Sartorialism and writing instruments

Dr John SLAMSON

Sartorialism and writing instruments

It is our great pleasure to introduce our most recent Parisian Gentleman permanent contributor : Dr. John Slamson, an accomplished author , European University Professor of Linguistics, and serious collector and connoisseur of writing instruments. Dr Slamson will head up an ongoing PG Column on all things regarding writing instruments. Welcome, Dr Slamson !

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Sartorialism and Writing Instruments

by Dr John Slamson

Like the modern suit and the necktie, fountain pens are a recent invention that date back only to the late 19th century. There were forerunners and previous technological attempts to craft writing instruments, but indeed, the pen was born at the same time as the modern urban professional way of life that gave birth to the business suit and assorted norms of elegance that make up contemporary social distinction.

The fountain pen is part of a golden democratic age which held strong up until the 1960’s, when men would sport a hat and a tie as part of their daily ritual and neighbourhood tailors would craft their suits to emulate haute couture models. During this golden age, the demands of general instruction involved knowing how to use a nib-holder.

The days of standardised ready-to-wear were also the days of mass-produced disposable ballpoint pens. As RTW became the standard fare, iconic fountain pen companies began to fold around the same time that master tailors began to close shop. One could argue that the ‘defeat of culture’ (from Alain Finkielkraut’s popular book), overtaken by frantic consumerism, is in synch with a double loss— that of acquiring proper reading and writing skills as undisputed cultural standards, as well as the loss of concern for the way one presents himself, with practicality winning out over the pursuit of elegance to the point that people don’t even mind being covered in logos and freely advertising for the ugliness of global marketing.

But today, in the face of such undifferentiated and massive standardisation, classic men’s style (which should not be confused with haughty snobbishness) shows a concern with common decency and personal creativeness. Writing instruments are part and parcel of this current overall approach to style. After all, why go out of your way to pick the right tie and pocket square if you’re going to write with a piece of plastic junk?

Style and stylographs

Originally called a ‘stylograph’ in pure Greek fashion—which spawned the French ‘stylo’—the pen is not unrelated to style.

In his famous address to the French Academy, known as his Discourse on style, (25th August 1753), Buffon (1707-1788) considered that:

‘Style is simply the order and movement one gives to one’s thoughts. If these are connected closely, and rigorously, the style will be firm, nervous, and concise. If they are allowed to follow one another loosely and merely at the lead of the diction, however choice this be, the style will be diffuse, nerveless and languid (…) the style is the man himself.’

Style emanates from writing, speaking, and more globally, the ethos, or self-presentation, of which clothing is an integral part. As you choose your clothes you develop a specific style. It may sometimes be a shallow display, but the clothes you wear are the first features of your person that are perceived and interpreted by other people. Whether you like it or not, your clothing style is an element of your character as perceived by others.

Real concern for sartorial matters is thus less about clothes than it is about the correspondence between clothes and your true personal soul. Like clothes, pens are about discovering a feeling of personal adequacy in the quest for the writing instrument that fits who you are as a person and reflects the elements of your character.

I was recently offered a beautiful Vanishing Point by Pilot which boasted a classic black lacquer, rhodium-plated trimmings, and a golden nib. While this pen comes in many different colours and versions, the generous person who gifted it to me explained how he’d chosen the design— ‘Black and gold may seem too posh for you, but the matte finish made the pen look too unremarkable and the carbon-fibre design felt too common. The one for you was the black one!’ Such are the ways of personal style…

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In this respect, the ideal pen does not exist as an objective entity. If the pen of your dreams is always being replaced by the next one that attracts you like a shiny rock, then collecting (pens, shoes, suits or ties) is a symptom—and that is strictly between you and your shrink.

Now, there’s a more sensible way of going at all of this—that is, finding a pen that truly fits who you are and looks and feels good in your hand, a pen that is practical… but still remains affordable. All of these elements are not easy to get right in one fell swoop.

You may like the looks of a pen but find it impractical. Or the instrument that you like most when writing happens to be ugly. Or its clip is too loose and you’re afraid it will fall away from your pocket. Or the pen is perfect in every way, except you can’t post it — and you like posting your pens.

Of course the true sartorial question remains—what pen should I wear with my clothes?

Are there similar rules to follow that show good taste such as those that preside over matching suit patterns  and selecting ties? Are there ten pen commandments like those touting the guidelines to donning a pocket square ?

How to choose a great pen?

There are two requirements for choosing the right pen for you: (1) common sense, and (2) personal taste.

The feel of a pen, like the feel of a fabric or the weight of a tie, is of paramount importance. If you have no pleasure in touching the pen, then in all likeliness you will not like writing with it, especially during long writing sessions. On the contrary, if holding the pen is already a pleasure (yes, this is a sensual question), then there is a strong indication that a pen that is pleasurable to hold will be a major piece in your daily rotation.

‘Daily rotation’?

Oh, yes, of course, one should have more than one pen. You do own more than one type of shirt, more than one model of shoes, more than one suit, do you not? Similar to ties, suits, shirts and shoes, fountain pens can also be classified into different styles categories, ranging from official to practical, from the professional workhorse to the rakish statement. Pairing a pen with a suit can be an intuitive process. For example a Micarta TWSBI, with its composite of wood, linen and paper and orange-brown hue, or an Ondoro Faber-Castell in smoked oak, are two pens that just seem to call out for dark jeans and suede derbys.

Such pens as the ‘demonstrators’ like the Pilot Heritage or the Pelikan Demonstrator, which are translucent pens that let the piston and ink show, or the S.T. Dupont Défi, made of titanium and palladium with a sharp technological design, fit best with a modern and crisp minimalistic business style. Naturally, a classic black and gold fountain pen with a gold nib will be in harmony with a dark grey three-piece pinstripe suit.

The correspondence between fabrics and materials can also be intuitive—obviously the combination of lacquer and silk seems a satisfying one.

As far as colours are concerned, the pen can directly match or indirectly hint at the colours of your clothes.

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TWSBI Micarta (photo RW Sinclair @flickr)

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S.T.Dupont Défi

As with clothes, there are luxury pens, cheap pens and a lot of pens in between ; and as with clothes, prestigious pens can range from being sadly disappointing to being designed strictly for the decadent taste of the rich—or simply marvelous. With such a wide array of products, very decent writing instruments can be quite affordable. One should check out the retailers’ shops, ask for advice, try different nibs and inks and select only what brings true pleasure.

A pen should incite an emotion and as with the choice of the day’s outfit, the focus should be to choose an instrument that makes your day sparkle and pays tribute to the belief that it’s the little things in life that matter. In that field, fountain pens are essential.

Fountain pens, rollerballs, ballpoints…

Using a fountain pen is the sartorial equivalent of wearing a suit. Both fountain pens and suits evoke neatness and elegance and can be a ritualistic part of living well.

The nib is the part of the fountain pen which comes into contact with the writing surface to deposit ink. There lies the major sensations of hand writing. The nib itself has character and varies in purpose, shape, size and material. Your choices for a nib can take many aspects into account : stiff or flexible? Extra-fine, fine, medium, road or stub? Plain or engraved? Gold or steel ? Two-toned or solid?

Rollerballs and ballpoint pens do not have such variety: they use standard refills with no specific personality. Their looks might be elegantly identical to the fountain pen version, but they still imply a hasty and strictly practical approach to writing—like jotting down notes in the underground, for instance.

Fountain pens do require a certain degree of neatness. Inks do not always dry immediately and one can always brush one’s hand over the page, smudging the ink over the lines. A broad nib and a wet ink will definitely convince you to use the old-fashioned blotting paper with your instrument.

The required accuracy for writing with a fountain pen suggests a certain character, which will be all the more obvious on the white page, yielding a unique visual effect that is far more rewarding than ballpoint writing.

Without even taking calligraphy into account, the act of writing with a fountain pen is fairly close to using a finely pointed painting brush—the pen drops the ink over the paper and the pressure of the fingers affect the thickness of the line. A ballpoint pen simply scratches against a surface, thus digging a line into the paper without the possibility of transmitting the special nuance created by the use of a fountain pen. Rollerballs and ballpoints offer no line variation, foregoing the alluring effect of texture on a page.

Fountain-pens also engage their owners in making practical choices—cartridge or converter? Standard cartridges usually come in a single shade of black, blue, red and green. However, using a converter will allow you to select your ink, which is yet another element of style. A whole article could be devoted to the infinite variety of inks but one should at least mention Montblanc’s limited editions (the Collodi with its sepia tone, the memorable turquoise Balzac, the dark-red vanilla-scented Christmas ink…) as well as the fabulous series by the Japanese maker Pilot, whose Iroshizuku inks (which means ‘drops of colours’) show the subtle hues of Japanese landscapes.

In this respect, the ultimate fountain pen is the piston type which doesn’t take cartridges at all and must be filled with a bottle of ink (sometimes with innovative designs, as is the case with the new Taiwanese TWSBI bottles), which means that you choose the colour of your ink to match the pen itself or, for supreme subtlety, to go with your outfit of the day.

A gold nib is the best you can get. Despite decent steel nibs that can be good or even interesting, a gold nib will almost always provide a deeper feel and a richer experience.

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photo @penhero.com

The pen as a tool

Often thought of as an old-school accessory, or even an ‘old-world’ relic, the fountain pen is actually a recent American invention. We owe tribute to Lewis Edson Waterman, Alonzo T. Cross, Walter A. Sheafer and George Parker (among others) for innovations that gave us the fountain pen as we know it today, that is, as a portable instrument (by positioning the ink inside a tube, thus getting rid of the inkwell), a reliable device with an easy start, a steady flow, and inks that dry instantaneously on the page. Let us remember that before these adjustments in pen design, stylograph ink spills ruined many-a-suit in the past.

Some pens can be regarded as jewels (in gold or encrusted with diamonds), others are unique works of art (sculptures made of meteorite stone, an onyx and tiger’s eye bee-shaped pen, etc.), and still others are collectors’ items (e.g., limited editions containing Abraham Lincoln’s DNA, or pens made of Spanish doubloons retrieved from a historical shipwreck; as well as pens shaped like skeletons or dragons). But a writing instrument is above all a tool, as the etymology of the word ‘pen’ clearly indicates.

The word pen comes from the French « penne », a feather, (from Latin penna/petna, whose phonetic evolution in Germanic languages gave ‘feather’, in accordance with Grimm’s Law). The Indo-European root pet– refers to speed or flight and relates to the words ‘petition’, ‘panache’, ‘impetuous’, or even… ‘hippopotamus’ (hinting at the flow of the river—potamos—not the speed of the animal!).

The French « stylo », comes from the English stylograph, and like the word ‘style’, comes from Latin stilus, the needle of a sundial or the needle used for writing into wax tablets. The Indo-European root sti– is to be found in ‘distinct’, ‘stigmata’ or ‘stimulate’.

In both cases, those are metonymies: the means (penna or stilus) are set aside in favour of the end (writing instruments) and no longer designate the original artefact (quill or needle).

Still, the modern pen is part of that historical lineage and combines the history of technology and the history of written productions.

The oft quoted line by Cervantes, ‘the pen is the tongue of the mind’ (Don Quixotte, vol. 2, chap. 16) points to the pen as a vehicle that allows the mind to express itself. Of course, in his day and time, Cervantes (often called the Prince of Wits), rather referred to the pen as a ‘quill’. But if the pen can indeed be viewed as a vehicle for the mind, does it mean that a pen is strictly a means to an end? As most of us know, the means are by no means…meaningless. The tool is not without effect on the action.

Indeed, the fountain pen is fraught with history and culture. Even as a practical tool it suggests an awareness that can be elevated to the same rank as sartorial concerns. Whereas some choose to record information on iPads, mobile phones or computers, others will use fingers, pens and inks, thus keeping to a classic approach to the action of expressing the mind. For handwriting is about practicing a craft that directly relates to the process of thinking, and good handwriting is a result of developing a hard-earned technique—even if you’ve forgotten the strenuous hours you spent in your early years, scrawling letters in your notebooks.

Handwriting and fountain pens hark back to our cultural history, and choosing a good fountain pen helps us present an upgraded version of ourselves, along with complementing the emotion we create with the clothes we wear. Pens are useful—more than ties for example—but while a pen may be less visible than a tie, a good writing instrument is not only ornamental and functional, but also expresses the character of a man in a concrete way.

So, gentlemen, you may want to try a stylish nib to complement your dapper suits…