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.