In my opinion, the garment that most immediately and dramatically upgrades one’s look is a sport coat, or blazer. Slip one on and you look more put together, more elegant and generally people see you as just a bit classier looking than the other guys in just their shirt sleeves. And that is even if you are wearing just a tee under it, though I would generally avoid that choice unless you can really pull it off. Don Johnson not withstanding, unless you are blessed with incredible Italianesque sartorial charisma, a collared shirt is a must under a coat for most men.
You may call it a blazer, jacket, sport coat, suit coat or just a coat. The point is that we all look better wearing one, if it fits. Fit is important with any garment, but it is especially critical with a jacket. And it is so common to see ill fitting jackets that most men ( and women ) don’t know what elements must combine to make a good fitting jacket. Note I did not say they didn’t know what a poor fit looks like. We all can tell a really poor fitting jacket. We can tell when a jacket fits well too. The difficulty is that by not knowing what elements must come together for a great fit, most men have clothes, especially blazers or jackets that sort of fit. They are a bit right here and a bit off there and the result is unbalanced and so common that unless the fit is truly wrong, folks generally accept it as normal. They think that is that way a sport coat is going to fit. Then you see the one guy in a correctly fitted jacket and, even if it is subconscious, he seems to look really good somehow.
A truly well fitted jacket can transform the look of a man and, conversely, a poor fit can too. Take two very differently built men, both cast as 007 during their careers: Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. Brosnan, long and lean, has a great body for clothes. Daniel Craig, though admirably muscled, does not have a great body for clothes. Both men, however, outfitted by expert movie costumers, looked equally superb and elegant as 007. That is what well fitting clothes can do for a man. Daniel Craig outfitted in fabulously designed suits by Tom Ford looks amazing. With his shirt off you see he is buff and a bit thick and blocky. In his Tom Ford suits Mr. Craig could hold his own with Fred Astaire or Cary Grant—style wise.
So what is involved and how is it done? First and most importantly, it does not require a custom fitted eight thousand dollar suit. In fact, it is conceivable, though unlikely, that one could get a great fit from a K-Mart blazer. Certainly it is possible with modestly priced clothes.
There are many elements involved, but getting a few basic areas fitting correctly can really do the trick. I shall describe them briefly and do my best to make them clear, though they are not hard to grasp. We do in fact notice them all the time but most of us don’t realize their causes and effect, or even that they aren’t correct in the first place.
The first, and I believe the most common problem, is a poorly fitting jacket collar that causes what is commonly known as collar gap. This is when the jacket collar does not snug up against the shirt collar on either side or sometimes in the rear and the result is a gap that reveals some portion of the shirt body underneath. A proper fitting jacket collar will evenly hug the shirt collar all the way around without a gap or spacing. Not tight and constricting, it is just nicely draped and snugged up to the shirt collar. It will remain relatively in place as you move and not gape open. This gives a clean, neat and elegant look that does not jar the eye. Next time you see 007 in a fight wearing a suit, note how the suit moves with him and doesn’t bunch up or gape open. Properly fitted clothes made it possible for Sean Connery to judo flip Pussy Galore in Goldfinger’s Kentucky barn while wearing a three piece suit. That’s not special FX, it’s the magic of good tailoring.
I am embarrassed to admit that out of the eight or ten blazers and jackets I own, only a few of them actually reveal zero collar gap. As I said, it is very common, even on very expensive clothing. Have a look a Prince Charles here. I believe he could find and afford a good tailor.
Like most men, I compromised on fit either because I really loved the coat or it was purchased before I understood collar gap. The thing to remember here is to try on jackets, look for collar gap and keep shopping until you find a jacket that drapes correctly on your body. No matter how much you love the cut or fabric of a coat, if it doesn’t fit well, you will never look good and you will be disappointed in the end.
A related problem and often a cause of collar gap is improper fit in the shoulders. This can also result in a lumpy line from collar to sleeve head and indented dimples just below the sleeve head at the extreme upper arm. Usually this means that the shoulder dimension is too generous. Go down a size. It is very common for men to purchase a coat that is too large through the shoulders. Ill fitting shoulders on a jacket can lead to a whole series of problems affecting fit and therefore a proper fit in the shoulders becomes the foundation of a well fitting coat. In fact, a jacket will never fit correctly until the shoulders are right and it is the most difficult and expensive fix for a tailor, so get it right in the beginning. This goes for blazers, suits, overcoats, shirts and sweaters too. Nearly any garment that is to cover your upper body in a fitted manner has to have this as a foundation for the rest of the garment to fit well. Make this your creed and you are already on your way to looking better in your clothes than most of the of men out there. Today’s off the rack clothes (OTR) are of necessity designed to fit an "average" body. This can make it difficult to find a jacket that fits properly through the shoulders and the chest and waist as well. Get the shoulders fitting well and a tailor can usually take care of the rest, but the more you get right in the beginning, the better.
The X- crease
Another common fit problem is at the buttoning point of the jacket. When the jacket is too tight an "X" shaped set of creases is created with the button at the center. A slight, or very feint crease is not unusual on certain slim cut jackets these days, but a pronounced X-crease indicates a jacket that is just too tight.
Ah, now here is where truly great fit shows up most often. A properly fitting jacket should have smooth flat surfaces and clean, graceful edge lines. Baggy wrinkles behind the collar, below the shoulder blades, at the sides around the arm pits, or tight lateral pulling across the upper shoulders and bulges at the kidneys are all too common. The back of a coat should ideally drape smoothly from top to bottom and from side to side without noticeable wrinkling or pulling of the fabric.
This can be a real bugger. Basically, if the sleeves are inserted poorly into the body or if the jacket just doesn’t have a sleeve pitch angle that suits your natural stance you can often get rumpled sleeves. This is especially obvious when a good deal of fabric seems to rumple and gather along the triceps. We see this all the time and it is one of the elements that is most often overlooked because you can get the shoulders right, a good chest and mid section and even back fit and still get ugly wrinkles from a sleeve pitch that does not work for you. That is because the sleeves are separate from the body of the garment. They have to be attached and if the pitch angle is not right for you, you get fabric being pulled in directions that ruin the smooth drape needed for that great looking fit. Since this often shows up behind the upper arm, it is often overlooked or ignored. This is why it is so important to have a three sided mirror available when trying on clothes. Unless, of course, you will never have anyone standing behind you.
This sounds like it is a problem encountered by pilots or Formula One drivers, but I assure you it is quite common. Jacket vents, either side or single rear vents should remain closed without a noticeable gape. Today’s style of shorter hemmed jackets aggravate this problem and if you are well endowed in the posterior - be it by squats or donuts - tailoring may well be in your future.
Man, you think bowl coatings or entitlement funding have been argued to death? Even Savile Row tailors disagree on the length of a jacket sleeve, or rather, how much shirt cuff to show. Generally you would be pretty safe having between ¼ to ½ an inch revealed.
Having much more than that tends to make a jacket appear too small, as though you have grown out of it. If you don’t know, check to see if your arms are of equal length. Most folks’ arms and legs do not exactly match in length, so be sure alteration measurements are taken on each limb.
This where we all get to be tailors. Remember HRH Prince Charles pictured above? I specifically used his collar gap, a faux pas that many a fashionista would find inexcusable, to help make the point that no one is perfectly turned out all the time. In American Psycho, Christian Bale’s character is often referenced as a sartorial paragon. It’s part of his character in the movie. Collar gap. Major collar gap in many scenes. If Hollywood professional wardrobe folks can make these errors, I think we should all tailor our expectations of others and ourselves in order to enjoy what is right and correct and attractive and not dwell on what is askew.
So, did I just contradict everything written so far? Certainly not. I absolutely affirm that you will look better if you avoid these issues. Just don’t obsess over them or ruin your evening because your jacket isn’t perfect. Life is too short for that. It’s also too short to look sloppy too.
Since the 2014 Chicagoland Pipe and Tobacco Expo is coming up soon, it seems timely to write a bit about bags to transport and protect our precious pipes and tobacco and cigars. I have never liked carrying a bag. I just feel encumbered by a bag. I like having my hands free. Because of this I use a shoulder bag to carry my pipes and smoking gear. I still don’t like it, but it does allow me to keep my hands relatively free. A backpack would be ideal to completely free my hands, but I just don’t care for that look on me. I am admittedly vain in this regard. I last used a backpack, when they were called knapsacks, to haul my books as I walked to school in second grade. Once I ended that practice, I never looked back. I still can’t get used to seeing a guy in a business suit wearing a backpack. It just looks weird to me. I feel odd wearing a sport coat with a leather bag slung over my shoulder. But enough about my odd quirks. Pipe bags are useful, necessary and often very handsome.
Purpose built bags
Neil Flancbaum of Smokin’ Holsters makes some of the finest looking, practical and best crafted pipe bags in the world. I’ve never met an owner of one of Neil’s bags that wasn’t very happy with his bag. Some gentlemen have acquired more than one. They are not inexpensive, but they are very well made and remain attractive and intact even under hard use. I have one of Neil’s great designs, the Urban Pipe Bag, almost a decade and use it at least 300 days a year, rain or shine. It still looks great and my pipes stay well protected inside nestled in the deerskin pockets. Neil makes several different configurations of pipe bags from small to large, with and without clutch handgrips and some with shoulder straps. He uses top quality hide and skins and you can even get hand sewn lace bound edges of contrasting hide on some models. These are truly luxurious and yet quite durable. Not flashy, Neil’s bags exude an aura of hand crafted quality that demands attention by emanating a sense of quiet excellence that is meant to last for years.
The Claudio Albieri briefcase and pouch is an interesting creation dedicated to pipe smokers’ needs. It has internal detachable ( by snaps) leather pouches, or pipe socks, along the walls of the main pocket and a unique detachable "satellite" bag that hugs the front exterior rather like a remora below the mouth of a large shark. I’ve not put my hands on one, but in photos and video it appears to be well made of good leather and is stylishly Italian in look — never a bad thing. It has a nice handgrip on top and a detachable shoulder strap too. It can be found in the States at Smokingpipes.com
Martin Wess and Guy Janot also make good looking purpose built leather bags in Europe and can no doubt be ordered online. Several well known pipe brands also make smaller pipe bags; among them are Dunhill, Savinelli, Petersen and Jobey. Most are clutch type bags that will hold from one to six pipes, tobacco and a few accessories. Purpose built bags of leather and various other materials are also offered on ETSY.com
Non - purpose built bags
Though not a purpose built pipe bag per se, the thin front pocket briefcase by Saddleback seems an excellent bag for our use. Not only are Saddleback bags well made from good quality leather and hardware, several can be quickly and simply be converted from a shoulder bag to a backpack configuration by easy rearrangement of the strap. Saddleback makes several bags that would make good pipe bags and discounts can be found in the "Dave’s deals" section of their web site. Besides, one of the color options is "tobacco".
Other types of suitable bags
To be sure, there is a bag, pouch, slip case, box, road case, or sack for just about anything smaller than your brother-in-law’s bass boat. I’m sure somewhere there is a guy with cases for the cases he sells that hold boxes of pouches. You get the drift. The choices are endless. Practical, affordable, durable and stylish choices abound, though a discerning and creative eye is needed to sort the clunky, funky surplus ammo boxes from the really livable and stylish choices more amenable to a gentleman of good taste.
Please don’t misunderstand — a WWII .30 cal ammo box with a foam rubber lining would be very cool and stylish for camping, fishing or hunting with the guys. In fact, I’d love to have one. I would not, however, consider strolling through the lobby of a nice hotel , or visit my wife’s family with such an item containing my briars, tobacco and cigars.
Some suggested guidelines
Obviously one must consider what you want your bag to do and also the means by which the various needs and desires of service are to be addressed. Naturally you want the bag or case to safely and securely hold a certain number of pipes, some tobacco, a tamper, pipe cleaners, perhaps some cigars and other requisites. ( I always carry my lighter in my pocket because I smoke like a chimney).
So think about how many pipes and how much gear you want to carry. Be aware that eventually all bags or cases tend to get filled to maximum capacity, regardless of the sex of the owner, so keep this in mind when choosing the size of your bag or case.
Small bags fill up fast and then you are left with choosing between one more pipe or more vintage tobacco. Larger bags and cases also fill up quickly and can become a real ball and chain, especially at the Chicago show, where hiking is secondary only to smoking and drinking. (Who ever thought you’d have to be in shape to attend a pipe show?)
OK, so here are a few suggestions that appeal to me. YMMV, especially at Pheasant Run, but I tend to go again for something in the medium size range with a shoulder strap at least as an option. If not choosing leather, there are literally dozens of fine choices among laptop cases and messenger bags that range in price and quality from " it might survive one show" to designer bags that cost as much as two Bo Nordh smooths. I’m not kidding. Henk, a German company (of course) and maker of high end brief cases offers a bulletproof briefcase with a humidor option for about twenty grand. That’ll keep your Missouri Meerschaums safe.
My favorite non-dedicated, non-leather bags are camera bags. Many sizes, colors and styles are available and professional bags have configurable interiors and are built to look good and still stand up to war photographer abuses. Such bags aren’t cheap, but consider the investment you have in three or four good pipes and a nice lighter or vintage tobacco and cigars. Lowe Pro was my brand of choice when I was a photojournalist and I still have the bag I bought twenty years ago. Great bag, but one of the zippers let go after only eighteen years. It’s closed cell foam encased in tough nylon, double padded, lightweight, waterproof and good looking.
So take stock of what you want in size, function, style, convenience and affordability, look at other’s bags and cases, ask around and do some online research and price shopping. Then use your imagination and think outside the, er…. box, case, bag?
the Gentleman Smoker’s tip
When jacket shopping bring or wear your best fitting coat, blazer or sport coat and compare the fit against prospective purchases by using a smartphone to do two quick videos of yourself: one in your coat and one in the prospective garment.
Set the phone up at eye level ( ideally ) and turn 360′ slowly while making a few natural arm movements and perhaps a bend or two. Do the same choreography for both jackets and then review the video and compare the fit and movement of the two garments. If you can get a friend, wife or sales clerk to shoot it fine. If you are shy, do it in the dressing room. Just be consistent. You’d be surprised how much you can learn from this. At the very least you’ll know if you need a haircut.
Steve Morrisette is an artisan pipe maker, relentlessly snappy dresser, and self-confessed Virginia gentleman. He makes artisan pipes for discerning collectors, and scours the internet and shops of all types seeking information and fine garments, hats, watches, shoes, and jewelry - anything related to the gentleman’s lifestyle. Steve also spent several decades as a working drummer and photographer/photojournalist. You can find his pipes at www.smpipes.com, and catch his style photos and latest pipes on Facebook and Instagram.