Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

Menswear Books: True Style by G. Bruce Boyer

 

true style

G. Bruce Boyer is probably the best writer on menswear writing today. He is my personal style icon and also that of Simon Crompton of Permanent Style. He dresses with apparent ease and tries to teach others how to succeed in looking like they dressed themselves effortlessly in a kind of crumpled elegance that nevertheless projects a certain type of care one takes in living one’s life. The effect of course demands great care: one’s wardrobe must be sufficient and each item of clothing requires thought.

I’ve written about Bruce Boyer before and instead of going through the book like a traditional review, I would rather like to discuss three points he makes in True Style that have opened my eyes to a few things. He repeats these points in other writings as well, but everything is condensed nicely in True Style in insightful and relaxed prose.

First, Boyer has ideas about dressing up and dressing down. There is a whole cultural history attached to all this, but we can use a James Dean or a Marlon Brando as a shorthand. “The male rebel proletariat”, as Boyer calls this figure, became the norm after they appeared on the scene. The T-shirt and jeans combo is great, but what it is is essentially a way of dressing down. Instead of looking up trying to emulate the upper classes, dressing in this particular uniform means you are attaching yourself to a certain ideological position in US history that finds its representative examples in the lower classes. I have nothing against this and really don’t think of style in terms of value, but I have noticed family and friends get irritated when I relate Boyer’s point to them. Not too long ago, a few of my friends were enthusiastic about denim named after an infamous prison. That takes dressing down all the way to prison. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I resisted the urge to discuss Boyer with them. After noticing that people do dress up or down according to ways they observe and value others in terms of social stratification, it’s hard not to notice the choices people around you make.

Second, being comfortable in your clothes is of course important, but looking like you’ve been accustomed to wearing them may be even more important. Boyer writes about the English country house aesthetic, the way they are always a bit dishevelled and disorderly. In terms of clothing, there are associations with old money and sprezzatura, but it really comes down to having clothes you love and wear all the time. They may take some time getting used to. A suit, for example, is clothing you do have to learn to wear. If you are uncomfortable in your suit, you may not look very good. Clothes should look worn and familiar, because they are your clothes and you live in them. If they are a bit scruffy, good! If there is a nick in your shoes that cannot be quite polished away, even better! (This does not apply to evening dress, but that’s another matter.)

Third, there are days when I feel I need to wear a suit and I think Boyer has managed to explain why. The sense of occasion is lost when casualization takes over. I speak in front of people for a living, and it is not always the best idea to show up for work in jeans and a T-shirt. This is not because there is something inherently inappropriate in jeans and T-shirts, but because I do need to have a sense of formality when I do what I do. It helps me take my work seriously. Again, there is nothing wrong with casual clothing, but there are situations where I need a bit more support. Clothing is part of the professional arsenal of a man, Boyer says, and it should be used as a tool to get things done. We can talk of the aesthetics of clothing all we want, but there is also a utilitarian side to all this. Sometimes you just need a grey flannel suit to finish a job.

There is of course more to say about all this, but it’s easier to simply direct everyone into the capable hands of Bruce Boyer himself. His writing is thoughtful and elegant. He introduces his readers to brief snippets of cultural history that contextualize our choices of clothing. He teaches readers how to “be themselves on purpose”. I don’t think I’ve read anything poorly written or thought out by him. It’s all good stuff, but True Style will give you a book-length text of Boyer’s best. Go read it!

Book Review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

kill all normiesI bought the audiobook version of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies for a bike ride we took this summer. It’s a fairly short book and it did make the ride more enjoyable. The book lists a number of Internet phenomena that have occurred in recent years and links them to broader social and political movements. It starts out strong, has a strong middle, but it does seem to fall into the trap of simply bemoaning various transgressions of the 4chan crowd in its final chapters.

The incidents, memes and hate campaigns mentioned in the book are ones that most of us have lived through. The great thing about the book is that it collects these together in a single work. I was going to say it collects them into a narrative, but that would not be accurate. There are stories to be told when recounting the events, but the larger narrative arc seems to fall apart. I’m not sure it was even the intention of the author to draw one. In any case, the episodes – starting with Harambe – work well by themselves. It goes all the way to Pat Buchanan and introduces his idea of the culture war to younger readers. If there is a longer historical arc here, it does not burrow further than that. Kids reading the book are probably not familiar with the orchestrated effort behind the ludicrous idea of a culture war, and it’s good to have it written out like this.

For anyone who was already familiar with all the events described in the book and who already knows how the culture war (such as it is) has progressed thus far, the meat of the book is in the relentless barrage of examples from the junkheap of the Internet. As with many other books about online culture, it’s heartbreaking. Of course, if you love the Internet and all its potential, you don’t have to crawl through its sewers and participate in the horrors of 4chan culture or the rest of it. But knowing that it’s there matters. The online attacks against women, for example, are something you simply have to know about in order to have an intelligent conversation about what the Internet has become. Seeing all this fuckery laid bare in front of you is arresting, and it should be. It is also profoundly sad.

If the Internet was only the junk Nagle sifts through in her book, we would all opt out. It would simply be the playground for nasty children who shout at people from the bushes. Luckily, it’s not. It is a vast online space you can use for the betterment of those around you and explore to your heart’s content. It is a place of commerce. It provides all kinds of possibilities for everyone who has access to it. The idiotic snark that tries to pollute it may be a trace of the nerd culture that started it all, but it doesn’t really matter where the moronic cynicism came from. The Internet is far bigger than that now, but people who are not to be taken seriously remain. We need ways of discrediting and dismissing them. There are many tools for doing this. “Don’t feed the troll” is one of them. And I don’t advocate punching people, but have you heard of the Nazi blowhard Richard Spencer since he was punched in the face on TV and became a meme? There are many ways of reacting to online bile, that’s all I’m saying. Some of them work better than others in different contexts.

Discussions like Nagle’s book tend to look at surface-level phenomena online that reduce people and issues into one-dimensional memes. Richard Spencer is now the face-punch guy. It doesn’t matter what he says, because he is now the face-punch guy. Violence is an extreme way of memefying someone, but in his case it did the trick. People become simple images, complicated issues hashtags. This process is in itself tragic, because it kills thought in public discourse. It deprives us from any intelligent analyses of phenomena that guide our thought, politics and our lives. What, then, is to be done to counteract this rot? I’m not sure, but I have come to the conclusion that Twitter is for cute animal videos, Facebook for feeding your self-styled Tamagochi-avatar, and Instagram is for holiday snaps and advertisements of luxury items. The serious matter of thought takes place elsewhere and we should quit pretending it can survive on social media or the 4chan-cesspools of the Internet.

Book Review: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

lanierJaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is disguised as a self-help book. I’m not sure why. It presents ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts, as it says on the cover, but the argument as a whole goes much further. Lanier is very concerned with the way social media manipulates people. The manipulation is usually called advertising, but also includes all the other ways social media directs our opinions and our lives in general.  It’s nothing like the advertising we refer to when we commonly use the term. The issues are serious, but Lanier’s style of writing is light and entertaining. For example, Argument Three states: “Argument 3: Social media is turning you into an asshole. […] Please take the possibility seriously.” Take it seriously, but don’t be too morbid about it. That, I think, is the point of the overall message.

I confess I was drawn in by the self-help façade of the book. I’ve noticed lately that social media makes me feel bad. There are many reasons for this and Lanier seems to check most of the boxes. Argument Seven actually says: “Social media is making you unhappy.” The problem is that you are constantly being judged by faceless people you don’t really know. When you are judged by people whose opinions you respect and really care about, this can be healthy. Criticism is not the bogey man. When all eyes are on you (even if this is not factually the case), you are powerless to decide which things or actions you are judged upon. You become a helpless victim of external and mostly random opinions that cannot contextualize what you have to say or what you do. The resulting noise is draining no matter who you are. Not having social media accounts is one way of escaping all this. Instead, you could write a blog or do a number of other things to decide what output will be judged and by whom. Not everyone can do this, says Lanier, which is of course true, but I’m one of those privileged enough to consider deleting my accounts.

Social media is a bullshitshow, to coin a phrase. We have fresh proof of this. Several news stories in Finland recently stated most of our plastic is shipped to China to be recycled and is not, in fact, recycled at all. The stories spread on social media like wildfire. Bullshit. All our plastic is recycled in Finland. Another recent story said that there were racist attacks online against the Swedish footballer Jimmy Durmaz during the World Cup. The Swedish football team strongly condemned the attacks, as they should. A Swedish IT professor later revealed that the racist accounts were fake. A very serious matter, but essentially all built on a foundation of bullshit. One person can orchestrate an attack like this and get a few other assholes to play along. They, in turn, make themselves look more important than they actually are, and like people we should actually take seriously. Fake, nefarious and harmful to all. This is the new normal for social media. Do I really want to be part of it?

I’m on social media because this way I can meet people I would otherwise not meet. Will I lose out if I delete my accounts? Probably not much, but I will lose out a little. Is the loss worth the perks? Could I think in broader terms and think of it as absconding from a movement I do not want to be a part of? Or could I stay and try to make things better from the inside? I really don’t know what to do, but Lanier’s book has made the options clearer.

There is also a great melancholy here that Lanier’s jovial tone does not always capture. It’s a tragedy what has happened to social media. It’s like a beautiful vine that has been polluted by a virus or an alien fungus. Lanier does say that the core of the Internet is still intact. We can email each other, visit websites, read good news sites, blog, create podcasts, and so on. But as products of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., we are not on secure ground. There are options like Mastodon and other ways of creating groups like Slack, and maybe even good old IRC, but they are fairly barren compared to the big players like Google and Facebook. The latter also tend to buy up all competition. There is hope, but hope will only get you so far. We need to decide what we want out of our social media. We need action. If we continue to comply, the shitshow will spread and the most we can hope for in the future is that our bot-overlords will be friendly. That’s a bet I’m not willing to take.

Menswear Books: Savile Row by James Sherwood

Savile Row SherwoodMy latest acquisition was Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke by James Sherwood. I bought it on a whim at my local bookshop, and I’m very glad I did. It has a foreword by the wonderful Tom Ford that is about the length of your average tweet and about as informative. We all love Tom Ford, but I bet he wrote it on his phone and just texted it in. I must say that I did not have high expectations for the rest of the book either. However, it turned out to be very informative and entertaining. It is informative thanks to a wealth of historical information; it really is a well-researched work that you want to go back to again and again. It has the appearance of a coffee table book, but it would be insulting to call it that. You can read it as a coffee table book, because the illustrations alone make for an entertaining read, but there is a lot more to it than just pretty pictures.

The book begins with a historical introduction and the rest of it is divided thematically into topics such as royalty, fashion, uniforms, Hollywood actors and the recent renaissance of men’s bespoke tailoring. The subchapters, on the other hand, are mostly labelled by tailoring establishments on Savile Row. There are too many to list here, but I assume most of them are mentioned. The author obviously loves Savile Row and all the businesses are described expertly and appreciatively. The descriptions are engaging and link everything to the amazing history of Savile Row tailoring. The final sections of the book deal briefly with grooming, shirtmakers, shoemakers, umbrellas and the like. It closes with some info on the way suits are constructed and a glossary.

In some ways, the book is a long advertisement for Savile Row. Were I more cynical, I might call it cleverly disguised ad copy. I really don’t mind this, because you can learn a lot about the history of tailored clothing as you read. What does bother me a little, however, is that the celebratory rhetoric does not necessarily serve a potential customer very well. For a more closer look at the house styles on Savile Row, I would recommend something like Permanent Style’s review series. As of today, Simon Crompton has reviewed a tux from Richard Anderson, a suit from Henry Poole and a jacket from Anderson and Sheppard. You also get the normally elusive prices listed on the site. A suit from one of the less expensive tailors, Anderson and Sheppard, is listed as £4778.

If you are just a regular guy, paying that much for a suit is probably not feasible. It is an item of clothing for the price of a car. A car will probably be more useful and you can do more with it, but, then again, you don’t wear a car close to your skin all day. It’s a question of choices and if you want a suit by some of the best tailors in the world and can somehow save up five thousand pounds, you might be able to do it. Would it be worth it? It’s difficult to say.

Handmade clothing is out of reach for most people, because it has become a luxury item. This also creates other problems that are not discussed in Sherwood’s book. Some of them are taken up by Bernhard Roetzel in his Essay on Bespoke. With the luxury market being advertised as it is, it is easy to forget that tailors are people too. Things can go wrong, miracles rarely happen and service can be unpleasant. Some of the stuff is clearly overpriced and mistakes can be very expensive. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Because it is a luxury market, the customers are connoisseurs. Menswear writers, Sherwood included, talk fondly of fathers introducing their sons to their tailors when they get their first suit. I doubt this happens that often any more on Savile Row or anywhere else. I personally think a Savile Row suit would be wasted on me like an exceptionally fine cigar or a vintage bottle of wine: I would not be able to appreciate it fully, because I really don’t know enough about suits to do so. Should I study the matter further, knowing more would make me more critical and disappointments more likely. It’s a never-ending balancing act which can be fun, but only if you accept that finding something just right is very rare. That is why I think getting a Savile Row suit would be far too stressful even if I could afford one. For everyone but the very rich, it’s not, as it should be, simply clothing. It’s clothing with an aura and a glorious past.

Wine is off the menu for me these days, but I’m happy with a decent cigar and clothes that fit me fairly well. For anyone striving for connoisseurship, however, it is more or less necessary to read something like Sherwood’s Savile Row. If you really aspire to be one, you should consider it homework.

Menswear Books: Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser

alan-flussers-dressing-the-man-1.jpgWhen I bought my copy of Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion, it was not the book I was looking for. I was actually searching for one of his other books I had heard about on Styleforum (either Style and the Man or Clothes and the Man), but they were unavailable. In any case, Flusser is very famous for being the guy who outfitted Michael Douglas in the 80s film Wall Street. The fashions in the film are not at all to my taste, but it is obvious to everyone who watches it that Flusser was very good at his craft. An article in The Rake tells me that Gordon Gekko’s wardrobe ate up nearly a fifth of the budget. I also always enjoyed the anecdote about Michael Douglas’s shirts requiring shoulder padding, because his natural shoulders were not photogenic enough.

lumberghThe Gordon Gekko outfits have now come full circle and become meme-worthy satires of the aspiring middle-management guy in his power tie, but Flusser’s books are still very good reading. Dressing the Man is more focused on clothing than Bernard Roetzel’s Gentleman and there are fewer lifestyle items. Rather, Flusser is wonderfully obsessed with proportion, pattern and color. In short, he talks about classic menswear a lot and has his feet firmly planted in the golden age of men’s fashion. There are a lot of wonderful pictures and drawings to help you figure out what you should wear and how. It’s a great practical guide with a solid historical perspective.

One of the things you could be critical of in Flusser’s book is his way of dressing people based on their body type and complexion. Can’t I wear what I want to wear? If there is a garment whose color does not really suit my complexion and I really like it, should I just simply skip it and adhere to Flusser’s rules? When it comes to proportion and silhouette, I think you should listen to Flusser. It’s obviously something he knows a lot about and he is also very good at translating that knowledge into something the rest of us can understand. With color and complexion, I would be more adventurous were I someone who likes to experiment with color. There are restrictions your body shape and complexion place on your clothes, but there are other factors at play as well. For one thing, fun. Clothes are a serious matter sometimes, but they should also bring you joy. One of the joys of wearing clothes is breaking the rules. So, I guess what I want to say is that you should read Flusser, learn the rules and then break them wisely.

Menswear Books: Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel

A friend of mine recently asked about a menswear book I had mentioned on social media somewhere and I thought it would be interesting to write a few reviews of the ones I have in my bookshelf. I should preface this by saying that I am not an expert. If you want expert advice on a large number of menswear books, I would suggest you go to the Gentleman’s Gazette’s list of a 100 menswear books. After that, you might want to come back to this blog to read about my take on the subject.

gentleman roetzelOne of the first books I bought was Bernard Roetzel’s Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion (2009). I was looking for menswear books by Alan Flusser after reading the A Suitable Wardrobe blog. Out of curiosity, I ordered Roetzel’s book as well. More recently, I found his interview on the Gentleman’s Gazette YouTube channel and then followed him on Instagram. I also found out that he writes for Parisian Gentleman. But when I first bought Gentleman, the book was a random find and I had no idea what to expect.

The foreword told me that my copy was the revised new edition and that the original was ten years old already. Some of the information in it has not aged at all, but other things do seem a bit outdated. A section on tobacco, for example, does not seem quite appropriate any more – and I say this as a casual pipe smoker. Nevertheless, it goes over the basics very well. There is a lot of material in the book on a number of topics and I will not even try to summarize it all.  It tells you a little about grooming, clothes (of course), accessories, cultural differences and a few other gentlemanly activities. It will tell you how to fold your pocket square, how to pack your suitcase, what to wear on a fishing trip and how to wear tails. It is very nicely illustrated as well.

I understand that Roetzel’s book was a pioneering work. Today, there is more information available than we can handle, so times have definitely changed. This book required old-fashioned research and lots of time on the road and in the library. I guess the one critical thing I could say about it is that it does not go into great detail when discussing most of its topics. If you go read online forums today, people are obsessively geeking out over every little detail of every garment or code of conduct they can think of.

Roetzel deals in breadth in this book, which I do find a bit healthier than debating the merits of the hand-stitched Italian buttonhole by various regions of the country, but this unfortunately has to be counted as the book showing its age. You can still read it as a small encyclopaedia of menswear and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you want something a little more detailed, you might want to look elsewhere. For example, you may want to try Roetzel’s more recent writing. Having said all that, I do think this one is a must-read if only because it is one of the classics of the genre.