I have a friend who wears what he calls ‘knockabout’ suits.
How exactly he knocks about in them I don’t know, but the meaning is clear: these are casual suits, that don’t belong in a formal environment like an office.
Most non-worsted suitings can exist in this category: woollens like flannel, linens, and of course all the different types of cotton.
One of my favourites, and one that is particularly hard to get right, is corduroy.
Pictured is my tan-corduroy suit from Anderson & Sheppard, worn at our book signing in Leather Foot, Toronto earlier in the year.
Corduroy, like most cottons, immediately feels more casual than flannel or linen. It cannot hold a crease; it is soft and malleable; and it reminds us of the comfort in a cotton T-shirt, chinos or jeans.
Actually, comfort is an interesting point here – for it can mean different things to different people.
Jeans are comfortable because they warm and mould with the body, giving a feeling of reassurance and structure. This is very different to the comfort of a tracksuit or loose linen trousers, where the aim is to feel like you’re wearing nothing at all.
Arguments over whether jeans are comfortable, unfortunately, never get round to defining their terms – remaining at the level of anger and anecdote.
But back to corduroy. The thing that makes cotton reassuring is also its most limiting factor in tailoring – it does not stretch.
In trousers this is often mitigated with the addition of elastane (which rarely works out well) but in tailoring, a little wool or cashmere is often added – both to add that touch of natural stretch and to give it softness.
My suit here is made in a Zegna cashmere/cotton corduroy (10% cashmere) and others such as Scabal offer something similar. This feels great, although it does make the trousers bag even more than regular cords.
I enquired with Scabal whether it was possible to use pure cotton for the trousers and a cotton/cash mix for the jacket, as this would seem to be the best of both worlds.
But apparently the differences in the way cotton and wool take dye would mean that the two cloths could never be close enough in colour to be indistinguishable.
From a style point of view cord works well as a ‘knockabout’ suit because it immediately looks relaxed and casual – helped by its mostly casual colours.
A reader made the insightful comment a while ago that this suit was perhaps an example of the more casual direction of menswear. I agree, and can only hope that men realise the style and beauty of such tailoring, rather than descending all the way to tracksuits and trainers.
The challenge with styling corduroy is to avoid its rather old-fashioned connotations. As another reader asked recently, ‘can you suggest a way to wear cords without appearing too ‘fogey’?’.
In a suit, even a regular single-breasted one, this is relatively easy.
It’s harder in separate trousers or a jacket, but I would suggest a cut that is as slim as tolerable, and then working with other items around the cords.
So avoid a tattersall shirt, chunky shoes and a pheasant-decorated silk tie, in favour of perhaps (as here) a denim shirt, slim shoes and grey cashmere neckwear.
Lastly, the make and style of this Anderson & Sheppard tailoring.
As regular readers will know, I love the style of the A&S double-breasted – the chest it gives me with the drape cut, plus the belly on the lapel.
But, much as I love this suit, the make is probably too formal for the versatile piece I wanted.
The height and structure of the collar means that it really only works with a tie; when the shirt is open-necked, it will too easily collapse beneath the jacket collar.
(And this is with the button-down shirt style that Luca Avitabile and I specifically designed to stay up when unbuttoned.)
All English jackets are like this, and for the use that I wanted I should really have used an Italian tailor, most likely Neapolitan.
But we live and learn. I may yet get to make something similar in a Neapolitan cut, and in the meantime it is interesting how much I have come to love this suit, despite its flaw.
Credit: Permanent Style