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.

Gentleman’s Gazette: 100 Books for Your Menswear Library

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.

We Got It For Free: Vintage Menswear

I spent my after-dinner hours last night flipping through a copy of Vintage Menswear, which was delivered to me courtesy of Laurence King Publishing. This large-format, full-color book highlights some hundred-and-fifty pieces owned by Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett. Together, the two have been buying vintage men’s clothing for about thirty-five years, and their collection now occupies a kind of half-museum, half-retail space in London called The Vintage Showroom.

The book’s 304-pages are divided into three sections: Sports & Leisure, Military, and Workwear. Each section shows fifty or so odd garments, almost all from the early- to mid-20th century. Some are particularly interesting. Take, for example, what seems to be a boldly striped boating blazer in the Sports & Leisure section. On closer inspection, instead of two crossed oars embroidered at the chest pocket (as is common on boating blazers), we see a pair of boxing gloves. It turns out this is a “university boxing blazer,” and was worn at a time when boxing was considered as much of an upper-class sport as a working-class one. “Pugilism as a noble activity for gentlemen,” the book’s author writes. An undergraduate student recognized as a local hero for his sporting accomplishments would be allowed to wear this lively blazer around campus. Much more impressive than the campus-store bought sweatshirts and sweatpants that college athletes (some Olympians) wear today.

Another interesting story comes from the book’s Military chapter, which shows a seemingly ordinary pair of black boots. These were designed by Christopher “Clutty” Clayton-Hutton, a technical advisor to the British War Office during World War II. During his service, he designed “escape and evade” pieces for British airmen, including bicycle pumps that concealed torches, buttons that concealed compasses, and silk handkerchiefs that would secretly double as maps if you knew how to look at them. For these particular boots, Clayton-Hutton constructed the “top section” so that it could be easily cut away with a sharp blade. With the sheepskin-lined “shaft” gone, these hefty boots were transformed into plain oxford cap-toes. This allowed British airmen shot down over enemy territories to pass unnoticed among the civilian population. Very clever, I thought.

There are many other wonderful stories like these, but admittedly, much of the book also only superficially describes the clothes shown. Descriptions of game pockets, Ventile fabrics, and various fastening devices might not present anything new to people already familiar with clothing design. At times, I wished there was more written about the social histories behind the clothes shown. Still, even for such sections, I found it fun to just look at the pictures. I’m not romantic enough to say that these things, with their patinas and patches, “tell a story,” but they certainly inspire story making. I enjoyed flipping through, thinking about the sporting, fighting, and working men who wore these garments, and imaging the kind of heroic lives they led (entirely made up in my head, of course). 

Vintage Menswear has a listed price of $50, but goes for a more appealing $31.50 on Amazon. At that price, I think this can be a nice addition to a personal library, particularly for people who appreciate workwear, vintage clothing, and men’s clothing design.

Laurence King Publishing has a nice video promoting the book, which you can view here.

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

Menswear books: Alan Flusser, Dressing the Man

If I didn’t know the name Alan Flusser, I’d still trust Dressing the Man by virtue of heft alone. Its size, shape, and weight could deal serious damage, although those cumbersome qualities keep me from carrying it around to test in a street fight, and even if I could easily carry it around, would I? I don’t mind learning how to dress in public — we always have to, in some sense — but it feels somehow inappropriate to reading a big, shiny book on how to dress in public. Then gain, if you’re going to learn how to dress that way, make it with a big, shiny book by a guy like Flusser, who dressed Michael Douglas for Wall Street and, more importantly, appeared in the sixth episode of Put This On's first season (as well as an interview minisode).

But does this one rise above its closest-looking relative in publishing, the coffee-table book? All the lush, often page-filling photography of the Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, and Luciano Barbera, not to mention the jaunty vintage illustrations, makes you wonder. After so many school years of bloated, distraction-laden textbooks, my alarms sound at the sight of splashy chapter-opening spreads, fonts a little too large, lines set a little too far apart, or boxes which may or may not enclose information. The aesthetics of Dressing the Man outshine most educational publishers’ strongest design efforts, but a confusion of purpose remains: is this an analysis of the best men have worn, or a primer for those who need to know how a shirt works? Reaching for both audiences, the book generates a certain friction: experienced dressers will wonder why they’re opening fold-out sections showing which fabrics are which, while learners like myself will, buoyed by how nifty they find those fold-outs, proceed to mire themselves in a discussion of dinner jacket trousers versus full-dress trousers. (Something to do with stripes.) Flusser includes a glossary to help us find our way home, deepen the feeling of textbookishness though it may.

Hence my suggestion that the next edition be titled something like Permanent Fashion: Theory and Practice. Flusser introduces this concept, which should ring familiar to longtime Put This On followers, with an explanation born of a paradox. “Menswear has enjoyed three decades of unprecedented growth and freedom to configure and reconfigure the sartorial tastes of several generations,” he writes, “yet there are fewer genuinely well-dressed men now than before. There has been nothing permanent about recent fashion.” He roots his proposed alternative as deeply as possible in the era between the World Wars, noting that, despite the “considerable economic tumult for America,” this time produced, regardless of wealth or class, “the best-dressed generation in the twentieth century.” This opens the door to 21st-century man’s standard objection: he fears looking like an octogenarian on his way to a costume party. But the book’s images seem curated to dispel just these reservations; who, even today, would laugh a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or a Leslie Howard out of the room? (Even the Howard wearing an unflatteringly narrow collar in a photo Flusser uses as a negative example commands respect.)

We could draw our aesthetic ideals from worse times than the one when Astaire and the Duke of Windsor stood astride the world. Not only did they take pains with what they wore and how they wore it — Astaire to the point that he could wear a necktie as a belt, the Duke to the point that he could combine five different patterns and introduce suede shoes to the American continent — but neither were particular Adonises. Dressing the Man does contain gloriously composed shots of the Cary Grants and Gary Coopers of the world, but there’s infinitely more instruction in the way that, balanced by the elegance and distinctiveness of their dress, the royal’s befuddledness and the dancer’s goofiness don’t count against them. For those still unconvinced, Flusser includes the likes of Jean Cocteau and the current Prince of Wales, eccentrics who, in their immaculate and intricately personal habiliment, surely transcend mere handsomeness.

“How is it that after almost three decades of unprecedented fashion consumption, so few capable practitioners of this masculine art form have been bred?” Flusser asks. “If dressing well were simply a matter of donning the latest designer duds or owning an expensive wardrobe, fashion nabobs would be in abundance. My quick response is that learning how to dress well is much like trying to build a classically beautiful place to live. No amount of professional decoration or priceless furnishings will ultimately make much of a difference if the floors or walls that they are to adorn rest on a shaky foundation.” Safest, then, to build that foundation according to long-standing principles than to those dreamed up last Fashion Week. This notion’s strongest distillation comes in a Brooks Brothers quote in the glossary: “Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.”

This steady-handed, unreconstructed rigor should comfort even the Palo Alto tech worker worried about showing up to the startup dressed for fox-hunting. That man should only skim the late chapter when Flusser ventures into the free-for-all of post-Bubble “business casual.” Writing in 2002, Flusser avoids even acknowledging the era’s squarest-toed excesses, but it’s tough to imagine the suggested near-monochromatic combination of severely buttoned polo shirt and corduroy jacket standing the test of time. Dressing the Man's value lies in its Platonic-sounding axioms of cut, fit, and color, especially as regards harmonizing your wardrobe's coloring with your own. “As a medium-contrast complexion, Trevor enjoys the most latitude of any type…” Maybe that's what I'd rather not read in public. But then, the ladies have understood and expertly exploited this sort of knowledge for centuries. We've got to catch up however we can.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall. To buy Dressing the Man, you can find the best prices at DealOz

Please Welcome Colin Marshall!
I’m pleased to announce that we have a new contributor here at Put This On. 
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes about various cultural issues on his blog. In the past, he’s hosted and produced Barely Literate, a podcast book club, as well as The Marketplace of Ideas. He will be contributing book reviews here every once in a while, and the first review, which is on Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man, will be published later today. 
Colin is a wonderful and engaging writer, and we couldn’t be happier to have him onboard!
* Photo taken from JohnsNotHere

Please Welcome Colin Marshall!

I’m pleased to announce that we have a new contributor here at Put This On. 

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes about various cultural issues on his blog. In the past, he’s hosted and produced Barely Literate, a podcast book club, as well as The Marketplace of IdeasHe will be contributing book reviews here every once in a while, and the first review, which is on Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man, will be published later today. 

Colin is a wonderful and engaging writer, and we couldn’t be happier to have him onboard!

* Photo taken from JohnsNotHere