How many ways do you think there are to tie the average necktie?
According to statistical physicist Thomas Fink, mathematically there are 85, based on shape, symmetry and the way in which the tie is laid at each point one ties the knot.
Fink published his findings in The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie and The Man’s Book, the latter being a handbook cataloguing all manner of obsessive minutiae of classy heteronormative appearance and behaviour, written in an intelligent but tongue-in-cheek manner. It was given to me around my 13th birthday, a gift that seemed to signify both my impending maturation and general interest in trivial minutiae of any subject.
Fink himself is something of a gentleman intellectual, his Wikipedia article listing him as a “physicist, author and entrepreneur” who enjoys such interests outside of research as “design, simplicity, adaptability, skiing and shooting”. He turns every aspect of the well-to-do man’s life in The Man’s Book into something you’re more likely to see in a textbook or a research paper; a dendrogram classifying the similarities in tastes between malt whisky, the compared dimensions of different sized cigars by length and circumference, the minimum number of shirts and trousers one should pack for a trip (shirts squared should be equal trousers cubed: for example, a man with 5 pairs of trousers should pack 11 shirts as a decent non-repeating rotation). There’s a sizeable section dedicated to dealing with the fairer sex and the responsibilities that come with marriage, anniversaries and appropriate gift-giving.
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I’d put the book out of mind for years until Salient started doing reports on The Bachelor. When the finale aired we all watched as human asparagus stick Arthur Green hemmed and hawed over what ring to buy his lucky contestant/future spouse, when suddenly out of the blue (read: sponsorship deal), who should show up at the door but Sir Michael Hill himself. After the rolled eyes had settled, Hill sat his patsy down and explained to him the ethos of the Hill brand, to find a ring that suited a woman’s personality and lifestyle.
Companies are always going to leap onto the newest to draw attention to themselves. But was Art’s dilemma simply marketing packaged as sincerity, or vice versa? On that note, did the aged tips of The Man’s Book still hold up to scrutiny?
I decided I’d have to talk to some experts and investigate. Originally intending to do a full breadth of things in all manner of expense and good taste, I ultimately decided to stick to the classics: jewellery, suits and perfume.
I started research on a slow Sunday afternoon around the “Golden Shopping Mile” of Lambton Quay. It felt jarring walking into a place like Trelise Cooper or the Lacoste alligator pit that is Kirkcaldie and Stains in my usual scruffy coat-jeans-and-hobo-gloves combo, sticking out like a sore unmanicured thumb among all the middle-aged women and their aged, balding husbands. But the shop assistants and managers were all too happy to answer my questions despite my shlebbish attire. They all knew their product and the customers who buy them, though not with the same precision as Fink’s mathematical proofs. People are naturally afraid to put money into anything seen as an expense, be it a suit for work or an engagement ring, so people tend to shop cautiously, but when it comes to the sales pitch, emotion precedes reason. The pitch I was most intrigued by was the two perfume salespeople (one man, one woman) in Kirkaldie and Stains.
“Certain language is going to resonate differently with different people,” said the saleswoman. “If I say, ‘This perfume is a really classic smell’ to a girl of 22, it means nothing to her, and then I have to explain that then means it’s going to be slightly deeper and woodier and spicy, a bit strong.”
“If you say ‘floral’ to an older lady, they expect a certain smell, but [what constitutes floral] has changed a lot over the years. You sort of have to customise your style of selling.”
That seemed to be the case for every store that I went to. I still hem and haw over whether to put money down on a nice cologne, recognising the inherent appeal scent plays in one’s presentation but hesitant as to whether I’m just paying for what amounts to very expensive Lynx.
The salesman at Kirkcaldies preferred to sell perfume by brand, as names carry just as much weight as adjectives. For example, Elie Saab has an elegant connotation, and because it is coupled with a diamond-faceted bottle, he would tend to sell it to a woman with a lot of jewellery.
It’s the connotation with style and taste that really helps seals the deal. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mad Men and the series’ central motif of advertising; you’re not selling a product, you’re selling an idea.
He then went on to describe another older saleswoman and the artifice she uses to appeal to customers.
“One thing she does with Narciso Rodriguez, which is for the men, she will cater that to a darker man because it suits their skin better. And she’ll sell it by saying ‘Imagine you’re on a leather brown armchair couch in a luxurious VIP area with a big cigar’ and sells it that way.
“She creates a virtual world that you can almost smell it in your head. That how she sells them. [She] associates them with a place that you would rather be in.”
It’s hard to deny the aspirational quality of these products. Class may be a social construct, but it is displayed through physical constructs. Being rich, having class, being able to afford and wear all of these things makes you feel like a completely different person.
For instance, every self-respecting male is expected to own at least one suit he can throw on at a moment’s notice.
“Like architecture and typography, a suit is built up out of minor variations on inherited wisdom,” Fink begins a section on dress sense. You need to go to an expert, the kind of people who know their Armani from their Canali, and the finer suit stores have the wealth of knowledge in spades. An old flatmate of mine, works at Vance Vivian, a suit store on Lambton Quay that has been around for 94 years.
“I think people come here because we have probably the best quality clothes in New Zealand,” his manager began. “They come here because of the level of service and advice they will get, which they won’t get in a lot of department stores.”
If the clientèle know what they want, they will go and buy $500-$600 suits off the rack without so much as a word. The more intensive sells are a team effort between the salesmen; one order from Australia moved around $15,000 worth of stock, with the salesmen along for the ride. The jewellery stores were more tight-lipped about their prices and clients.
From what my old flatmate James told me, it’s the department stores that deceive you, or at least don’t put in as much effort into giving you advice on how to use it.
“When I went into Hallensteins just to have a look at the suits, they don’t actually look that different, but beyond the material it’s definitely different. The cut is horrible, they don’t sit properly, they’re baggy… It sort of makes people think of [buying] suits as more of a ‘dark art’ than it needs to be.”
It’s not just CEOs and the MPs that come by to shop, but also students coming out of university, looking for work at law and accounting firms, where they need to be presentable and above all confident in their own dapper skin.
Jewellery, meanwhile, is the most steeped in sentiment and commemoration.
“A lot of people when they get a promotion at work, anything really, birth of a child, passing of a loved one, want to commemorate that with a sentimental piece of jewellery or a watch,” said the saleswoman at Partridge Jewellry, a bespoke jewellery company on the Quay. “Something that can be held on to for a very long time and be handed down.”
Jewellery is also steeped in tradition, but many of those traditions and associations stem from companies creating a mythology around them. The number of stones in a ring is bound to a particular meaning; a solitaire, the quintessential wedding ring with the one stone, represents a dedication to one person or the binding of two people as one, while a three-stone ring represents a couple’s past, present and future together. The significance of birthstones for particular months of the year was popularised by department store and breakfast establishment Tiffany’s.
Anniversary gifts linked with a particular material were listed by Baltimore author Emily Post in her book Etiquette, first published in 1923 and now in its 18th edition. You may have heard of the silver (25th) or diamond anniversary (60th). Newlyweds can expect the gift of dead trees for their paper (1st) and later wood anniversaries (5th). The longest marriage on record is one year off the hallowed 90th anniversary, when couples are expected to shell out for their granite anniversary.
By following some of these helpful tips, you too can purchase the ability to be a better person. Maybe you could set aside your Course-Related Costs for a nice Armani, they’d be all too happy to help.