Spring is here, and, while not quite ready to call for my whangee and yellowest shoes like Bertie Wooster, I am getting ready to pack up the woolen tweeds and flannels until fall. Sometime in the next few weeks I will get the summer stuff out of storage at the dry cleaners, and I have been thinking about when summer clothes may acceptably be worn.
When I was in school, I wore a gray Brooks Brothers cotton poplin suit for a job interview one rather warm spring day, and got a frown and shake of the head from an older and wiser classmate who held to the traditional calendar in such matters and informed me that poplin should not make an appearance before Memorial Day. At the time I had few alternatives other than gray flannel, so of necessity I did not take the advice to heart.
These days, however, I have more clothing options and am more rigorous with regard to timing. Tropical wools, of course, work in the spring, and I wore a wool/silk/linen blend tweed sport coat on Easter. I have no problem with Nantucket Reds on warm weekends between April and October, and May 15 is officially Straw Hat Day, so I will be breaking out the Panamas soon.
However, I tend to wait until the traditional Memorial Day kickoff for poplin suits, seersucker, cream linen, white bucks, madras, etc., and make sure to have them back in the closet promptly on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Some take this even more seriously than my old school chum; in 1922, the snatching and stomping of straw boaters worn after September 15 led to eight days of riots, injuries and arrests in New York.
While I am fairly traditional, I know others differ, and I am already seeing some early-blooming seersucker and madras around town along with the azaleas and redbud. I say live and let live, and reflect that there are worse crimes than what Christian Chensvold has dubbed “premature unpackulation.” Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, is absolutely rigid as to the impropriety of white shoes except between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but is more flexible on seersucker. Fellow Virginian Tom Wolfe wears white suits year-round and I would not think of either criticizing or emulating him in this regard.
Most people, however hidebound in other situations, make an exception for the Kentucky Derby, and if I ever attend I plan to wear a seersucker suit and white bucks, calendars be damned. I also sometimes make exceptions for visits to tropical climes, but the Picayune of steamy New Orleans used to recommend holding off on seersucker until Memorial Day, as I recall, so temperature alone may not be an excuse for flouting convention.
Having plighted my allegiance to the traditional calendar for better or worse, my biggest quandary used to come around the current time of year, when temperatures may sometimes be in the 80s a month before the magic date. But, as alluded to above, I have found a solution that works well for me without transgressing the regulations. Lightweight wools or blends of wool and mohair are about perfect, and can be worn through the summer as well. Starting in the 1990s with a gray suit, a blazer and a check sport coat of tropical-weight wool, I have built up a decent stable over the years to see me through early spring, in and out of the office. Then, a few years ago, I watched a series set in Egypt in the 1920s, and was struck by how great a tan linen tweed coat looked with a white shirt and cream linen pants. Last summer I was able to find the perfect Prince of Wales plaid in shades of brown and tan from a second-hand seller for less than the price of a new oxford-cloth shirt, including the cost of dry cleaning and alterations. It is a 3/2 sack from Brooks Brothers in roughly equal parts silk, linen and wool. It breathes wonderfully, and is almost as light as cotton. Since then I have acquired three more similar coats from Brooks and J. Press in other shades and checks, and wear them from the first warm days of April until it is cool enough for the real tweeds.
What do others think about this? Is it kosher to wear filthy white bucks in the fall with gray flannels like a Princeton undergrad in the 1950s? Is seersucker the perfect solution for a late April day in Charleston when the mercury is nearing 90? Am I a just silly old stickler who deserves to have his hat snatched and stomped? Let your conscience be your guide, but I think it best at least to be aware of the rules before you break them so you can roll your eyes and heap withering scorn on any who dare criticize you. And make sure to stow the boater in its hatbox by September 15 if you want to avoid a riot.— CHARLOTTESVILLE