Archive for the 'Fashion' Category

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!

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.

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.