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Classic Acts

Ralph DiGennaro

Enduring, traditional, practical. By its very definition, the word classic defies the fleeting fancies of fashion, a realm driven by ever-changing and often recycled trends. The simple, approachable lines and self-confident simplicity of five of our favorite spring wardrobe essentials offer a refreshing change of pace from relentless fashion innovation. Few would dispute the venerable qualities of the navy blazer, linen suit, or seersucker jacket, or the practical sleekness of the Montecristi hat. Each has proven its merit over decades, if not centuries, but historical pedigree is not a prerequisite to achieving classic status. Consider the slip-on driving shoe, a relative newcomer to the fashion scene. Sometimes, classic is what classic does—which is offer foolproof style that, paradoxically enough, is nothing short of modern.

The Blazer: Simplicity on Land or Sea

The blazer, the ultimate classic element of a man’s tailored wardrobe, is also the subject of lively debate about how it got its name. One legend holds that the name is derived from English nobility who took to emblazoning their outerwear with coats of arms. Another claims that the blazer is a direct descendant of the bright scarlet rowing jackets worn by Cambridge University students in the late 19th century. Invariably made of flannel, with broad vertical stripes, these jackets were so bright that from a distance they looked ablaze, hence the name blazer. (Click image to enlarge)

Actually, the blazer’s origins are nautical. The most romantic legend traces the jacket back to 1837 and the captain of a British frigate named HMS Blazer. To avoid the embarrassment of his crew’s shabby appearance pending a visit from Queen Victoria, the skipper outfitted each seaman with short blue serge jackets accented with shiny brass buttons similar to those on Royal Navy uniforms. The blazers were an unequivocal hit with the style-conscious queen, and a fashion icon was born.


The single-breasted navy blue blazer is, without a doubt, the most versatile element in a man’s wardrobe. It bridges the gap between work and weekend wear—add charcoal flannel trousers, a tie, and dress shirt for business or a knitted polo and khaki trousers for brunch. An ascot, naturally, lends an aristocratic dash, which is altogether appropriate given the garment’s regal standing in clothing history.

For consummate style, the double-breasted blazer—with peaked lapels, not notched—is without peer. Far more refined than the single-breasted model, it looks even more distinctive, if not closer to the original, with six buttons rather than four.

When the mercury climbs, the best blazer fabrics are lightweight wool, worsted, and hopsacking—a kind of basket weave that is loose and airy. And Irish linen, though difficult to find, always translates well into a classic blazer. The trousers most nattily paired with a navy blazer are cream- or ivory-colored pleated wool flannels, with the season determining the fabric weight. For the less adventurous, tan gabardine or charcoal gray worsted trousers are always correct.

As with many traditional garments, the blazer has suffered some tampering over the years. Lapels have been narrowed and widened with abandon and, during one period in the early 1960s, they disappeared altogether, though the trend was mercifully short-lived. The blazer has been adorned with fussy, unnecessary detailing and even tailored in synthetic fibers better left to bulletproof vests and trampolines. And yet, like a fine claret, the blazer has endured. The blazer’s ability to maintain a certain stature without being off-putting is probably its most valuable asset. 

 

Seersucker: Pucker Up

Cool, comfortable, easy to care for, and genuinely classic, seersucker epitomizes what warm-weather clothing should be. With so many redeeming qualities, it is difficult to understand how the fabric has struggled for survival.

 

From the Hindi word sirsaker, which is literally translated as milk and sugar, seersucker first became popular when it was used for silk pajamas and nightshirts worn by the British Raj in India. The fabric’s crinkly texture results from the various slackening processes that the threads undergo during weaving. Indian weavers referred to these cloths as homespun, and much pride went into the handwork.

The cotton seersucker suit as we know it first surfaced in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century and quickly became the suit of choice for wealthy Southern plantation owners. Unopposed to the wrinkles, these gentlemen were no doubt attracted to the fabric’s light weight, as well as the meager $10 price tag for a complete suit.

However, among Northerners, save for a smattering of style-conscious Princetonians, the seersucker suit was mostly regarded with snobbish disdain, particularly by New Yorkers unwilling to sacrifice a crisp crease for comfort. Above the Mason-Dixon Line, seersucker was shrugged off as a poor man’s fabric better left to the South.


As the 1940s unfolded, the seersucker suit, oddly enough, began to win favor along the northeastern seaboard, even becoming something of a status symbol in such stalwart business cities as Washington, D.C., and New York. During the early 1950s, an industrious New Orleans clothier named Joseph Haspel developed a seersucker suit that could be washed and worn without pressing. Haspel blended polyester and cotton to create a seersucker cloth that retained its shape even after rigorous machine washings. A showman by nature, Haspel demonstrated his fabric breakthrough at a Florida convention of tailored clothing buyers. He called a press conference on a beach and, as the story goes, walked into the ocean up to his neck wearing one of his new suits. Later that evening, Haspel wore the same suit, silencing even the most seasoned cynics. Wrinkle-resistant seersucker was born, and Haspel would forever be known as the father of the washable seersucker suit.

Hollywood soon lent its influence in promoting seersucker as a stylish suit fabric. Who could forget the derring-do of James Cagney in A Lion in the Streets or the cool nonchalance of Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch. Gregory Peck, at his forthright best in To Kill a Mockingbird, entered the courtroom clad in a seersucker suit replete with wrinkles.

The newest look in seersucker jackets is the high-roll, three-button, single-breasted model. Yet double-breasted, peaked-lapel versions with either four or six buttons are still very popular.


While blue and white remains the classic color combination, many designers are offering seersucker in more unusual shades that evoke another era—pale gray, ecru, and dusty rose, for example.

The contemporary seersucker suit always looks appropriate with a simple bow tie and would not be complete without a jaunty pocket square of linen or cotton peeking out from the breast pocket. But a more modern way to wear it would be sans tie with a white or pale-colored cotton T-shirt. We can’t think of anything cooler for the dog days.

The Linen Suit: It’s Only Natural

Little in the lexicon of classic men’s fashion can compare with linen when it comes to comfort, style, and grace. And no fabric wrinkles so profoundly. Yet for those who understand and appreciate the virtues of this unique fiber, which dates to prehistoric times (fragments of linen cloth have been found in the remains of Stone Age villages in Switzerland), linen stands apart as one of the most wearable, elegant fabrics ever put to needle and thread.

Perhaps the oldest material known to man, linen is a natural fabric made from the fiber surrounding the woody core of the flax plant known as Linum usitatissimum. Ranging in color from creamy white to natural tan, the tubular flax fiber is stronger and more absorbent than cotton.


Over the years, linen has been treated and manipulated to create a more polished appearance. The cloth has been impregnated with a resin solution to prevent wrinkling, and the finished fabric has been pounded with wooden blocks to impart a permanent luster. But anyone with a sense of style knows that cool, comfortable linen, in shades of cream, ivory, beige, or wheat, is best worn with nary a care about crinkling or wrinkles.

Wrinkles be damned—think of Sydney Greenstreet in his white linen vested suits, or a surly Burl Ives as Big Daddy prowling around in his ivory double-breasted linen suit in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Linen conjures up images of Old Havana and cigars, white bucks, and boutonnieres. And of course, no linen outfit would be complete without the perfect finishing touch: a supple straw hat.

The Panama Hat: A Lasting Straw

Compile a list of U.S. presidents as famous for their panache as their politics, and perhaps the least likely name to appear would be Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, credit is due our 26th president for popularizing what is universally considered a true classic: the Panama hat.

President Roosevelt no doubt would have been surprised to be heralded as a trendsetter, but there he was at the Panama Canal, dapperly sporting his Panama hat on a November day in 1906, when he was photographed at the controls of a steam shovel. Almost immediately after the photograph was published in newspapers across America, men began sporting these lightweight, woven hats, which were becoming widely available thanks to enterprising sailors who brought Panama straws back home by the bale to sell in U.S. ports.


Given the circumstances that spurred the popularity of Panamas, it is easy to understand how these hats got their name. But in truth, Panama hats do not come from Panama and almost certainly never will. Rather, authentic Panamas are made exclusively in tiny villages throughout Ecuador, and sometimes Colombia and Peru. The name applies more to the type of weave and material than to the style. In fact, the weaving method is a craft that has been handed down from generation to generation of South American natives for over 300 years.

The finesse of a high-quality Panama hat is determined by the number of concentric rings or vueltas that fan out from and around the hat’s center. The finer the straw strips and the tighter the weave, the more vueltas the finished hat will have. An ordinary Panama would feature about seven rings, while 15 or more rings constitute an exceptional specimen. The benefit of this painstaking craftsmanship is a finished Panama so soft and flexible that it can be rolled and crumpled like a handkerchief and stuffed in a back pocket, only to spring back to its original shape.

For staving off the sun’s damaging rays, nothing beats a light and airy Panama. Apart from its stylish virtues, it is a highly functional accessory that belongs in any man’s warm-weather wardrobe.

The Driving Shoe: Step on It in Style

Fashion insiders know it as the scarpe di macchina, or driving shoe—that softly constructed, yet expertly crafted moccasin with the black rubber bumps (133 of them to be exact) that pimple the sole and back of the heel.

Though often imitated, the genuine article—bearing the label Tod’s—was developed by Italian footwear designer Diego Della Valle in 1979 as a favor to race car enthusiast and debonair Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli. Once they were on the feet of the stylish Italian executive, who is known worldwide for his exacting and luxurious taste, the flexible loafers quickly became a must-have accessory for fashion devotees everywhere. Della Valle could not have asked for a speedier run into the footwear hall of fame.


While part of the shoe’s manufacture involves a certain amount of machinery, all stitching is still done by hand. Ditto for the positioning of those trademark black rubber nibs on the shoe bottoms. Remarkably comfortable, these chic slip-ons have covered the feet of virtually everyone who is anyone in Hollywood.

Della Valle realized that people today lead hectic lives spent working and traveling. His comfortable, versatile loafer offers a stylish alternative that eliminates the need to pack and carry several pairs of shoes.

To be sure, the driving shoe fits every occasion—it can be worn by day at the office as well as to dinner in the evening, or with a pair of jeans on weekends. A few years ago Della Valle convinced the chairman of Ferrari to offer a free custom-fitted pair of Tod’s as a gift with the purchase of every new Ferrari. It might be worth buying one or two of those classic Italian sports cars just for the driving shoes.

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Photo by John Pangilinan
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