“Things were better then.” That’s the implicit caption on every archival photo of a menswear icon, traditional or otherwise, on a mood board or Instagram feed (or menswear blog). Nostalgia is a complex and powerful emotion. It can be pleasant — giving us a sense of our past and its shadow on our present. It can also be exploited and poisonous, making us favor an imagined golden era and reject current reality.
Nostalgia is also a powerful tool in consumption; brands like to play on our feelings about our pasts, real or not, to sell us things. Current car models are named after car models our parents owned (I mean isn’t it weird that car models are named anything at all?) and echo the originals’ designs. Watches are marketed as heirlooms. Whiskey always seems to be made just how it’s always been — the right way, right here, in Scotland/Kentucky/my bathtub.
And nothing sets a guy’s tone more sepia than talking about how great something used to be. Something that maybe we coulda gotten in on! We pine for deadstock oxford cloth button downs. Defunct European men’s stores. Spearpoint collars. Reverse weave sweatshirts.
Sometimes we lose these later-celebrated things because of manufacturing evolution that values some things — efficiency, durability — over others that may not even be immediately apparent. I’m sure lining the OCBD collar seemed like a good idea at the time. Sometimes styles go out of vogue and don’t return. Sometimes it’s broad economic trends — Sulka was bought and sold several times and the perception at the time of its 2001 closure was that it lost market share to younger, more personality-associated brands. Days after the New York Times announced Sulka’s last store, in New York, would shutter, writer Ralph Gardner Jr. tried to get in one more time and found the windows papered over:
I walked away, bereft. In fact, the profundity of my disappointment surprised me: It was just a clothing store, after all. And I rarely shopped there. Maybe the starkness of the midday sun had something to do with it, or the fact that the Upper East Side seemed half-deserted the day before Christmas, but I couldn’t help but feel that something irretrievable had been lost-not just clothes, but a gracious way of life, of which Sulka was merely the latest victim.
One of the questions we ask ourselves a lot at Put This On is: what are the things we can get now that we’d miss if they were gone? How do we shop, or care for our clothes, or dress in ways that may one day seem absurdly indulgent, like the idea of having all your clothes tailor made may seem to us today?
We always try to celebrate the currently awesome, to bring to light and support things we think are cool. It can be harder to pinpoint, in advance, what might be endangered. Who knew Brooks Brothers’ Alden/Edward Green footwear was at risk? Who knew Cone Mills would close?
There’s a lot of menswear-related things — items, brands, stores, concepts — that we just couldn’t imagine being without. The list is long, and that’s encouraging. I dwelled on a few things I think are still awesome right now — I’m not suggesting these are on their way out, just that we shouldn’t take them for granted.
- Core trad stores: J. Press, O’Connell’s, Andover. Derek wrote last year about the pressures these stores face and their strategies to overcome them. I’ve been buying flap pocket oxfords and repp ties at Press for years; hard to imagine not being able to drop in and grab another.
- RRL: One of Ralph Lauren’s prestige brands traffics explicitly in nostalgia: primarily for everyday American clothing of the past, primarily in the western, work, and military veins. Since starting in 1993, it’s been as reliable as the workwear it alludes to. Familiar in concept, easy to fit into a modern casual wardrobe, creative but rarely edgy, and well made. Also terrifically expensive. I know I take as a given that I can always get a solid chambray or pair of indigo straight leg jeans from RRL.
- Easy international e-commerce: Years ago it was a real risk to order things internationally; websites (if they existed) were poor, communication was hard, shipping was complicated and prohibitively expensive — many retailers wouldn’t even bother with it. Now I regularly shop from Sweden or Hong Kong, see what I want, order it, and see it in just a few days. My credit card works. I can even return things if I need to.
- Denim-nerd denim: the sort you can buy at Self Edge. That the Japanese market fetishized American denim, and American dudes subsequently fetishized Japan’s take on it, is a story well told. I’ve spend literally days of my life poring over denim threads (on forums, not actual fabric) considering the intricacies of different weaves and dyeing techniques. The fabric, and knowledge of people like Kiya Babzani, is integral to the modern idea of men’s denim.
- American shoe makers: Alden, etc. The 2000s saw a buoying of the American footwear industry, with guys demanding classic designs from Alden and Allen Edmonds, and effectively rebooting dusty moccasin brands like Quoddy. The broader availability of these shoes has been great for us; the higher prices less so. Not to mention Lucchese and New Balance.
- Decent, plain baseball caps. I wear a ballcap nearly every day, and get em from Ebbets, Fairends, Put This On, and others. I used to have to wear whatever they had at Lidz!
There are dozens more niche and broad brands and stores I just assume I’ll always be able to shop from.
What do you think are the classics of today? To add a nostalgic flourish: what will our kids wish they could still buy?