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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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