Emily Spivack’s Worn Stories project: What Are the Things We Want to Hold Onto?

I don’t have hard data on closet turnover rates, but even the thriftiest and most #timelessly dressed guys will end up with a mostly new wardrobe every 5 or 6 years, especially when it comes to oft-laundered items like tshirts and oxfords that just plain wear out. Yet when you’re picking out stuff to chuck or donate, a few things that should probably go to Goodwill… inevitably don’t. You hang onto certain things even though a voice in your head whispers, with a little concern: “Hoarder.” Their value isn’t measured on receipts or by amortized per-wear cost (don’t pretend you haven’t calculated that at least once). Their worth is autobiographical, in the story they tell you about yourself.

Emily Spivack, who teaches at the Pratt Institute and created the Smithsonian’s Threaded blog on clothing history, has collected “sartorial memoirs” since 2010, and this month is publishing Worn Stories: a book that includes among its 67 stories contributions from John Hodgman, Andy Spade, Dapper Dan, and Albert Maysles, among many others. I can hardly think of a concept more in tune with Put This On.

"I wanted to be able to preserve these stories before they get lost."

Spivack worked with a broad cross section of people—artists, writers, athletes, chefs, teachers—and the stories in the collection are as varied and unpredictable as their sources. Some are tightly focused on the clothes; for others, you wonder, as you read about a broken relationship or awkward adolescence, how the clothing will be woven in. This is not “talk about your favorite shirt,” although some people do; these are items ripped and frayed by lives lived, and they proudly bear the stains of memory. “One is the story of what someone wore when they were kidnapped, another was stabbed; one is about what someone chose to wear to break up with her boyfriend,”  Spivack told me. “When you go to a thrift store, you might find a receipt or ticket stub in a pocket. You know there’s a history there, but it’s lost. I wanted to be able to preserve these stories before they get lost.”

Uniforms, hand-me-downs, and bootlegs

Each story centers on a single item of clothing, more often than not unexceptional on its own. Spivack collected the pieces from her subjects in order to photograph them for the book, “and you could tell they’d been worn. Some were ripped or threadbare.” Although the book balances men’s and women’s stories, Spivack made a deliberate choice to exclude jewelry. “Jewelry lasts forever; you can pass it on to the next generation. Clothing is not really perceived in that way. It degrades, it shows its wear, it’s impermanent. I think that’s relevant… Those are the things that possess meaning to people. That’s worth noting: what are the things we want to hold onto?”

Some of my favorite pieces in the book: critic Sasha Frere-Jones on the growing pains of teenage subcultural identity via a green band jacket; author Courtney Maum on a Ralph Lauren sweater and what it meant and didn’t mean about her father; Double Dare announcer Harvey on his Family Double Dare costume; and artist Andrew Kuo on bootleg Bart shirts and Linsanity.

With the rise of e-commerce and fast fashion, our investment in what we wear is more and more ephemeral, like a lot of the essentially disposable clothes themselves. Not that Worn Stories is another paean to the artisinal; it’s about how we imbue what we wear with a little bit of ourselves, and why that’s hard to let go of. As Spivack says in her introduction to the collection: “We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn. This book brings some of those stories to light.”

Buy Worn Stories at Amazon or from the publisher.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Andy Spade’s vintage waxed jacket, John Hodgman’s dress, Andrew Tarlow’s navy Brooks Brothers suit, Andrew Kuo’s Air Bart Simpson tshirt. Photos by Ally Lindsay.

-Pete

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

Menswear Books: 100 Ideas That Changed Street Style

People who love traditional clothing sometimes deride streetwear for being silly and faddish, but streetwear is never just about clothes. It’s about culture (which often changes). Once you put the clothes in their broader contexts, they become much more understandable and appreciable.

100 Ideas That Changed Street Style is about connecting those cultural bits to streetwear. Each “idea” takes up two pages, and thankfully – unlike many other books on fashion and clothing – has a relatively equal amount of text and images.

Some of these “ideas” aren’t really ideas, but rather streetwear movements themselves. There are sections on skaters, punks, and hip hop youths, none of whom need any introduction. And then there are slightly more obscure scenes, such as the stilyagis of the USSR. These were young men and women, often in their 20s, that were inspired by the dress of American big band, swing, and rock and roll musicians. The men wore zoot-suit style long jackets, brightly colored shirts, thin ties, and pompadour hairstyles. They even adopted Americanized nicknames. Like the French zazou in WWII, these Soviet youths provoked the establishment – not just by upsetting their elders with their dress, but also their government.

The other sections are about ideas. The section on androgyny, for example, gives some brief examples from the late 20th century of when women dressed like men (e.g. the Eurhythmics’ Annie Lennox and Madonna reviving the idea in their stage wear). The book makes an interesting note in saying that these women were not trying to pass as men (like jazz musician Billy Tipton), but rather, they were taking the associations of power and status imbued in male tailoring, and using them to challenge gender stereotypes. Of course, androgyny runs both ways, so I was a little disappointed to see that the matter of male androgyny not be as adequately addressed. The author only notes that male performers such as Boy George, Prince, and David Bowie haven’t had much of an effect on the male wardrobe.

That’s unfortunately the main problem with this book. In trying to cover a hundred ideas, the author Josh Sims has to be brief on each. The section on sneakers, for example, does little more than mention that some people customize their shoes. No mention of how inner city kids used to famously decorate their Air Force 1s with fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci logos – not as an attempt to pass these shoes off as legitimate LV or Gucci items, but rather as a flashy way of declaring individual style. Nike’s Custom ID program – where you can design your own sneaker – in some ways comes out of that inner-city culture.

The book is fun, however, as a casual flip through to see how people have used clothes to carve out identities for themselves. In the past, streetwear was a way for men and women to take clothes not meant for them (or even for fashion) and use them for fashionable purposes. Think of Black youths and Polo Ralph Lauren, or British skinheads (before they became associated with racism) and Fred Perry tennis shirts. Today, streetwear is a multi-billion dollar segment of the fashion industry, and whereas it used to come from the streets, it’s now mostly (and sadly) dictated by fashion designers and million dollar ad campaigns. 100 Ideas That Changed Street Style, even if superficial at times, captures some of those early streetwear movements that feel long gone. 

Here’s an event New Yorkers won’t want to miss: an audience with Rose Callahan, Nathaniel Adams and two of the dandies featured in their excellent book. It’s tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 6, and free, but you have to RSVP.

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: Kevin Burrows and Lawrence Schlossman, Fuck Yeah Menswear

imageWhether published this century or the last, most men’s style books I pick up don’t present themselves as products of the internet age. This even holds for volumes that owe their very existence to the popularity of their authors’ blog, web series, Tumblr, what have you. So the process seems to have gone with Kevin Burrows and Lawrence Schlossman’s Fuck Yeah Menswear: Bespoke Knowledge for the Crispy Gentleman, the fruit of their labor on their now-still Tumblr blog of the same name, though with one remarkable difference: this book embraces, even as it ridicules, the internet age and what it has done to menswear culture. Here we have a book that startles by simply existing on paper, so thoroughly has it embedded itself in and so instinctively does it reference its grand coterie of style bloggers, style forum posters, and style eBay buyer-sellers. Its authors might also identify a great many others in the crowd around them: bluehands, dashmunchers, herbs, OGs, photogs, plebes, and Uggs (not, needless to say, to indicate the questionable boots, but the questionable ladies wearing them).

All those terms come straight out of the glossary near the end of Fuck Yeah Menswear (which comes just before an elaborate pastiche of the kind of Japanese magazines for which I admittedly pay $18 a pop). Unlike similar addenda in most men’s style manuals, it functions less as a utility than as a piece of entertainment in itself, and I count it as only one of a host of unusual, comedy-driven choices the book makes. These begin with the very premise that made Burrows and Schlossman’s presence on style-saturated Tumblr so notable in the first place: to derive line after line of satirical lyrics from the photographs of highly dressed men out and about in such now-endless digital supply. A thin young fellow on an East Village street corner, for instance, all peaked-lapel navy blazer and rolled-up denim, his aviators and heritage-design bicycle gleaming, looking to get snapped by a bigtime blogger: “This is the spot. I’m sure of it. I’m up next. Finally. Finna style. Finna get shot. Call me Fitty. Send a text to Mom.”

They even name-check other books that built audiences through internet menswear culture: “In photo class at my liberal arts college. Name-dropped T. Hayashidy,” beside a picture of Teruyoshi Hayashida’s Take Ivy and a pair of sockless, penny-loafer’d feet. “Prof had no fucking clue. So not Ivy.” If this sort of language, especially when brought to the subject of menswear, strikes you as alien, know that its usage goes far beyond the Fuck Yeah Menswear boys. Most men of my acquaintance who write this way fit a simple description: white, thirty-ish, raised on or near America’s west coast, and educated somewhere on its east — usually, as it happens, in one of the schools of the Ivy League. The goal of this style of verse or prose, it seems to me, involves not only maximizing the clash between tone and subject matter, but also somehow expressing both constant strain and bottomless ease (or, if you like, “steez,” here defined as “style plus ease”). In this particular book, it serves the equally contradictory mission of simultaneously rebuking and celebrating the early 21st-century internet-based menswear enthusiast.

Whatever its excess, this manner gets points across unequivocally. Fuck Yeah Menswear, the authors announce in the introduction, “is about dope product, dope collections, and the steezy world we call menswear.” That line alone may send you to the aforementioned glossary, but more emphatic text rushes on, heralding, among other triumphs, “an illustrated Iliad for the menswear set.” To back up this bold claim — surely the sort of thing that won the back-cover file-under label of “humor” as well as “fashion,” which the book calls the “f-word” — separates its photos-and-lyrics pages with primers on topics like brands, denim, essentials, shops, and accessories. What these sections lack in comprehensiveness — and I sense the authors know that existing men’s style books already have comprehensiveness covered — they make up for in acerbic, almost aggressive joie de vivre. What a thrill my cappuccino-seeking self felt upon seeing the book’s inclusion of the non-wearable “coffee spot” as an essential accessory: “Your order becomes a simple nod of the head leaving you to focus on tweeting something irreverently clever followed by a quick industry insight as multiple women munching on croissants daydream longingly in your direction.”

The book also carries over from the internet the quality of timeliness, which, in style, only sounds like a virtue. But the authors, possessing more than enough menswear savvy to value timelessness in dress above most else, give wearing and buying advice applicable to many moments while satirizing the inflated attitudes and passing trends of only one. And that moment seems, in large part, to have passed, which makes Fuck Yeah Menswear especially interesting to examine now, a year after its publication. The sartorial information contained within (the derivation of some of which the authors leave to you) remains of, course, sound, though I suspect that many of the inside jokes geared toward readers with one foot in the menswear blogosphere and the other in hip-hop fandom have gone slightly stale. Still, I laughed often, and can tell that, behind the carefully constructed comedic persona and its posturing over trade shows, sample sales, and dead stock, Burrows and Schlossman understand full well that menswear involves more than just menswear. The internet’s capacity to connect every man to every brand to every era to every city has let a thousand stylistic flowers bloom, but it tends also to encourage tunnel vision: purism, programmatic imitation (the glossary includes an entry for “dressed by the internet,” calling it “the ultimate insult”), and fixation on near-meaningless levels of historical and aesthetic minutia.

Hence, I think, the book’s periodic references to older and more Continental masters of men’s style, whom they categorize under a type called “Sprezz,” the embodiment of that elusively offhand quality called sprezzatura: “Odds are his family has done this kind of thing long before the internet was invented, and he probably has no idea the internet even exists.” Still, as the attitude of Fuck Yeah Menswear underscores, those of us modern menswear enthusiasts with no choice but to acknowledge the existence of social media can, by way of sheer self-parodying bravado, seize the day nevertheless. The next page over from a photo of two jovial, sprezz’d-out middle-aged men (caption: “‘What the fuck’s a blog?’ ‘HAHAHAHA.’”), we read the following: “You’re surrounded by all your homies, and your full-time squeeze is at your side. Some dude across the street falls into a puddle and ruins his cheap-ass off-the-rack suit. The table erupts in condescending laughter. You are fucking gods and the rest of the world is your playground. We out here living.”

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aestheticsHe’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles PrimerFollow him on Twitter @colinmarshall or on his new Facebook page. To buy Fuck Yeah menswear, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

More men’s style books: 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

Ten Great Books about Menswear
There are a ton of books out there about menswear. Some good, some bad, some redundant if you’ve read “the classics.” Here are ten that I think are particularly worth reading, broken up into three categories.
For an Introduction
If you only want to learn how to dress well, and aren’t interested in menswear as a “subject” per se, then there are three really good books worth owning.
1. Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion by Alan Flusser. Arguably the best introductory book written so far on the subject of classic men’s dress. This basically covers suits and ties, and all the things that surround that world.
2. Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion by Bernhard Roetzel. Somewhat similar to Dressing the Man, but with more information about accessories and lifestyle products. It’s also written from a more Western European point of view (rather than American). There are two editions of this book, both of which are very similar to each other. If money isn’t an issue, I recommend the latest.
3. Handbook of Style: A Man’s Guide to Looking Good by Esquire. The two books above are mostly about how to wear a jacket and tie (in a classic way). Esquire’s book is partly about that, but it also has information about things such as jeans, sneakers, and sunglasses. This is a really practical “modern” guide if you’re not the type to wear suits and sport coats often.
Honorable mention: Nicholas Antongiavanni’s The Suit is also really good, but I wanted this post to be titled “Ten Great Books About Menswear,” not “eleven.” I think the aforementioned three titles are more easily recommendable than The Suit mostly because they have pictures. People like pictures.  
For the Enthusiast
If you consider yourself a menswear enthusiast, and enjoy learning about the subject beyond just how to wear clothes well, here are five excellent titles for you. 
4. Handmade Shoes for Men by Laszlo Vass & Magda Molnar. One of the best books available on how high-end men’s shoes are made. 
5. Elegance: A Guide to Quality Menswear by Bruce Boyer. I suppose this is partly about how to dress well, but there’s also some great history in here. Bruce Boyer has written some of my favorite books and articles on this subject, and I think you could pick up anything he’s written and enjoy it. I personally like Elegance, Eminently Suitable, and his essays at Cigar Aficionado the best.
6. Savile Row: An Illustrated History by Richard Walker. Many, if not most, books about Savile Row are little more than picture books with recycled press releases. Richard Walker’s book, however, has real research.
7. The Englishman’s Suit by Hardy Amies. A short history on Western dress and how it tied in with developments in the English aristocracy. 
8. Nothing but the Best by Thomas Girtin. I just started reading this, but it’s very good. Basically a history on English craftsmen, at least the ones that traditionally served the English aristocracy. The same book, more or less, was published in England under the title Makers of Distinction.
For the Obsessive
Similar to the previous category, these two titles are for the enthusiast. I’m only putting them separately here because they’re extraordinarily expensive (roughly between $200 and $800 when you can find them). They are, however, exceptional, and if you’re really obsessed about the subject, I think they’re well worth the asking price.
9. A History of Men’s Fashion by Farid Chenoune. A 250-year history of men’s fashion, with a bit more information about France than you might find elsewhere.
10. Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions by O.E. Schoeffler and William Gale. One of the best books ever published on this subject. It goes through almost every change in men’s fashion from 1900 until the 1970s, and is written is as much detail as you could ever hope for.
To purchase any of these books, I recommend searching on DealOz or BookFinder. Either site can lead you to the best possible prices at the moment. They’re not perfect, however, so you may still want to Google and eBay around. 

Ten Great Books about Menswear

There are a ton of books out there about menswear. Some good, some bad, some redundant if you’ve read “the classics.” Here are ten that I think are particularly worth reading, broken up into three categories.

For an Introduction

If you only want to learn how to dress well, and aren’t interested in menswear as a “subject” per se, then there are three really good books worth owning.

1. Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion by Alan Flusser. Arguably the best introductory book written so far on the subject of classic men’s dress. This basically covers suits and ties, and all the things that surround that world.

2. Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion by Bernhard Roetzel. Somewhat similar to Dressing the Man, but with more information about accessories and lifestyle products. It’s also written from a more Western European point of view (rather than American). There are two editions of this book, both of which are very similar to each other. If money isn’t an issue, I recommend the latest.

3. Handbook of Style: A Man’s Guide to Looking Good by Esquire. The two books above are mostly about how to wear a jacket and tie (in a classic way). Esquire’s book is partly about that, but it also has information about things such as jeans, sneakers, and sunglasses. This is a really practical “modern” guide if you’re not the type to wear suits and sport coats often.

Honorable mention: Nicholas Antongiavanni’s The Suit is also really good, but I wanted this post to be titled “Ten Great Books About Menswear,” not “eleven.” I think the aforementioned three titles are more easily recommendable than The Suit mostly because they have pictures. People like pictures.  

For the Enthusiast

If you consider yourself a menswear enthusiast, and enjoy learning about the subject beyond just how to wear clothes well, here are five excellent titles for you. 

4. Handmade Shoes for Men by Laszlo Vass & Magda Molnar. One of the best books available on how high-end men’s shoes are made. 

5. Elegance: A Guide to Quality Menswear by Bruce Boyer. I suppose this is partly about how to dress well, but there’s also some great history in here. Bruce Boyer has written some of my favorite books and articles on this subject, and I think you could pick up anything he’s written and enjoy it. I personally like Elegance, Eminently Suitable, and his essays at Cigar Aficionado the best.

6. Savile Row: An Illustrated History by Richard Walker. Many, if not most, books about Savile Row are little more than picture books with recycled press releases. Richard Walker’s book, however, has real research.

7. The Englishman’s Suit by Hardy Amies. A short history on Western dress and how it tied in with developments in the English aristocracy. 

8. Nothing but the Best by Thomas Girtin. I just started reading this, but it’s very good. Basically a history on English craftsmen, at least the ones that traditionally served the English aristocracy. The same book, more or less, was published in England under the title Makers of Distinction.

For the Obsessive

Similar to the previous category, these two titles are for the enthusiast. I’m only putting them separately here because they’re extraordinarily expensive (roughly between $200 and $800 when you can find them). They are, however, exceptional, and if you’re really obsessed about the subject, I think they’re well worth the asking price.

9. A History of Men’s Fashion by Farid Chenoune. A 250-year history of men’s fashion, with a bit more information about France than you might find elsewhere.

10. Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions by O.E. Schoeffler and William Gale. One of the best books ever published on this subject. It goes through almost every change in men’s fashion from 1900 until the 1970s, and is written is as much detail as you could ever hope for.

To purchase any of these books, I recommend searching on DealOz or BookFinder. Either site can lead you to the best possible prices at the moment. They’re not perfect, however, so you may still want to Google and eBay around. 

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.