A number of years ago, whilst on an online window-shopping spree that would have left me bankrupt had I not merely been fantasising, I came across an editorial piece on Mr Porter entitled “How To Dress Like An Italian”. Aside from the passage nauseatingly titled “Consider how to style a sports watch”, there was some genuinely useful advice, including a section focussing on the correct length of one’s trousers. Now, I know this is a contentious issue, one that the kipper and I are regularly differing on, but the cropped leg deserves some attention.
One of the most important stylistic tailoring choices that a client can make is the length of the trouser, or the “break”. A full break allows enough fabric for the trouser hem to skim one’s shoes with no sock on show, but the options for a break continue through medium break, slight break, no break, and eventually cropped. It’s a personal decision, and stylistically subjective, but it does make a difference - a garment like the suit already carries a lot of baggage in terms of connotations. Why is the full break popular? Perhaps it’s due to the conservative and safe connotations when it comes to dressing for the office, not wanting to draw attention to oneself.
“Keep your eyes off my ankles and on those spreadsheets, Johnson!”
Maybe I would understand such an approach were I around in the 1940s or 50s, but as a child of the millennial/Gen Z border region I see no need for conservative dressing. Why would I want to actively dress like a dastardly Conservative politician or some sort of old-school banker? A suit, especially a made-to-measure or bespoke number, has been designed and constructed to compliment the wearer and to help them cut a fine figure when out and about. So why would one have a tailored suit, and still wish to leave one’s feet plodding around in a state of disarray? As is likely obvious at this point, this author regards anything longer than a slight break as a bit of a mess, despite the shouts and cries of “sacrilege!” echoing down the halls of Fleet street, Threadneedle, and the Garrick Club.
I’ll now direct your attention to exhibit A, the Italian Gentleman. The Italian Gentleman has no time for slouchy, conservative dressing. The Italian Gentleman does not wish to blend into the surroundings of an office. He is found in a piazza somewhere, perhaps Firenze or Roma, sipping a Campari with soda, smoking something long and thin, and almost certainly showcasing a generous amount of sock. This man will generally have his trousers tailored to what is known as a “shivering break”, something talked about in the aforementioned Mr Porter article. The shivering break allows for the hem of one’s trousers, usually cut with a chunky turn-up, to gently caress the vamp of one’s shoes without rumpling or becoming too creased. The wearer is now free to show off their John Lobbs or Santonis, as well as their socks, or even a bit of ankle like a naughty Victorian. The result is louche yet carefully considered, the embodiment of sprezzatura, and something from which English tailoring seems often to shy away.
Enter exhibit B, the Thom Browne uniform suit. Now, I have come to tailoring as an aesthete and a formerly dedicated follower of fashion, as The Kinks might say. I have never really approached the topic from a technical perspective or with much regard to the conventions already in place. And so, to me, the deep charcoal suit that forms the basis of New York designer Thom Browne’s signature look is the ultimate expression of the power of tailoring can have when one applies a well-researched yet subversive attitude. For starters, it only comes in grey. Browne once stated that grey was the most versatile colour, and indeed he offers three shades of grey (with a navy blazer permitted on weekends).
Secondly, the man discourages both the ironing of his white oxford shirts and the top button being done up. The intention here is to convey the abstract concept of the worker through seemingly minor details. Taking inspiration from the ad-men of 1960s Madison Avenue as well as private school uniforms, Browne seeks to dress those who are hard at (white-collar) work, loosening their ties and rolling up their sleeves for a long evening of bouncing ideas off the drawing board. I have no doubt that no-one has ever done a proper day’s work in a Thom Browne suit, but it’s the thought that counts.
You may be thinking, “doesn’t this all go against your thoughts on the conformity of the English suit with its full break?” My response is simple - a uniform does not necessarily equate to conformity.
This iconic suit has one major detail worth mentioning - the heavily cropped leg. Not only is the trouser hem cut with a turnup, but the hem sits a good two to three inches above the shoe, at least. The result is a blinding amount of ankle, (and it is always a bare ankle with Mr Browne), which screams “this suit is too small and I don’t give a damn!”. This is a radical approach when one considers tailoring to be an exact science, something that strives for perfection through a prescribed set of rules. The man has made a suit that shouldn’t work, at least from a traditionalist’s point of view, and yet it represents a uniquely professional elegance, which is something that only the finest tailored suits could hope to achieve. The flagrant disregard for the conventions of the trouser break forms the most impactful and important building block in Thom Browne’s monochromatic gesamtkunstwerk.
I do not wish to muddy the good name of tailoring, especially as this may result in my unemployment, but I believe strongly in the breaking of aesthetic conventions as much as being aware of them. The world of the fine suit is a complex one, one that operates on guidelines and traditional ideas of what looks “good”, and this is fine. The suit is an historic garment that has managed to endure when almost every other form of clothing has undergone radical change. The reason it has endured, in my opinion, is that the English have had to accept that they are not always correct, that the Italians and the Americans have a lot to say on the topic, and that a brazen ankle or sock is nothing at which to sniff.