Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf, and hence was “ready-made”; these betraying trousers were called “hand-me-downs,” in allusion to the shelf.
— Booth Tarkington
Most speakers of contemporary vernacular American English assume that the term “hand-me-down” refers to clothing “handed down” from “generation to generation.” While that is not really the origin of the phrase, today’s usage makes for an admirably concise suggestion of the idea that there can be clothing worth transferring from one generation to another, clothing that has a persistence of quality and a continuing utility.
A common practice on Savile Row had been to cut only the lower two out of four sleeve buttons. The top two would left closed, making future alterations easier either for the original owner—or eventually, perhaps, for the owner’s son, nephew, or grandson.
Even plutocrat playboys know a good thing when they see it. Lapo Elkann’s early style fame came from retargeting clothes from his grandfather Gianni Agnelli’s closet to his own shoulders. Yes, Lapo can afford new clothes. That he sometimes chooses the old over the new is a nod to this idea of persistence of quality.
What do I mean by the “quality?” Certainly, care and craftsmanship using honest materials are essential to quality. Clothes do not last without those attributes. Beyond that, however, the aesthetic and style of tailored clothing also must conspire together to lend clothes a degree of longevity. These characteristics might seem intangible. You should, nonetheless, know it or have learned it when you see it.
It seems likely that men’s clothing today moves less from one familial generation to another than was true in the past. Nevertheless, like many habits of modernity, old practices do not necessarily disappear.
They become new ones.
Here is Kevin in a bespoke tweed three piece suit of coat, vest, and trousers made for him by W. W. Chan & Sons:
A few years pass, and now we have Peter in the same suit:
Do they not both look great?
Peter, of course, is neither Kevin’s son nor nephew. Not really.
But, then, perhaps in some abstract new sense, Peter is.
I suppose that most men who “inherit” clothing this way, thanks to the fluidity of direct person-to-person commerce that technology now enables, have as their first condition a lower tolerance—or ability—to spend than the original owners.
As Peter demonstrates, however, there is no reason why your eye should not be focused still on what is well and handsomely made.