The favorite refrain of those classicists interested in parsing definitions is: “I’m interested in style, not fashion.” The former, it is argued, is permanent, the latter fleeting. Of course, any deeper analysis reveals that a particular fashion, if moderate and sensible, can gain wide enough acceptance to be recategorized as correct or even classic style—and therefore acquire the veneer of permanence. My favorite example is the shoe, which started life as a fashionable alternative to the button (or laced) boot, which was standard footwear not so long ago.
So various fashions become accepted or considered classic, which, in turn, occasionally lose buoyancy and fall from favor having gained the title of old-fashioned, a subspecies of fashion. This routine is often described as cyclical—the image being that of a distinctive planet with an orbit that occasionally passes through our narrow view. I’d like to propose an alternative, yet equally groovy, image: that of wax within a lava lamp, which surfaces and descends, morphs and separates. It is a predictable performance in that the observer can say with certainty that the mass will change; how and when is less obvious, although the results are rarely anomalous.
For men, perhaps the most accurate fashion barometer is the lapel. Some might suggest the tie is better, but with the fattest section of the blade usually obscured by jackets, vests and waistcoats, the more important aspects of a tie become light reflection or absorption and the way in which the wearer has chosen to knot it. Lapels, by contrast, are on full display and afford two opportunities to scrutinize their collective place on the male fashion spectrum. I’ve also noticed that lapels are the most divisive element of male dress; I can’t imagine pencil-thin lapels sharing a wardrobe with fat ones.
Interestingly, now more than ever, various lapel widths are worn. The loftiest fashion houses have experimented with widths over the past decade enough that some loss of bearings has occurred. Tom Ford’s eponymous line debuted with substantial lapels, which had some men excited; if this fashion leader was blazing a return to width, then surely others would soon follow—if not to such extremes, then at least out of the dental floss zone. But as Ford’s suits on Daniel Craig (as James Bond) clearly demonstrate, lapels have again slimmed. A man might once have turned to a stalwart like Brooks Brothers for the standard—and viewed all lapels narrower or wider as fishy. But Brooks too has experimented (or waffled) with the introduction of Black Fleece and the Milano fit. One wonders: perhaps the only old-fashioned lapel width is the decidedly stationary.
A quick page through The Rake, which covers the bespoke market, reveals equal attention paid to diminutive lapels and those capable of flight. Is this restlessness or a way of recapturing market share from ready-to-wear fashion? One might argue that bespoke garments aren’t subject to the same rules as those that govern fashion, but this, too seems a naive angle. Bespoke tailors are only human (or slightly super-human) and shouldn’t be expected to resist the gravitational pull of fashion—a suggestion the archives of fusty old Savile Row houses would support. And then there is the customer—a sort of unknown x-value that might turn up equipped with bizarre and fantastic ideas about shape and form.
Whether lapels, or ties, or jacket length or trouser height, fashion is a factor. This can be frightening, or, if understood as the leading edge of a far more complex type of momentum, very reassuring. The wax within the lamp—never static but usually familiar. Of course when a bearing is needed, there is another principle that is ceaselessly present: proportion. The most successful garments don’t just fit, but consider the shape and size of the head, the hang of the arms, and if studied close enough, the ineffable qualities of demeanor and presence. In this respect, proportion is the leveler of fashion and the great equalizer of style.