Colin Marshall on Men’s Style Books: Adolf Loos, Why a Man Should Be Well-Dressed


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

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; 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy Preppy, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy the Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style , you can find the best prices at DealOz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy 100 Years of Menswear, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

Colin Marshall on menswear books: The Suit by Nicholas Antongiavanni

image“The end is nigh,” tweeted an aphorist I admire, “for all books must now bear the explanatory subtitle — the mark of the beast.” The Suit’s title bears not just that mark, but one of interference before the colon as well. The author wanted to title his book The Dandy; his publisher, afraid that wouldn’t sell, proposed The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, which suggests a manual on how to manipulate the corporate world through dress. This puts Machiavelli in a misleading light, but the term Machiavellian sees such misuse that the assumption comes naturally. However, in Nicholas Antongiavanni we have a serious appreciator of Machiavelli as well as menswear. He meant to have his original title reference The Prince, and just as Machiavelli advises a prince, Antongiavanni advises a dandy, “the enemy of the splendiferous and the effeminate” who favors “simple clothes, pristine in cut, immaculate in fit [ … ] never ostentatious, always manly.”

Alas, we live in a time of few princes, and nearly as few dandies. Prince Charles counts as both, and Antongiavanni makes a case study out of him more than once. He also draws lessons from the dress of American newscasters and presidents. “Brokaw is the most elegant,” he observes of the former group. “Rather’s clothes fit well, but he is so slavish in aping his hero Edward R. Murrow — even patronizing the same Savile Row tailor — that he cannot be said to have any style of his own.” President Johnson, envious of Kennedy, “sought out a London tailor whom he told to make him ‘look like a British diplomat.’” Of Carter, Antongiavanni writes only that “it is one thing to wear Hawaiian shirts in Key West or jeans and cowboy boots when splitting wood, and another to address the people from the Oval Office in a sweater.”

If you haven’t opened The Prince since school, you may have forgotten how closely Machiavelli tracks the rise and fall of the rulers of his age. In our own, Antongiavanni tracks that of television personalities. Newscasters’ jobs demand deliberate dress, and our political leaders, whether elected or royal, act as media figures in essentially the same mode. David Letterman favors a versatile form of double-breasted jacket, but one that is “difficult to tailor, and thus no longer favored by the industry.” Alex Trebek also wears double-breasted jackets, yet “acquires his clothes through a promotional deal with a third-rate manufacturer.” Other “eminent men, such as Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jon Stewart and Matt Lauer, have shown that it is possible to dress fashionably without getting carried away.” Coming to Conan O’Brien’s lack of not just double-breasted jackets, but pocket squares, patterns, or even stripes, Antongiavanni remarks that “people expect those with more money, more fame, and more delightful jobs than themselves to be more stylish; and when they are not, they do not respect them, for they consider that so much opportunity to cut loose has been squandered.”

This examination of men onscreen, though thorough and illuminating, reflects sadly on our time. Antongiavanni advises early on that “a prudent man should always enter upon the paths beaten by great dressers, and imitate those who have been most excellent.” Yet coming of age in modern America, one sees such models only from afar, usually by looking deep into the past. “The most difficult circumstance of all is the dearth of first-rate dandies in the public eye,” Antongiavanni admits. “In having no examples to follow, men are less able to learn how to dress well.” He indicts those who have come to justify their slovenliness “with the pious demand that they be judged not by how they dress but for ‘who they are.’” My own homeland of California comes in for richly deserved scorn as Antongiavanni considers the blue blazer with khakis: “Because that state is so informal, the men there think that all a shirt needs to make it formal is a collar, and a jacket with lapels is well nigh black tie [ … ] when they hear the world ‘formal,’ they automatically reach for their blazer and khakis, the pinnacle of their wardrobe.”

The title The Suit at least conveys one major element of Antongiavanni’s perspective: he cares almost solely about the uniform, though one with infinite possible variations, of a jacket, matching pants, and a necktie. He may wax elegiac about this ensemble’s inevitable disappearance, but he insists it remains the most elegant, versatile form of men’s dress available. Despite residing in sartorially inept California, I can’t argue with that, especially after reading his prose which, like that of The Prince, permits no counter-argument. Nobody wants to read 195 pages of irrefutable commandments, but remember that even Machiavelli hinted that he didn’t take himself all that seriously. Antongiavanni’s homage to the sixteenth-century Italian extends there and beyond. He takes a Machiavellian approach to men’s style not in the Wall Street sense of dandyishly backstabbing your way to the top, but of discovering the principles of men’s style with the same rhetorical methods Machiavelli used. The book takes on Machiavelli’s form, not his sensibility. Still, Antongiavanni doesn’t ignore Wall Street entirely, and in fact recommends the film. “Though you should only imitate [Michael Douglas’ Gordon] Gekko,” he cautions, “because the other characters are either too fashionable or too drab.”

Gordon Gekko may be a fictitious dresser, but so is Antongiavanni. This alter ego of a speechwriter named Michael Anton (with whom you can read an interview here) provides the humble but immaculately dressed writer a far less humble persona to heighten the flamboyance, force, and finality of his stylistic pronouncements. It also lets him pull off chapter titles like “Of Those Things for Which Men and Especially Dandies Are Praised or Blamed” and “How Men of Superfluous Girth May Minimize Their Appearance.” As a Put This On reader, you no doubt think about, and indeed wear, casual clothes more often than formal suits, so know that many of The Suit's principles apply to every respectable class of clothing and the cultivation of style within them. Anton/Antongiavanni proves especially astute on maximizing your wardrobe's combinatorial possibilities: “The well-dressed man never buys any garments that can be worn only with one or a few of his other garments, and holds in contempt pre-assembled combinations. Everything you buy should be wearable with most everything you already own.” This goes all the way down to jeans and T-shirts, as Anton would surely admit — and Antongiavanni surely wouldn't.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy The Suit, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

Colin Marshall on menswear books: ABC of Men’s Fashion by Hardy Amies

imageWhether in its original 1964 Newnes edition or its handsome 2007 Abrams reissue, ABC of Men’s Fashion strikes an elegant balance between authority and personality. Despite taking a more compact shape than an encyclopedia (128 small-format pages, to be precise), it does take an encyclopedic form. Beginning with a brief explanation of “Accessories”, Amies ends, several hundred elements of male dress later, with a plea for acceptance of the newly popular “Zip fasteners”. 21st-century Americans will recognize these, assuming their universality hasn’t yet turned them effectively invisible, as zippers. “Few people know how they work,” Amies notes, “and many are still therefore wrongly suspicious of them.” There we have a very late hint that this book may not exactly hold a flat, clear mirror to modern sartorial thought. Its neatly arranged entries and sober illustrations suggest unimpeachable objectivity; its text delivers one man’s opinion, and it does so without shame.

But as opinions go, especially those held in the England of fifty years ago, we could do far worse than those of a man who founded a respected label in his own name, dressed Queen Elizabeth II (for whatever relevance that may have to menswear), and spent the Second World War arranging the assassinations of Nazi sympathizers. “The snobbism for which he was famous was primarily an act disguising a much more complicated mixture of vanity, humor, and pragmatism combined with social, creative, and commercial ambition,” writes Ian Garlant in his 2007 introduction. Yet from my 21st-century readerly perspective, Amies’ book displays negligible snobbism, genuine or invented. “All short sleeve shirts look ghastly,” Amies writes on holiday wear. “Sandals are hell, except on the beach where you want to take them off: or on a boat. And, worn with socks are super hell.” These today come off less as judgments than statements of fact, if exaggerated fact.

We might say that, in style as in the war, Amies emerged on the right side of history. He repeatedly expresses his iron conviction that the then-recently introduced elastic-sided Chelsea boot has come to stay, and, observing male hairstyles, ventures that “the very fashionable young man in ten years’ time” — that is, by the maximally hirsute year of 1974 — “may be wearing quite remarkably long hair.” Then again, he also believes boots will attain such a parity with shoes in general that the well turned-out young man will tuck pants into boots as a matter of course. (You can behold this droog-ish look, complete with bowler hat, in the book’s center photo pages.) But so many of Amies’ stylistic assessments hold up today that his contemporary asides, when they come, can sound jarringly quaint. He concludes the hair section as follows: “It is going to be fascinating to see what the Beatles look like when they are thirty.”

As many of Amies’ stylistic attitudes as time has vindicated, some readers may wonder if they should work themselves up over what we might call his social attitudes. Turn to “Ironing”, and you find yourself redirected: “See Drip-dry, Pressing, and a good woman.” This division of household labor has spent most of the past half-century on a downward swing, but then again, so have hats, and Amies spills a fair bit of ink over their correct usage and maintenance. Either tendency only has one danger: that it might move the nervous reader, or the one still building their base of menswear knowledge, to dismiss the book entirely, throwing a promising baby out with the splash of bathwater. Worse, in rejecting Amies’ opinions, they may then declare all of men’s style one big matter of opinion, a vast field of equally valid possibilities answerable to no aesthetic, practical, or historical standards. On this ground, charges of snobbism fly with reckless abandon, though they speak more to the insecurity of the accuser than to anything at all about the accused.

We should value Amies’ fearlessness in the face of the snob label, which lets him baldly state what other menswear writers feel they can only suggest. “You cannot substitute economy for quality,” he declares, “because they are synonymous.” We all know (or at least suspect), and some of us say, that, with its greater durability, versatility, and immunity from trends, the more expensive garment usually makes for considerable long-run savings over its shorter-lived downmarket cousin. But Amies makes the point directly, and several times over: when in doubt, and even when not, pay more. “So far as judgment is concerned, in men’s wear you can usually with confidence go by price.” Think back to adolescence, and perhaps you remember certain family members advising you never to buy a known brand, since you would just “pay for the name.” Amies’ reply: “Of course you pay for the name: but there is no way to make the name except by fair trading.”

Yet keep thinking of adolescence, and if you did your learning properly, you feel the distant burn of having bought a cheaply made but dearly priced item in the name of fashion. (My generation still smarts from the square-toed shoe fiasco of just over a decade ago.) Amies’ advice thus applies only to menswear of classic, time-resistant style, and then works better for the clothes you have made than the clothes you buy off the rack. In these contexts, the words that stay at the top of my mind come in Amies’ section on, of all things, gloves: “As with all such accessories to dress, expensive plainness must be sought. As with men’s suits, these attributes are achieved by cutting superbly the best material.” Much of the rest of ABC of Men’s Fashion provides the information you need to begin discerning one cut or one material from another, an obviously essential skill in the pursuit of the right kind of expensive plainness. (Savvy menswear shoppers can substitute some of the outlay of money for an outlay of time.) The word “expensive,” which might strike you as unfortunate, seems simply unfashionable; that is, frowned upon, but only at the moment. Despite spending his life in the business of fashion and writing a book with Fashion in the title, Amies can’t hide his deeper interest in the forever wearable, whatever price it may command.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy ABC of Men’s Fashion, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall. To buy Off the Cuff, you can find the best prices at DealOz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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