Colin Marshall on men’s style books: I Am Dandy by Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan

I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman consists of 56 profiles of well-dressed men. Each one names the place of birth, current location, and occupation of the profiled. The first varies, the second tends toward the predictable urban suite of New York, London, and Paris, and the third includes such implausible careers as “creative advisor,” “flâneur,” “boulevardier,” “professional bohemian,” “reality escapologist,” and “editor.” Luminaries referenced in the interviews include Quentin Crisp, Stephen Tennant, and Sebastian Horsley. If you can’t put faces to those names, or can’t imagine the actual pursuits some of those lifestyles comprise, you fall squarely on one side of the many debates surrounding dandyism currently roiling on the internet, usually in quarters some distance from Put This On: should a dandy work, or should he live for elegance and leisure?

You may wonder what becoming a dandy — commonly understood as a man who wears, deliberately, the finest clothes he can, without fear of standing out — has to do with not having a real job. According to some of this book’s dandies, they have little to do with each other; according to others, for whom crafting and refining the presentation of themselves and their surroundings adds up to much more than a full-time gig, they have everything to do with each other. Writer Nathaniel Adams and photographer Rose Callahan teach the controversy, if you will, placing the consummately self-styled writers (Gay Talese makes a notable and unsurprisingly dignified appearance), wine buyers, filmmakers, musicians, brand managers, and businessmen alongside figures whose sources of income remain as mysterious as their biographical details, sexual orientations, makeup-free faces, and given names.

I’ve already called the men of I Am Dandy “well-dressed,” and though most readers would, broadly speaking, agree, I may revise that, slightly, to “consciously dressed” — men, as Esquire “Style Guy” Glenn O’Brien puts it in his foreword, “who share a certain eloquence in the language of clothes.” Employed or not, and whatever their aesthetic-philosophical stance, these guys all put a great deal of energy into developing and dressing in a manner ideally and only suited to themselves. For some, this means mastering their particular version of the Ivy look; for others, surrounding themselves (in terms of clothing as well as anything else controllable) with detail-perfect recreations of Regency London or the Charleston, South Carolina of 1920. Some stylistic missions fall in the middle; I think especially of the striking example of one Barima Owusu Nyantekyi, who pays tribute to his Ghanian heritage with suits of the late 1960s and 70s, menswear’s “dark ages.”

But how much of everyday use can we learn here? In the case of, say, “Dandy of New York” Patrick McDonald, known as much for his painstakingly applied eyebrows as his wardrobe, the knowledge would seem rather specialized. But the comparatively restrained Christian Chensvold, editor of Ivy-Style.com; Nicholas Foulkes, writer on menswear and much else; Nick Sullivan, Fashion Director at Esquire; the perhaps shockingly H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo-clad Winston Chesterfield; or even the more daring Minn Hur and Kevin Wang, proprietors of men’s suiting company HVRMINN, dress in ways Put This On readers could do well to adapt for themselves. More visual and textual space tends to go to the obvious eccentrics, but even they, when you get over their walls of Wildean pronouncements, say much worth bearing in mind.  

To take a sterling example from one of the bolder yet somehow less flamboyant case studies, a Harlem bandleader named (yes) Dandy Wellington: “Dressing above your station is like physically talking out of turn. You need to prepare yourself for the position you want. And it becomes the position that you’re in.” Sound superficially though this may like the standard advice to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” (or the blunter but more useful “fake it ’til you make it”), Wellington’s statement gets at the dandy’s insight that, through stylistic choices in clothes and elsewhere, one creates one’s own self-fulfilling reality. You yourself may have no interest in passing day after languorous day amid the vintage curios filling your Queens apartment like a creature out of Brideshead Revisitied, but if you don’t have some kind of an envisioned lifestyle to realize, where has your ambition gone?  

True, the aggressive antiquarianism on display in much of I Am Dandy can tire — when I got to the barber who “drinks from a mug with a special rim designed to keep his mustache dry,” I almost gave up — and when confused with the simple pursuit of quality, mislead. Luckily, O’Brien’s bracing words, a defense of hardworking dandyism where “conspicuous self-employment” replaces “conspicuous consumption,” set you in good stead to interpret all the peacock displays, with their varying vividness of plumage, to come. “I do not believe in making a spectacle of myself,” he writes, distancing himself from what dandyism has become “in an age of street fashion blogs.” “I do believe in being interesting on further inspection, but I prefer to use the streets with some anonymity. Elegance derives from the Latin, eligere, to select, to choose with care, and that’s not something that one can determine from across the street.”

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 I Am Dandy, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

More men’s style books: 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

Colin Marshall on men’s style books: Preppy by Jeffrey Banks and Doria de la Chapelle

Most Americans I know hesitate to embrace all of “American culture.” This makes sense, considering the broadness of any such umbrella, one that would have to cover a population of 300 million with origins across the entire world. So we pick and choose from this country’s bulging social, political, cultural, and aesthetic grab bag, taking what we want and leaving (when not insistently repudiating) the rest. You might follow baseball but dismiss football, dream of your own car but not your own house, or hold one opinion about country music and its polar opposite about rap. This goes as well for the clothing styles we think of as distinctively American. To divide us, just start a debate about the influence of athletic wear on our national dress. The clothes of surfing, skating, and tennis, among other sports, have all since the Second World War greatly influenced everyday wear here — not, I would think, to the approval of every Put This On reader.

For a richer object of study, consider preppy, as Jeffrey Banks and Doria de la Chapelle do in Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style, which examines the eponymous style of dress from its origins in the twenties through its adaptive evolution in each subsequent era. But how to define it without pinning it down too squarely? The authors quote Dierdre Clemente in the Journal of American Culture as astutely calling it an “ironic blend of rumpled and conservative.” Preppy, at its most viable, strikes me a rakish hybrid of the primly traditional and insouciantly athletic. This sounds like the stuff of mere trend, but the book marshals a quote on the contrary from social critic John Sedgwick arguing that “fashion has no place in the Ivy League wardrobe. The Ivy Leaguer is really buying an ethic in his clothing choices [ …] a puritanical anti-fashion conviction that classic garments should continue in the contemporary wardrobe like a college’s well-established and unquestioned curriculum.” The doctrinaire preppy wears the correct navy blazer and khakis, naturally, but only when correctly weatherbeaten.

We’ve brought up two distinct but related American social settings: the Ivy League, as in the league of eight historically prestigious East Coast colleges, and prep schools, as in the college preparatory schools evoked by the term “preppy.” That latter concept has lost some meaning now that America tries to ram as many students through four-year universities as possible. But when we talk about classic prep schools, we talk about prep schools as regarded in the twenties up through the mid-sixties: northeastern academies, mostly private, frequently boarding, usually stylistically rigid, and always geared toward feeding the Ivy League. “I want to go somewhere where people aren’t barred because of the color of your necktie or the roll of your coat,” moans Tom D’Invilliers in the thoroughly prep-schooled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Banks and de la Chapelle use the line to underscore the conservative roots of preppy style, although I like to think their inclusion of not one but two photographs of William F. Buckley, Jr. speak even louder. One picture finds him on a horse; the other, on a yacht.

Despite its roots in stylistic conservatism, preppy style no longer signals particularly strong political conservatism. Preppy presents us with a full-page 1980 photo of the ideologically nebulous George H.W. Bush, then in his days as vice-presidential candidate, cutting an uncharacteristically rugged, relaxed figure on the porch in Kennebunkport. And no catalog of the icons of preppy can do without an appearance by liberal Democrat John F. Kennedy, especially in white shirt, repp tie, and grey flannels. Preppy devotees still look to images of Kennedy as theologians scrutinize ancient scripture; the men I see profiled in the traditional Americana-focused Japanese magazine Free & Easy magazine tend to display J.F.K. memorabilia prominently in their studies, offices, and dens. The prep school and Harvard Law-educated Barack Obama doesn’t make it into the book, though his wife and daughters do, but those who find preppy style unacceptably Establishment-tinged might advise Obama himself, representative of an unprecedentedly diverse United States of America, to steer clear of it.

I couldn’t personally endorse that recommendation, especially when looking at the book’s glorious two-page photograph, staged by Joshua Kissi and Travis Crumbs of Street Etiquette, of eighteen black takes on Ivy League dress. These reinterpretations of preppy, though at no point especially flamboyant, remind me how much potential is has in reserve for life beyond the Buckleys, the Bushes, and the Kennedys. “What started out as an exclusive, white-Protestant, male, clubby way of dressing for the Elite Few,” as the authors put it, “has morphed into an inclusive, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, pan-gender, meritocratic way of dressing for the Elite New.” We saw the roots of this in Take Ivy, Teruyoshi Yoshida and company’s 1965 study of Ivy League aesthetics, and at this point certain signs, like the 1986 purchase of unbending Yale clothier (and G.H.W. Bush brand of choice) J. Press’ by Onward Kashiyama, suggest that the pursuit of preppy outside America has outpaced the homegrown variety.

Preppy itself uses shots of the style as practiced in Japan, as well as in Korea, birthplace of my girlfriend, a lady who uses the elements of Ivy in more interesting ways than any clubby white male of my acquaintance. (I do admit to a bias here, and direct anyone interested a more objective viewpoint on preppy women’s wear to Banks and de la Chapelle’s chapter on the subject.) It seems the preppy-wearers to watch today, whatever their national origins, would never have made it into the club in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day, or even in J. Fitzgerald Kennedy’s. This goes just as much for me, despite looking as pale and stern as a J.C. Leyendecker illustration, as it does for any of the aforementioned Elite New; growing up on the West Coast, I didn’t even know what a prep school was until my mid-twenties. We employ the preppy style now not as a symbol of belonging, but of not caring whether we belong, and thus we wear it with more freedom. It reminds me of my favorite thing about this country, where “freedom” runs the constant risk of turning into a buzzword: not the pride of adhering to its traditions, but of bending them to each of our own wills.

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 Preppy, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

Colin Marshall on men’s style books: The Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style by Tom Julian

I haven’t set foot in a Nordstrom in years. Come to think of it, maybe I’ve never entered one at all. They seem expensive, and I — perhaps you, too — tend only to break out that kind of money at the most obscurely specialized of specialty shops: places with new-old-stock tie clips from sixties Japan, pocket squares made of battleship blueprints, aftershave left over from the days of Empire, that sort of thing. Certainly not old-school department stores that make me suspect my purchases will underwrite walls full of dark wood. But that caricatures unfairly a business like Nordstrom, which has provided stylistic succor to generations and generations of men in need of a wardrobe, and which I can’t imagine afflicted by the national plague — downfall of so many other men’s shops — of full-time suit salesmen who dress carelessly themselves. Though our age has seen the decline of the department store as a concept, Nordstrom appears to have retained not just its reliability, but a certain respectability as well. That merits a few points right there.

But a Nordstrom-authorized men’s style guide? Such a book seems somehow at odds with the store’s core mission, which I understand as not just clothes sales but a kind of expertise rental: the high prices buy you peace of mind through a gentle, even genteel, Jeeves-like guidance away from embarrassing choices and toward flattering ones, as well as the dark-wooded environment in which it all happens. Shouldn’t the study of men’s style books, at least as we practice it here at Put This On, obviate the need for just that kind of pricey consigliere service? But even as he passes along his lessons in this sort of expertise in the Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style, “consumer trend expert” Tom Julian implements the countermeasure of periodically inserting the word “Nordstrom” into his sentences: “You have more than thirty sizes to select from at Nordstrom stores.” “If all this measuring sounds like a nightmare, don’t worry — every Nordstrom salesperson can do it for you.” “All four of these looks express strong, masculine style in their own way — which is quintessentially Nordstrom.”

Forced though this may sound — bulk-rate letters announcing that “you may have already won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, COLIN MARSHALL,” come to mind — Julian reins it in and ultimately produces a comfortably un-hokey handbook. References to Regis Philbin and Project Runway date it, the occasional malapropism (“the necktie has always spoken multitudes about our culture”) throws a bump in the road, and some of the suggested “trend” looks (appearing alongside a range of “luxury,” “classic,” and “contemporary” ensembles) may well strike us as ghastly should we revisit them a decade hence, but I couldn’t spot anything fundamentally unsound. Then again, while classically inclined, I don’t rank among the world’s strictest menswear enthusiasts. They might not appreciate instructions to “unbutton your top button to communicate ease and sophistication,” they certainly wouldn’t like Julian’s suggestion to “go for the pre-tied wraparound” bow tie, and, while they couldn’t really argue with the notion that their closet should contain “five great T-shirts,” I doubt they could find much usable guidance in it either.

“When someone’s pants are too short, you may think, Hey, that guy should have a party and invite his pants to meet his shoes. The break is that party.” Dedicated rule-followers cluster at both the novice and master’s ends of the menswear spectrum, and lines line that one tell you which group might benefit most from this book. Call it corny if you must, but nobody who reads it will forget what element of trouser cut the term “break” denotes. Julian also teaches his readers to identify button quality by thickness, which points of jacket fit “even the least self-aware guy” can identify and evaluate, and that they can request compartments for “iPods, PSPs, and anything else” built into the made-to-measure suits, which they should refrain from wearing more than twice a week. We have here, in other words, a volume pitched for the most part to the defensive dresser, who seeks strategies to avoid looking bad as much as or more than he seeks the combined self- and sartorial knowledge that makes for dressing expertise. But the former opens a gateway to the latter, as Julian shows he knows by planting seeds in the reader’s mind: “A suit is good when it brings attention to the man in the suit, not to the suit itself.” “Concern yourself not with what’s in or out but with what looks good on you.”

The Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style must operate, of course, on the  debatable assumption that this journey could happen in no more suitable a place than your local Nordstrom, facilitated by a phalanx of thoroughly competent sales associates. You may agree, although that shouldn’t stop you from learning all you can learn in advance from a book like this one and its non-branded brethren. I admit that it piques my curiosity about the finer points of the Nordstrom shopping experience, and indeed I closed it feeling that, rather than hearing too much about the store, I hadn’t heard quite enough; the definitive history of Nordstrom and its relationship with American menswear, a subject Julian gives only the broadest acknowledgment, remains unwritten. (Strangely, he also includes only one thin page about shoes, long a Nordstrom specialty, insisting that “there’s no way we could adequately address the breadth and variety of options available.”) I myself will probably continue shopping elsewhere for the time being, not just amassing more knowledge of menswear but writing hard enough, assuming one still can these days, to earn what I think of as “Nordstrom money.” But even then, I’ll probably take it to Nordstrom Rack.

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 Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style , you can find the best prices at DealOz.

Colin Marshall on Men’s Style Books: 100 Years of Menswear by Cally Blackman

imageAbout the menswear of the twentieth century, I can say this for sure: I don’t think I’d wear most of it. Neither would you, I imagine, unless you’ve thrown in your lot with the Brooklyn handlebar-mustache set, though in that case you’d have pledged allegiance to only a select set of time periods, stylistically compatible or otherwise. Reading through Cally Blackman’s 100 Years of Menswear exposes you to all of them, from 1900 up to the mid-2000s, breaking down their clothes by vocational and avocational inspiration: worker, soldier, artist, reformer, rebel, peacock, media star, and so on. This organizing scheme roots the shifting aesthetics of all menswear in functionality, a flattering assumption — no useless, free-floating design whims for us men, thank you very much, even us men who happen to be designers — but not necessarily an incorrect one. Suitable dress helps all of us do our jobs, and that holds truer still for full-time rebels and peacocks.

Even for quite a few of those rebels and peacocks, the most suitable form of dress remains, yes, the suit. “The three-piece suit, introduced and formalized in the late seventeenth century, has prospered for nearly 350 years because of its unique capacity for nuance and variation,” Blackman writes in the introduction. “To adapt a phrase from Le Corbusier, the suit is a machine for living in, close-fitting but comfortable armor, constantly revised and reinvented to be, literally, well-suited for modern daily life.” Yet twentieth-century menswear history tells, in large part, the story of the suit-wearing’s decline, which went especially precipitous in the late sixties. The pages of 100 Years of Menswear offer suits aplenty, both photographed and illustrated, in settings from the street to the workplace to (in a bizarre 1937 Esquire spread) the ski slopes, but they ultimately prioritize the diversity that the decades would let emerge: we see plus fours and pushed-up Miami Vice sleeves, tennis whites and motorcycle gear, Beatle boots and Nehru jackets – all, I suppose, the components of machines for living, albeit very different ways of doing it.

That said, nobody expects you to want to wear most of the menswear of the twentieth century. Though it doesn’t present itself as any kind of how-to, the book does contain images that may come in handy when you put together your next period costume. Turning up at the office party as Bryan Ferry in 1977, seen in Blackman’s selected photo evoking vintage gangsterism in a gray three-piece with viciously peaked lapels, strikes me as a particularly sound idea. But doesn’t that setup, a rock star deep in the glam years ordering his tailor of choice to evoke a bygone age of classy thuggishness, also offer a deeper kind of instruction? Examine the photos in 100 Years of Menswear systematically enough — for, despite its surprisingly meaty captions and chapter introductions, a photo book it remains — and you’ll get a feel for not just the way certain fashions periodically float to the top of the sartorial zeitgeist, but how other fashions exert influence within those fashions. One era’s peacock imitates another’s soldier; its rebel, another’s worker; its media star, another’s artist.

While Ferry has long displayed a knack for knowing when to draw upon his favorite bits of the past, his contemporary David Bowie more famously took this historical layering to its logical end. Since Blackman regards subculture as perhaps the most influential force on menswear, I might have expected her to include more than two pictures of the man who — as Ziggy Stardust, as Aladdin Sane, as the Thin White Duke, as whomever — not only made use of more subcultures than any other dresser, but created a few subcultures of his own. But you or I, out less to create subcultures than to simply dress with care, imitate the differently flamboyant likes of Ferry or Bowie at our peril. We’d do even worse to take as examples the outfits seen in Blackman’s final two chapters, covering stylists’ and designers’ experiments from 1940 to present. But the better we understand the ends of menswear’s various aesthetic axes, the better we can place ourselves in more tenable positions along them. At the very least, you can profit from the book’s penchant for extremity for its “what not to wear” (or at least “what to tone way down”) factor.

100 Years of Menswear also offers knowledge as a pure visual chronicle, and for such a project Blackman, a writer and teacher with previous books on general fashion, costume, illustration, and the styles of the twenties and thirties to her credit, has the credentials you’d expect. (As a non-man, she brings still more objectivity to the table.) But any book that pays equal attention to Andy Warhol, Edward VII, Miles Davis, Boy George, Mark Twain, and Marc Bolan risks coming off as a book insufficiently focused, and most serious dressers will narrow their attention to a particular chapter or two. I find myself returning most often to the pages on media stars, not just because all my own work involves media – though as noted above, our form will, ideally, fit our function – but because their dress tends to stand, or in any case once stood, the test of time. There we find a still of Cary Grant in North By Northwest, and Blackman reminds us that the icon “always wore his own clothes on screen,” “a testament to his faultless style and effortless elegance at a time when the stylist did not exist.” A better time, we might sigh, moving on to scrutinize an image of Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. The fact that another, even better-known photo of the era-defying McQueen graces the cover hints at where Blackman’s carefully concealed stylistic allegiance may lie. Then again, that same chapter devotes an entire page to Starsky and Hutch, so I wouldn’t make any bets.

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 100 Years of Menswear, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

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.

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.

Colin Marshall on Menswear Books: Off the Cuff by Carson Kressley

imageAbout Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo’s hit reality program that ran from 2003 to 2007, you may recall exactly one thing: that despite their presentation as paragons of taste, none of the “Fab Five” dressed with much of it. Or, more charitably, they seldom displayed what a Put This On reader might value. “The kind of dress,” as Will Boehlke of A Suitable Wardrobe once put it, “that the eye passes over, only to return in appreciation.” But to object is to misunderstand the show’s central joke — its practical joke, really — of dropping a squadron of homosexual style consultants, playing up all applicable stereotypes at every chance, on schlub after heterosexual schlub. Though you wouldn’t necessarily covet his wardrobe, I always appreciated the sartorial inconspicuousness of Ted Allen, the team’s food-and-wine man, whose patient, mild manner offered these shaken straights a port in the storm of insistent fabulousness. But the laws of casting dictate that every such sober yin must balance a raging yang. Enter Carson Kressley, clothing specialist, “fashion savant,” and author of Off the Cuff: The Essential Style Guide for Men and the Women Who Love Them (also known as Off the Cuff: The Guy’s Guide to Looking Good.)

Should future cultural historians harshly re-evaluate Queer Eye as the minstrel show of our day, they’ll hold up Kressley’s performance as Exhibit A. Ablaze with bright colors and camera-distracting accessories, the man could, seemingly on cue, turn on a firehose of groanworthy sexual innuendo and witheringly sarcastic critique. If you never watched the show, you’ll find him insufferable already; if you did, you’ll understand that he nevertheless emerged as the most appealing character of many an episode. He somehow inspired the confidence, beneath all the theatrics, that he really did know his stuff. You wanted him in your corner. Cut to your core though his choice words about your shirts may, you knew he would sooner die than fail to find you better ones. Fans still argue, in comments below the broadcasts that have made it to YouTube, about whether the Fab Five truly left any given straight better off in the time-consuming food, complicated decor, or nebulous cultural departments, but at least Kressley always seemed to leave them more respectably clothed than he found them.

Not that these fellows were difficult to improve. Many of the heterosexuals upon whom the show descended, ravaged by a mix of benign neglect and sheer sloth, would have benefited even from random selections from the department store. Perhaps, as a straight man, I should feel painted with an unfair brush, but reality television works unabashedly in broad strokes and broad strokes alone. We win or lose our own personal aesthetic battles over nuance, a scale that reality television doesn’t permit. But the fame that form gave Kressley let him publish a book, and you can hardly do better for nuance than the printed word. How, then, does his persona, unhindered by televisual demands for simplicity and caricature, operate on the page? “So now that we’ve talked about bottoms, it’s time to talk about anything that goes on top,” he writes after concluding a chapter on pants. “Get your mind out of the gutter, people! I mean shirts and sweaters.”

Expect, reading Off the Cuff, to be addressed as “people” with some frequency. Expect, also, to regularly see the two scariest words than can precede or follow a piece of not-quite-fully-explained advice: “Trust me.” These tics, I wager, found their way into the book as a holdover from the Queer Eye power dynamic, where the helpless subjects would desperately prostrate themselves before the visiting alien style gods. And while this slim, light, brightly designed and cartoonishly illustrated volume does pitch itself to a reader who has maintained his clothing-related innocence well into adulthood, it uses this guise to deliver sound, sensible dressing precepts, as useful as they are easily remembered. Bernhard Roetzel or Details magazine cover similar universals, and you might feel less embarrassed to be seen reading them. Some valuable guidelines appear here in a friendlier, more relaxed form, as when Kressley writes that a garment should never consist of more than 25 percent unnatural fiber. Others come expressed with peculiar vehemence and frequency; here is a man, you will soon learn, with a vendetta against pleats.

Classic menswear enthusiasts may argue that a long, respectable heritage legitimizes pleated pants in certain contexts. Even the compulsively pleat-averse Kressley admits that he sometimes likes them on an English-cut suit. But if you just want to follow a simple rule, which at least makes for a first step toward menswear mastery, “never wear pleats“ will serve you well enough. This goes also for Kressley’s injunctions against comb-overs, mock turtlenecks, the undershirts he calls “domestic partner beaters,” and Doc Martens. I should have trusted him on that last one; after seeing a few of their iconic appearances in another menswear book, I ordered a pair of Docs for myself, but I had only to try them on once to understand that, as he advises, “they’re just not polished-looking or classic.” Of course, I speak from the vantage of 2013, able to identify the non-entrants into the menswear canon that we couldn’t in 1994.

Kressley, though, wrote those words in 2004, when Queer Eye loomed large and outrageous in the zeitgeist. Both that show and Off the Cuff come as products of the early 2000s, years not regarded as a stylistic or cultural golden age. Both projects gain and lose from that dearth of aesthetic awareness; it was a good time to correct grievous sartorial errors, but a dangerous time to commit the less obvious ones yourself. Amid 168 pages of often impeccable (if goofily delivered) information, Kressley flatly makes several judgments that strike me as irresponsible: that cargo pants have entered the canon to become important component of a man’s wardrobe, for instance, or that flip-flops have a place away from the beach, outside the pool, or even at the bottom of a pair of jeans. What a relief that the calculatedly sloppy Abercrombie-and-Fitchiness of those days has by now lost most of its force. While I won’t ask Kressley to publicly recant about flip-flops and cargos, I do implore him, should he launch another clothes-oriented television program, to take a stand against the deeply tiresome format he helped perpetuate. The man can write a useful style guide; I believe he can do something more interesting on television than make people over.

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 Off the Cuff, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

Colin Marshall on menswear books: Take Ivy by Teruyoshi Hayashida, et al.

imageBoy, I want to go to college. Alas, I’ve already gone, and even if I hadn’t, being that I’m nearing thirty years old, “leading a college life in one’s thirties would be way too late.” That observation comes from a no less authoritative a study of university life and style than Take Ivy, but still, we must make certain allowances for temporal and cultural distance. First, the book deals exclusively with life and style at the “Ivy League” schools of America’s East Coast. Second, it originally came out in 1965. Third, the men who wrote it, Teruyoshi Hayashida, Shosuke Ishizu, Toshiyuki Kurosu, and Hajime “Paul” Hasegawa, all come from Japan. These may seem like considerable stumbling blocks for many in the market for this sort of book — I myself actually have more experience with Japan than with anything on the East Coast, let alone with the year 1965 — but the final product nonetheless raises a burning desire within me to grab my penny loafers, lacrosse stick, and sweatshirt emblazoned with my graduation year and confab with my chums on the quad.

“I spent my high school years picturing myself on the campus of an Ivy League university, where my wealthy roommate Colgate would leave me notes reading, ‘Meet me on the quad at five,’” wrote David Sedaris. “I wasn’t sure what a quad was, but I knew that I wanted one desperately.” The quartet of trad enthusiasts who put together Take Ivy presumably felt a similar, if better-informed, quad-related longing. When my time came to file college applications, I couldn’t have told you which schools made up the Ivy league beyond Harvard and Yale, and anyway, articles had reported for years that undergraduate education at those two wasn’t what it used to be. Having grown up on the West Coast cultivating a fear of what I assumed to be the Ivy League’s formidable wealth, daunting application standards, and harsh social judgment, I swallowed that line whole. While Take Ivy’s candid, idyllic shots of the then-distinctively garbed students of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell don’t make me wish I had applied to those schools back in 2002, they do make me wish I had applied to those schools back in 1965.

We should feel grateful that this project, tasked with documenting that time and place, is a Japanese one. Working toward a definition of the style it simply labels “Ivy,” the book announces an expectation: “In order to entirely understand the spirit of ‘Ivy,’ you must appreciate and master all aspects of American East Coast culture.” So dictate the rigors of Japanese enthusiasm. To go by its major cities filled with thousands of tiny bars, eateries, and bookshops, each fixedly devoted to the reproduction and perfection of a single aesthetic, Japan displays an unparalleled capacity for appreciation and mastery. And though eighteen-year-old me had wishfully written off the Ivy League as a superficial choice, a pricey shell of its former self, Japanese enthusiasts better understand the importance — possibly the all-importance — of surface. “Appearances are reality,” Donald Richie wrote of Japan in his classic travelogue The Inland Sea. “The mask is literally the face, and the cynic can find no telltale gap because none exists. [ … ] Reality is only skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.” Or as a longtime British expat there told me, “You want to know who the artists are here? The ones wearing berets.” It only sounded like a joke.

If you want to know who the Ivy Leaguers are, according to Take Ivy, they’re the ones clad in school colors and varsity jackets, lovingly polishing their VW Beetles and vintage Packards, listening intently to their folk and jazz albums (the title puns on the Japanese pronunciation of Dave Brubeck’s hit, “Teiku Faibu”), and cramming desperately in hundred-year-old libraries. They look and play most completely — they fully assume and internalize the role of — the well-born East Coast college student. “Though I will leave it up to historians to evaluate his accomplishments to mankind,” one of the authors writes of Harvard man John F. Kennedy, ”I take this opportunity to stress that he certainly lived the ideal life of an Ivy Leaguer.” But no image of J.F.K., on campus or off, appears in these pages. Photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida captures only anonymous, unaware Ivy leaguers, though ones ostensibly possessed of an exemplary look and bearing. Readers used to Western men’s style coverage might see in these pictures sartorial self-expression, youthful personalities in a highly romanticized setting outwardly manifesting themselves as Ivy dress. But it makes for a worthwhile exercise to, at the same time, consider Take Ivy's assumption that style choices make the being as much or more than the being makes the style choices.

Put This On readers may mostly concern themselves, despite the authors’ warning not to, with these students’ clothing. Beyond the strange prevalence of white sweatsock, often exposed between madras short and dark loafer, you could now wear much of what Take Ivy documents onto a college campus, if not every day, without raising an eyebrow. Surely this has something to do with college campuses, at least across most of America, having since become stylistic free-for-alls where few choices could raise eyebrows, and indeed, unbending adherence to the Ivy wardrobe might mark out a modern student as eccentric. But from this vantage, we see that the 1965 Ivy leaguer’s crisply causal way with chinos, button-downs, and branded university merchandise has become timeless and even placeless enough to disperse through the rest of society. Anyone can wear Ivy now. This counterbalances the studied blandness some may come away from this book feeling afflicts the style, due in part to the wearers’ deadening, if expected, lack of diversity. Take Ivy sees, with only rare exceptions, a white world, pale even by that standard. Countless ethnic studies theses will surely be written on the fraught dynamic between this white-bread crowd and the fervently admiring Japanese gaze.

But most of the text simply reads, in the current decade and the first to see Take Ivy published in English translation, as a touching elegy for a subculture now seemingly hollowed out. “We envy them,” the authors write of their Ivy Leaguers, “for they are tackling their college experience, one of the most precious and glorious times of their lives, with youth and energy.” Every soon-to-be undergraduate today hears the same about what awaits them, but those pronouncements ring piously where Hayashida, Ishizu, Kurosu, and Hasegawa’s words exude an almost embarrassing sincerity. Having washed up myself on the campus of UC Santa Barbara aghast at the saturation of pajama pants and flip flops — and those just on the ladies — I can’t help reading the carefully insouciant styles examined here as emblematizing the last era when, built upon false verities and unearned privilege though it may have been, an American college education could not be taken lightly, when even gentleman’s Cs, afternoon drinking, and casual dress demanded a kind of mastery. The Ivy League’s heyday has gone, but its styles remain surprisingly viable today. Whatever our station in life, we fail to incorporate them into our 21st-century wardrobes at our peril, and we’ll find no more earnest or evocative primer for the task than Take Ivy.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy Take Ivy, you can find the best prices at DealOz. 

Colin Marshall on menswear books: Icons of Men’s Style by Josh Sims

imageI relish the menswear enthusiast’s life for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being that we get less homework than women’s wear enthusiasts do. This very idea may strike you as ridiculous, especially if you keep up with Put This On and countless other sites like it, but remember: they strive, often frantically, to keep up with an ever expanding breadth of garments, accessories, lines, and designers. One lady’s wardrobe may well include dozens, or even hundreds, of each. The menswear enthusiast plunges into something much narrower and deeper. We go down, you might say, a historical hole, digging our way toward the origins of the fifteen or twenty items we wear with the utmost regularity. Chinos, tweed jackets, button-down shirts, aviator sunglasses, Chuck Taylors: the versions we own today have undergone minor changes since the models’ invention, whereas women’s clothing, by comparison, endures regular and thoroughgoing revolutions. But boy, how much you can learn about those minor changes, let alone about the inventions themselves. “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master,” went the old Othello slogan, and the same applies to the game of men’s dress.

Much of our early menswear education comes from popular culture, often in minute-long flashes. Josh Sims’ Icons of Men’s Style takes some time, if not a lifetime, to offer a bit more mastery on 52 particularly timeless, universally recognized items, most of which got their break from twentieth-century American popular culture. Gregory Peck appears on the cover wearing aviators; Tom Cruise, encased in Top Gun gear, occupies a full page doing the same. An image of Jimmy Stewart dominates the chapter on tweed, as one of Ronald Reagan dominates the chapter on the sweatshirt. A shot of Michael Jackson shooting Thriller illustrates the wearing of loafers. The text cites Steve McQueen nine times, four of them with pictures. Magnum P.I., you’ll feel relieved to hear, makes an appearance as well. Sims writes up a scattering of items now rarely seen in the United States — the Barbour jacket, the Breton top — but tends to stick with what we’ve seen on the bodies and in the hands of American film stars, musicians, athletes, and politicians. Yet given the considerable influence of midcentury Americana on the rest of the world, a certain internationalism remains.

Should Sims have titled his book more precisely? Not if you account for the publishing industry’s addiction to the sound of the definitive, and for the striking endurance of the elements of men’s style popularized in America forty, sixty, eighty years ago. A name like Icons of Mid-Twentieth Century American Men’s Style says little, in this light, that Icons of Men’s Style doesn’t. But the London-based author doesn’t fail to give his own land its due. “Perhaps simply because of the mysterious, fate-like process that culminates in ‘cool,’” he writes in the introduction, “it was the items in this book that captured the imagination.” The periodic bursts of British influence felt across the twentieth century appear here in articles like the polo shirt as worn by Paul Weller, and the German-conceived Doc Martens as worn by “punks goths, grungies, hard mods, and, most notably, skinheads.” A mid-seventies Mick Jagger models a perhaps unexpected inclusion, the Panama hat; that era’s David Bowie, the lonely alien of The Man Who Fell To Earth, does the same for the particularly non-American duffle coat. Sean Connery’s James Bond looms over the chapter on the dinner suit, an inclusion so obvious that my eyes passed over him on the first few trips through the book. Only the final page, on the necktie, delivers the Duke of Windsor; without him, can a menswear book really qualify for the category?

But these litanies of famous names and well-known items make the project seem more comprehensive than it is, or intends to be. Sims has, no doubt, produced an odd beast: neither purely instructional nor purely referential, too deliberately written for a photo book but too richly visual for a straight-on text. It delivers perhaps too much information for the menswear neophyte while not quite enough for those of us who thirst for design and historical detail. Well-meaning relatives will no doubt hand many of us copies as Christmas presents, and they won’t have made an entirely inappropriate choice. As hard a time as I have pinning down what I’ve learned from the book, I also know that it hasn’t taught me nothing (a common enough practice in menswear writing), nor has it misled me (an even clearer and more present danger). It has, shall we say, reminded me: reminded me of the menswear stalwarts I’ve yet failed to add to my wardrobe, reminded me of how those I do own have been best and most prominently worn (the way Steve McQueen wore them, in most cases), and reminded me to think clearly about the fascinating process of how, exactly, something ascends into what Sims calls “menswear canon.”

Also neither fish nor fowl when it comes to formality, Icons of Men’s Style places the dinner suit and the sweatshirt fewer pages apart than you’d think. Page 177 displays no fewer than thirty Rolex watches; on page 178 appear nine humble, weathered, decal-emblazoned Zippo lighters. Sims briskly explains the details of the Zippo’s stealthy but nonetheless impressive design evolution just as he does the (on reflection) almost garishly overt engineering and branding of the Montblanc Meisterstück. He’d have us to turn the same interested eye toward one of Tom Selleck’s shirts from Hawaii as we would one straight off Jermyn Street. Agnostic toward refinement, he reflects both the best and worst about the liberating American influence on men’s style. We’ve all felt this liberation when mixing a tailored blazer, say, with a polo shirt, work boots, and worn khakis whose pocket contains a Dunhill Rollagas, to assemble from the book’s collection what today seems a relatively tame combination. Such freedom of dress brings great potential for victory — and for that mysterious “cool” — but much greater potential for defeat. Hence the need to periodically, indeed rigorously, ground oneself by checking in with the most enduring garments, objects, design elements, and actual men. In other words, with the icons.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy Icons of Men’s Style, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

Menswear books: Peter McNeil and Vicki Karaminas, The Men’s Fashion Reader

For all its relevance to their interests, I wonder how many menswear enthusiasts would, or could, sit down and read this book. Despite coming in the same thickness and glossiness as many standard menswear books do, The Men’s Fashion Reader has no dressing advice to offer, nor does it concentrate exclusively on the history, development, or mechanics of men’s clothing. It does contain a great deal of analysis, delivered in the form of 35 separate articles on everything from dandyism to the Japanese adoption of the western suit to the rise and fall of the Men’s Dress Reform Party. And indeed, any man who takes an active interest in what he wears will find dozens upon dozens of fascinating pages — embedded, alas, within hundreds of academic ones.

Here I use the word “academic” mostly by its neutral definition, of or pertaining to a college, academy, school, or other educational institution, especially one for higher education,” but not without an eye toward the more pejorative ones. “Of purely theoretical or speculative interest,” “excessively concerned with intellectual matters and lacking experience of practical affairs” — these charges often stick. McNeil and Karaminas make no bones about their book as a product of the academy, for the academy, and a quick glance across online collage syllabi reveals that professors do indeed assign it. Yet its relatively lush printing, complete with two sections of color plates showing off eighteenth-century finery, midcentury California leisurewear, and the unconventional fashion choices of Japanese youth surely makes it one of those burdensomely expensive, beer money-eating pieces of required reading. A peculiar hybrid, this book: its form keeps it from quite belonging on the student’s bookshelf, and its content keeps it from quite belonging on the well-dressed man’s.

Several of its articles, to be fair, do supply just the kind of knowledge that even clothing-oriented fellows tend to lack. Many of them have a reasonable enough command of the evolution of menswear, though only back to the twenties or thirties, and mainly in the Anglosphere even then. Deep historical and wide cultural knowledge of men’s style being something of a rarity, the average reader would do well to spend time with The Men’s Fashion Reader's first section, “A Brief History of Men's Fashion,” which features such articles as John Harvey's “From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare;” David Kuchta's “The Three-Piece Suit,” which traces the seventeenth-century emergence of just that; and even Olga Vainshtein's “Dandyism, Visual Games, and the Strategies of Representation,” which reveals a wealth of information on how nineteenth-century dress became twentieth-century dress through the framing device of opera glasses, lorgnettes, and other such vanished male accessories.

The book’s contributing professors, honorary associates, and fellows seem condemned by research specialization to write through these sorts of intellectual pinholes. Non-academics may find themselves put off by some of the article titles that result: “Consuming Masculinities: Style, Content, and Men’s Magazines,” “A Tale of Three Louis: Ambiguity, Masculinity, and the Bow Tie,” “American Denim: Blue Jeans and Their Multiple Layers of Meaning.” More legitimately frustrating are the frequent citations of high-profile theoreticians rendered unintelligible by decades of intellectual isolation in the academic humanities. I suspect little of it means anything to a man who simply wants to dress more consciously.

What a shame, since The Men’s Fashion Reader contains so many edifying stories of men dressing consciously. The flamboyant but (for his time) aesthetically chaste nineteenth-century dandy Beau Brummell makes several appearances, as he should. And we can all learn much from the book’s accounts of how certain style pressures operated in 1930s Oxford, of the choice men of the Meiji Restoration faced between traditional and Western dress, of industrialized tailoring permanently opening up sartorial options for all social classes, and even of the supposed “great masculine renunciation” of display and beauty in clothing. While some of the material reads rather bloodlessly, the book’s inclination toward gender studies actually contributes to some of its most immediately fascinating and illuminating sections, which examine the patterns in deliberate, visible male homosexual dress — the habitués of the Vince, John Stephens, and John Michael men’s shops of midcentury London; the mustachioed, work-shirted “Castro clone” of San Francisco; the one and only Liberace — before the widespread acceptance of male homosexuality itself. I can’t say the same of the readers my own professors made me buy.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall. To buy The Men’s Fashion Reader, you can find the best prices at DealOz