Menswear books: Alan Flusser, Dressing the Man

If I didn’t know the name Alan Flusser, I’d still trust Dressing the Man by virtue of heft alone. Its size, shape, and weight could deal serious damage, although those cumbersome qualities keep me from carrying it around to test in a street fight, and even if I could easily carry it around, would I? I don’t mind learning how to dress in public — we always have to, in some sense — but it feels somehow inappropriate to reading a big, shiny book on how to dress in public. Then gain, if you’re going to learn how to dress that way, make it with a big, shiny book by a guy like Flusser, who dressed Michael Douglas for Wall Street and, more importantly, appeared in the sixth episode of Put This On's first season (as well as an interview minisode).

But does this one rise above its closest-looking relative in publishing, the coffee-table book? All the lush, often page-filling photography of the Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, and Luciano Barbera, not to mention the jaunty vintage illustrations, makes you wonder. After so many school years of bloated, distraction-laden textbooks, my alarms sound at the sight of splashy chapter-opening spreads, fonts a little too large, lines set a little too far apart, or boxes which may or may not enclose information. The aesthetics of Dressing the Man outshine most educational publishers’ strongest design efforts, but a confusion of purpose remains: is this an analysis of the best men have worn, or a primer for those who need to know how a shirt works? Reaching for both audiences, the book generates a certain friction: experienced dressers will wonder why they’re opening fold-out sections showing which fabrics are which, while learners like myself will, buoyed by how nifty they find those fold-outs, proceed to mire themselves in a discussion of dinner jacket trousers versus full-dress trousers. (Something to do with stripes.) Flusser includes a glossary to help us find our way home, deepen the feeling of textbookishness though it may.

Hence my suggestion that the next edition be titled something like Permanent Fashion: Theory and Practice. Flusser introduces this concept, which should ring familiar to longtime Put This On followers, with an explanation born of a paradox. “Menswear has enjoyed three decades of unprecedented growth and freedom to configure and reconfigure the sartorial tastes of several generations,” he writes, “yet there are fewer genuinely well-dressed men now than before. There has been nothing permanent about recent fashion.” He roots his proposed alternative as deeply as possible in the era between the World Wars, noting that, despite the “considerable economic tumult for America,” this time produced, regardless of wealth or class, “the best-dressed generation in the twentieth century.” This opens the door to 21st-century man’s standard objection: he fears looking like an octogenarian on his way to a costume party. But the book’s images seem curated to dispel just these reservations; who, even today, would laugh a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or a Leslie Howard out of the room? (Even the Howard wearing an unflatteringly narrow collar in a photo Flusser uses as a negative example commands respect.)

We could draw our aesthetic ideals from worse times than the one when Astaire and the Duke of Windsor stood astride the world. Not only did they take pains with what they wore and how they wore it — Astaire to the point that he could wear a necktie as a belt, the Duke to the point that he could combine five different patterns and introduce suede shoes to the American continent — but neither were particular Adonises. Dressing the Man does contain gloriously composed shots of the Cary Grants and Gary Coopers of the world, but there’s infinitely more instruction in the way that, balanced by the elegance and distinctiveness of their dress, the royal’s befuddledness and the dancer’s goofiness don’t count against them. For those still unconvinced, Flusser includes the likes of Jean Cocteau and the current Prince of Wales, eccentrics who, in their immaculate and intricately personal habiliment, surely transcend mere handsomeness.

“How is it that after almost three decades of unprecedented fashion consumption, so few capable practitioners of this masculine art form have been bred?” Flusser asks. “If dressing well were simply a matter of donning the latest designer duds or owning an expensive wardrobe, fashion nabobs would be in abundance. My quick response is that learning how to dress well is much like trying to build a classically beautiful place to live. No amount of professional decoration or priceless furnishings will ultimately make much of a difference if the floors or walls that they are to adorn rest on a shaky foundation.” Safest, then, to build that foundation according to long-standing principles than to those dreamed up last Fashion Week. This notion’s strongest distillation comes in a Brooks Brothers quote in the glossary: “Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.”

This steady-handed, unreconstructed rigor should comfort even the Palo Alto tech worker worried about showing up to the startup dressed for fox-hunting. That man should only skim the late chapter when Flusser ventures into the free-for-all of post-Bubble “business casual.” Writing in 2002, Flusser avoids even acknowledging the era’s squarest-toed excesses, but it’s tough to imagine the suggested near-monochromatic combination of severely buttoned polo shirt and corduroy jacket standing the test of time. Dressing the Man's value lies in its Platonic-sounding axioms of cut, fit, and color, especially as regards harmonizing your wardrobe's coloring with your own. “As a medium-contrast complexion, Trevor enjoys the most latitude of any type…” Maybe that's what I'd rather not read in public. But then, the ladies have understood and expertly exploited this sort of knowledge for centuries. We've got to catch up however we can.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall. To buy Dressing the Man, you can find the best prices at DealOz