The Writing on the Wall

image_title_xoohlIt is a truth universally acknowledged, or at least a cliché often repeated, that clothes make the man. Over the past half-century, clothing commentators have developed various theories to explain this sociological fact. Paraphrasing a ‘political sage’, Thorstein Veblen, who considered the spending habits of America’s elite, observed that ‘a cheap coat makes a cheap man’.[i] Adopting a broader approach to dress, James Laver postulated three clothing principles: the Hierarchical Principle (where dress denotes status), the Utility Principle (where dress provides comfort and warmth) and the Seduction Principle (where dress attracts the opposite sex).[ii] Combining these thoughts, and developing a line of argument enunciated by Roland Barthes, Alison Lurie argued that clothing is a language, possessing its own vocabulary and grammar, which people use to convey different tones and meaning.[iii] Whilst all clothes converse, Lurie implies that certain items of dress – hats, furs and jewellery –speak louder and more eloquently than others.[iv] Judging from the number of magazines and websites that now provide information about luxury products, from the Financial TimesHow To Spend It[v] and Showmedia’s Brummell[vi] to LUX[vii], men’s accessories are currently very vocal and are clamouring for our attention, none more so than the fountain pen.

Mightier Than The Sword?

Writing instruments have always conferred status because they are the chief tool of the learned and literate, as Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging implies (albeit on a domestic scale). In classical times, and long after, writing was an art practiced by a privileged few. As societal structures became more complex and as a written culture began to replace one that had relied on oral transmission and memory, those who wrote became increasingly important and powerful.[viii] The manuscripts scribes produced, decorated with ornate handwriting, coloured inks and gold, were time consuming and commensurately expensive, as the British Library’s recent ‘Royal Manuscripts’ exhibition revealed.[ix] The advent of printing and digital media have reduced the time and price of written works, but they have not affected the allure, or cost, of the fountain pen to the same degree. Last year, several retailers recorded a sharp increase in sales of fountain pens.[x]


The pen’s renaissance was attributed to a hankering for the traditional and the ‘personal touch’. The informality and banality of emails and texts was apparently encouraging people to opt for a more liberating and distinctive communication tool. But there is another reason for the fountain pen’s revival, as the reversion to a simpler, more wholesome or honest product has many contemporary parallels, from the explosion of independently produced magazines to the profusion of new shops that sell handmade lifestyle items. According to Richard Dorment, the greater emphasis that is presently put on quality is due to the economic downturn, which has, paradoxically, seen consumer spending on luxury brands reach new heights.[xi]

By the end of [2012], we know for certain that a few things will come to pass. A millionaire will have been elected president of the United States; the national unemployment rate will hover at an uncomfortably high level; and American men will have spent more money on personal luxury goods – watches, shoes, jewelry, and big-ticket clothing items – than in any other single year in history.[xii]

Dorment gives three reasons for the surge in sales of luxury items: (1) luxury goods retain their value when real estate and shares do not; (2) the new rich continue to grow wealthier, particularly if they work in the ‘tech and energy sectors’; (3) a cultural shift has seen the wealthy invest more money in personal items than property.[xiii] In this changed social (and spending) climate, the fountain pen has currency because, like the watch, another popular accessory, it has an obvious and practical purpose that satisfies the West’s predilection for people who graft (whilst we are frequently besotted by the insouciant rich, the Jay Gatsbys of this world, we genuinely feel justice is served when they get their comeuppance, as they always do). The fountain pen also has an age-old association with the virtuous pursuit, and possession, of learning. It is an object that seems to bestow on its possessor an instant integrity and intellect, a view that may well be enhanced by the fact that many luxury pen brands are German.[xiv] A pen will frequently appear in fashion photo shoots to provide the necessary visual support to the message being marketed, usually that of a successful, confident and erudite businessman.

Worth Its Weight In Gold?

MysteryMasterpiecePens may be eminently practical, but this does not mean they are not also objects of desire. Italian Vogue has featured the gold Graf von Faber Castell fountain pen, which features fifty-eight diamonds and two citrine quartz gemstones. The desirability of this pen is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that only ten have been made.[xv] It is not uncommon for prestigious pen brands and jewellers to collaborate on a writing instrument. To commemorate the centenary of their respective companies in 2006, Mont Blanc and Van Cleef & Arpels produced the Mystery Masterpiece.[xvi] Three versions of the pen, which retails at £450,000 are available, decorated with either emeralds, rubies or sapphires. This is in addition to the 840 diamonds that are set within the Van Cleef & Arpels ‘Mystery setting’. The ‘Mystery setting’ is a unique means of securing gemstones within a virtually invisible T-shaped grove of gold.[xvii] Cheaper fountain pens that are still ostentatiously conspicuous regularly feature in the ‘Electibles’ section of FT’s How To Spend It.[xviii] However, considering how ubiquitous the fountain pen has become – in the press, if not yet in people’s pockets – possessing a suitably flamboyant version may not be sufficient. Even the pen may need to be accessorised. (Effective) demand for writing instruments has trickled down to desk accessories and pen cases. Smythson have been keen and quick to demonstrate that its leather goods are fashionable items in their own right. Their Autumn/Winter 2011 Journal featured collaborative collections with fashion blogger Susanna Lau and designer Jonathan Saunders.[xix]

The Devil In The Detail

I doubt that medieval clerks, the Xerox machines of their day, would approve of today’s bejewelled pens, or know what to do with them. Monks and clerks valued the output of their writing instruments, which required human patience and skill, rather than the instrument itself, which was often very humble. How times have changed. As the suit and other items of conspicuous consumption have become ubiquitous, a sort of semiotic myopia now seems to prevent people from distinguishing effectively between different types of clothing, or more significantly, between different brands. Esquire contributor Mansel Fletcher discovered this to his horror, when he swapped his £3,000 tailor-made suit for ASDA’s £25 variant.

It took three days before anyone pulled me up. When I finally asked my colleagues if they hadn’t spotted my sartorial slumming everyone said that they just hadn’t noticed the suit; it was, effectively, invisible.[xx]


If the sheer number of suits is giving rise to white noise and confusing clothing’s coherent discourse, it might soon be the case that the modern man is made by his accessories. After all, with a £25 suit a not-so-dapper dan could buy many accessories to camouflage his sartorial indiscretion. I’m not sure I’d take the risk, though. I do have one high-street suit tucked away in my wardrobe, but that’s where it will stay. As for my fountain pen, it does not feature diamonds or emeralds, although it is made of 18kt and 23kt gold. And I even have a black leather case for it. With it, I dig.

[i] T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Oxford, 2007), 103-4, 112.

[ii] V. Cumming, Understanding Fashion History (London, 2004), 34-35.

[iii] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2001), 3-4. More generally, see M. Barnard, Fashion as Communication, 2nd Edn (London, 2002).

[iv] Ibid., 126-29, 176-81.

[viii] M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd Edn (Oxford,1993).

[ix] Royal Manuscripts: the genius of illumination, ed. S. McKendrick, J. Lowden & K. Doyle (London, 2011).

[x] ‘The fountain pen is mightier than emails or texts as the ‘luxury item’ makes a comeback’. Accessed: 19-ij-2013; S. Brocklehurst, ‘Why are fountain pen sales rising?’. Accessed: 19-ij-2013.

[xi] R. Dorment, ‘The One Percent Paradox’, Esquire: The Big Black Book (Fall/Winter, 2012), 67-68.

[xii] Ibid., 67.

[xiii] Ibid., 68.

[xiv] R. Rayasam,‘Looks good on paper – Germany’, Monocle, 61 (March, 2013), 81-83.

[xv] A. Bassi, ‘Fountain pens as jewels’. Accessed: 20-ij-2013.

[xvi] G. Jones, ‘The World’s Best Pens’. Accessed: 20-ij-2013.

[xvii] S.D. Coffin, Set in Style: The jewellery of Van Cleef & Arpels (London, 2011), 28-29.

[xviii] P. Clark, ‘Electibles’, Financial Times: Smart Art (February, 16 2013), 20.

[xix] Smythson of Bond Street, The Journal: The Collaborator Issue (Autumn/Winter 2011), 12-15, 88-91.

[xx] M. Fletcher, ‘A week in Britain’s cheapest suit’. Accessed: 23-ij-2013.

1 Comment

  1. Teresa Levonian in FTWeekend discusses the ‘Profits of Passion’: ‘It is […] interesting to note that the best performing luxury items – cars, coins, stamps and art – have matched or out-performed prime property investments, over one-five and ten-year periods, in the indices of five key world cities: London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and São Paulo.’ No mention of fountain pens, tho’.
    See: FTWeekend, House & Home, pp. 1 & 14.

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