Colin Marshall on menswear books: ABC of Men’s Fashion by Hardy Amies

imageWhether in its original 1964 Newnes edition or its handsome 2007 Abrams reissue, ABC of Men’s Fashion strikes an elegant balance between authority and personality. Despite taking a more compact shape than an encyclopedia (128 small-format pages, to be precise), it does take an encyclopedic form. Beginning with a brief explanation of “Accessories”, Amies ends, several hundred elements of male dress later, with a plea for acceptance of the newly popular “Zip fasteners”. 21st-century Americans will recognize these, assuming their universality hasn’t yet turned them effectively invisible, as zippers. “Few people know how they work,” Amies notes, “and many are still therefore wrongly suspicious of them.” There we have a very late hint that this book may not exactly hold a flat, clear mirror to modern sartorial thought. Its neatly arranged entries and sober illustrations suggest unimpeachable objectivity; its text delivers one man’s opinion, and it does so without shame.

But as opinions go, especially those held in the England of fifty years ago, we could do far worse than those of a man who founded a respected label in his own name, dressed Queen Elizabeth II (for whatever relevance that may have to menswear), and spent the Second World War arranging the assassinations of Nazi sympathizers. “The snobbism for which he was famous was primarily an act disguising a much more complicated mixture of vanity, humor, and pragmatism combined with social, creative, and commercial ambition,” writes Ian Garlant in his 2007 introduction. Yet from my 21st-century readerly perspective, Amies’ book displays negligible snobbism, genuine or invented. “All short sleeve shirts look ghastly,” Amies writes on holiday wear. “Sandals are hell, except on the beach where you want to take them off: or on a boat. And, worn with socks are super hell.” These today come off less as judgments than statements of fact, if exaggerated fact.

We might say that, in style as in the war, Amies emerged on the right side of history. He repeatedly expresses his iron conviction that the then-recently introduced elastic-sided Chelsea boot has come to stay, and, observing male hairstyles, ventures that “the very fashionable young man in ten years’ time” — that is, by the maximally hirsute year of 1974 — “may be wearing quite remarkably long hair.” Then again, he also believes boots will attain such a parity with shoes in general that the well turned-out young man will tuck pants into boots as a matter of course. (You can behold this droog-ish look, complete with bowler hat, in the book’s center photo pages.) But so many of Amies’ stylistic assessments hold up today that his contemporary asides, when they come, can sound jarringly quaint. He concludes the hair section as follows: “It is going to be fascinating to see what the Beatles look like when they are thirty.”

As many of Amies’ stylistic attitudes as time has vindicated, some readers may wonder if they should work themselves up over what we might call his social attitudes. Turn to “Ironing”, and you find yourself redirected: “See Drip-dry, Pressing, and a good woman.” This division of household labor has spent most of the past half-century on a downward swing, but then again, so have hats, and Amies spills a fair bit of ink over their correct usage and maintenance. Either tendency only has one danger: that it might move the nervous reader, or the one still building their base of menswear knowledge, to dismiss the book entirely, throwing a promising baby out with the splash of bathwater. Worse, in rejecting Amies’ opinions, they may then declare all of men’s style one big matter of opinion, a vast field of equally valid possibilities answerable to no aesthetic, practical, or historical standards. On this ground, charges of snobbism fly with reckless abandon, though they speak more to the insecurity of the accuser than to anything at all about the accused.

We should value Amies’ fearlessness in the face of the snob label, which lets him baldly state what other menswear writers feel they can only suggest. “You cannot substitute economy for quality,” he declares, “because they are synonymous.” We all know (or at least suspect), and some of us say, that, with its greater durability, versatility, and immunity from trends, the more expensive garment usually makes for considerable long-run savings over its shorter-lived downmarket cousin. But Amies makes the point directly, and several times over: when in doubt, and even when not, pay more. “So far as judgment is concerned, in men’s wear you can usually with confidence go by price.” Think back to adolescence, and perhaps you remember certain family members advising you never to buy a known brand, since you would just “pay for the name.” Amies’ reply: “Of course you pay for the name: but there is no way to make the name except by fair trading.”

Yet keep thinking of adolescence, and if you did your learning properly, you feel the distant burn of having bought a cheaply made but dearly priced item in the name of fashion. (My generation still smarts from the square-toed shoe fiasco of just over a decade ago.) Amies’ advice thus applies only to menswear of classic, time-resistant style, and then works better for the clothes you have made than the clothes you buy off the rack. In these contexts, the words that stay at the top of my mind come in Amies’ section on, of all things, gloves: “As with all such accessories to dress, expensive plainness must be sought. As with men’s suits, these attributes are achieved by cutting superbly the best material.” Much of the rest of ABC of Men’s Fashion provides the information you need to begin discerning one cut or one material from another, an obviously essential skill in the pursuit of the right kind of expensive plainness. (Savvy menswear shoppers can substitute some of the outlay of money for an outlay of time.) The word “expensive,” which might strike you as unfortunate, seems simply unfashionable; that is, frowned upon, but only at the moment. Despite spending his life in the business of fashion and writing a book with Fashion in the title, Amies can’t hide his deeper interest in the forever wearable, whatever price it may command.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy ABC of Men’s Fashion, you can find the best prices at DealOz.