Sooner or later those of us who read blogs like these (or indeed write for them) are likely to have a flirtation with exotics. There is nothing so everyday that it can’t be jazzed up in some rare material, the scalier or stranger the better. As I’ve written before, most rationalizations for such indulgence are not, in fact, rational explanations, beyond, perhaps, jadedness and our limitless capacity to overdo, which sometimes even exceeds our ability to overthink. Just as some people live paycheck to paycheck, other live purchase to purchase, in fact living on the anticipation of some new discovery to thrill to, or, given the wait necessary for a bespoke item, of some new flotsam that we can reach for as we drift and bob on the aimless surface of existence. Although few of us have the means or the Adlerian grandiosity to upholster our bar stools in whale foreskin like Ari Onassis, perhaps our efforts are (forgive the imagery) in the same vein.
Before I go any farther, let me make clear that this piece is not intended to encourage or excuse the use of tortoiseshell. Tortoiseshell is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Despite the existence of pre-ban stocks of tortoiseshell dating from 80 or 100 years ago, the import of any tortoiseshell of any age into certain jurisdictions may be illegal. The sorts of tortoise such shells came from are now endangered, and reasonable people can see the danger of any trade or demand at all creating incentives to falsify the age of stocks to include illegally harvested shells. If you really want something that looks like tortoise, plastic is an obvious substitute, while oxhorn is readily available and relatively reasonable.
Returning to my original discussion, collar stays are one item ripe for this sort of indulgence. Unlike shaving brushes, about which I wrote some time ago, there isn’t much that can be done to them in order to claim some improvement in performance: for the most part, collar stays are all just little pointy oblongs that slide into pockets under the points of your shirt collar to keep them from crumpling. (If you’re wearing a shirt with stays sewn in, congratulations, you’re wearing a crummy shirt.) There have been attempts to complicate them using little magnet anchors and such, but that’s just appalling. Inserting and removing stays between washings is as much fuss as we need in using them.
However, the material, rather than any mechanism, of these items, which will never be seen when worn, offers Lucullan levels of perverse pleasure – perverse because the only person aware of their specialness is the wearer (and the people he tells about them on the internet). It’s rather like scarf linings in suit jackets, except there’s always the remote chance the lining could be glimpsed. If you’re flashing your collar stays, you’re doing something wrong. Plenty of shops offer silver collar stays, and I once saw an amazing pair of 9 karat gold Asprey collar stays that adjusted to the appropriate length, but metal stays pose the risk of eventually wearing through their pockets. And if you turn your head, they may either poke you (if they’re too stiff) or bend oddly and stay bent, as is the case with the brass collar-deforming stays one well-known Jermyn Street shirt discounter provides. Less nobly, metal seemed too easy.
A few shops and artisans abroad deal, reputably, in pre-ban stocks of tortoiseshell, including opticians such as Coffignon who make real tortoiseshell glasses frames. A firm called Maison Bonnet has a wider expertise, creating couture pieces, sleek lampshades, combs and other accessories out of tortoiseshell, even cufflinks set in 18 karat gold, as well as tortoiseshell collar stays. The latter are sold in a few men’s stores like the shirt shop Halary and the outfitters Arnys. Like all reputably sourced tortoiseshell, they are violently, shockingly expensive. Seductive stuff, albeit forbidden to the ethical international traveler. Despite the price and my thoughts on the stuff above, they almost seduced me. Fortunately, the tortoise stays at Arnys are extremely wide (designed for their own shirt collars), while those at Halary were too short for my own shirts. Discussions about having some cut to size by the maker went nowhere. While tortoise would have been stiff enough to keep a collar unbowed, it would likely have the same risk of snapping that stays made out of mother of pearl or bone do if stressed too much. In the end, and as displayed in the picture above, a friend sent me an assortment of plastic collar stays in all imaginable lengths. They’re stiff but springy enough to return to their shape if flexed, and dirt cheap and easy to replace if ever they don’t.
As an aside, the very best stays I’ve encountered were when I had shirts made at Lanvin. Noticing that my shirt had come with collar stays that were clearly cut out of some slightly thicker plastic to the size and length needed for my bespoke collar, I asked my cutter if he could scare up a few extra. He picked up a phone, called upstairs to the workrooms, and in five minutes a handful of freshly cut new pairs arrived down to the bespoke floor: my first realization that even at that late date they maintained their own workrooms on the premises, in the classic style, despite a location on some of the most expensive retail real estate in the world. Those days are gone now.
In the end, my lesson was that sometimes the simplest really is the best. Don’t overthink. Of course, if one has to come to that realization, one is probably overthinking a lot of the time. In any case, if your shirt takes stays, use them… Intentionally omitting them tends to look either careless (not carefree) or affected, unless you’re Bryan Ferry.
As for the title of this brief flirtation, I couldn’t resist quoting Echo & the Bunnymen. After all, why did I even entertain the temptation? “A longing for some fresher feeling, belonging or… just forever kneeling...”
‑ Réginald-Jérôme de Mans