Thursday, 26 May 2011

D is for Danger

The old saying, 'the clothes maketh the man' takes on rather worrying connotations in this age of homogeny.  Most men dress for safety, to blend in and not have anyone notice or mention their apparel. If we were all to follow this template it would be a very bland world indeed.

Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, most all of us want to be safe in this life. But the fact is, no matter how well, or how badly we plan things, there is still so much of our lives that is beyond our control. Life is full of danger. 

Many of these dangers are foist upon us, but some of us seek them out.

What is it about danger that is attractive?

Why should a Gentleman flirt with danger?

And why are so many women attracted to seemingly dangerous men?

The true gentleman has a taste for danger and is not afraid to express his individual character through his views, his dress sense, and in the way he walks through the world.

To take some notable examples, Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley became hugely influential at least in part due to a sense of danger in their presence. Being handsome didn’t do them any harm either, but it was the fact that they were dangerous that set them apart and ignited the world over, crossing borders, language and generations to make them icons of men’s style.

Rock ‘n’ roll wild boys and alcohol and drug abuse have been the bane of 'normal' society for they represent something uncontrollable and unpredictable. Ultimately most of these figures are crushed by or subsumed into the mainstream through time, their dangerous edges smoothed out. 

Yet, the reality is all of us have a desire to find something wild within us, to move beyond the containment of social conditioning. 

Some men are gamblers, some are skydivers, some play the stock market and others go to war, I have always found that the stage is a good place for Danger. After more than twenty years performing, the possibility of spontaneous action amidst the ebb and flow of a live show still remains exciting. It has led to a number of memorable accidents during shows over the years. The scars I bear are those of experiencing and embracing danger, but I must admit, there is nothing particularly romantic about the ongoing danger of rolling my ankle or popping my knee in the wake of these moments of wild abandon.

None of us want to live life in fear, yet we are beset by our own host of personal demons on a daily basis. Danger offers an escape from this, tapping into a primal sense of being in the moment, having to deal with what it is that is that is dangerous and forgetting about all else.

As much as we quest to be more civilized and peaceful, the world is still beset by violence and turmoil. We seek this out. Men have as many dark, destructive urges as we have capabilities to build and to give and nurture. If we can find a balance between these two opposites, perhaps we can find peace within ourselves.

But how does a Gentleman incorporate these ideas into his life? Should he not prove that he is beyond such conflicting desires? Well, yes and no. The only way to find our higher selves is through the acknowledgement of the beast within us. The beast can be tamed to a degree, it has to be, otherwise we would live in a very horrible world. But the beast is always there, within our hearts and minds, and it is dangerous.

Saint Clare recently said to me ‘You are like the Beast’ (she was referring to the fabulous Disney musical adaptation of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast) and I said back to her, ‘and that makes you Beauty’.

This may seem like a shallow gender stereotype on the surface, but there is more at play here. Beauty is personified in the film as not only lovely to look at, but strong-willed and intelligent, not conforming to the reductive stereotypes of the village around her, dreaming of a more exciting world through constantly reading books and her flights of imagination, yet with a down to earth grip on the reality of day to day life and a good sense of reason. Wow, I wish I was Beauty.

The Beast on the other hand, broods over what could have been of his life, fuelled with anger and resentment. He is powerful in form, but is impotent as he has been banished from society and lives alone in his haunted castle. Slowly, the Beast finds his better self through his love for Beauty and in the end must confront the hatred of society that has banished him due to the awful crime of being ‘different’. He must confront his bestial self to find his inner Prince. 

It is Beauty who gives him the strength to do this for she has the insight to see that there is a sensitive man lurking beneath his terrifying visage. In part she is attracted to the danger, but she is also fearful of its damaging potential. Beauty sees through the beast to the man and it is through love that the hateful side of the Beast is transformed.

Well, I think I have a few positive attributes that the Beast does not have, but still there is some truth in the analogy. There is a lot to unpack here, and you may wonder what impact all of this has upon the world of gentleman’s grooming and deportment, but stay with me.

I posit that within everyone there is a Beauty and a Beast, and a gentleman must nurture his inner beauty and he must groom his inner beast. The two must live together, not necessarily in harmony, but with acceptance. We all have the capability for acts of kindness and acts of cruelty, we can be careless with ourselves and others, yet we still have the ability for surprising generosity and selflessness.

Caring about our inner selves is directly connected to caring about our outward appearance. The deep chasm of the psyche within us is a dangerous place, and one of the few ways to fathom those incomprehensible depths is to have a strong sense of self. What better a way to have a strong sense of self than to care about what you wear, how you wear it, your hairstyle and how your inner self fits into the world of the surface.

I began this missive by saying D is for Danger, and so too I will end it.

Danger is all around us, no matter what choices we make. Conformity is dangerous as it stifles the needs of the individual. Many choose to belong to a tribe and find their sense of self. This can be fulfilling, but danger there lies in the limitation of possibilities. Non-conformity too is rife with its own attributes of danger, the danger of slipping away into 
alienation and madness. The world is not always kind to free thinkers and still too often they are celebrated only after they have shuffled off this mortal coil.

So where is there some satisfying middle ground?

In trying to find our individuality, we must accept that we are each a melting pot of influences, that we have a strong and unique sense of ourselves and at the same time we are all, in part, the sum of what has come before us and what will remain when we are gone.

D is for Danger my friends. It waits for us around every corner, so it’s no use trying to run from it. Embrace danger and invite home for tea and you may well find that you get on a lot better than you expect.


Captain Frodo in the Carnival of Dreams

Photos by Simon Schluter, Saint Clare, Caro and Paul Zenon

Thursday, 28 April 2011

C is for COMB

Each August, for many years, I have travelled to Edinburgh for the madness of the Fringe. There is no other festival that can match the many joys and horrors of Edinburgh Fringe. It is a truly unique festival in one of the world's loveliest old cities. Through the trials and the tribulations I have forged many strong friendships and collaborations with Edinburghers - they are a fine breed, the Scots. As far as style goes, the place is challenged by such terrible weather that many men give up on trying to do much with their personal appearance. But not all! 

There are some men for whom a sense of unflappable style is intrinsic to their very make up, and one such of those men is Mr. Tim Matthew. A well respected musician, songwriter and audio guru, I met Mr. Matthew during a season in David Bates' Famous Spiegelgarden in Edinburgh in 2005.  I was performing with the Black Sea Gentlemen that year, Tim was our sound man, and it never had the group sounded so good. As promotion for our show we had our own signature combs produced in the hope of bringing some grooming tips to the ailing men of Scotland. Little did we know that Tim had been staging his own one-man revolution, changing Scottish louts into Gentlemen through his fine style, great music and dapper inclination. As much as I am known for my fine quiff, I doff my hat to Mr. Matthew, as his prowess with pomade and comb far exceed my own. Thus, I have asked him to share some of the arcane secrets of the comb for the greater good of all. I do hope you find his sage words of use in your own personal grooming journey. So here I pass the baton to Tim Matthew, Northern Hemisphere male grooming correspondent.

C is for COMB by Tim Matthew

The humble comb has been with us almost unchanged for millennia with archaeological finds dating back to 3000 BC Persia. At its simplest, a shape cut from a flat sheet of metal or a mass-produced, injection-moulded piece of plastic; at its zenith, a hand-carved piece of ivory, tortoiseshell or wood. Either way, it’s the same object – a straight line of teeth for arranging ones barnet.

My comb of choice is a cheap metal alloy comb. Small enough to fit in a trouser back-pocket without protruding from the top (very bad form). A great advantage of the metal comb is that the teeth are flat-ended which provides a more pleasant sensation on the scalp than the pointed teeth of a plastic comb (I shan’t go into the misuse of the steel comb as weapon by teddyboys which brought the implement into disrepute: some people will make a weapon out of anything).

The back-pocket comb is of course liable to work its way out of your pocket and I have left a trail of slightly bent metal combs around the bus, train and aeroplane seats of the world. Bearing this in mind, and wishing to avoid being caught comb-less, I always buy my combs in bulk and have a large reserve packed into a drawer in my house.

My favourite comb format is the kind which has half the teeth widely spaced and half closely packed. This is a very useful feature.

For casual occasions while wishing to appear nonchalant and devil-may-care yet at the same time debonair and be-quiffed, I favour the wide-toothed end. The more loosely arranged strands of hair give the impression that one’s hair naturally sits in this remarkable shape without any intervention. This makes the wearer appear relaxed, friendly and approachable.

For a more formal event such as a dinner-dance or a visit to a foreign embassy, I flip to the other end of the comb and, partnered of course with a suitable pomade or brilliantine, with a few careful comb strokes the hair becomes a crisp sculpture with immaculate sheen. Who indeed could resist your invitation to a Gay Gordons or your request to enter their country?

And so we see that the comb is far more than a hair-arranging implement; it is a tool of social cohesion, an instrument of courtship and an aid to international diplomacy. No wonder mankind has been unable to survive without it for 5000 years. It will undoubtedly be with us for at least 5000 more.

So endeth the lesson from Mr. Matthew. If you have enjoyed his words, I strongly urge you to look up his fabulous bands:

Sunday, 10 April 2011

B is for BEARD

Since kicking off my Gentlemen’s A-Z with Anton’s sanctuary of style, the letter B has been a hot contender for subjects. There has been a jostling of ideas in my feverish mind, from an exposition on my favourite pomade, Black Diamond, to my many thoughts on the nature of barbers today, but all these ideas have been pipped to the post by the beard (never fear, barbers and pomade shall be covered in future missives).

Men have worn the beard as a facial adornment that men since the dawn of time, it’s one of the parts of our outward appearance that obviously sets us apart from woman. Thus, the beard is in itself a manly thing. I have long been the bearer of a shaved face. I did dally with some unique facial growth in my youth, including a bushy neck beard (it had folks thinking I was from an obscure religious sect); a half beard and half moustache (my own Da Da statement); and a flirtation with the moustache and goatee combination (combined with very long hair as I sought out my inner rock’n’roll beast). Since those early experiments, I have been content to be a man who shaves. To be honest, I have quite a large block-like head and a wide face, and a beard could likely draw even more attention to this.

I have watched with interest as men around me have been sprouting more and more hair from their faces in recent times. From the impressive bushranger-styled chin mane, to the bohemian dandy complete with curled moustache, to the manicured lawn growth look, men are definitely more bearded today than they were a few years ago. I wanted to know more about the curious world of the beard. Rather than embarrass young fellows who are striving to find their identity in the world through their facial hair, I thought I would turn to an old hand, my dear father, who has sported an impressive beard for most of his adult life. On the eve of his 74th birthday I thought I have a chat with Vinko about the mysterious ways of the beard.

My father arrived in Australia as a clean-shaven young man in 1961, after a long and arduous journey from his homeland. Looking at pictures of him from the time, he was a dashing chap, vital and handsome, with slick black hair, a generous smile and an open, expressive face. So when was it that he made the choice that made him cover his face with a big bushy beard and moustache?

I asked Vinko about this and he couldn’t recollect what started him on this path:

“I don’t know! I was too lazy to shave!” He says with a laugh: “ If you work and you are very busy and have a life and children, can’t shave everyday.”

Well, the beginnings of Vinko’s beard may not have been a eureka moment, but now here is no denying that it is an essential part of his striking physical presence, and has been for well over forty years. He started growing it not long after my elder brother was born, thus it’s almost impossible for me to imagine Dad without a beard, for me, he has always had it.

 Funnily enough, there was a brief time when we were children that we badgered him to shave off his beard. We had only seen him clean shaven in wedding photos, where he and our mother looked like 60’s movie stars. Vinko rallied against the suggestion, but we wore him down with our perseverance to see what he would look like. Eventually he succumbed and shaved off his long cherished beard off only to have us all demand that he grow it back again! It seems that seeing his true face was too much for us…

Now, I see my father’s beard as a distinct part of his personality, an extension of his exuberant self, and definitely adding him a distinguished dignity as he continues into his 7th decade, still more strapping and impressive than most men half his age. Vinko says his secret is that he does not shave every day. He endorses trimming the beard line, saying in his rich Croatian accented English:

“I don’t use a machine or shave electric, I use only scissors. I trim around the saggy lines of the cheeks, to cover the lines, I wish I could grow a beard on my forehead to cover the lines there!”

He vehemently tells me that you must not let the beard get oily or dusty or it will get itchy. He shampoos his beard most days, but never dries it, merely patting it down a little with a towel and letting it dry in the atmosphere so that it naturally curls.

“My beard is very strong, I’m lucky. I don’t comb, if I comb it would get straight. I don’t like it too short or long. Don’t go over the cheeks because it’s the most expressive part, the cheeks and the eyes. When you trim, go around the neck to look a few years younger. I don’t use a machine, I’m a pretty conservative old bastard. I don’t change my hair or beard much. But some women and girls they stop me in street and say Wow! Some people call me Santa Claus, but I don’t care.”

In the right light, Vinko looks like an idealized Poseidon or a demigod from Greek mythology. Not a bad way for your father to look. I took some photos of Vinko but due a lost camera cord I can't post them now, but this will hopefully be solved soon. 

I also have to admit that his fashion style has influenced me. Though I am not bearded, his taste for good suits and shoes has passed on to me. Both of us love good natural fabrics and feel comfortable to be well turned out in public life. We also both have an eye for a bargain and know how to turn a second hand suit into our own.

My mother and father married on January 8th 1966 the same date as Elvis Presley’s birthday (though they didn’t know that at the time). They are still together 45 years later, and perhaps my father’s beard has played some role in keeping their love alive.

When we talk he wants to talk more about my mother than about his beard, and that is a good sign. Vinko has a healthy sense of ego, and is not afraid to poke fun of himself, another useful lesson he has taught me. So, with respect from son to father, I’ll give him the final word:

“ I have hair and a beard but not enough brain. If you could learn how to grow the brain then you would be a top man.“

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A is for Antons

So much can, and has, happened in just two weeks.  Since writing my last communiqué, I have felt the very fundamental core of my gentlemanliness shaken a number of times. While I have done my best to behave in an exemplary way, there are at least two occasions in which I can safely say that I lost the plot.

Even the finest suit and the firmest quiff cannot stand up against a flailing ego and the failure of self-control.  While I am a great believer in the need to release the inner wild man, there is a time and a place, and a gentleman should know this instinctively. Personal catharsis is quite different to blowing one’s top.

It’s no secret that all of us are marred by feelings of angst, frustration, and even at times hatred. While the reasons that prompt these volatile emotions may be valid, we must recognize on another level that the old tenet “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” still holds credence in these times. So what can a man do when the detritus of life is raining down upon him, he must find sanctuary, and that can be found in unexpected places…

Within the metropolitan inferno of Melbourne Central, is a haven for the weary traveller – Anton’s Sanctuary of Style. While other shops pump out a conflicting cacophony of mindless beats to jar the nerves of even the sternest spirit, I walk through the doors of Anton’s to the dulcet tones of Johnny Cash and gazing about, I am transported into a world of grand sartorial splendour.


Anton himself is larger than life, outspoken and irrepressible – I think that’s why we get along. We are fellow Croatians, he is generous with his laughter and his praise. Hugging him is like hugging a bear. I like this man.

Always the individual, Anton began wearing natty suits as a teenager. He drew inspiration from 1940’s films where the hero was always well dressed and always won.

“Even if he lost, he won” says Anton emphatically, his laughter tempered with wisdom.

Initially his schoolmates were bamboozled to see him turning up to school in fancy ties, braces and designer shirts. But he earned their respect through his commitment to his own style and the fact that he would not be messed with.

After leaving school he went on to manage quality men’s clothing retailers, setting a benchmark for his hard work, ethics and nous at a deceptively young age.

“ When I started, we were the first shop for men’s clothes on Brunswick street, there was nothing else.”  Anton explains to me, referencing what is now one of the most thriving café, fashion and music precincts in Melbourne.

Of course, it was inevitable that he would eventually have to start his own shop and label.

It was around five years ago that I first heard of Anton. I was performing at The Famous Spiegeltent and the tent’s owner, David Bates, spoke to me of Anton with great enthusiasm:

“The man is a sartorial genius. He has made a silk purse of many a sow’s ear. He is contemporary yet reverential to a time when men were men and sheep were nervous”

My friends who worked at the Famous Spiegeltent also sang Anton’s praises and wore his
 suits with great flair.  These were some of the few fellows I knew who were happy to discuss their attire. All of us had come through the ranks scouring 2nd hand shops for gems, in the slim hope of a decent–priced vintage suit that would actually fit. The idea of elegant and unique tailor made clothes seemed a dream to good to be true.

Back to the present, and I am surrounded by Anton’s dazzling array of suits, shirts, hats, ties, scarves, cufflinks and other enticing accessories, I feel am truly in a wonderland of possibilities.  The shop has an incredible array of dress clothes for men and women, all designed by the man himself, and I was let loose with his blessing to play dress ups to my hearts content. With Saint Clare there to explore the women’s suit range, and the attentions of Anton’s comely and dapper staff, it was a day to cherish. 

Saint Clare

I could very used to having someone help dress me. In fact, being a staunch covert on the open neck shirt, I needed assistance with my tie and the staff were very obliging, not making me feel at all like I was lacking.

As the background music changed to classic era Dean Martin, I felt like I was
the star of one of the old movies that originally inspired Anton. From dapper mafia don, to old world cabaret singer, to suave 50’s rocker, I was outfitted in threads fit for a king. And with Saint Clare as my queen, I must say I was in my element.

 The photos were taken by the lovely Marianne Wilson, whom I met touring with Amanda Palmer To see more of the photos from the shoot and more of Marianne's image making go to:

To bring this installment to a close, I spoke to a few of my contemporaries about Anton, and their words seem a fitting way to bring this installment to a close.

Singer, ranconteur and one of the best-dressed cats in Melbourne, Mojo Juju says: "It’s a look that is classic yet unique and quintessential Anton’s.  The fabrics are beautiful, the cuts are classy and best of all they how to fit their clothes to the individual".

Russall Beatty, new owner of Sydney institution The Vanguard says: "The first time I walked into an Anton’s store the world saw me as a boy. When I walked out, now they saw a man".

Well, with my rather trying few weeks leading to some boyish displays of frustration, I must say I am glad to Anton remake me into a man.

Nightingale of the Adriatic

Secrets of a Gentleman - The Forgotten Arts of Grooming and Deportment