Swellboy on… suits

Our man grapples with his weighty wardrobe and the idea of simultaneously modelling multitudinous waistcoats

Image: Brijesh Patel

One of the upsides of my Washington sojourn was the opportunity to wear lots of suits. I never travel light at the best of times and having packed sufficient clothing to mount my own mini exhibition of garments I was gratified to see the nice British Airways person plaster my bodybag-sized luggage with garish stickers warning of its extreme weight and the requirement for at least four burly men in heavy protective gear, along with block, tackle and a couple of cranes, before attempting to load it onto the plane. I daresay that the pilot had to make new flight and fuel calculations given the extra cargo.

Most of my suits were from the late 1990s, some of them inevitably let out (alas, they seem to have shrunk over the years). But other than this unaccountable shrinkage around the waist, they are holding up quite well. I suppose that this is one of the things about having quality stuff: if you treat it with respect it does tend to last. My shoes from the great Eric Cook have also withstood the passage of the years and, once amortised, the investment seems to represent remarkable value.

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However, I did have one new suit to wear on the gala evening, made for me by Terry Haste. It is a masterpiece in a royal blue flannel from Fox’s, with crescent-shaped pockets and a double-breasted waistcoat with slips of white marcella, fastened to the inside of the waistcoat by a row of smoked mother-of-pearl buttons. I enjoy every possible piece of ornamentation that can be added to a garment and I was only just restrained from adding roped shoulders, a lapped side seam to the trousers, cavalry bottoms and swelled edges to the lapels.

It is the first time in what I suppose you could call a career of thinking far too hard about clothes that I have had slips and I was disproportionately excited to see this little line of white waffle piqué peeking out of the top of the waistcoat. I imagine that this little sartorial refinement owes its genesis to the early-19th-century custom of wearing more than one waistcoat. I first came upon this unusual styling cue when I was researching my book about Count d’Orsay. When describing “the outré dress of the dandy of ’36” one observer was much struck with how “those famous dandies d’Orsay, young Benjamin Disraeli and Tom Duncombe wore multitudinous waistcoats over which dangled a long gold chain and numberless rings”. Life was indeed much more colourful in those days, and one woman meeting Disraeli for the first time was amazed by his combination of black velvet coat, carmine waistcoat, purple trousers with a gold stripe down the side seam, frills and rings (worn outside his gloves).

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I have not got quite the necessary confidence to wear rings over my gloves; however, the whole double or triple waistcoat business sounds intriguing, but in order not to burden the baggage handlers any more than necessary I am considering asking Terry to have different-coloured slips made so that I can vary the appearance of my three-piece suits. He said that this has never – to his knowledge been done before – and that it might clash with my shirts: to which I answered, like a barrister citing an historical precedent, that multiple waistcoat wearer Disraeli was quite happy to look as though he had got dressed in the dark while tripping on LSD and that compared to that great statesman the palette of my wardrobe is woefully conservative.

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