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.