When clothiers knew what they were doing

Posted on Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 10:42 am

I bought a couple of pair of Dickies work khakis a month or so ago. I had to. I haven’t gained any weight to speak of but my old belly has sunk south and I needed a larger size.

I don’t like the new Dickies. They aren’t nearly so good as they were about 20 years ago when they came with an “easy alter” waist band that let you buy a pair of 36s and, with a few snips of the scissors, wear them as 37 1/2s. It didn’t hurt that LL Bean sold the same pants with its label at a slight mark up.

Unless somebody was inordinately interested in your backside and saw the label, you couldn’t tell the difference. The old ones also softened up faster.

With those recently purchased cardboard slacks in mind, I read a post a friend of mine put up on a website I frequent about a real, old-time men’s clothier in Buffalo, NY, O’Connell’s.

That put me in mind of Earl N. Levitt, who had clothing stores in several college towns in Virginia in the 1950s and 60s.

O’Connells apparently offers really good men’s clothing and so did Earl. I don’t know if O’Connells makes pants fit as Earl did, but it may teach young men how to dress, which was Earl’s specialty.

Now, I’ve taken sartorial advice from a lot of sources. When I was a kid working in my daddy’s lumber warehouse a black guy I was working with told me, “You ain’t got no strength in your arms but you got big shoulders. Never wear a short sleeved shirt and nobody will mess with you.” I took that advice and it has served me well.

Earl’s advice was different. He taught materials, draping and how to appreciate and feel a garment’s cut and material. You can see what sort of “hand” it has.

“Hand” is important. Down in Williamsburg I recently went into a shop that specializes in Scottish goods. The jackets were handsome, but stiff, no “hand” although the prices were handy enough.

Without “hand” the goods will never drape naturally. I’ve seen the same thing in shops in Middleburg in the center of the “Hunt Country”. They might sell that stuff to tourists but never to anybody who knows “hand.”

Another thing Earl did was show us how trousers were supposed to fit. You’d never carry a pair out of the shop. They had to be altered to fit right. The seat would need tucking and the cuffing would need to be right. You don’t see that anymore, particularly the cuffing. With that, the front of the cuff would touch the top of your shoe with no break. The back of the cuff would be lower so it would reach the top of the back of your shoe. Try and find that now.

Maybe Earl didn’t do me any favors. I haven’t felt like my pants fit right for years.

I hope my not seeing any shops like Earl’s is a function of my age and rustication but judging from the attire I see on young men, it isn’t.

In fact, they not only seem to have never been given a lesson in dressing but it seems their fathers have been negligent in showing them what a razor is for. Although sloppiness seems the style of the time, I have occasionally seen a young fellow properly attired for business – clean shaven, hair combed, white shirt and well selected tie – and I know one thing. When the old guys and gals who are running the show look for a youngster to promote, it’ll be the well-dressed one.

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