As a young guy I was supremely jealous of women’s clothing. The options seemed endless. Not only do women wear modified versions of menswear but the traditional Western woman’s closet includes countless items from dresses and skirts to hats and accessories. At the time it seemed to me that menswear, in comparison, was dour and boring.
But in contrast to that proverbial forest, I had not wandered in deep enough to carefully study the trees. Once I did, once I started to build a classic men’s wardrobe, I discovered untold riches. There are all types of trees in here, of all shapes, sizes and colours. One key difference, however, between Western classic menswear and women’s wear is flamboyance. The former tends to follow the British definition of elegance and so is understated and muted. But that does not mean it is boring. And it does not mean there are no opportunities for self-expression and enjoyment.
In fact, one of the best ways for men to enjoy their clothes is through accessories. And the most basic of accessories – in this case ties, hats and socks – can have a profound impact on your wardrobe.
How I wear a tie
Regardless of the post hoc reasoning illustrated above, I’ve heard many men say they don’t wear ties because ties serve no practical purpose. But if that were a guiding principle of dress, why do so many of us wear shirts with collars, multi-coloured running shoes or scarves with fringes? In truth, purpose is not why we wear what we wear. Culture, conformity and habit are just some of the reasons, with the practical need to cover ourselves for warmth very low on the list of priorities. Much of what we wear is to adorn ourselves and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Why not have a bit more beauty in the world, for its own sake? And a tie provides one of men’s few opportunities to wear something purely and utterly for the sake of beauty.
Sadly, however, most men who wear ties wear them because they must, out of official duty or office protocol. And when we are forced to do something, the doing so rarely involves much joy. Thus the proliferation of what I call “business ties.” These bulky, low-quality, shiny, flowery or stripy patterned ties are ubiquitous in the business world and lack any personality. The fact that they are worn with almost any colour suit is proof of their supreme mediocrity.
However, there are almost limitless possibilities when picking out ties. Consider texture, for instance. Instead of the shiny, go for matte in a wool or cotton. Knit ties are also a way to add depth without pattern, from the standard knit tie to the classic grenadine. These also come in patterns and in many colours. But it’s perhaps all this choice that puts guys off. How many times have I seen in a menswear store (usually a girlfriend or wife) pairing up a tie with a shirt and jacket? Yes, your accessories need to be compatible with your wardrobe but large parts of your wardrobe, not just one shirt. And they need to complement, not match. A tie must be chosen for not only its beauty but also how it expresses your own personal style. Which is the much greater challenge.
When picking a tie, however, one of the options that should not bother you is the width. The width of your tie should be dictated by one thing and it isn’t fashion: your size. If you are thin, you can wear a thin tie (2.5″). If you are heavy, you can pull off wide (4″). For the rest of us, 3 to 3.5″ should be the width of all your ties (and jacket lapels, by the way). That way, they are in proportion to your frame. Thin ties get lost on big guys making them look even bigger. While wide ties look clownish on thin guys. And thin or wide ties go in and out of fashion every decade or so. Moderation is for the ages.
How I tie a necktie
The four-in-hand knot is, in my experience, the only knot you will ever need. (Do a Google search, you’ll find thousands of tutorials.) It produces a slightly long and rakishly uneven knot and works with practically all shirt collars and neck ties. Occasionally a tie is unlined and so thin a double four-in-hand might be necessary but that’s as rare as a leather Albert these days.
I am extremely opposed to the full Windsor knot (also known as the double Windsor) and if you care for me at all you will never use one. I have seen, on far too many occasions, a perfectly presentable ensemble of shirt, tie and jacket ruined by a knot bigger than the guy’s chin. The double Windsor dates from a time when ties were extremely thin and so the bulk would never reach the absurd proportions it can today. Today’s ties are mostly made with a thick lining so a four-in-hand is their perfect form. Just say no to Windsor.
How I tie a bow tie
If you can tie your shoes then you already know how to tie a bow tie. It’s the same knot, just around your neck which, I will admit, adds a Mensa level of brain twisting to the process. I remember spending hours in front of the mirror (OK, not consecutive) struggling to wrap my head around just where all the loops and tucks went. The truth is, no one can really teach you how to tie a bow tie, you simply have to experience it yourself, over and over again, so you build up the physical memory of where everything goes.
I suggest you start by tying a bow tie to your thigh so you can get a clear view of the mechanics at play. Once you transition to your neck, you’ll need repeated attempts until you reach the sartorial peak of being able to tie a bow tie, without a mirror, in a cab on the way to the opera. This, for some reason lost in the mists of time, is the official bow tying standard.
How I store my ties
The thing with ties is that you should have a lot of them if you are to truly enjoy the art of wearing a tie. The problem is what to do with these dozens, if not hundreds of strips of silk, cotton and wool. Sadly, there is no easy, universal answer as it all depends on how much space you have. For instance, with a very large cupboard, rolling the ties could be an option. The problem with rolled ties, I find, is in the selection process: you can’t really see them until you pull them out and unroll them, causing no end of wasted time.
I choose to hang my ties from a hanger purpose-built for them – the cedar Tie Rack from Rochester Shoes – although almost any hanger will do. Except for those silly electric ones which seem more bother than they are worth. My cedar hanger comes with about 40 plastic clips from which the ties hang, including my bow ties and ascots. I find that this way I can not only see my ties much easier – to make selection a breeze – they are easy to pull out and put back in again.
If you have a lot of ties and a lot of room, you can get more creative with larger structures in your closet or on your wall, from which the ties can hang. The trick is you want to be able to see the ties as clearly as possible, so you can make a quick visual scan and pick out what you want. I add the obsessive level to the process by grouping my ties – repp, wool, grenadine, madder, etc – to make selection just that much faster and easier.
And a note on knit ties. The shared wisdom is that knit ties should never be hung as they might stretch out. Having worn knit ties for many years, they have spent a considerable time hanging (as they do off my neck). Are they stretched? If so, it is an amount so insignificant, I have never noticed. In fact, I keep my knit ties rolled not to protect them from stretching but to protect them from getting runs. I find that the loose weaves of knit ties are far more prone to getting caught on a stray sharp object and are thus safer rolled up next to my socks (more on that later).
How I wear a hat
Let’s start by dispensing with that old chestnut that men don’t wear hats any more. Of course they do. It’s just that in North American cities you are much more likely to see baseball caps and toques than dress hats and flat caps. This is all due to how casual our wardrobes have become. But if you wear a jacket and tie and want to wear a hat, a dress hat is really your only option. Thankfully, dress hats have been carefully and meticulously crafted over decades to provide you not only protection from the elements but also elegance, if worn correctly.
One excellent piece of advice I received early on from my hatmaker is to always insure your hat and coat do not match. If they do, you might look costumed. Also, and this is most important, consider your hat a practical accessory not a fashionable one. Which means never, ever wear one indoors, unless you are just passing through or in a space that doubles for the outside. A hat worn inside ceases to be functional and becomes a fashion statement and you therefore appear more self-aware and are open to ridicule.
However, practicality does not mean a lack of style. Your hat should be in proportion to your head and body. Chances are, if you’ve ever put on a hat and thought you looked stupid, the hat simply wasn’t right for you. Perhaps a shorter brim or a taller crown would have turned that frown upside down.
The other key to hat wearing today, of course, is confidence. In most cities around the world, you will be the only one wearing a hat. But if you wear that as a crown of honour, as it were, you can hold your head up high. And something that helps, I find, is to set the hat at a slightly rakish angle. Hats just look more natural and elegant this way.
How I brush a hat
Hat maintenance is thankfully a relatively easy task. Chances are, unless you seriously soil your hat, all it will require is the occasional brushing, to remove excess dust and restore the nap. To do this, hold the hat in your non-dominant hand with your fingers spread out to stabilize it. Then, using a natural bristled clothes brush, either turn the hat counter-clockwise or clockwise, brushing in the opposite direction. The direction you brush will be based on the nap of your hat. For my Leon Drexler hats and my old Biltmore, I brush counter-clockwise.
If your hat gets wet – and it’s made of rabbit or beaver, as it should be – don’t worry, it’s supposed to get wet. Simply let it hang dry, after gently encouraging it towards its intended shape.
Should your hat require more substantial assistance, like stain removal, re-blocking or repair, there is only one place I know of in Toronto that offers those services: The Hatter. While I have not used their cleaning and repair services, they have a long history in the trade (since 1936, when they started just cleaning hats, not yet selling them).
How I store my hats
Don’t be too precious with your hats. I know, because I’ve been down that road. After I bought my first custom fedora, I handled it gingerly and only by the brim. I hung my hat ever so carefully after taking it off. And I never put any pressure on the crown, struggling to maintain its shape. But no matter my care and diligence, the brim started to bend and the crown to soften. And that’s OK. All those great hats you see in old movies? Those hats so full of character and personality? They weren’t made that way. They achieved their misshapen glory because they were worn, beaten up, abused. I’m not suggesting you intentionally sit on or distress your hat. However, feel free to grab it by the dimple or crown and throw it onto a chair when you get home. (Never pick up someone else’s hat by the crown, however, only the brim.) Sure, invest in a proper hat rack for day to day storage, but when you are out and about wearing the hat, live in it, don’t carry it around like a baby bird in a nest made of spun sugar.
For very long term storage, over the winter or summer, I keep my hats in their original hat boxes in my closet. This way, they are protected from needless dust and damage, while maintaining their shape. Stuff your hats with tissue paper to give them a bit of help. I realize I just went on and on about not being to precious with your hats, but improper storage can actually cause your hats problems, not build character.
How I wear socks
Yes, I know, just pull them on to your feet. But there’s so much more to socks than just foot coverings. They are an often under-emphasized but no less important aspect of the pants-socks-shoes nexus in a man’s wardrobe. The wrong socks can undermine an excellent pant/shoe combination. But what can make socks wrong?
There are different kinds of socks for different kinds of outfits. Those thick, white athletic socks need to be left for working out or at least really casual outfits. That also goes for thick socks of other colours: since they are inherently casual, they’ll work well with heavy soled shoes like traditional full brogues or chukka boots. But once you move into tailored clothes and elegant derbies and oxfords, you’ll need “dress” socks or as I know them: “socks.” These are typically sheer and made of cotton, wool, silk or a blend. I prefer 100% natural fibres although a little bit of nylon can improve stretch and durability.
I also prefer over-the-calf socks, sometimes called “executive length” – which makes me feel like a banker in the 80s. But that’s not why I like them. Unlike calf-length, OTC stay up, period. So, when you cross your legs you get a lovely smooth line down your calves to your shoes, instead of rumpled fabric and hairy legs. The only time I wear calf length is in the summer, for a bit more breath-ability, but I use sock garters to make sure I avoid any slippage. You may chuckle at the thought of sock garters, like something out of an old movie, but then you would be valuing fashion over function. Garters work and they work very well. Plus, chances are, you’re the only one who will know you’re wearing them.
How I launder my socks
Washing machines do not eat socks. And socks don’t disappear into some kind of temporary Bermuda triangle in your laundry room. They just have a tendency to get stuck in the nooks and crannies of your machine. And trust me, once you start spending more on your socks, as you should, you will work much harder to keep track of them and care for them properly.
Thankfully, sock laundering is straightforward: wash them on cold and hang dry. I never machine dry as the heat has a tendency to negatively effect elasticity and can shrink wool socks. Left hanging overnight, socks are usually dry the next day with little effort (except for the seemingly endless process of hanging each one individually). Socks do tend to look rumbled and out of shape this way but by simply pulling them over your hand they will return to near normal shape.
How I store my socks
Storing socks can be as daunting as a farmer crossing a river in a small boat with a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain. You want them to be organized and paired up, but don’t want to stretch them in any way. Or eat each other. Thankfully, after giving it much thought and trying various methods – I’m not talking about the river thing, good luck with that – I’ve found a way. And it’s not what I used to do: either folding one sock opening over its twin, which can stretch the sock needlessly or just folding them in half over each other which can mean they get separated and your sock drawer turns into the site of a daily fishing expedition.
Here’s what I do: lay one sock out as flat as it will go. Lay the other sock symmetrically on top of it. Starting at the toes, roll the socks up as tightly as you can. The roll and the fabric itself should keep the socks in a stable bundle which you can arrange in rows in your sock drawer. Happy socks, easy to find.
How I repair my socks
Despite buying really good socks and then washing, drying and storing them carefully, you will eventually feel the heartbreak of a small hole. Mine always appear under my heels. I’ll take my shoes off and when my foot lifts off the floor there’s that brief moment – you either feel a spot of cold on your foot or the skin sticks slightly to the floor – when your heart falls. But a small hole is not the end of your beautiful socks. Not, that is, if you act fast. It’s time to darn. [Click images to launch gallery]
Sock wrapped around halogen bulb and secured with elastic band.
Stitches around the hole to reinforce the fabric.
The wonderful thing about darning socks is that it’s one of the easiest repairs you can make to your wardrobe with the biggest impact. A few minutes of sewing saves a garment from the landfill. And it doesn’t even matter how good or bad your sewing technique is because no one will see the patch job. Here’s my simple darning technique, step by step:
Place something round and egg-shaped in the sock and secure it with an elastic band. I use a small, expired halogen light bulb because it produces a nice, flat surface to work on.
Using a regular sewing needle (if you don’t have a darning one), choose a thread as close to the colour of the socks as possible.
Start by sewing around the edges of the hole, to help reinforce the fabric.
Sew across the hole in simple in/out stitches, pulling only slightly (but not enough to close the hole).
Sew across the hole perpendicular to your first set of stitches, threading through those stitches as much as you can.
Tie off the ends and snip off the excess thread.
There is nothing quite so satisfying as returning a beloved pair of socks to life.
[This post is part of a series on wardrobe care, which will include shirts, accessories, suits, shoes and more. After all, if you are going to invest in quality garments it is just as important to take care of them properly, so that they not only remain in good condition, they actually improve with age.]