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.“