Vive la différence


An old, old joke about a bunch of chauvinist French scientists at a convention.  The keynote speaker cautiously begins by announcing that there is only a small difference between the male and female bodies, only to be drowned out by a heartfelt Gallic “Vive la différence!”

Beyond all of its corniness, it’s a guilty joke, now, playing on national stereotypes and thirsty objectification.  Nonetheless, I’ve learned that old associations, like that unforgettable punchline, die hard in my permanently adolescent, if not reptilian, brain.  Something of the visceral, uncouth and unreconstructed gusto of that cheer comes to me whenever I think of the differences the seasons impose on our clothing, particularly in tailoring.

Menswear gurus occasionally guide acolytes seeking a single suit to wear year-round.  If you only need a single suit – there’s no shame in that – then you can indeed seek the elusive four-season suit.  Elusive because suits are generally very warm to wear no matter what they are made of, so that in summer you will be uncomfortable and in winter a bit chilly – only a bit, though, because the invention of central heating and of overcoats means that you should be fine unless you’re spending a good deal of time on the street in Vienna or Reykjavik. If you only need a single suit, though, chances are you will not need to wear it often, so the great difference, the joy of that revelation, will remain hidden to you.

If you have any need at all to wear suits year-round, and thus need more than one, then embrace the difference like a horny French scientist. You don’t need to indulge in fancy weaves and patterns like nailheads, birdseyes, herringbones, houndstooths, glen checks, or self-stripes, even if the very names conjure up all sorts of delicious possibilities to lost souls like me. (To say nothing of Shetland or Donegal tweeds, cheviots, and, er, I digress…) No, just enjoy the opportunity to own suits in both flannels (for the colder months) and lighter weights like tropical wools for spring and, if duty forces you to don, summer. The magnificence of the weight and soft, spongy hand of a good flannel, its reassuring warmth on a cool fall morning that makes a coat unnecessary, all confer a sort of invulnerability.  And the light coolness of my first tropical wool suits caused me to delightedly text a fellow style writer, Simpsons aficionado and former friend that it “feels like I’m wearing nothing at all!”

All of this presumes, of course, that you live somewhere that has real seasons, and that those seasons have not been totally devastated by the effects of climate change. It’s amazing to recall that fabric in weights so heavy they can’t even be found today was once recommended for summer beach wear, although the onetime existence of tailored suits in eighteen-ounce flannel for wearing on the rocky beaches of Brighton is easier to understand when we remember that much of the grammar of tailored suits and their cloth comes from a country where a hot summer used to be a generation-defining event.  

Thus, I hesitate in suggesting any sort of fabric for suits to wear in places with very hot or humid summers. Once the thrill of a new suits wears off, then no matter what the florid name on a maker’s fabric bunch (Rangoon or Nevada come to mind), it will not be comfortable to wear in the heat of a noon sun.  Noël Coward’s famous photo in the Nevada desert, in brown tuxedo, is a dangerous illusion: apparently he spent most of the shoot in his underwear in the back of a limousine.  And having worn tropical wools and linens in the tropics, I can bitterly volunteer that they are of limited assistance (fresco weaves, and shirts in cotton zephyr, are only slightly better). 

But those days seem far away right now, as I sip a cocoa and look forward to making a fire. Treasure the differences in the seasons, while we still have them in recognizable form.

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