About a decade ago, a kindly assistant at my office nicknamed behind her back (not by me) La Castafiore for her resemblance to the melodramatic Tintin character of that name took me aside to tell me how nice it was that a young man still wore a silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket since so few men did nowadays.
What a difference a decade makes. Today millions of silk pocket squares erupt into bloom from coats like violently variegated tropical flowers. These blossoms appear to have germinated from spores borne on the wind from that hothouse of male motley, Florence’s Pitti Uomo trade fair, where several times a year menswear salesmen, aspiring salesmen and bloggers gather to incubate and incestuate their looks.
The history of fashion, if not any trend, is of minor movements that sometimes catch on and disparate inspirations that may converge into a dominant esthetic. Dominance leads to universality and to excess, followed by an inevitable counterreaction, a correction that eventually swings into its own excess at the opposite pole.
Something of this nature appears to have been occurring to the Pitti peacocks, a media-friendly name these men have adopted as wholeheartedly as their boldly patterned suits, daring mixes of textures, vibrantly colored accessories, and affected buttoning, tucking or folding quirks. As I write this I realize that unlike their human counterparts the different colors of avian peacocks’ ornate plumage actually harmonize with each other. Nonetheless, their respective resplendences both serve the purpose of being seen, in the case of the Pitti peacocks the better to be snapped by their street style photographer symbiotes.
I was originally surprised, though slightly jealous, several years ago when some friends who were not clothing retailers obtained invitations to Pitti in order to pose and parade there. Today, the Pitti peacock phenomenon is widespread enough to have made the cover of the latest lifestyle supplement to The Economist, with an article inside about how these flamboyantly suited and booted characters may be the last manifestations of a phenomenon they have done to death, as the pendulum inevitably swings back. (Beholding the cover I did actually utter the letters “FML.”)
Luxury men’s magazine The Rake, whose founder The Economist interviewed for that piece, corroborates this concept of counterreaction with an article on the new sobriety in men’s tailored clothing. Its accompanying fashion spread features suits with ties in matching colors over white shirts. The effect goes beyond sobriety to a Volsteadish prohibition. Its consequence will be to shift attention away from the suit wholesale to other, more casual outfits.
17 years ago Hedi Slimane put the tailored suit back on the map of men’s fashion, eventually leading to its re-establishment as the fundamental garment of men’s fashion. Although his vision was of an ascetic, indeed gaunt, silhouette in austere black and white, his tailored look converged with other trends towards dressiness, including a new exuberance in color and pattern that moved from dress shirts to suits and coats. That joy of color, texture and pattern – what’s left of them, anyway appears now to be switching to a different locus: not the suit, but leisure wear.
Perversely, as the last decade went on, I retrenched to wearing only solid linen handkerchieves or the RJ cat pocket square, even if I do keep in a drawer most of my favorite patterns (like the medieval prints and the Hermès Puss in Boots square). Perhaps as other follow the pied pendulum towards athleisure and de-emphasized drab tailoring, I will come back out of the closet with those other squares. Things always do swing from interest to excess and then abandonment. Reaction began to gather against the fitted look as soon as Tom Ford launched his own fashion line in 2006, with its originally 1970s-inspired proportions.
Those Pitti peacocks were no more featherbrained than the fashion victims of movements past or future. Their distinguishing innovation was to gather and strut most prominently during a menswear trade show, rather than in the repairs of the beau monde, wherever those may actually be nowadays (and as income inequality and the share of wealth held by a vanishingly small population continue to escalate, almost none of us would know). The last decade was the first time that so many of the best-dressed men in the world, according to various lists, turned out to be men flogging or blogging for clothes.
I love color and pattern. Perhaps I lack the imagination to improvise on the broader canvas of more casual attire, but I like suits and will continue to wear them regularly, just as I’ll continue wearing as I always have rollnecks in all imaginable colors, even (should I hang my head?) socks with a nice pattern and the infamous printed cashmere-silk neckerchieves from Paris that I wrote about so long ago. I love the unusual and have dressed for myself and against the prevailing wind of pretentious blowhards since I was an adolescent. So I’ll keep wearing what I want to wear. Although perhaps not quite as often the iridescent colored twill shirts, my very first custom shirts, I ordered back in the days before La Castafiore sang, beautiful as they are in their shades of peacock-like blue and green.