Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Harry Buys an Iron

Well, of course I already had one. But whilst recently struggling to get a sharp crease on a shirt sleeve it occurred to me that maybe the iron I was using was really not very good. Like the majority of our household appliances I fondly imagined that it was bought , my memory unreliably suggested, in a vague period called ‘a couple of years ago’. Which of course was wildly inaccurate. So maybe the iron was underperforming because of old age ( though why that should be the case I can’t imagine)

This domestic reverie prompted a recollection of a conversation I once had in Milan. I was in the company of a stylish ( well, obviously) creative director ( advertising not fashion).
Older than me, and with a degree of gravitas and that ‘not quite beard’ look that is quite difficult to carry off. A charming and quite taciturn chap.
I had worked with him for a while, so we knew each other.
Which is the kind of qualification I need to make before I say that I, a man, dared to ask him, a man, about clothes. ( This is an unusual conversational area for older males to venture into).
How, I asked , do Italian men always manage to look so stylish and well turned out? I went on: Italian men seem to gravitate toward what I see as being classic, almost anglo clothes. Tweed jackets ( which indeed Paolo was wearing) and nothing faddish . Understated and stylish, but managing to make the average Brit wearing similar clothes appear scruffy by comparison.
We were in a very recherché enoteca. As a solo visitor I would not even have noticed this tiny establishment. A small dark wood panelled room filled with wine bottles. A few stools. And rammed with Italian bourgeoisie quaffing a glass of wine at the end of the working day. Stylish to a man ( and woman).
His answer was very simple. We buy, he said , good quality clothes. Not many. Each season a new jacket , a coat, or trousers. That are well made, and fit. And then , he said, (rather pointedly I felt), we look after them. He admitted that he didn’t have an enormous wardrobe , but everything in it was immaculate.

So that was the difference! My thoughts immediately turned to my wardrobe. With many less than immaculate items that had seen better days. But which I was still inclined to pull out and wear because of some undisciplined notion that they still passed muster.
Well, the wardrobe remains full of sentimentally preserved schmatte. But I do make more of an effort to have the right creases in my shirts nowadays .


Marian D said...

2 points:

1. Did you haggle (for the iron)? and if so, how did you get on?

2. "schmatte" is new to me - what a great word!

Anastasia said...

3. What are the right creases on a shirt (asks the woman who occasionally irons a shirt for the husband aka The Warrior She Sends Into Battle and who doesn't know either where the creases on a shirt should be)?

Marian D said...

My Southern Italian sister-in-law, who is a teacher, only ever irons the collar and front of her husband's shirts, or at any rate the ones he (another teacher) wears to work. This means he has to choose between keeping his jacket on at all times and sweltering in the summer heat, or taking the jacket off and looking very crumpled indeed. The shirts of course are cotton or linen - never, ever "easycare" polycotton.

greying pixie said...

I think 'fit' is quite an important part of this. One thing my Polish/Welsh husband noticed when we lived in Milan many years ago was that there is more fabric in the clothes so that they hang well. That is definitely a quality I associate with Italian men, which is why I can spot them a mile off on Oxford Street.

phyllis said...

Anatasia, I can answer this! A proper crease on a man's shirt should be aligned with the shoulder seam. Also, a good iron should be heavy, because weight as much as steam gives you a good result. Rowenta makes pretty good home irons at their higher price points (the lower price ones are garbage). I have a Silver Star gravity feed iron; gravity feed irons are used in designer sample rooms and by serious swerves for pressing during garment construction, although its grat too for ironing (pressing is different from ironing btw.) The water source is a one gallon container than hangs from the ceiling and it feeds water into the iron via tubing for continuous steam. It’s also heavy (about 5 lbs) so the combination of pressurized steam and weight really give you nice press. My mother gave me solid ironing and pressing skills, so maybe I’ll do an ironing video on Sew Divas because I think many people don’t actually know how to iron clothing these days.

Geraldine said...

Marian D your sister-in-law's husband (your brother, surely?) had a third choice, but I don't suppose that occurred to him, the lamb.

Marian D said...

Geraldine -
He's my husband's sister's husband - not quite sure what that makes him to me. My brother-in-law-in-law?
As to the third choice - most definitely not.
Although to be fair he does a lot of other stuff around the house. As does my husband – all of the food shopping, cooking, hoovering and preparation of kids' packed lunches. Not ironing, though - but that goes for me too, we use an ironing service.

Harry Fenton said...

Marian D: 'schmatte' is yiddish and used to be quite common parlance. I did have to check the spelling though with the Thoughtful Dresser ( I imagined there was a 'u' where there is an 'a'.

Geraldine said...

I love ironing! I always do it to The Archers or the Afternoon Play. Harry, I always thought it was 'schmutte' too. You live and learn.

Toby Wollin said...

Yes, Harry -- it IS Yiddish and it literally means 'rags'.

Marian D said...

Harry - on the subject of male elegance, have you seen Bill Cunningham's On the Streets feature in the NY Times this weekend. It's called The Mark of a Gentleman. You can find it here:

And Greying Pixie - I agree with you on fit. Apart from the cut in itself, Italians also get their clothes altered to fit. Makes a huge difference even to (relatively) inexpensive clothes.

And Geraldine - I quite like ironing too but i go into a sort of trance and take an eternity over it. I hate ironing trousers though.

lagatta à montréal said...

I REALLY learnt the importance of ironing when studying in Italy. (My mum had of course taught me how to iron, but it didn't really "take" because I thought it was fusty, old fashioned and reactionary.

A couple of professor friends, both men, neither of them fusty or old fashioned and very far from reactionary, were always going on about things like ironing and gadgets to keep shoes looked well-shined when travelling.

Both of these men are heterosexual, by the way.

I can't say always practise this, having many of the sartorial and grooming vices of people who work in a home office, but at least I know how to look somewhat well turned-out when need be.

Geraldine said...

I'm afraid that's why I'm not comfortable wearing linen. I always want to get the iron out when I've had it on for about half an hour.

greying pixie said...

lagatta, did you notice how, in Italy, dry cleaners will repair any small details without any asking, such as adding a few stitches to hems, seams, tightening a buttonhole, etc as well as cleaning and ironing your clothes perfectly.

That was a service I really used to take for granted when living there.

Lainie said...

Back in the early 1980s, Esquire magazine had a column that focused each month on how to do one basic thing perfectly well. I still remember the column on ironing a man's shirt. I love tackling a man's cotton or linen shirt with a nice hot iron and a spray bottle. I don't think Esquire mentioned this, but it should probably be done wearing lingerie, right? Especially if you're doing it for a stylish Italian man.

Duchesse said...

My Norwegian aunt always ironed with a glass of sherry on the board; she said it made the iron go so much faster.

Another reason why Italian men look better: they take time adjusting their clothes. I once saw two Italian men, both wearing trench coats, take over 5 minutes buttoning, belting and furling their collars: la bella figura.

gp said...

I agree, duchesse, it takes time to look as if you've just nonchalantly thrown something on!

Anonymous said...


Watch the iron on the tummy burns when ironing in lingerie! Maybe I was slouching too much.

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