Colin Marshall on Men’s Style Books: Adolf Loos, Why a Man Should Be Well-Dressed

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Here we have a book that, to Put This On readers, may at first seem both perfectly relevant and perfectly irrelevant. Much of the relevance comes expressed, of course, in the title itself: notions of Why a Man Should Be Well-Dressed would make for a fine companion to instructions about how a man can dress well, or, in other words, how a man goes about “dressing like a grownup.” Items on the table of contents such as “Men’s Fashion,” “Footwear/Shoes,” and “Underwear/Undergarments” make the book seem like an almost dully straightforward treatise on dress. But others – “The Woman and the Home,” “About Thriftiness,” “(Thoughts) About Adding Salt” – suggest another, far less straightforward project entirely. And what would you expect if I told you that all the material in it originally ran in Viennese publications between 1898 and 1928?

Though the author, Adolf Loos, made his name as an influential early Modernist architect, his interests extended, and thus this book’s purview extends, to a wide range of aesthetic matters, as wide a range as one would expect a reasonably well-off citizen of fin de siècle Western Europe to care about. But will an aesthetically concerned citizen of 21st-century internet-unified Anywhere, much less one of Millennial means, care too? After all, none of us (with the obvious exception of certain dandies) would want to go around looking like even the most tasteful Viennese of a hundred years ago. Yet for an explanation of why we wouldn’t, we can actually look to Loos himself, who rhetorically asks, “Well dressed, what does that actually mean? It means to be correctly dressed.” And what does that actually mean? “Words like lovely, chic, elegant, fetching and snappy are but vain attempts to provide explanatory terms for fashion. But this is not at all the point. It is all about being dressed in an inconspicuous manner.”

All well and good for Loos’ time and place, the skeptic will object, but where would such a principle lead if followed today? In one of the book’s more sadly dated moments, Loos writes that “the English and the Americans expect everyone to be well-dressed,” an observation that now holds true only in certain English circles and virtually nowhere at all in America, where one interpretation of dressing for inconspicuousness involves the chilling prospect of a closet full of hoodies. Foreseeing even this counterargument, or at least one based upon differences in region (“A coat that hardly would be noticed in Hyde Park could certainly be conspicuous in Peking“) rather than in standards over time, Loos specifies correct dress as inconspicuous “within the center of one’s own culture,” which, in the case of turn-of-the-century Western culture, he finds in London. These hybrid times have made “one’s own culture,” let alone centers of any kind, a bit harder to pin down, but you could still do much worse, wherever you alight, than building a wardrobe with an eye toward London compatibility.

This inconspicuousness, In Loos’ mind, has nothing to do with cheapness, and still less with adherence to the trends of the day. “An individual who only owns one suit is not bound by any fashion concerns – quite the contrary. By constantly wearing the same suit he destroys it in a very short time and thereby forces his tailor to constantly come up with new forms.” But those who maintain a more sizable library of clothing, unable to simply ride the currents of fashion, must take care to choose timelessly, and to the extent possible, placelessly: “The moment we have items that last longer and remain appealing, fashion immediately stops. [ … ] I therefore praise the large closets, which is the proper procedure, because, among other things, such a closet constantly reassures me that I am independent.” And that idea itself, like all the most useful and understandable ones in the book, exudes its own sort of timelessness.

The less useful or understandable of Loos’ ideas come in sections such as his question-and-answer columns addressing reader inquiries like “Why are sports trousers called knickerbockers?”, “Does the latest men’s fashion trend (the short English coat) have any relationship to the King of England?”, and “Linen undergarments?” But these do reveal that Loos positioned himself as a kind of all-purpose sensible stylistic consultant (“I admit that I am obsessed with frugality and wish to be a leader in thriftiness”), holding forth on the proper means of selecting clothing, architecture, furniture, and whatever else he found unjustly subject to the distractions of ornamentation and the vagaries of fashion. The impulse to make one material simulate another, apparently common across the crafts in Loos’ day, leads him to lay down what he calls the “law of clothing”: “The possibility the dressed material can be mistaken for the clothing should in any case be ruled out.” Allow me here to underscore that Loos’ writing comes translated from the German.

Still, he does provide a clarifying illustration: “Wood can be coated with every color, except for one – the color of wood.” His reverence for materials and impatience with “the dubious pleasure of embellishment” applies not just to the buildings in which we house ourselves and the objects with which we surround ourselves, but the clothes in which we place ourselves, each its own form of both protection and expression. It just so happens that current mainstream menswear discourse has in large part caught up, or come back around to, many of Loos’ favored principles. We haven’t brought back the world of the Vienna Circle, but we have rediscovered the value of undisguised materials, physical and stylistic durability, and quality subtly expressed. And though I would begrudge nobody their chance to stand out by stepping a bit forward in fashion, I do urge them to bear Loos’ unequivocal words in mind: “Individual clothing is only for people with limited intellectual capacity. They have the need to scream out to the world what they are and who they ultimately are.” They had it then and there, and they have it here and now.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, aesthetics, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall or on his new Facebook page. To buy Why a Man Should Be Well-Dressed, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

More men’s style books: I Am Dandy  by Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan | Fuck Yeah Menswear by Kevin Burrows and Lawrence Schlossman | Sex and Suits by Anne Hollander | Preppy by Jeffrey Banks and Doria de la Chapelle | The Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style by Tom Julian | 100 Years of Menswear by Cally Blackman | The Suit by Nicholas Antongiavanni | ABC of Men’s Fashion by Hardy Amies | Off the Cuff by Carson Kressley | Take Ivy by Teruyoshi Hayashida et al. | Icons of Men’s Style by Josh Sims | The Details Men’s Style Manual by Daniel Peres | The Men’s Fashion Reader by Peter McNeil and Vicki Karaminas | Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser