Engineered Garments Expedition jacket; photo via Steven Alan.
Engineered Garments Expedition jacket; photo via Steven Alan.
The older I get, the more I’ve come to accept that I have a fairly boring sense of personal style. Shetland sweaters with button down shirts and chinos; soft shouldered sport coats with flat fronted wool trousers and blue dress shirts; and more recently, white t-shirts, dark leather jackets, and a pair of really worn jeans. Every once in a while, however, I get the urge to experiment more. This past week, I’ve been thinking about Ghurka trousers for summer.
Ghurka trousers come from that period of history when the British occupied North Africa and India - a time that left a very uncomfortable political legacy, but seems to be a continual source of style inspiration for books, movies, and clothing. They’re typically high waisted, made from a heavy cotton drill, and characterized by a unique self-belting design. That belted rigging allowed British officers to easily cinch their trousers as they lost weight — an issue I definitely haven’t experienced as I’ve entered my 30s. Still, I find their unique style very appealing. They draw to mind all those beautiful safari images in old Banana Republic catalogs, before Banana Republic was bought out by The Gap.
A couple of weeks ago, StyleForum member TTO posted a photo of himself in some Ghurka trousers, which reminded me of a very military-inspired look Five once posted at Superfuture, which in turn reminded me of a photo of Ralph Fiennes in Anderson & Sheppard’s vanity book. Granted, none of these are looks I could see myself wearing, but these photos do inspire.
Ghurka pants have been offered in the past by Japanese workwear brands such as Engineered Garments and Haversack, as well as American “dad outfitters” such as J. Peterman and JL Powell. Pete also wrote about them when he covered Whillas and Gunn for StyleForum, and I’ve seen old Ralph Lauren versions on eBay. Some of these are still being offered; some not. I noticed that J. Peterman, for example, still sells theirs.
TTO tells me he’s tried the ones from Silverman’s and What Price Glory. The Silvermans are simpler and less cluttered, as they have no extra pockets or button-down belt loops. They’re also sturdier in their fabric and stitching. The downside is that they’re rather short (measuring a ~29.5” inseam on a pair of 36” waisted trousers). This is probably historically correct, as British officers most likely wore these with gaiters and boots, but they might be too short for the modern style enthusiast. What Price Glory’s pants are longer, but they come with a bit more detailing, which may or may not be to people’s taste.
The other option are Ghurka shorts, which Jesse has written extensively about. Engineered Garments and Go Fujito have made versions of them in the past, and styled them in ways I wish I was cool enough to pull off.
Thick Flannel Shirts
Over the weekend, Jesse listed this Spring’s Seven “Must Have Or You’ll Die” Essentials. Do you know why? Because he lives in Los Angeles, and in Southern California, the four seasons are: spring, summer, summer with slightly chillier nights (but not by much), and spring with slightly chillier nights (but again, not by much). Dear readers: know that I - as your correspondent in the Bay Area - understand that we’re still solidly in winter. Here in the Bay, it’s still cold enough to need chunky sweaters, heavy coats, and the occasional pair of gloves.
It’s also useful to have a few thick flannel shirts around. I’ve been wearing mine every once in a while with jeans and a leather jacket, and prefer ones made from heavy, coarse fabrics. My favorite sources so far include:
The best part about wearing thick flannel shirts? With designers such as Daiki Suzuki and Heidi Slimane incorporating them into last year’s looks, you can simultaneously feel very “aritansal heritage workwear” and “high fashion au courant.” Plus, Rick Owens wears them! The dream of the 90s is alive in menswear. At least until spring comes for the rest of us.
Picking the Right Varsity Jacket
The endurance of the silhouette and styling of the letterman/varsity jacket is a little surprising to me. Trying to remember when I bought mine (red body, gray arms, above) I found a thread on Styleforum asking if varsity jackets were “back”…in 2007. Seven years later and the varsity shape is still in the game: Hedi Slimane made it a centerpiece of his comeback men’s collection for Saint Laurent in 2013. For a jacket that seems so bound by its origins—color-matched casual wear earned by team sports players for athletic accomplishments, i.e., FOR JOCKS—the varsity is maybe surprisingly versatile, even potentially subversive.
A Long Way from the Locker Room
For a long time, the “right” varsity jacket was the one you earned. A uniform for school athletes from the middle of the century on, it became pop culture shorthand for jock, whether that meant bullying jerk (Ogre in Revenge of the Nerds) or apparently harmless good guy (Michael Jackson, in human form, in Thriller). In the 1980s straightedge subculture kids adopted the hoodie-and-varsity ensemble as a symbol of fraternal, occasionally militant clean living. After a brief 1990s resurgence in washed denim we didn’t see a lot of varsities until the late aughts, when the classic Americana trend took hold. High fashion versions, like Slimane’s, take advantage of both the masculine connotations of athletics and the kitsch of throwback, Kodachrome America. Today you could call the varsity an ivy style or streetwear classic, and you wouldn’t be wrong in either case.
Nearly everyone who sells men’s casual wear, from Target to Engineered Garments to Saint Laurent, carries a version of the varsity jacket. But their styling choices greatly influence the vibe of the jacket itself. Raglan shoulders allow freer movement than set-in, but set-in sleeves make for a narrower, more tailored shape. Low profile shawl collars are standard, and foldover collars are a little more interesting and sit taller. But collar shapes can get even more exaggerated. Snaps are very 1980s, sewn buttons more vintage looking, a zip more moto-styled. Some jackets omit the knit trim waistband, which looks a little sloppy in my opinion. Monochromatic, tonal, and dark colors look more modern and can help avoid the risk of looking like you just haven’t bought a new jacket since high school (blue and gold, for example, will have the opposite effect). When it comes to letter, patches, and embroidery, I prefer none at all, but they can add character to a vintage jacket.
Where to Find Them
With so many companies making jackets for so long, varsities saturate the vintage market. If you’re cool with wearing someone else’s letters (or using a seam ripper to de-letter), you have your pick at nearly any thrift store. Some good American makers to look for on jacket tags are Centralia Knitting Mills/Skookum, Golden Bear, and Maple—their jackets will generally be better made than no-name and imported vintage pieces. Centralia and Golden Bear still make jackets—Rakuten searches often reveal interesting Skookum models. Golden Bear has been the manufacturer of choice for Engineered Garments, Union Made, and many others who use a general varsity shape. Keep in mind that jackets made for school clients are usually limited to school-style colors, and often use plastick-y leather for the sleeves. The co-branded jackets tend to use custom materials or shapes that you won’t find on pieces made for a high school band. Epaulet made a very refined, modern looking varsity-styled jacket, seen in the first picture on this post, unfortunately sold out for the season. Like many other symbols of mid-century America, the jacket has been obsessively recreated by Japan-based companies like Flat Head. As with military jackets, you can really spend as little or as much on a varsity jacket as you want.
Real People: Wearing Short Jackets
If there’s one thing that peeves traditionalists, it’s the trend for short jackets, which has been going strong for over a decade now. The rule of thumb is that a jacket should cover your butt, although this somewhat varies by region. Traditionally cut jackets in Southern Italy will be a little shorter; ones from England will be a bit longer. Personally, I think a better rule to follow is to have your jacket’s hem hit about halfway between your jacket’s collar and the floor, but truthfully speaking, the “cover your butt” guideline - give or take - isn’t a bad one to follow.
If you want a traditional look anyway. If you don’t, then there are short jackets, or what traditionalists like to mock as “bum freezers.” Although I’m not crazy about trends in the “suit and tie” look, I also don’t mind more fashionable cuts in casualwear or streetwear. Take Ben from Richmond, for example. He’s seen above wearing a sport coat from Barena, an Italian brand known for their soft, relaxed style. Their jackets are often made from knitted fabrics instead of wovens. The difference? Knitted textiles are what you find on sweaters (hence “knitwear”) and wovens are what you typically see on shirts and pants. Knitted textiles tend to be stretchier. When used for a sport coat, you get something that wears like a cardigan, especially when it doesn’t have a canvas or chest piece inside (which Barena often goes without).
With a jacket like this, I think a fashion-forward cut can look great. Even here, where Ben is mixing it with more “traditional” items: the button-down collar shirt is from Kamakura, the quick release belt from Equus, the pants from Oliver Spencer, and the workboots from Viberg.
Short jackets are also easier to wear with jeans or - as Pete suggested - fatigues. Jeans with sport coats are much harder to pull off than most people give credit for, and it’s very easy to look discombobulated with a dressy half up top and an oddly casual look down bottom. However, with a more fashionably cut jacket - like the ones made by Barena, Engineered Garments, and Oliver Spencer - it’s easier to look a bit more cohesive. Plus, if you’re ever going to turn your collar up on a sport coat, it should be something from one of these brands, where it looks more natural, rather than something you’d pick up from J. Press or Brooks Brothers.
Is it a classic look? No. Is it something you can wear to traditional offices or weddings? Probably not. But it’s casualwear, and given the right context, this stuff can look pretty great. As evidenced by Ben above, or even our very own Pete, who can be seen here in a pair of jeans and an Engineered Garments jacket.
I probably should have anticipated this before I started a blog called Die, Workwear!, but as we get closer to winter, I’ve been thinking about getting myself a deck jacket. The term deck jacket refers to heavy winter coats worn by sailors during the mid-20th century. They’ve become highly prized among vintage collectors and workwear aficionados, not only for their history, but also their durability and protective warmth.
Some of the earliest deck jackets looked very much like the US Army’s winter combat jacket (also known as a tanker jacket). It had a dark blue outer shell made out of a heavy corded cotton, and a basic zipper-front design. Over the years, however, it’s been improved upon by the US military for naval use. In 1943, for example, the jacket was lengthened and lined with alpaca fur so that it’d be more protective for sailors. The knit waistband, exposed knit cuff, and patch pockets were also done away with, as they were at risk of snagging on different parts of the ship. As replacements, the knit cuffs were brought in, sort of like the storm cuffs you see today on certain Barbour jackets, and the jacket’s hem was made with a drawstring. The basic zipper front also saw the addition of a button-closure wind flap, and then later metal hook claps, which were easier to operate when you had big gloves on.
There are still many makers of deck jackets today, and they typically come in the garment’s original colors - dark blue, light olive, and dark green. My favorite version is probably by Mister Freedom, who released one with a striped blanket lining a few years ago. Most sizes have long sold out on their website, but you can sometimes find some floating around on eBay. Other makers include the many Japanese companies that specialize in workwear and military reproductions, such as Buzz Rickson, Toys McCoys, The Real McCoys, and The Few. You may also want to look into stores such as Blue in Green, Self Edge, Superdenim, and Bench & Loom, who either carry those aforementioned brands, or similar ones.
Unfortunately for me, all those are well outside my budget. I’ve seen slightly more affordable models by Spiewak, Engineered Garments, Orvis, and Pike Brothers, but they’re still pretty pricey. Going vintage here won’t yield any more savings, as collectors have been hunting for originals on eBay for years. For a good vintage piece, you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to a whooping $1,500.
So for now, no deck jacket for me. Perhaps for the better, since I don’t think you can look like a sailor with a size 36 chest.
Real People: Layering Lengths
The ideal men’s casual ensemble, as etched into stone tablets handed down to Steve McQueen by a god resembling On the Waterfront-era Marlon Brando, involves straight or slightly tapered pants worn a little below the waist with a slight break at the hem, sneakers or leather boots, a shirt or tshirt either tucked or untucked and ending just below the beltline, and a jacket that’s just a little longer. These are the commandments of flattering proportions in layering.
But the geometry of good layering is more complicated than that. Adrian in DC's photos often show off a sophisticated sense of proportion and length that just slightly subverts the military/sportswear styles from which most of our casual dressing norms derive. In the top photo, Adrian's midlayer denim is shorter than his shirt, and not just a little bit. In the lower left, he layers a shorter jersey tee over a longer one. The lower right photo's layers are not as unusual, but maintain the “A”-shaped silhouette that literally inverts the traditional, shoulder-emphasizing “V” of most western men's clothing. Making sure it doesn't look like an accident is key—note Adrian's shirt sleeve length is precise and the colors he's wearing are basic but complementary, not mismatched or sloppy. It's not generally advisable to mimic directly a brand's lookbook or runway show, which after all are primarily marketing tools rather than how-to guides, but Engineered Garments fall 2011 book and Siki Im’s work were some of the places I initially saw layering like this and thought it looked good—both lines use a lot of sportswear elements but aren’t afraid of aprons or tunics as layers.
I don’t yet have any recommendations for a best value tunic.
Q and Answer: Which Sport Coats Can Be Worn with Jeans?
Kenny writes to us to ask: I wear jeans almost every day, but would like to get a sport coat for days I need to look a bit more dressed up. Are there certain ones I should be looking for? Is it even OK to wear sport coats with jeans?
The number of sport coats that can be successfully worn with jeans is much smaller than most men think. The problem starts with the motivation: most men, I imagine, are putting these things together because they’re trying to dress down a tailored jacket, which admittedly can look a bit formal in today’s world. The problem is, the more you try to dress down a sport coat, the more jarring the look becomes. In extremes, you can look like one of those children’s flipbooks, where you turn the pages to dress some character in bizarre combinations of shirts and pants. All dressy up top; strangely casual down below.
There are sport coats you can wear with jeans though, and the key is to find ones where you don’t have to bridge such a big divide between casual and formal. In other words, find jackets that are inherently casual. Very textured jackets, especially ones with a rustic sensibility, are good choices. So, think tweeds and corduroys. The casual, rustic nature of those jackets plays well with the casual, rustic nature of jeans.
There are also slightly “fashion forward” sport coats. These are typically shorter in length, have unique details, and are made from casual fabrics. My co-writer Pete, for example, looks great here in his Engineered Garments jacket, blue button-down shirt, and dark jeans. Readers who closely follow our eBay roundups might have noticed that I list similar garments in our outerwear section. That’s because even though these have the semblance of a sport coat (two or three button front, buttons on the sleeve, notched lapels, etc), I think they’re better thought of as casual outerwear, rather than the type of sport coats you’d wear in a conservative work environment (e.g. law offices). Such jackets can always be worn with jeans.
Of course, this position is not without controversy or stipulations. Navy sport coats aren’t rustic, and they can sometimes be worn with jeans. And some people, such as Hooman Majd, look good in almost any combination. Certainly, you should always dress according to your eye, but in general, I think the rule of thumb is better followed than ignored: when pairing sport coats with jeans, choose ones that are close together in the formal-informal spectrum. Instead of trying to really dress down a jacket, you’re better off choosing something that’s a bit more casual, such as a tweed or corduroy, or swapping out the jeans for something dressier, such as chinos. Pick similarly casual shirts, shoes, and ties to go with the look (or forgo the tie altogether). Otherwise, you’ll risk looking like this guy.
(Photo via voxsart)
It’s On Sale: Jonathan + Olivia
Toronto shop Jonathan + Olivia has marked down most of its spring summer merchandise in the area of 50 percent off. J+O is a longtime Engineered Garments stockist and still has some of my favorites from this season in stock, as well as very wearable stuff from brands like French Trotters (I believe J+O is only North American stockist for this Parisian line), Acne, and Wings + Horns, plus lines that push the envelope a little more like Perks and Mini. This is not the best opportunity for shoppers outside of North America to buy a tshirt; J+O ships at a flat rate of $15 within Canada and $25 to the United States; rates are significantly higher for European and Asian destinations.
Real People: Fatigue Pants
Of course, we all read Put This On, so all of our pants are perfectly tailored: Fitted in the waist, slim through the thigh, draping elegantly down our calves to end in an ideal break over our frankly breathtaking (hand-welted) shoes. But when I need a break from worrying about breaks, it can be comforting to pull on a pair of pants designed for utility. Military-style, olive drab fatigue pants are probably not the most often re-purposed surplus gear (M-65s take that prize), but they are exceedingly wearable. They’re an interesting alternative to plain cotton khakis (also military derived) for wear with plaid shirts and worn-in shoes, like Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments, and can even be reasonably swapped in for more formal trousers if you’re in a position to be a little subversive, like Gary Drinkwater, pictured in his shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gary’s colors are neutral and well-balanced, and he looks relaxed rather than sloppy, which can be a concern with fatigues, especially surplus versions.
Such pants can be found vintage in a number of models: pants from the OG-107 U.S. military work uniform (standard issue for the second half of the 20th century; OG-107 really designates the color, olive gray); M-1951 cargo pants; or more recent Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) trousers. They are best purchased in person because the sizing varied over the years and many if not most pants were altered after issuance, so actual measurements may not match tagged sizes. Although fatigues can sometimes be tailored to fit trimly, the bagginess is in my opinion the interesting aspect and on its own is “different” enough—pinrolling can help narrow them at the ankle. Camouflage patterns are best left to the military or utility purposes around the house, like yardwork.
Gary’s pants were purchased new, from Engineered Garments sub-brand Workaday (I have a pair from Workaday myself, as well as a couple of vintage pairs). Daiki Suzuki has offered a pair in his collection nearly every season for years, but they vary in fabric and cut—some are trimmer than others, and spring/summer versions are lighter weight. They’re currently available at Engineered Garments stockists like Drinkwaters or Mohawk General Store.