Nice suits-5

“Women thrive on novelty and are easy meat for the commerce of fashion. Men prefer old pipes and torn jackets.” –Anthony Burgess

During my time at Piety Hill I don’t know that I ever saw Russell Kirk without a coat and tie other than perhaps once or twice by happenstance in his home. Whether at breakfast, working in the library, or gardening in the yard, Dr. Kirk always held himself to a standard of dress.

Dr. Kirk’s clothes were well suited to a country squire. He embraced the tweed typical of a man of letters, echoing the moors that he had haunted as a student at St. Andrews decades before. For years he had maintained a home in Scotland.

well-clad conservative

Russell Kirk

Besides the scores of enviable books he brought back from the British Isles were some bespoke suits and sport coats. I don’t know how many of these Dr. Kirk had made, but he pointed out to me that he had specified interior pockets that would easily accommodate books. Such are the benefits of bespoke. Dr. Kirk was still wearing these decades after he had them made. No slave to the vagaries of fashion was he.

But everyone reflects his time in style of dress. Dr. Kirk had a fondness for kipper ties, a short and wide tie popular in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, and the occasional bolo tie, a fondness I do not share. Few of us would garden in a tie these days. Our culture is more casual, certainly. But there is a point where the conservative, the civilized man, must say “no more.”

As the imaginative conservative pursues the true, the good, and the beautiful, surely this must also translate into how we live, with what we surround ourselves, and what we choose to wear. Conservatives continue to embrace standards amidst a sea of relativism.

well-clad conservativeI think we can (or at least ought to) recoil in horror at, say, wearing pajamas on an airplane. Or men wearing flip flops to church. Or anyone wearing crocs at any time. These are signs of cultural decay, manifestations of the same ills that lead to moral and political breakdowns.

Then what does the conservative wear? As there is no ideology for the conservative in politics, neither is there in dress. But there are historical examples to guide us.

The catalog of men’s dress was largely codified during the mid to late 1930s. Clothes are not frozen in time, but one could mine the classics of the 1930s and they would look perfectly natural today. A certain ideal in cut in proportion was reached then that serves as an able anchor for modern men’s clothing.

The classics of men’s style were brilliantly portrayed in Esquire magazine and its companion publication Apparel Arts, largely by illustrator Laurence Fellows. It is to these that we turn time and again. Some of the styles now seem flamboyant or overly formal for today’s situation and taste, but overall they are remarkably current. They provide a valuable sourcebook from which modern men’s style writers such as Alan Flusser and Bruce Boyer have drawn.

well-clad conservative

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot embraced the bankerly, pinstriped version of this classic 1930s look. He often wore the three-piece suit that was dominant until World War II when they waned due to cloth rationing. Photos of Eliot show he clearly took a good deal of care with his clothes.

Kirk himself, when not in the hinterlands of the Michigan stump country, would wear three-piece suits at speaking engagements or when meeting dignitaries. He recognized the age old distinction between town and country attire.

One of the major post-war influences on men’s clothing was the rise of the Ivy League look. Clothiers like Brooks Brothers and J. Press became the recognized source for the Northeastern set who wore sack suits, repp ties, button down collar shirts, and penny loafers. It’s a soft, more casual style that dresses up or down easily.

well-clad conservative

Bill Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. exemplified that Ivy League look. Like Kirk’s British tweeds, his clothing wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply what one with his background and experiences wore. (Buckley’s fellow Yale Man President George Bush famously wore Ivy League clothes from New Haven clothier J. Press. His son, President George W. Bush, did not.)

Unlike Kirk, Eliot, or Buckley, it is likely disastrous simply to adopt the clothing around us. If we do, it may be velour tracksuits, oversized sports jerseys, or untucked striped shirts and jeans for us. To dress well, then, becomes an act of recovery, of reaction.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

It was once the case that men could stroll into a local independent men’s shop and be kitted out with quality made in America or made in England goods. Like Dr. Kirk’s bespoke jackets, these items could last for decades. Now the best most do is wear disposable clothes from China or Bangladesh, even from “better” stores.

There is a difference between a conservative and a reenactor. As much as some of us might like, we cannot bring back days gone by. But the conservative can revive and renew old ways, uphold needed standards. How we visibly present ourselves to others can be a worthwhile way to do just that.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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12 replies to this post
  1. Welcome! A tasteful and civilised man! Many more posts to come, I hope.

    Dr Kirk had his suits tailored, over visits to St Andrews at least, from a Polish emigre who had been stationed there in the war, serving with the Polish Army in exile. He measured his last fittings in the late 1970s and the faculty were heartbroken for his suits lasted forty years and more.They were classical, tasteful and – never – “in fashion”!

    A Dutch aristocrat friend avers that a gentlemen never appears in public with his neck uncovered (polo is no exception), suggesting a necktie normally and a cravat casually.

  2. Thank you for the details about Dr. Kirk’s St. Andrews tailor. He may have mentioned some of that at the time, but they didn’t stick with me. I wish I had questioned him about it.

  3. Just a delightful essay and welcome!
    As for my wearing apparel, I tend toward Kirk’s tweeds and Italian silk ties. Sadly, my means are, shall we say, limited (I usually find myself in “reduced circumstances”) since my retirement. However, that should never dissuade the clever conservative.

    Most of my shopping is now executed at the local “Thrift” shops. Laugh if you will, but I’m now the proud possessor of three little worn, Harris Tweed sport coats (total price-$15.), and sundry upscale slacks, shirts, and accessories, All procured while helping out the indigent!
    Re: Mr Crandall’s comment, I intend to purchase a collection of waistcoats as they become available.
    As an aside; I find it much easier to hide a pistol among better clothing and, as we all know, good conservatives are always prepared to both defend themselves and the honor of their wives and/or associates.

  4. Nice reminder…I went from teaching at a school where men wore shirt and ties and relaxed the dress as often as possible to a school where all teachers where coat and tie…perhaps it makes a difference in our own demeanor toward each other and our students? A small effort to begin with a sense of decorum…with one’s attire. As Dr. Kirk would garden in a shirt and tie, you can see teachers gardening with the students in shirt and tie, or throwing the football around during a break. Now I just need to get a three-piece suit.

  5. Mr. Cornett,

    You might enjoy George Will’s 2009 editorial on the “denimization” of America. Perhaps you know the piece, but if you don’t and want to read it, here is the link:

    I like the opening business about fathers and sons dressing alike, with fathers doing the imitating. I’m not the best-dressed man in town, but I love the sentiment of your post.

  6. Mr. Cote, thank you for the link. I do recall reading it when it came out, but had forgotten about it. I agree with Will about denim being overdone. I’m not entirely anti-jeans, but I typically wear khakis.

  7. I do not own any jeans, sneakers, flip-flops, or baseball caps, but have about a dozen pairs of khakis and maybe 8 pairs of penny loafers. I really like the garments that I wear, but I also have deliberately adopted a style somewhat different from the current “fashion.” If one likes to think of himself as an individual, why copy everyone else?

  8. Love the article, but all the referents are far too recent for my taste. Casual wear is a seersucker suit with brougue saddle shoes/spectators and a modest boater, or for work, a modest 3-piece with some simple cordovan brougues. Dinner should be white tie, unless dressing casually in black tie. But whatever it is, it should be done in a bow-tie.

  9. My favorite of the ancients, Diogenes the Cynic would always stress the importance of healthiness of the soul ( aka it’s on the inside what counts). I think conservatives should be about healthiness of the soul rather than physical appearance.

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