Thought is back in style

BrummellDighton1805Beau Brummell, the famous dandy, said: “If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed.” Brummell, a man mostly known for being looked at by John Bull who thought Brummell was splendidly dressed, said many things. Most of them don’t really matter, because he was known for one simple thing: that he dressed extremely well. After mentioning the quip, most menswear writers continue with an explanation of sprezzatura, the meticulous art of looking like you don’t really care what you look like. Few seem to think about what an obviously mad statement this was for a man lived for being seen and looked at.

George Frazier, in his well-known article “The Art of Wearing Clothes“, was one menswear writer who bothered to explain, in detail, what Brummell meant. He wrote:

Prior to Brummell, men had dressed to almost freakish excess. Thus, according to Hayden’s Dictionary of Dates, Sir Walter Raleigh wore: ‘… a white-satin-pinked vest close-sleeved to the wrist, and over the body a doublet finely flowered, and embroidered with pearls, and in the feather of his hat a large ruby and pearl drop at the bottom of the sprig in place of a button. His breeches’ etc.

Brummell’s clothes, then, were subtle in an age when people looked ridiculous. But he still wanted to be noticed for the way he dressed. That is why he dressed down in simple equestrian clothing.

The casualization of dress has continued ever since and now we are down to emulating what G. Bruce Boyer in his book True Style calls the “the male rebel proletariat as superhero.” That basically means the James Dean or young Marlon Brando look. I’m all for it, but something often goes unnoticed when people dress like this. People who habitually dress in the rebel proletariat superhero uniform like to say they don’t really think about their clothes. I’m sure they do, because Levi’s jeans, boots and leather jackets are not inexpensive. If they really don’t think about it, someone else has done the thinking for them. Probably the person trying to sell them those jeans. My attempt at a fancy way of putting it (and my point) would be that the observance of social stratification and identification are always present in the way we dress.

It is pleasant to speculate what will happen to fashions in the future. In his article “Dress Up” Boyer does just that and thinks about a number of possibilities. One of them is

the eminently sensible argument that the jettisoning of the tailored wardrobe is merely a part of the larger and ongoing “democratization” of dress that started to standardize the wardrobe with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and whereby we may all eventually be encased in the same synthetic coverall and molded plastic footwear.

That is the logical end point for dressing down, sure. But if you take a look at menswear today, you will notice that the Crocs are not happening. Rather, I find that fewer men are parroting either Brummell’s strange views or anything else. It seems that a new awareness of dress as something that cannot be overlooked or glossed over with banalities is emerging. By this I mean that there is much more discussion about dressing up or down in general in magazines, books and especially online. Laying down simple Brummellian dictums or repeating inflexible rules does not seem to cut it for the fashionable. In other words, ignorance (wilful or otherwise) does not seem to be in fashion any more. We might still be on our way to the Crocs and polyester overalls, but should we ever go there, there will be plenty of lively debate along the way.

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