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Dear Gentleman Scholar,
I recently purchased some custom-made shirts from one of those offshore custom tailors Farhad Manjoo recommended. They fit great and look swank, but now I’m questioning the decision to get my initials monogrammed on the cuff. Is a discreet monogram classy? Or is it douchey, like, “Look at me, world, I have enough money to custom-make my shirts and I want people to know it”?
Thank you for your question, ABH. Or, as some wags would no doubt woof: Thanks a lot, DB.
Is the monogram the mark of a douchebag? No, let’s not use that word in this instance, lest we leach it of meaning. The shirt detail most identifiable as an element of the douchebag’s workday uniform is the white collar on a blue shirt. Let’s instead declare the monogrammed cuff an unfortunate signifer of social anxiety.
Approaching the matter from a design perspective, we stumble over the cuff monogram as distraction. It draws attention away from the craftsmanship of the shirt itself. If your goal is to impress others with the quality of a made-to-measure garment, then you would do best simply to wear the garment well, and if you believe that the monogram telegraphs your status, then you need to go out and get some more status. As it is, you are inviting people to notice your desire to be noticed.
A conspicuous monogram is classy only in the sense of business-classy, bespeaking time lost loitering at the SkyMall which invites the striver opportunities to attach his initials to golf bags and playing cards and coolers that convert into portable stools. The people most likely to be impressed by the embroidery are by definition allergic to the ideas that elegance is restraint and discretion the better part of not looking goofy. I am baffled to learn that Mad Men intends the RHS on Rogert Sterling’s wrist to be a charming facet rather than a telling flaw. “All of his barrel-cuff shirts feature a block monogram,” writes costume designer Janie Bryant, “which is the ultimate nod to sophistication.” On the contrary, it reminds me of a personal ad placed by a fellow touting his “sofisticated tastes.”
In the beginning, the shirt monogram served much the same purpose as a name Sharpied on the elastic of summer-camp underpants. Its function was to thwart accidental switcheroos at the laundry—and because no one ever took his jacket off, back in the day, a breast monogram was, again, no flashier than an iron-on name label informing a select few persons of the true identity of the rightful owner of a particular set of Batman Underoos. If you cannot resist the temptation to monogram your shirt—if you like the simple innocent ego bounce of personalization—you would do well to remember this history and consider a low-key placement of block letters no more than a quarter-inch tall. It would be Euro to aim for the lower-left rib cage, Astaire-like to go for the forearm, and trad to conceal it inside the yoke or at the bottom of the front shirt tail.
Still, you’ll want to know that some of your superiors believe it correct to monogram only linen and silverware—and that your superiors include people of the servant class. One never tires of quoting the words of Stephen Fry’s Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s Wooster, on the subject of a monogrammed handkerchief: It was the valet’s understanding that this sort of thing was “only for those people who were in danger of forgetting their names, sir.” Jeeves would say that the monogram is the personal brand of the vulgarian, and seek trauma-counseling if obliged to brush Bernie Madoff’s velveteen slippers.
But Jeeves is British, and we are Americans, an inherently vulgar people. While it is important to recognize that it is, as a rule, less than perfectly tasteful to monogram things, it is also important to understand that each of us Americans is allowed to break this rule, here and there (especially if the monogram serves the functional purpose of deterring thefts and mix-ups).
Looking around the lair in which the Gentleman Scholar dwells, I count a handful of items bearing my monogram. The blue stitching on the blue body of the LL Bean Boat and Tote Bag strikes me as a perfectly defensible preppy affectation, and the stainless-steel hip flask was a gift, as was the baby silver feeding set recently handed down to a person who just last night used it to not eat his pasta. I flatter myself to think that the sentimental value of the silver will continue to appreciate. Which is by way of suggesting that the letter-writer reserve his questionable shirt for a loved one to lounge around the house in. Then procreate. After your offspring has passed through that phase of despising you all the time for no good reason, he or she will fondly figure out some way to use the shirt. A monogram is at its best as a memento. —WTP IV