…

The Italian pair

As so often, seeing really is believing: only once you have experienced excellence does the merely good become clear. The quality of the cutting and stitching, the attention to finish, details such as horn buttons, really does set the Italian pair a cut above. These fine fabrics must be difficult to work with – almost like sewing with silk. The Indian pair had some evidence of slight puckering on the leg seams, and the stitching is just not as carefully done – nothing I am not entirely happy to live with – but if we are judging these items on sheer craftsmanship, then it becomes immediately apparent why the Neapolitan tailors have the exceptional reputation that they do. Strangely, from exactly the same measurements, the Italian pair presents a distinctly slimmer and (hopefully) more flattering cut – not such that they don’t fit – snugly – but it’s rather surprising that there is so much difference. I don’t know enough about the cutting processes to understand how this comes about.

When it comes to practicality, time will tell. I don’t really do “best” clothes – every day is good enough to dress well for. These will experience regular if restrained summer use (not painting the house, obviously…). I will wait and see whether that slim Italian cut – which is clearly an integral part of the character – really does go the distance when it comes to wear and seam-stretch. I suspect this may be where the Indian-made pair will have an edge. Made-to-measure is definitely the way forward for those of us who – while hardly of Pavarotti-like proportions – do have difficulty with the increasing prevalence of slim and extra-slim cuts on men’s clothing even in the U.K. (It seems as though many retailers have forgotten that men over 25 still exist, let alone that the national average body size is increasing… And if that’s perplexing here, it is doubly so in Italy where fits tend to be tighter, since there are plenty of older Italian men who are not exactly whippet-like either…)

The customer service – almost ‘e-personal’ – that I received from Barroco was also excellent: they are clearly on a mission – and their English is much better than my Italian. Having enquired about post-Brexit shipping issues, I was informed that in the event of unexpected duties being payable (they weren’t) a refund to the equivalent amount would be forthcoming.

The summer wardrobe emergency has now been well and truly addressed; as I’ve said before, I purchase rarely but (hopefully) well. In due course, I shall go back to Barroco – for ultimately the bona fide article has to win out here – but perhaps be a little more generous with the measurements I provide. When the chips are down, those high reputations exist for a reason…

Sartoria

From Italy with Love…

Having sung the praises of online shopping in my previous post, I was immediately reminded of its limitations when a repeatedly used clothing retailer in Italy informed me that it has suspended shipments to the U.K. due to Brexit.

As I have rather neglectfully managed to reach a point where several necessary renewals have coincided, the search for new sources has been more focused than usual. I refuse to give up: the dearth of easy solutions to the problem of what I consider the lack of appealing men’s clothing in the U.K. is not about to make me part with my hard-earned for things I do not really like simply because they are readily available. And that especially holds true when significant outlay may be involved.

When it comes to browsing (even virtually) in Italy the supply problem rapidly disappears (as would my savings, if I let them), only to be replaced by a partly cultural one: despite my appreciation of the work of their fine tailors, I do struggle to get my inhibited English mind round the kind of figures that Italian men seem willing to spend on their clothes. While the difference between rubbish and well-made items is readily apparent to anyone who cares to look, I retain a suspicion that the law of diminishing marginal returns must set in after a point. How much better than a £300 jacket can a £2000 one really be? Beautiful materials and superb craftsmanship do not (and should not) come cheap – but even so, there are surely limits to what is justifiable purely on grounds of superior quality. I found myself wondering just how much of a premium some of those renowned brands command just for their name…

Or am I just showing my ignorance? It is certainly true that having pushed upscale somewhat in the past, it is much harder to accept going back down it again – so maybe there is more to it than meets the eye. On the other hand, is it wise – or even necessary – to keep trading up the ladder of connoisseurship? At what point do we reach good enough? And of course, even were one willing, the capacity of one’s wallet does present a constraint that no amount of canny purchasing can entirely wish away…

So when my searches landed me again at the virtual door of a relatively local business, I took the opportunity to investigate a small retailer whose website I had discovered at around the time of the first U.K. lockdown and whose shop I have been intending to visit ever since. The Italian Shirt Shop is situated in a rather nice ‘independent’ shopping street not far from the centre of Ipswich. As restrictions have now eased, I recently took the opportunity to make the thirty-mile trip and do some in-person shopping for a change.

‘Antonio Bellini’ is on a mission to bring Italian style to the British Male – and he appreciates that cost can be an issue. His shop is lovely: a transplanted version of what every small independent Italian menswear shop still is – but without the hefty price tags. Antonio has arrangements with manufacturers in Italy that allows him to retail his own brand at something much more approachable, while still retaining a very pleasing quality. His customer service, too, is exactly what one would hope for from such a shop. He has now diversified beyond shirts – and is certainly a lot more visitable than anything south of the Alps right now.

At present, he only accepts one customer in his shop at a time – which was not a problem on a quiet Thursday morning – and so I had his undivided attention in helping me identify what was admittedly a limited number of items at the more generous end of his size range. This, he says, is a perennial problem with Italian producers, who are widely uninterested in broadening their appeal simply to address the mere inconvenience that customers everywhere are getting larger. He also confirmed that a huge proportion, perhaps 75%, of those vast prices can simply be a premium for having the ‘right’ label. There is much better value to be found elsewhere – including in Ipswich.

I came away with the couple of summer shirts that I had been seeking (and a rather dinky jacket that I hadn’t) – all for a price that would barely cover one shirt from some higher-profile sources. Time will be the ultimate test, of course, but I know a decent fabric when I feel one.

I stand by my comments from the previous post, concerning the opportunities afforded by supporting small businesses online, but I do not think it is incompatible with supporting in person local ones where they do exist. And it is certainly a very much more enjoyable experience to spend time in a real treasure chest like Antonio’s shop, than the virtual equivalent. You can’t stroke all those lovely fabrics online, for a start. Let alone chat with someone who knowledgeably shares your enthusiasm.

My brief splurge is now done – summer shirts and properly weatherproof shoes are once again to hand, their predecessors having been worn to destruction over the past five or ten years. (The shoes might have lasted longer had it been possible to reach a repairer more easily in the past eighteen covid-restricted months…) A couple of items ordered online are yet to arrive – but here’s to one British gent (for despite the name he is British) who has had the nerve to stick his neck out and retail what he loves. Long may he continue to do so – I shall be going back.

Shop photos taken from Antonio’s website with his permission. The views in this post are entirely my own.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Consume – lovingly

Trying to be an ethical and ‘green’ consumer is like walking through a minefield. The complexity of modern production makes it, in many cases, almost impossible to identify the full impact of one’s choices. I’m not sure I trust the labelling to tell the whole story, either; it has just become another aspect of marketing.

I have long pondered the sustainability of Sprezzatura: an unconfessed guilt – or at least doubt – that the principle of discerning consumption could be morally and ecologically acceptable. Choosing superior products as a matter of principle can seem like unreasonable self-indulgence, particularly at a time when the environmental impact of human activity is becoming ever more extreme.

The materials and methods that are sometimes required to produce refined products can involve the disproportionate exploitation of scarce resources, perhaps sourced from obscure places, and manufacturing, to keep costs down, by people paid low wages and living in terrible conditions. Such is the reputation of the sweat shop.

Recent research for a couple of clothing items led me to further suspect that another trend is not helping matters: it seems that the middle-market is being hollowed out. I have trawled quite widely for the items concerned – and my conclusion, not for the first time, is that the choice on offer is increasingly between low-end disposable junk and a high end whose prices are heading for the stratosphere, thus taking better quality goods out of the reach of much of the population.

The most breath-taking example of this was at Brunello Cucinelli – where I happened on a price tag of £1300 for…. a credit card holder. While there are no doubt people out there who will pay this without batting an eyelid, it surely represents the ultimate divorce of any proportion whatsoever between utility and price.

This is only the extreme, however. I can accept that I may simply be failing to keep up with the impact of inflation; as a state employee, my income was always fixed, beyond my direct influence, and relatively modest. It has no doubt been eroded by the pubic sector pay-freeze of the past ten years – and certainly by the change in my own personal circumstances. But even allowing for all that, my impression is that prices at the better end are soaring away from me. A couple of decades ago, we were able – occasionally – to pay out on expensive items, such as one of Bang & Olufsen’s more modest sound systems – and even the occasional small purchase from favourite labels such as Armani. Today, it’s an impossibility. No doubt the premium that such brands have increasingly found they can command is part of it, as is the willingness of the economic elite to pay whatever it takes to preserve their exclusivity.

This might sound like the first-world problems of a self-indulgent whiner, but there is rather more to it than that; Quite apart from my innocent appreciation of good quality, cheap products so often represent a false economy – at least as much so as slavish adherence to outrageously over-priced ‘labels’. So I was pleased to find that my recent reading of JB MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping provided sensible support for my views.

From the ethical standpoint, the key point is this: buying good quality (whether sporting a desirable label or not) is often less harmful than the mass-production throw-away alternative. Our B&O system is still doing good service twenty years later, as is our rather-more-expensive-than-IKEA Italian kitchen, most of our other furnishings and indeed quite a number of those clothes. Being well-made, they aren’t unduly showing their age – and we still love them. For what it’s worth, we apply the same purchasing principle to what we eat, though the price point is obviously rather different, and the goods don’t last as long…

As MacKinnon points out, it’s about a mindset. Much of the really harmful consumption is done by those who purchase almost as a reflex; who use items only a few times, if at all, before junking them in favour of newer ones. The alternative (which with satisfaction I noted we have always done) it to know your own deeper needs and preferences. It is about consuming mindfully, no matter what the item concerned. I suppose another word for this is discernment. This means that you will probably set a much higher bar for purchases made, will think hard about the choices and sources, be more prepared to hunt them down, and identify things that you will still like perhaps a decade later (and hence have no need to throw away). As a result you will make fewer but better purchases; in the long run, it need not be more expensive – and it’s as much about minimising waste.

Pleasingly, I think this is entirely in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It means being in charge of one’s own consumption decisions, doing the necessary work to fulfil one’s needs and desires – and having the discipline of mind to live with one’s decisions. As MacKinnon points out, well-made, pleasing items are ones that often age gracefully, and to which one can develop an attachment that will not fade after a few weeks. This is certainly the case with the items I mentioned earlier. And crucially, it results in the lowering of one’s consumption. Apparently, the typical U.K. consumer buys at least several tens of items of clothing per year, and many are only worn once or twice. I buy perhaps two or three items a year – and wear them for many to come. In that sense, not only is the increased outlay offset, but we throw much less away.

I am fairly sanguine about the sourcing of such items. Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that regular trails round the local high streets were pointless in terms of finding much I was prepared to part with cash for; particularly when the outlay is relatively great, I want to be absolutely sure that it is 100% what I have in mind, and the high street chains just did not do that. I cannot shed many tears for their passing.

I am much more prepared to shop online if necessary, to fulfil that criterion. Here again, there is a choice: one can patronise the large conglomerates, or one can seek out the smaller producers who in some cases just happen not to be local. Labels may be all very well, but often the ones you’ve never heard of are pretty good – and better value.

The inflated prices are being driven by the large multinationals, and it is not necessarily the case that smaller producers all charge high-end prices, though it is true that craftsmanship and good quality do cost more. It does mean doing the mouse-work to find them, but I would rather support an independent tailor in Bangalore or leatherworker in Florence than a large corporation that just happens to have a local outlet. Transport costs are an issue – but I concluded that since many of the high street goods are coming from the same countries in any case, I might as well cut out the middle-man and select the people I wish to patronise myself.

The clothing item in the header picture is one such – a pair of made-to-measure linen trousers that I recently bought from a company in India, which cost little more than a much-inferior pair would on the high street – and which will probably last me for years if previous examples are anything to go by. Such manufacturers are becoming increasingly good at guiding self-measurement and material choices online, and in this case, I took advantage of much-lowered prices, presumably because people are currently wary about buying from India. Apart from an apparent logistics error that sent them from India to the UK via Cincinnati of all places, there would have been little difference in the transport impact – and I have hopefully paid a better wage to those who made them as a result.

There has been much speculation of the impact of the pandemic in moving so much more activity online. I think that will depend not on the mechanics so much as the mindset. If it results in further growth in mindless consumption, as does seem likely, it will undoubtedly be harmful; if on the other hand it makes people think more about what they consume, it need not be.

MacKinnon explained the Japanese word aiyosha – which means “a person who uses a product lovingly”. It is not a rejection of materialism, but about forming a deeper relationship with one’s possessions such that one does not feel the constant need to replace them. That can include accepting that they age – and if they are well-made that need not be a problem. I think this is entirely in keeping with this blog’s philosophy of careful, discerning appreciation of the good things in life.

The appreciation of material quality need not be a source of guilt. The amount of money spent on an item is irrelevant if the intention is only to use it superficially, and ditch it before its time. On the other hand, being aiyosha can be a source of genuine pleasure in our lives. Appreciating quality and individuality are part of that, as is accepting that things will not look new forever. What is more, well-made items are more likely to be repairable, thus extending both their lives and our enjoyment.

I find the search for items that I really like is itself enjoyable, even though it mostly now happens online. It is a world away from the mindless waving of plastic in cloned local “outlets” on a dull Saturday afternoon; the anticipation of delivery is part of the experience, and the revelation of the product when it arrives (usually) a great pleasure. Quite often, small suppliers are still managing to provide a personal touch, such as the hand-written note from a musician in Ireland from whom I recently bought her latest CD, even if it is not quite what one sometimes receives in person in specialist shops.

The real enemy here is mass, planned obsolescence; it is nonetheless what makes the junk economy go round. It also supports millions of jobs world-wide. There undoubtedly rests a huge responsibility on the commercial sector here: if it produces products that are designed to break, while simultaneously pushing the price of higher quality ones beyond the reach of most people, that will make aiyosha, and responsible consumption more difficult – and the result will be ecologically catastrophic. MacKinnon found signs that some companies are re-evaluating their approach, but it is still far from becoming universal.

There is also a responsibility on all of us as consumers: no matter what our price-point, the principle of buying (less frequently) the best we can afford rather than the cheapest we can find still holds. With a shift in our thinking, we can still appreciate good things, while turning it to the benefit of both better-rewarded producers, and the global environment.


Footnote: literally within minutes of posting this article, I was informed by a shirt-supplier in Italy that despatch to the U.K. is suspended because of Brexit. A minefield indeed…

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

In praise of neckwear

Maybe we need a bit of frivoli-tie? Recent posts here have largely been about the gravity of our present situation; hardly escapable really, but I think we need to keep something for the lighter, but still intriguing side of life too. So this post is about the globally-serious matter that is the demise of the male necktie.

I have little doubt that I will end up convincing readers of nothing more than the fact that I am one kipper short of the full cravatte, but nonetheless, such gentle matters pertaining to the quality of life of at least some of us should, I believe, command an occasional place in our attention.

My father spent most of his working life showing young people the methods of craftsmanship and design that came from his teacher training in practical subjects and as a cabinet maker. After hours, he switched to the tennis court, as was a qualified coach. But he refused to allow anyone to participate in either activity if they were not properly dressed. In his view this was again a largely practical matter, but he nonetheless maintained that you would not do your best work unless you felt the part – and an important part of that was being decked out appropriately. For tennis, it was whites or nothing.

I guess it rubbed off; I have always dressed for my own work in what I felt to be a manner of suitable gravitas, and I think there was probably more than one occasion where looking the part played to my advantage, even if I didn’t fully deserve it… I think I had learned to appreciate good craftsmanship, too.

So it has been a pleasure, on returning to professional work, to bring out items that had barely seen the light of day for some years. Despite the pretty relaxed approach of most of the staff at the College where I work, I make a point of wearing what was once considered normal professional garb, albeit notched down a peg or two to jacket-and-tie rather than a suit.  I do it partly as a matter of forme professionelle – but mainly just because I like those clothes.

The sad thing is, opportunities to wear such items have been in free-fall in recent times; for many, I suspect that weddings and funerals, and perhaps interviews, are the only occasion when they don an otherwise unfamiliar item.

Dress-down Friday seems increasingly to have invaded the rest of the working week in recent years, and of course remote working means you can get away with almost anything. Ironically, given that DDF is originally an American invention, at least a proportion of the men of that nation still seem to pay more regard to sartorial matters than we Brits, and while the same trend has clearly spread to continental Europe, the still-present preoccupation of French and Italian males in particular with sartorial form is of course legendary.

Yet in these times of individual liberty, dress-down has had a contrary effect: anyone wishing to raise their game a bit in this respect increasingly easily risks looking over-stuffed and out of place. The necktie suffers particularly badly here: they have become the symbol par excellence of old-fashioned male formality, and therefore inconsistent with the laid-back modern dude… Many men seem to hate them, so they are the first thing to go, but I am not sure why. Are they really that uncomfortable? It is all the more surprising, since other neck-accessories such as scarves seem to have experienced boom times recently. Perhaps it’s the conno-tie-tions with workplace conformism that is the real issue here? But we should remember that there is more than one way to ‘wear’ a tie, and that those emblems of the Sixties social revolution, The Beatles, were often photographed wearing (and indeed performing in) them. Studiedly narrow, of course.

I think the thing that appeals to me about the tie is its potential for a degree of personal expression – and I’m not only thinking of certain messages sent by comic ties… Originally, the tie was the centrepiece of a man’s at-tie-re. It’s really about the potential for subtle signalling. Socks have the same potential, and they too have been experiencing a significant resurgence of interest in recent times. So why not ties?

Maybe the relaxation of sartorial diktat means that there is no need for such small acts any more – though that doesn’t explain the renewed popularity of those other accessories. Maybe it simply comes down to comfort? Because there is no doubt that a tie and done-up top button feels less relaxed than people seem to prefer nowadays; I am not suggesting I would want to sit at home in one, either. But not all occasions are the same.

That loss of signalling ability has further-reaching implications, of which perhaps the most significant is the loss of a sense of occasion that can accompany dressing well. I remember the writer Michael Bywater saying that doing so is not narcissistic, but a courtesy to others since it is largely they who gain the pleasure from your efforts. It says you think they are worth it; perhaps we no longer do.

What’s more, the way in which a tie is worn sends subtle mood-messages, from the simple-or-showy choice of knot, to the semi-undone end-of-evening, worse-for-wear effect. And that is before even considering the effect of bow-ties, whether hand- or ready-tied, done or undone and just draped round the neck; there is a world of subtle social signalling about the tie that is simply lost to the non-wearer.

A tie is a relatively inexpensive way of turning a set of standard garments into a different outfit, and in that sense no different from using jewellery or other accessories to the same effect. I am less keen on some of the symbolism – the Old School Tie and the Regimental Tie both have connotations that I find stiff and undesirable – but there is the simple matter of an appreciation of beautiful colour and pattern; the tie as minor artwork, simply an item of wearable beauty – and why should men be deprived of this?

I remember once shocking a colleague by admitting that I was prepared to spend a fair amount of money on something that he saw as a complete waste. A cheap tie is very likely not to be worth it and will quickly end up looking like a rag round your neck. A properly crafted one, on the other hand is indeed a minor work of art. Hand-made ties have five, six or seven folds, and this gives them a ‘body’ and artisanal effect without the need for interlining, that a slip of mass-produced viscose just cannot match. It means they will hang well, even after long and repeated wearing; the best have a runner thread the length of the reverse, pulling on which will straighten out any crumples at the end of the day. Personally, I feel that silk is the optimal material, since a beautiful tie needs to hang close to the body, and move well with that body; but wool, linen and even leather all have their place. I think that woven-in patterns are preferable to printed designs since they are somehow more integral with the fabric which gives rise to them and give a pleasing relief to the texture.

But perhaps most important thing of all is the almost infinite scope that ties give to the material craftsman for beauty of design, whether variations on the traditional themes, or indeed complete innovation; whether in weaving, printing or dyeing. Quite apart from anything else, such craftsmanship is a pleasure to collect and own.

As with so many of these things, the Italians are the masters, and seem relatively unencumbered by the starchy conventions of the British style. It is possible to spend crazy amounts of money on ties from classic makers such as Emarinella of Naples – but an astute purchaser can also find hand-made items much more reasonably from lesser-known makers such as Segni e Disegni in Como, the centre of Italian silk.

My guiding principle is that one doesn’t need a lot of ties – but as with almost all things, a few good quality ones are a pleasure to own and wear, and I think it is high tie-me for a revival.

I just wish more people agreed with me…

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Crocodile tears

Chester Barrie was a British men’s tailoring company founded in 1935. It produced semi-bespoke clothing with a shop on Savile Row. I first encountered the brand via its concession in Manchester’s House of Fraser in 2014. While I’m not keen on starchy, traditional British menswear, I was pleased to see that the brand was innovative, clearly taking some of its lead from Italy and turning out several seasons of nicely styled, modern clothes. At last, I felt, here is a company that is doing something other than rest on its traditional laurels, which might even hold a light to what is still done so well in Italy. It did well enough to become official dresser to, for example, Leicester Tigers rugby team.

CB’s usual offerings were well out of my price range – but I was delighted when it opened an outlet shop a mere handful of miles from my home a year or two later. Given the precipice off which my income fell in 2016, that shop has done a sterling job of keeping me dressed for minimal outlay – and deflected the need to fall back on the dullness of the usual High Street stores, whose men’s department heave with piles of over-priced, low quality cloned jeans, chinos and trainers.

And then it disappeared. It turns out that CB was bought and sold several times, before being acquired by the Japanese Itochu Corporation in 2017. In early 2020, the decision was made to close the brand, including its concessions, outlet shops, and the Savile Row flagship store. A piece of recent British tailoring history summarily executed, to suit the accounting bottom line of a distant corporation. I struggle to imagine this happening in Italy, where I suspect veneration of such a company’s heritage would overridden short term profitability issues. It would probably still be family-owned in the first place.

This has become the story of much of the British economy, particularly that of the ‘High Street’. For decades, a process has been underway whereby profitable smaller companies were absorbed by larger ones, until huge corporations came to own vast swathes of retail and other activity. Delve into the ownership of almost any well-known British brand, and you are likely to find that it ultimately funnels money towards one or other of the large corporations, most insidiously of all, Venture Capital companies and hedge funds, whose speciality is the aggressive acquisition of companies which are often asset stripped and disposed of, making a (very) few – and mostly anonymous – individuals very rich in the process.

Another classic example was Costa Coffee, which began as a small concern in London in 1971, before being bought out by Whitbread in 1995, and being being sold again in 2019 to the Coca Cola Corporation for £3.9 billion. In the meantime, its character has changed out of all recognition, from the small Italian-style coffee bar I first visited at Liverpool St station in the late 1980s, to just another themed chain, albeit one whose coffee still isn’t bad.

We can add other venerables to the list – such as Pizza Express, Carluccio’s – not to mention the other sectors that such corporations now operate in, perhaps most controversially private care home provision.

I suppose one could argue that this is just the way in which advanced economies are developing. It is clearly not just a British phenomenon – and I might be just about willing to accept that this happens, were it not for the effects on the companies – and the rest of us – in the meantime.

Those large corporations do not buy smaller outfits out of sentiment: their one and only concern is maximising their profit, often only in the short term. We tend to see a change of direction – almost always towards the dumbed-down mass market, because that is where maximum revenue lies. Products are homogenised and mass-production processes ramped up – nearly always at the expense of distinctiveness and quality – while at the same time, tried and tested favourites are jettisoned in favour of trendy gimmicks. There is no quality, and there is no continuity.

And where this is not possible, as in the case of Chester Barrie, it seems that the bones are picked clean, and the company jettisoned – with no concern for history, employees or long-standing customers – let alone the loss of diversity in the market place.

In the process, our towns and cities have become standardised clones, their streets filled with the same old chains pumping out retail therapy, but whose real purpose is to channel income from the very many, towards the very few who stand at the top of such corporations. Let’s not pretend that the employees of such chains benefit very greatly from their presence – they are often unskilled and low-paid – and eminently disposable, unlike those who worked in more specialist trades.

As I said, this is certainly not just a British phenomenon – but it still seems that the impact of the trend varies from place to place. There seem to be, for example, far fewer national or international chains on the streets of Italy or France – even, I think, Germany. Clothing retail in particular seems still in the hands of many small boutiques, and there are many individual restaurants, even though the small eateries of France are known to be under threat.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent months, at the impact of CV19 on towns’ economies. Having ventured into my nearest town for the first time in months a week or so ago, I did not notice much change – but it is possible that the worst is still to come. I even read someone recently, bewailing the loss of the “traditional British chain store”. What was very noticeable, however, from the branding on the Covid health notices, was just how much of the town centre is now privately owned.

For several decades, these giants have bled local businesses dry, and turned our towns from civic centres into semi-privatised conveyor belts for shovelling cash from the not-very-well-off many, to the very-well-off few. They have taken aggressive advantage of a neo-liberal economic climate, whereby the government of the country failed to intervene in the market despite the inequalities that were being created. So far as I am concerned, they should not squeal when liberal free market conditions, whether Covid-related or otherwise, turn against them. What we do need, however, is protection from the adverse consequences of their behaviour, which our government mostly declines to provide.

I am of course concerned for those whose jobs will be just more collateral damage as the corporations pull in their belts – and there is clearly a job to be done to figure out how to fill what may end up as  a vast over-provision of urban retail space. But I am much more concerned about how the small and local businesses are faring – those who offer personal service, often distinctive and better-quality products, and earnings that flow back into local economies rather than distant HQs.

So forgive me if I fail to pass anything more than crocodile tears for the passing of these ‘household names’, the majority of which have not, and do not, serve us anywhere near as well as they claim, but which have been a major cause of damage to both local distinctiveness and real choice for consumers. Companies like Chester Barrie are a real loss, though – but largely avoidable. In the meantime, internet shopping provides an escape from the tyranny of the high street giants, and for this reason I use it shamelessly, to support small, distinctive and independent retailers wherever they may be. We can do better in future.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Proper

handle
Some time ago, my wife and I decided to upgrade the internal doors in our apartment. The advice about getting floors, doors, walls and windows right being the key to a good interior is, in my experience correct – and this was the last element in need of attention.

We replaced the inherited developer-standard panelled fake-Victorian moulded hardboard delights with some walnut-veneered doors in a plain finish. True to the principles of modernism, the beautiful colour and grain of the wood is all the ‘decoration’ needed. We also bought some brushed-steel bar handles which we felt would complement the richness of the wood very well. In short, while we hardly went for de luxe, we took the trouble to choose properly.

Unfortunately, over the following two years, the handles first sagged from the horizontal and then gradually pulled loose – and eventually one came away in my hand. ‘Proper’ comes in many shapes and forms, and it is surprisingly disconcerting to use a loose and saggy handle on a door. And I mean away: not just the handle from its spindle, but the entire mounting just pulled right out of the woodwork.

Investigation revealed that there were two options for mounting the handles: one consisted of holes for two bolts that would pass right through the mountings and door, linking them on either side and clamping everything solid when the nuts were tightened. The other was four screw-holes for fixing into the timber. In both cases, grub screws tightened the handles onto the spindle, providing secondary securing.

When I removed the cover, it turned out that the second method had been used – only instead of four screws, each door had only two – and in some cases just one screw holding the handle in place. Over two years, a little slack on the spindle had simply allowed the whole thing to pull loose. We suspected (correctly) that the doors were also just board beneath the veneer – but the holes for the handle mechanisms had been made in such a way that many of the screws also had little more than fresh air on which to purchase. Pulling the handle out had left it with nothing whatsoever.

A programme of re-working has just been completed, whereby the handles were secured using the first, mechanically-superior method, and we now have doors whose handles are both satisfyingly firm to the grip, and which won’t risk leaving someone stranded inside the bathroom.

Call me obsessive if you will – but all I am discussing here, really, is doing things properly. I’m very tempted to say that you would never find this problem in Switzerland, but then I am clearly biased. The fact remains, though, that I admire that country largely because of its culture of doing things properly. I have only once ever encountered a Swiss interior that might have been called shoddy – and that was because it clearly had not been updated by the elderly owner in several decades.

‘Properly’ is, however a difficult concept. It implies judgement against some kind of benchmark, and it is something that is also an occupational hazard for a teacher, whose very existence is to some extent predicated on assessing how other people’s efforts compare against an arbitrary set of standards. It can make one very judgmental.

I am not so dogmatic as to insist that my personal standards are in any way absolute, though they are often strongly-felt. To begin with, the guy who originally fitted those handles presumably had a set of criteria of his own. It just wasn’t mine. He was probably more concerned with time being money and getting home a little earlier that evening. The handle surviving for long enough to blunt any dissatisfaction of mine with his work when it eventually failed might also have been in the mix somewhere.

And yet the concept is a powerful one. It is not difficult to find a fair amount of consensus amongst the aficionados of, say, door furniture as to what constitutes Proper. The same can perhaps even be said when it comes to much more difficult matters such as bringing up and educating children. We might use it yet again when looking at the workings of the Law, Medicine, engineering, running a transport system or a government, and civil society more generally. Somewhere in the fog of personal interpretation there seems to lie a core of reasonably widely-shared values.

Slowly, however, these things do also evolve – and can certainly weaken –  over time, and a disconcerting by-product of growing older appears to be the way the goalposts move without one noticing. Some of what I consider Proper seems now to be out of date.

I was struck by this while reading Richard Goodwin’s article in last week’s Observer about the demise of formal dressing  for work. Like Goodwin, I appreciate ‘proper’ mens’ tailoring. I am not a luddite who yearns for some previous era, but for me looking smart is a pleasure in its own right quite apart from any signals I might want to send about my credibility – and, as Michael Bywater once observed, it is also a courtesy to others in the effort one takes both to delight their eye and to present oneself in a way that says you take your interactions with others seriously. Not having worked formally for several years, I still mourn the lack of openings for occasionally sporting a nice suit and tie. Even the traditional shirt and jacket seems to raise an eyebrow these days.

There are however, two inescapable truths in here. One is that my ability to do what I think is proper is constrained to some extent by the expectations of others. My efforts to dress well may in reality pass them by completely – and even worse, may simply send the (I hope incorrect) message that I am just an outdated old geezer. Maintaining what I consider ‘proper’ standards risks making me stand out for the wrong kind of reasons.

The second is that there is no way in which other senses of Proper (which I suppose I had really better call Propriety, although that in my mind has subtly different connotations) are in objective terms any less acceptable than my own. Ultimately the meaning that we attach to the word derives entirely from personal expectations and cultural norms. The same extends to matters like one’s use of written or spoken language, where propriety still in many countries depends on conformity to a predefined norm, whether that be the Queen’s English or the pronouncements of the Académie Franҫaise, to the ridicule of certain regional dialects.

The more one ponders this matter, the more perplexing it becomes. One can extend the notion even further, to matters of social groups. Traditional matters of Class in Britain depended on one’s adherence to a particular set of behaviours by which one could be seen to belong or otherwise – but which were very different from one group to another. Ejection from such groups depended to a large extent on one transgressing notions of ‘proper’ behaviour. (I am aware of the word used pejoratively to criticise someone as stuffy).

Wherever you go, the same thing crops up. Even in my arcane (to English eyes) field of Irish traditional music, much is made of playing ‘properly’ – even though doing so is often enough to make a classically trained musician tear their hair – and it still relies on a set of ultimately arbitrary norms. Yet quite far-reaching judgements are sometimes made about the standards of ‘proper’ that one’s fellow musicians personally express.

We might go further still by considering whether those expectations are even reasonable in the first place. In music, standards might reasonably differ between professional and amateur musicians, not to mention the opportunity one has had for formal training, or one’s ability to have purchased a high-quality instrument (judgements about which are, themselves, dictated why what is deemed to be ‘proper’…)

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is some underlying truth that goes beyond personal differences or cultural norms. The most obvious is that a door handle which is not properly fixed is sooner or later going to present a practical problem. It may be that the musician who has not learned ‘proper’ technique will eventually find themselves limited by poor habits. In those senses, ‘proper’ is to some extent defined by the collective consciousness of overcoming past difficulties. When it comes to the way that door handle feels, maybe that sense of solidity that I wanted was subconsciously determined by my need for confidence that the handle would function well. The same might go for a firm handshake – or none at all. It is somehow about gravitas.

It becomes a lot more difficult in matters of aesthetics, taste and personal behaviour. But perhaps underlying even these is a ‘truth’ that certain behaviours make for greater confidence between and within individuals that are somehow connected to a desire for certainty or security. One of the good things about being in Switzerland is the sense, from all that Properness, that things are generally well with the world. Even where the avant-garde is embraced, the underlying principles of confidence are maintained. And while that may on occasions be illusory, on a day-to-day basis, I think it is quite important for our mental well-being.

When it comes to matters like speech or dress, as Richard Goodwin suggests, maybe our tendency to opt for a rather superficial ‘comfort’ betrays a lack of willingness to make the effort required to achieve anything more demanding. And in any case, comfort is a state of mind, not dress – even without the problem that dressing down can impose its own tyranny on those who would prefer things otherwise.

The sense of insecurity that a loose and wobbly door handle can create is perhaps more of a common and significant experience than my fitter understood – and one that he might have done well to think about, as I am now less inclined to employ him again. I am no apologist for maintaining the stuffy status quo just for the sake of it, but perhaps more thought ought to be going into the underlying values which various courses of behaviour transmit, because throwing the baby of long-established truths out with the bathwater of redundant propriety really is no better.

Postscript.
A telling footnote to the door handle episode was the difficulty that I had in finding bolts to fit. I visited five different local outlets, where I was told that such things were not obtainable “because no one ever bothers to do it like that”. In the end I had to order them online, and they turned out to have been imported. So much for such things not being culturally-defined.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Eco-litism

bwt

I’ve just ‘treated’ myself to this year’s Lacoste polo shirt. I buy one each year, and never one to neglect good value, I always buy from the outlet shop which I’m fortunate to have five miles down the road. The outrageous for the merely pricey; last year’s colours, but who cares?

I like this item because the colours are much more appealing than the dull navy-blues, maroons and taupes that one finds in British shops. I don’t know how they do it, but the French seem to have an eye for just the right shades. These polos are 100% cotton, they last well, too, and for me are a nod to a certain kind of Euro-chic that brings back memories of happy times – for they seem to be as close as continental men come to a summer uniform. It’s the only item of outwardly-branded clothing that I will wear.

But what they don’t do on the continent, it seems, is make a social statement, which is the main purpose of wearing brands in Britain. I haven’t come across anywhere else where using the ‘right’ brand supposedly makes you a superior person – or where a certain sector of society has needed to adopt certain brands (think Burberry) as a counter-statement. While there is definitely respect for quality, I just don’t get the impression that the continentals attach social status or exclusivity to them in the  way the British do. What we are seeing here is yet another expression of Britain’s still class-bound society, that just doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way elsewhere in Europe.

One might argue that it doesn’t matter too much when it comes to a polo shirt. But it seems there is nothing that the British will not misappropriate in order to make a class statement. The latest is eco-credentials. I have got into the habit of buying Enki magazine, a new-ish interiors thing, which is full of floaty, scandi-blond cool flaunting the ultra-eco-chic that is definitely to-die-for – with the death in question coming to the bank account of anyone who isn’t a fully-subscribed member of The One Percent.  It portrays a very appealing lifestyle, with a generous side-helping of clear conscience, flaunts products gorgeous in every way except the price tag.

What’s more, a planning application has just gone in to build such a property in the grounds of the large house next door. I’ll be excited to see it go up (they are nice people who are building it), should it survive local conservatism and Britain’s sclerotic planning process. What bothers me about this is not the ideal (let alone the aesthetic, which really is lovely) – but the fact that sustainability is being turned into just another ultra-expensive fashion accessory for the very privileged.

A week ago, I sat opposite regional executives of the national conglomerate that is going to build a new housing development on the edge of our historic town. Given that it was forced upon us, we are trying to ensure that it is as positive a thing as possible. We presented them with a vision for an eco-friendly, contemporary-styled new quarter for the town, complete with ideas for renewable energy, water recycling, passive solar heating and reduced car use. I hope I’m wrong, but the expressions on their faces  suggested that we are not going to get it.

So we see a situation where the wealthy can blow vast budgets (as several have in this neighbourhood recently) buying the latest in earth-friendliness, but when it comes to providing the same for the mere mortals who buy mass-produced housing, what is on offer is the same boring, resource hungry boxes, where the nearest thing to sustainability is a power lead to the garage to allow the owner-to retro-fit a charging point for an electric car if they wish, before they drive out and add to the local congestion. At the end of the day, it seems the bonuses of the executives of such companies trump the need  to address the green agenda on a mass (and hence more cost-effective) basis.

And so something that ought now to be delivered as an essential to the whole population has become a cachet-statement for the small elite who can afford domestic geothermal heating systems and smart energy management tech in their minimalist weekend homes in Suffolk. I wouldn’t mind a bet that some of those executive bonuses in the construction industry are being used to install just such systems in their own homes.

Yet again deeply embedded British social attitudes conspire to maintain not only material but also attitudinal differences between the haves and the have nots, even when it comes to something that should be as egalitarian and universal as the green agenda. Unfortunately, despite the easy-living ethos of Enki, this is morality for the very wealthy.

Sprezzatura is all about the good things in life – of which I consider green living to be one. But its aspiration is democratic. This kind of elitism it most certainly does not support, and I’m heartily tired of the way our society misuses such things as statements of social superiority. For all our protestations of equality, this is still a nation deeply divided not only by its £2000 boiling-water taps – but more profoundly by the snobbery that misappropriates them.

And yes, I know 100% cotton polo shirts are ecologically-dubious too…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

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Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.