An advertisement for very expensive ready-to-wear suits caught my attention the other day, and not for the clothing, which seemed to be struggling to contain the muscular model within, but for the great difficulty the copywriter had in describing the various ensembles. He or she did well enough with colors, although I cringed when I read gray flannel described as “battleship wool.” Parsing the type of garment was where efforts failed entirely. Suits were variously referred to as “jacket with matching pants,” “coat with trousers” and a “blazer.” That last one was a real howler: it was written beneath a photo of a double breasted chalk stripe suit.
Blazer is probably the most widely abused men’s clothing term. I wonder if this has something to do with the somewhat more exciting experience of saying it aloud versus the mundane, monosyllabic coat or suit. Maybe blazer just makes for better copy, accuracy be damned. The other reason might be its relative isolation within the masculine wardrobe. From a marketing perspective, tweed is for picking apples in autumn, suits are for boardrooms, and seersucker is for summer weddings and garden parties. Because the blazer doesn't neatly fit one of these niches it explodes into the in-between spaces, surfacing when convenient as a term for anything vaguely jacket-shaped.
The quick and dirty version of blazer history has the single breasted version originating as a brightly colored rowing club jacket, and the double breasted version emerging as a civilian interpretation of the Royal Navy’s reefer jacket. This is a plausible, if tiresome, convergence of stories. Like most origin tales, though, retelling them gives the impression that one day the blazer did not exist, and the next it did. That’s silly; like a cummerbund or a pair of jeans, the contemporary conception of a blazer is a product of slow emergence and eventual familiarity. Put another way, the blazer is as much an idea as it is a garment.
But we rely upon certain visual cues in order to identify that idea. The blazer has metal buttons, for instance, to distinguish it from the jacket of a suit. Of course my last two blazers had horn and mother-of-pearl buttons; both were handsome and still somehow registered as blazers. Ticket pockets, patch pockets and swelled edges (slightly raised seams) are all sporty details found on various blazers, but none are compulsory. The cloth itself should probably have some un-suit-like character. The pronounced twill of serge, the mottling of flannel and the basket-weave effect of hopsack make all those cloths good candidates. But suits can be made from all three too. Slippery, no?
I’m wrestling with these details at the moment. I’ve had for some months a particularly hopsack-y hopsack in a deep navy sitting on a shelf with the vague idea of making it into a traditional blazer. This cloth has so much character that I wondered for a while if that alone would be sufficient in distinguishing it from an orphaned suit jacket. But when else would I use metal buttons? So I’ve decided on those too. Whether they should be brass, silver, bronze, gunmetal or copper is still very much undecided. I also like the idea of swelled edges, because, again, when else would I have them? The trick, if it qualifies as one, is to use enough detail to establish the garment as a blazer, without distracting from what should be a garment as elegant as it is useful. An extra detail might easily become one too many.