January 11, 2011

Travelling, Mac? Or, An Itinerant’s Wardrobe

You’re probably aware that I’m something of the peripatetic sort. If you were polite you might call me an itinerant intellectual. If you were less guarded you might call me an academic vagrant. In any case, I travel a lot, and that presents its peculiar problems, sartorially speaking.

For years now, with only the occasional exception, my clothes have been separated across international borders. Each time I hop on a plane/train/bus (depending on which country I’m in and going to) a selection must be made, which varies according to the season, duration of stay, and purpose. Clothes are like old friends and, like my actual old friends, I have to leave them behind all too often.
how unspeakably important is it to know what course, of survey and conquest, is the true one; where the footing is firm substance and will bear us, where it is hollow, or mere cloud, and may engulf us!... ‘Society sails through the Infinitude on Cloth, as on a Faust's Mantle, or rather like the Sheet of clean and unclean beasts in the Apostle’s Dream; and without such Sheet or Mantle, would sink to endless depths, or mount to inane limbos, and in either case be no more’ (Sartor Resartus).
The latest German expedition has proven fraught with difficulties on the clothes front. All the wrong choices were made in September, thinking that Germany’s winter wouldn’t really get going until January. That assessment couldn’t have been more wrong, and now I have returned armed with heavier duty kit I find that the temperature is mild (for now). To complicate things, this trip will be in the order of five-months duration, meaning that somehow winter, spring and summer have to be taken account of, while staying within a two-suitcase limit. Success seems unlikely.

A rare peek inside the VB inner sanctum

Despite the trickiness of staying elegant but lightweight while on the go, I can share some basics that do work, at least in principle. I try to leave balance in my wardrobes, home and away, so that if I have two stable bases, I don’t need to pack very much for trips to and from. Right now, all the work is in Old Europe, all the play in Montreal, which means the suits are mainly here, the rakish odd jackets there. I’m kitted out here with a couple of tweed jackets, a blue blazer, and something in burgundy velvet (you never know, I might get round to having fun at some point). The other wardrobe has all the linen, cotton and silk (and I just hope it doesn’t get too hot too soon in Germany). Knitwear is evenly distributed, as are shirts, ties and hats. A smattering of cedar, in addition to the bagging of some choice items ought to keep the moths at bay in Montreal. Shoes are problematic. Anything summery is currently tucked up in bed, save for the boat shoes, which are left over from last year and might be sacrificed to a warm spring. I’m left here with winter boots, Chelsea boots (black and brown), black oxfords and brown brogues. It’s not enough, but what can you do? Scents are also evenly split, and I’ve taken to using Eau de Parfum since it lasts longer in all respects. Wherever you meet me, that place will have a corresponding smell. Coats are a pain because they’re so big, so I’m limited to three: a smart overcoat; a three-quarter length leather coat; and a leather jacket for spring. In storage lie the other overcoat, the other leather jacket, the loden coat, and the sheepskin.

The handkerchief is one way to stay distinctive while keeping the weight down

What all this amounts to is something of a split personality. One has to question what one wants to portray in a given context, and the limitations of travel force one to make sharp distinctions. I largely intend to be taken seriously in my current abode, and you will find me seriously dressed for the most part. Elsewhere, I can give full play to the lighter side, and dress accordingly. Most people get to decide these things everyday. If I get to decide once every three months I am doing well.

And of course, where would a man be without his sundry sartorial tools?

Happy travels, wherever you might be headed.


  1. Will you be moving a lot while in Europe or sticking to one place? The reason I ask is that I find shipping my items to where I'm staying to work out much better. With baggage fees now, it's normally a wash on cost. Also, you're not limited on the two bag limit. Lastly, your items are much more likely to arrive. I just like going to an airport with nothing but a book and a bag of essentials that will fit anywhere.

    Now, if you're going to be roaming a lot while there, then this may not be the best approach.

  2. My trips in Europe will likely be short, Turling, and from one base, which will make them easy. I've tried the shipping option in the past and have had things go awry more than once. DHL had to refund me a whole consignment on one occasion because it took them a month to deliver half of it. I might actually be said to suffer from mail paranoia. Still, I'm happy to learn that for somebody at least it works.

  3. Good post, Mr. VB. Thanks for the photographs of your wardrobe as you have good sartorial taste, sir.

    Do you have any advice regarding an essential sartorial philosophy? I have made an effort to improve my dress habits (always wear a shirt with a collar and jacket) over the past few years. Thank you.

  4. Thank you Hilton.
    It's a good question that you pose, but I think the answer is really 'horse for courses'. Everyone's lifestyle, profession, context and wallet will determine a slightly different approach.

    Perhaps I would boil it down to this: always exceed expectations, but never by so much as to allow people to think you are ostentatious, or pompous. The well-dressed man - with a due looseness to the definition - will also be relaxed and at home in his clothes. Clothes must fit both the body and the character of the man. The confidence portrayed by a man who has dressed to maintain his own self-respect will foster a feeling in others that indeed he is appropriately well-dressed. In this way, when you're the only man in the room wearing a tie, the other men will suspect that perhaps they ought to have done likewise, instead of gawking at the overdressed clotheshorse.

    There are some great blogs out there on the subject, most of them linked from here. Three for starters are: A Suitable Wardrobe, if you fancy a conservative approach; Permanent Style, for the English version; and my new favourite, with just the right degree of eccentricity for an Englishman of my bent, Timothy Everest.



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