Flax of the matter: Linen suits and how to wear it
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch at Manhattan’s famous theatrical establishment, The Players Club. It’s my new favourite place in the world. Originally a townhouse bought by the esteemed 19th-century American actor Edwin Booth (brother of the notorious Lincoln assassin John Wilkes), and remodelled for the club by Belle Époque superstar architect Stanford White, the place absolutely reeks of stage history. Alongside dozens of historical costumes on display, there are also death masks of famous actors, hundreds of wonderful portraits (including some by John Singer Sargent) and tons of prop swords, canes, springer daggers, stage furniture and other props. Not to mention one of the best and most agreeable theatrical libraries in the country. But what caught my eye was in the downstairs Grill Room. The small dining room has a nice bar at one end, a fireplace, tables scattered about and a billiards table. I asked my host if people ever used the billiards table. “All the time, since the club was first formed in 1888,” he said. “The pool cue hanging over the fireplace was Mark Twain’s.”
Linen suits for the stylistically insouciant
I sat there, eating my turkey club sandwich, and thought about that. Watching Mark Twain in a pristine white linen suit shooting pool with a few fellas puffing on Havanas, moving their brandy snifters along the cushion to make a carom shot. What a great fin de siècle scene it must have been. White, a friend of Twain’s, would have been one of those men, and he had his last meal there on the balmy evening of 25 June 1906 before going off to watch a musical at Madison Square Garden, where he was discovered by the husband of his former mistress, the great beauty Evelyn Nesbit, and shot to death.
Twain, iconoclast that he was, loved white linen suits. In an interview with The New York Times, the reporter happened to ask him about his penchant for wearing the material. “I have found,” Twain explained, “that when a man reaches the advanced age of 71 years as I have, the continual sight of dark clothing is likely to have a depressing effect upon him. Light-coloured clothing is more pleasing to the eye and enlivens the spirit.”
The gentlemen’s club — along with white linen suits, billiards and brandy — has largely been replaced in our social scene by hyper-designed trainers, iPads and diet sodas. But not entirely. Linen has, once again, been gaining ground as a fabric of choice for the season’s newest suitings and casual wear. I’m putting this down to comfort and elegance, but those have always been my peculiar touchstones of style. I have a hard time understanding another reason for wearing something, but, of course, that’s just me. I suppose you could add a dash of nostalgia if you wanted, and it would only improve the flavour.
Linen may be our oldest body covering — not counting fig leaves, of course. Even before the Biblical physician Luke told his story of the proper gentleman, “a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day”, it had been woven into garments in Egypt for centuries. It was apparently understood from the very beginning that linen was not only a durable material for fabric, but was easily washed. “Fresh linen and plenty of country washing,” was Beau Brummell’s dictum and advice to his aristocratic friends who were still wrapped in layers of soiled satin and greasy woollens up through the Regency era.
At the turn of the 20th century, natives and visitors to sophisticated southern climes — Italy, Cuba, the American South, Spain — would have encountered plenty of men in white linen suits, heavily starched and pressed, which didn’t keep them from creasing, but that was part of the charm and panache. Today, in an age of indestructible synthetic fibres resembling aluminium foil, that charm remains. What’s wanted in linen is nonchalance — that insouciant sang-froid that says you’re too cool to care. Think Nöel Coward at the Monte Carlo Casino, Gary Cooper poolside in Beverly Hills and possibly even George Clooney at Lake Como. And let us not forget distinguée writer Tom Wolfe’s je ne sais quoi as he wanders about Manhattan.
Of course, it’s not only white we’re talking about here. I’ve seen both Luciano Barbera and Sergio Loro Piana — two distinguished dressers if there ever were any — in tobacco-brown linen double-breasted suits that were absolute poems to the genre. Sand is another tasteful alternative, as are olive, navy and sage green. And the esteemed Neapolitan Mariano Rubinacci is fond of wearing black linen suits in the evening — very chic, indeed. Pastels are now properly de rigueur with the more boulevardier members of the clan: pink, pale orange, peacock blue, buttery yellow, pearl grey and mint.
The genre calls for a certain discipline and self-scrutiny. It’s not for the faint of heart, the confused or the timid. Wearing a linen suit remains something of an art based on confidence, because the gentle creases and folds that accrue must be accepted as a touch of poise, finesse and natural assurance. Over time, the colour of fine linen will gently fade a bit and patinate (we’re all big fans of patination), which is another indication of the triumph of style over regimentality. Perhaps not for the aesthetically immature, but for the man of confidence and personal flair, you simply can’t beat linen.