Best of Habilitate 2021

Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Folks, we’re approaching the sweet spot of my favourite time of year. Nothing beats the early days of winter in my book. It’s when you still feel the novel thrill of pulling on a coat and scarf (rather than experiencing the dread of their constancy as the season wears on). When the promise of snow is still hopeful and exciting (rather than grim and seemingly unending come February). It’s a time when there are festive lights and smells and laughter in the air, and when the promise of get-togethers with friends and loved ones can get you through whatever else needs doing in the push to the year’s end.

It’s the holidays themselves I like most, of course. In my own case, Christmas and New Year, historically, although in more recent times, courtesy of a group of American friends and a move to Edinburgh, Thanksgiving and Hogmanay have also been added to the mix. The more the merrier, I say. When I was growing up, my family would prep for the holidays weeks ahead of time. There were gifts being wrapped on the sly, decorations covering every available surface, and menu planning sessions conducted with a sense of urgency more befitting a General Assembly meeting than a familial debate about pudding options.

The other thing I like about this time of year is the way in which it prompts us to reflect. When it’s all too easy to get caught up in the pace of everyday life, the festive season offers us the chance to slow down and settle into a more contemplative pace. Provided you’re lucky enough to have the time and space to do so, there is cause at the end of one year and the start of another to pause and take stock; to think about how things are going and what you might want to change. 

So, as we head toward the close of 2021, I wanted to put together an end-of-year list of sorts. A kind of retrospective to accompany a season of introspection. So, in case you missed any of these, or perhaps if you’re new to the site, I’ve rounded up some of the most popular posts from the past year. I’ve gone purely by the numbers here, which yielded some unexpected results. You can never quite tell what a person (or algorithm) will be interested in, so I’ve often been surprised by the things that have taken off. Of the 100 posts and nigh on 100 000 words written on this site, I would never have thought, for instance, that an early piece about an obscure boat shoe patent would prove to be such an evergreen source of traffic, or that people would be as interested as I am in the watches from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the others made a bit more sense: Deep dives on trending clothing items, say, or profiles of famous figures when public interest was surging.

Mostly, though, I’ve been thrilled to discover a consistent and ever-growing readership. Habilitate is about a month shy of its one year anniversary (the site launched in January of 2021) and it’s been a wonderful experience thus far, for which I have only you to thank. I really appreciate your continued interest and support, and look forward to seeing you again in the new year. I’ll be taking two weeks off over Christmas, but will be back on your feeds and browsers again on the first Monday in January. Until then, thanks again and happy holidays! 

Now, on to the year’s most popular articles.

Hamilton field watch on an arm

First Watch: How Military Field Watches Created the Modern Timepiece

Militaria rightly enjoys a great deal of attention among menswear enthusiasts (as it does on this site). The history, functionality, durability, and unassuming aesthetics of these garments make their enduring civilian appeal a fairly unmysterious business. Occasionally, however, an item with military origins will go on to shape an entire paradigm of dressing. It will transition from martial to civilian, from niche to ubiquitous, and in the process come to define an entire facet of our wardrobes. In this respect, consider the case of the suit or the necktie. Or, if you have more of a horological bent, think of the field watch.

I bring up field watches here not only for coming to define a category of watch (as compared to, say, a diver or dress watch) but rather for defining watches, full stop. The watch as we think of it today — which is to say, a timepiece that you wear on your arm — simply was not a thing, at least not in any robust sense, until the advent of the field watch. If soldiers on the front lines hadn’t migrated their timers from their waistcoats to their wrists, we might all still be carrying our watches in our pockets (those encoded in the software of our smartphones notwithstanding).

Christopher Macsurak photo of Fran Lebowitz

Bibliophile Style: Fran Lebowitz

Last month Netflix released Pretend It’s a City, a seven-part docuseries directed by Martin Scorsese about his friend and fellow New York MVP, Fran Lebowitz. In it, as she chats to an impressive succession of interviewers, Lebowitz covers some of her favourite subjects: books, jazz, modern manners, real estate, and, of course, New York. These comic musings are mostly intercut with archival imagery and footage of Fran in full flaneuse-mode walking the streets of NYC.

In these woman-about-town montages the signature Lebowitz aesthetic can be admired in its entirety. She is among those vanishingly rare figures who can be identified immediately from a mere silhouette. The poster for the show knows as much. It’s essentially a doodle of just two iconic features: that hair and those glasses.

Plaid flannel shirt on a wooden chair

A Lifetime of Lumberjack Shirts

Here’s a question for you: Can you think of a garment that you’ve worn your whole life? Not a single, specific item that always magically fits Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-style, you understand, but rather a type or category of clothing. Like jeans in general, as opposed to one pair in particular.

Jeans were what I thought my answer would be at first, by the way. My dad was a denim obsessive and in time I would become one too, but for several years as a child I staunchly and inexplicably refused to put on even a single pair of jeans, despite all of my father’s best efforts. So denim doesn’t quite fit the bill. I may have been wearing it for most of my life, but not for all of it.

I’ll also go ahead and chuck out things like socks, underwear, or T-shirts here. Reason being that these things typically speak more of practical necessity than they do any real sense of stylistic expression or personal preference. I’m interested in the clothes that have stuck with you from childhood right the way through, the ones that you seem somehow innately drawn to. For me, at least, that proved a more difficult question to answer. 

As soon as I got it, however, it seemed obvious. In my case, I have found a lifelong companion in flannel shirts.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Celluloid Style: The Sopranos

The early pandemic gave us a number of unusual TV blockbusters. With nearly everyone stuck at home and desperate for something to do, we eagerly turned to shows like Tiger King and The Last Dance for entertainment and distraction as the world outside our homes threatened to collapse. It all made for an odd kind of throwback from our own streaming-dominated present to an earlier point in television history when everyone watched basically the same thing. It meant that Nielsen ratings were considerably beefier back then, since there were a limited number of shows on a small selection of channels and, barring tech like VHS tapes and TiVo, you simply watched what was on at a given time. 

The upshot of this restricted set-up was the joy of a shared viewing experience. Sure, there have been a few watercooler shows in recent years (Game of Thrones being the obvious example that comes to mind). But, generally speaking, we’ve all been off working through our own lists of shows solo, only to occasionally bump into another fan of a given programme who is as eager to discuss a particular favourite character or agonising subplot.

It feels appropriate, then, in our communal bit of throwback binging, that so many of us have been turning to The Sopranos. It’s a show that hails from a pre-streaming era, but one that equally seemed to kick off a new chapter in TV history, in which the names of subsequent heavyweights like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and various hits by the nascent streaming giants would also be written.

Close-up of a pair of white socks

White Socks: A Sign of the Times

As I write this, on a typically rainy August day in Edinburgh, I’m aware that we’re beginning to reach the crest of summer and will soon tumble headlong down the leafy hillside of autumn. And while I find myself checking the weather constantly in search of what might be the last unambiguously sunny day of the season, there’s no denying that colder weather will soon be upon us. In the spirit of summer’s last gasp, when considering what to write about this week, various white-hued garments kept presenting themselves. This is the final week before American Labour Day, after all, that oft-touted and rarely heeded marker of the sartorial seasons, before which summer style is fair game but after which wearing white is strictly verboten — supposedly. 

It was in this spirit that I started thinking about white socks. Talk about things verboten. Regardless of the season, white socks tend to raise an eyebrow in certain company. Or at least they used to. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that white socks are a perfect symbol for the current menswear moment.

Close-up of a Birkenstock Boston clog

A Sandal for All Seasons: The Very Long History of Birkenstocks

If ever there were an unlikely success story in footwear, it would be that of Birkenstocks. If the Birkin bag represents the high point of desirability in fashion, the Birkenstock is regularly cast as its nadir (Although, a sense of irony and some very deep pockets did recently spawn the ultimate high/low fashion mashup: a pair of Birkenstocks made of Birkin bags).

It’s the look that puts some people off, of course. But try on a pair and it’s hard not to be won over by their comfort and support. Unsurprisingly, they’ve done exceptionally well recently in the work-from-home world. Plus, there are those who love the aesthetic, all of which has been enough to make Birkenstocks a perpetual shoo-in for hot summer trends. Whether thanks to Kate Moss in 1990 or Kendall Jenner 2020, squares and fashionistas alike have been perennially enthralled by the world’s most famous sandal-maker.

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