Colin Marshall on menswear books: The Suit by Nicholas Antongiavanni

image“The end is nigh,” tweeted an aphorist I admire, “for all books must now bear the explanatory subtitle — the mark of the beast.” The Suit’s title bears not just that mark, but one of interference before the colon as well. The author wanted to title his book The Dandy; his publisher, afraid that wouldn’t sell, proposed The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, which suggests a manual on how to manipulate the corporate world through dress. This puts Machiavelli in a misleading light, but the term Machiavellian sees such misuse that the assumption comes naturally. However, in Nicholas Antongiavanni we have a serious appreciator of Machiavelli as well as menswear. He meant to have his original title reference The Prince, and just as Machiavelli advises a prince, Antongiavanni advises a dandy, “the enemy of the splendiferous and the effeminate” who favors “simple clothes, pristine in cut, immaculate in fit [ … ] never ostentatious, always manly.”

Alas, we live in a time of few princes, and nearly as few dandies. Prince Charles counts as both, and Antongiavanni makes a case study out of him more than once. He also draws lessons from the dress of American newscasters and presidents. “Brokaw is the most elegant,” he observes of the former group. “Rather’s clothes fit well, but he is so slavish in aping his hero Edward R. Murrow — even patronizing the same Savile Row tailor — that he cannot be said to have any style of his own.” President Johnson, envious of Kennedy, “sought out a London tailor whom he told to make him ‘look like a British diplomat.’” Of Carter, Antongiavanni writes only that “it is one thing to wear Hawaiian shirts in Key West or jeans and cowboy boots when splitting wood, and another to address the people from the Oval Office in a sweater.”

If you haven’t opened The Prince since school, you may have forgotten how closely Machiavelli tracks the rise and fall of the rulers of his age. In our own, Antongiavanni tracks that of television personalities. Newscasters’ jobs demand deliberate dress, and our political leaders, whether elected or royal, act as media figures in essentially the same mode. David Letterman favors a versatile form of double-breasted jacket, but one that is “difficult to tailor, and thus no longer favored by the industry.” Alex Trebek also wears double-breasted jackets, yet “acquires his clothes through a promotional deal with a third-rate manufacturer.” Other “eminent men, such as Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jon Stewart and Matt Lauer, have shown that it is possible to dress fashionably without getting carried away.” Coming to Conan O’Brien’s lack of not just double-breasted jackets, but pocket squares, patterns, or even stripes, Antongiavanni remarks that “people expect those with more money, more fame, and more delightful jobs than themselves to be more stylish; and when they are not, they do not respect them, for they consider that so much opportunity to cut loose has been squandered.”

This examination of men onscreen, though thorough and illuminating, reflects sadly on our time. Antongiavanni advises early on that “a prudent man should always enter upon the paths beaten by great dressers, and imitate those who have been most excellent.” Yet coming of age in modern America, one sees such models only from afar, usually by looking deep into the past. “The most difficult circumstance of all is the dearth of first-rate dandies in the public eye,” Antongiavanni admits. “In having no examples to follow, men are less able to learn how to dress well.” He indicts those who have come to justify their slovenliness “with the pious demand that they be judged not by how they dress but for ‘who they are.’” My own homeland of California comes in for richly deserved scorn as Antongiavanni considers the blue blazer with khakis: “Because that state is so informal, the men there think that all a shirt needs to make it formal is a collar, and a jacket with lapels is well nigh black tie [ … ] when they hear the world ‘formal,’ they automatically reach for their blazer and khakis, the pinnacle of their wardrobe.”

The title The Suit at least conveys one major element of Antongiavanni’s perspective: he cares almost solely about the uniform, though one with infinite possible variations, of a jacket, matching pants, and a necktie. He may wax elegiac about this ensemble’s inevitable disappearance, but he insists it remains the most elegant, versatile form of men’s dress available. Despite residing in sartorially inept California, I can’t argue with that, especially after reading his prose which, like that of The Prince, permits no counter-argument. Nobody wants to read 195 pages of irrefutable commandments, but remember that even Machiavelli hinted that he didn’t take himself all that seriously. Antongiavanni’s homage to the sixteenth-century Italian extends there and beyond. He takes a Machiavellian approach to men’s style not in the Wall Street sense of dandyishly backstabbing your way to the top, but of discovering the principles of men’s style with the same rhetorical methods Machiavelli used. The book takes on Machiavelli’s form, not his sensibility. Still, Antongiavanni doesn’t ignore Wall Street entirely, and in fact recommends the film. “Though you should only imitate [Michael Douglas’ Gordon] Gekko,” he cautions, “because the other characters are either too fashionable or too drab.”

Gordon Gekko may be a fictitious dresser, but so is Antongiavanni. This alter ego of a speechwriter named Michael Anton (with whom you can read an interview here) provides the humble but immaculately dressed writer a far less humble persona to heighten the flamboyance, force, and finality of his stylistic pronouncements. It also lets him pull off chapter titles like “Of Those Things for Which Men and Especially Dandies Are Praised or Blamed” and “How Men of Superfluous Girth May Minimize Their Appearance.” As a Put This On reader, you no doubt think about, and indeed wear, casual clothes more often than formal suits, so know that many of The Suit's principles apply to every respectable class of clothing and the cultivation of style within them. Anton/Antongiavanni proves especially astute on maximizing your wardrobe's combinatorial possibilities: “The well-dressed man never buys any garments that can be worn only with one or a few of his other garments, and holds in contempt pre-assembled combinations. Everything you buy should be wearable with most everything you already own.” This goes all the way down to jeans and T-shirts, as Anton would surely admit — and Antongiavanni surely wouldn't.

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 The Suit, you can find the best prices at DealOz.