|—||Benjamin Disraeli, Vivian Grey|
Thackeray liked to call the Regency dandy the “genlmn”, and to admire in his place the new Victorian “gentleman”. Neither species is to be confused with The Gent, an obnoxious specimen of town life that flourished on the London streets in the 1830s and 1840s, to the amusement and indignation of his contemporaries. “The Gent” was a label pasted on young men at the very bottom of the respectable class, the scrubby clerks, apprentices and medical students who scraped along in the backwaters of London on less than 50 pounds a year, calling themselves (hopefully) “gents” and their betters (admiringly) “swells”. The Gent was a creature of once-a-month sprees and splurges, of false fronts to calico shirts, of phony jewellery, half-price tickets to the theatre, greasy hair and dirty ears….
The Gents thrived on the disreputable new ready-to-wear clothing shops of early Victorian London. These shops provided their clothes and also, often, their livelihood: the most commonly caricatured breed of Gent was the haberdasher’s or linen draper’s clerk….To flatter the Gent’s snobbery the cheap tailors called their fashions after aristocrats and dandies: the “Chesterfield” great-coat; the “Byron tie”….”If the things are not dignified by these terms,” wrote a contemporary authority, “the Gent does not think much of them.”
|—||The Dandy, by Ellen Moers|
BAD TIES - A SHAKESPEAREAN TAXONOMY
It’s easy to pick a good tie, yet few people do it. This is usually because they think a good tie is “boring” or doesn’t “show their personality.” Good ties are not conversation starters.
But if you’re wondering if in your search for more expressive neckwear you have landed upon a “bad tie,” ask yourself if it falls into one of these four categories.
If you got a tie in this category, you (probably) at least did it on purpose. Not that that’s really an excuse. Unless you’re an actual professional comedian in the middle of performing, you probably don’t want people to laugh as soon as they look at you. But the worst part is that 15 seconds later after the joke has worn off, you’re still wearing that tie.
Book Review: The Best Dressed Man in the Room
Classic menswear is constantly at war with itself over how conspicuous a well-dressed man’s clothes should be. The root of this argument is Beau Brummell’s famous quote that “If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed.” This from a man whose every thread and fold were minutely examined by every man in London. The sincerity of Brummell’s quote notwithstanding, the spirit of it - that a man’s dress should play a supporting role in his presentation of himself, yielding the leading role to either the man himself or his date - holds considerable power over the male sex’s natural tendency towards peacockery in the animal kingdom.
Which is what makes it so interesting to me to see the same tension, for different reasons, in gangster dress in Dan Flores' The Best Dressed Man in the Room, available in both hardcover and eBook. These extensive (and, so far as I know, previously unavailable, or at least uncollected) photographs show a group of men with a legal interest in dressing to camouflage themselves among the poor working saps around them, but with the class-anxious businessman’s urge to display personal superiority and financial success. These guys are dressing with a chip on their shoulder, which they try to disguise with a well-formed shoulder pad.
America seems to have an unending fascination with organized crime. For some perhaps it’s the Scarface-style machine gun orgies that are the real attraction, but I think the deeper resonance is with the supposed honor among these thieves - a code (The Wire's Omar Little - another honorable thief - lived with the maxim, “a man's gotta have a code”) somehow more dignified and ancient than the rules we live by in a capitalist democracy. It's a mirage, of course. These were brutal men who made name and fortune for themselves killing people, innocent or otherwise, intimidating others, and stealing whatever they could get their hands on. But their gorgeous clothes are part of what make you wonder.
The book title comes, tellingly, not from an admirer of the criminal underworld, but from Police Chief Lewis Valentine:
Look at him…He’s the best dressed man in the room…When you meet men like Strauss, draw quickly and shoot accurately…Blood should be smeared all over that velvet collar.
He is telling his troops not to be captivated and tricked by the gangster’s costume. That such a forceful speech was required speaks to the power these clothes had.
Today in the United States, thankfully we know this milieu best through its fictional representations, most famously in The Godfather, but in countless films since, and most recently in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a show which demonstrates a corollary of Brummell’s thesis, that costuming without screenplay is an expensive way to produce something worth seeing at the very most an hour every Sunday. But the academic in me is grateful for an opportunity to go straight to source materials, which this book allows more than any other of which I am aware.
I have amused myself more than once since reading the book what these characters might have thought of a book about their clothing published some 80 years after their hey-day. Some of the photos appear poised to jump off the page to administer a firm beating if you examine their jacket a little too closely. But I think the gangsters might be unsurprised, and perhaps even satisfied, that their wardrobes remain celebrated. These men were brutal, but clever. They understood what it means to project an image. They are still projecting it to us today, long after their misdeeds are through, in black and white photos, some faded enough that their hands almost look clean.
*This review also ran on Styleforum. Thanks to Dan Flores for showing me the book and sharing these images.
Your Monday morning reminder…
THREE FREE WAYS TO LOOK BETTER IMMEDIATELY
by David Isle
Looking around style blogs and forums, you may find yourself coveting tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothing. The most beautiful pieces do tend to be the most expensive. While you’re saving for your next glorious conquests, here are three things that you can do in the next ten minutes that will make you look better at a cost of zero.
Stand Up Straight: Look in a mirror, change your posture from that hunched-over pout to a proud upright stance, and watch the pounds melt away. Many before-and-after shots in weight loss commercials are just the same individual photographed ten minutes apart with different lighting and posture.
Not only will you look better, your back will be healthier. Take out your keys. Hold one of them by the tip, parallel to the ground. Feel all that tension? Imagine if your keys weighed ten pounds like your head. That’s the stress you’re putting on your back when you hold your head in front of your body, as you likely will if you are standing with a curved back and hunched shoulders. Now turn the key so that it’s held straight up, perpendicular to the ground. Notice how much easier everything is to hold now? That’s the favor you do to your body when you balance your head on top of your spine.
Maintain Impeccable Personal Hygiene: Clip and clean your fingernails and toenails. In your bathroom. Not on the subway.
If your facial hair looks dumb when it grows in, shave. If you’re wondering if your facial hair looks dumb, it looks dumb. Shave it off.
Empty Your Pockets: You spend time and money to get clothes that fit you. Don’t ruin the silhouette by stuffing your pockets with a smartphone encased in military armor, a George Costanza wallet, Power Rangers keychain with keys to open every lock you’ve ever touched since your first piggybank, two hopeful condoms that expired in 2008, all three Swiss Army knives you were given for Christmas last year, and an emergency tin of vienna sausages. Carry a bag for all your crap or leave it at home.
I’ll admit there is something enviably defiant about spending huge amounts of money on clothing and still managing to look terrible. I understand that some parts of the internet call this “sprezzatura.” But if you don’t mind looking good, stand tall, clean up, and pack light.
Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price…How Does it Work?
If you’ve ever bought anything, you’ve dealt with a “manufacturer suggested retail price.” If you’re like me, you might have wondered, why does the manufacturer suggest a price to the retailer? And why would the retailer care about this suggestion? The answer is that the manufacturer is giving retailers both a coordinating device and an enforcement mechanism; they tell retailers how to work together for everyone’s benefit (except the consumer), and punish those that don’t go along with the plan.
Consider a situation where a manufacturer named Moe doesn’t suggest any price to retailers. It just sells steez to retailers at a price of w per unit of steez (in what units is steez measured? fuck yeahs? fucks not given? selfies?), with which retailers can then do whatever they please. Suppose there are two retailers, Curly and Larry.
Now suppose that Larry decides to sell steez at some price p that is strictly greater than w. What should Curly do? He could charge a price greater than p, but he wouldn’t sell very much as everyone would just buy from Larry instead. He could sell at exactly p and share the market with Larry - since they’re both selling at a price above w, they’re both making some money. That seems better for Curly than making nothing by charging a price higher than Larry’s.
But Curly could also charge a price lower than p. Even just a little bit lower than p will be enough to get a lot more business, because Curly would then be selling at the lowest price. Even though he’d be making a bit less money per sale, Curly will still make more money charging this lower price than charging p, because of all the additional units he’ll sell. So given Larry’s strategy of charging p > w, Curly’s best move is to charge some price less than p but greater than w.
But wait, there’s more. Now Larry faces the same incentives Curly did, and will again be best off by undercutting Curly. This will continue until they’re both charging w, leaving them with no profit.
Clearly they’d both be better off if they could somehow both commit to charging some p > w. The problem is each one has a constant incentive to undercut the other. How to solve this dilemma? At the beginning of each season when they’re both selling new steez, even if they wanted to collude, how would they even know what price to charge so that neither is undercutting the other? Even in a world where these sorts of conversations between retailers were not illegal, it’s a difficult and costly coordination problem, especially when there are more retailers than just two.
Manufacturer to the rescue. The manufacturer solves the problem of which price to charge by “suggesting” a price. It also enforces cooperation of all retailers by punishing price undercutting. Punishments can range from a stern talking-to to a refusal to sell any more product to that retailer.
But why would a manufacturer like Moe be willing to take on this responsibility for the benefit of retailers? First, because Moe might himself also have a retail operation. But even if not, if Curly and Larry are making more money by paying w and charging p, the Moe can extract at least some of this profit by raising w.
But note that each retailer’s incentive to sell at a lower price than p has not disappeared. If they could keep the manufacturer from finding out about it, they’d still like to get more business by selling at a lower price. And in fact, most retailers try to do this, but in ways that aren’t as transparent to the enforcing manufacturer. They might, for instance, offer free shipping, a storewide discount, free smaller items with larger purchases, or other “perks” such as outstanding customer service. Anything that the customer will value but the manufacturer can’t cite as a clear defection from the MSRP.
So the next time you’re in a shop and you see something you think is too freaking expensive, know that the store owner would probably like to sell it to you for cheaper if he could.
Allan Gurganus is the best-selling author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the most stylish man that I know. His new book, Local Souls, has already earned celebratory reviews from the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, as well as dailies across the country.
Allan is currently on tour (San Francisco tonight and tomorrow). If you are wise enough to go to a reading, you might hear him describe one of the characters in the lead novella, “Fear Not” in an act of sartorial camouflage - “Seeing his poorer buddy wear a mended tweed jacket, Dennis had his father’s seamstress patch a brand-new blazer of his own.”
My interview with one of America’s great working writers, a man as articulate in his personal style as in his writing style. Go to one of his readings, you won’t regret it.
Ville Raivio and Bruce Boyer at Keikari are the latest to worry about the commercialization of menswear blogging. I understand the concern. But show me someone who writes well on style and I’ll show you someone who is getting paid to do it, someone who is selling stuff through their site, or someone who is Heavy Tweed Jacket. Of the sites Boyer cites towards the end of his interview as his favorites, all of them are a commercial enterprise at some level. We just have to accept that there aren’t many people who will produce good content for free when there are so many ways to get paid for it.
There was a time when writers and publishers could sell their content directly to consumers through subscriptions. This creates incentives between the reader and the publisher that are well-aligned, even if the publisher makes a little money by selling ads too. Witness the TV industry, where the subscription model at HBO results in a lot of content that viewers enjoy watching.
That model doesn’t work for online publishing. Huge sites like the New York Times might end up being able to get away with charging a subscription fee and turn a profit, but this is not a viable strategy for almost anyone else, much less any style blogs or sites. The remaining avenues to make money are to sell ads or sell stuff. Both create a conflict of interest between the writer and his readers.
That does not mean, however, that sponsored content has no value.* On the contrary, the first style blog I ever started reading, and which I continue to read, was A Suitable Wardrobe, which also has a store. A lot of Will’s posts have led me to buy items from his store, which I wear often and enjoy. So he’s been a good salesman.
But a good salesman is not a con artist. He is in fact a very valuable person to have around - the kind of person that used to make a good career working in the men’s section of nice department stores, but is very rare today. He doesn’t just say, “omg looks amazing! Great color on you!” every time you try something on. He tells you how something is made, why it’s better than something else, in what environments and with what other items the garment should be worn, and generally gives you a greater appreciation of whatever he’s showing you, so that you’ll enjoy owning it more. He helps you find things that will make you happy.
It’s true that there are bloggers and magazines that are just shills. Your defense as a consumer is to try to listen to what, specifically, someone is trying to tell you about an item, and whether that means anything to you or not. Read articles and blogs you find interesting, not just ones with fancy graphics. Then buy stuff that you like. If you trust a brand or a blog over your own taste, then you are asking to be screwed.
*This is the point where I disclose all my various incentives. I recently started writing for A Suitable Wardrobe, after years as an avid reader and customer of the site. I also write for No Man Walks Alone, and again have probably pre-ordered half the store. I write for those sites because I believe in what they’re doing. I’ve also traveled to Pitti and the UK on behalf of Styleforum. Likewise in that case, I was a member of the site long before doing stories for them. On a couple of occasions, if a brand has really liked an article, they have sent me something after it was published. Justin at the Shoe Snob did give me a pair of his shoes to try out, but told me twice as he gave them to me to review them honestly, which I did. I’ve also been interviewed by Keikari, and own two of Bruce Boyer’s books. I have never received any compensation for articles that have run only on this blog.
Good fortune recently presented me with the opportunity to have some shirts made in zendaline, a lightweight cotton with the powdery white glow of an after dinner mint, yet without the transparency of most voiles. I got a little carried away and ordered 5, thinking that this would be enough to last me until I die or my necksize changes, whichever one comes first. Since they’re all white and the fabric has a smooth hand and crisp finish, I ordered most of them with single cuffs.
Single cuffs are a rare, outdated, formal cuff style, which is like a clothing detail’s mating dance for my attention. Unlike the buttoned barrel cuff, where the side of the cuff with the button passes under the other side before the button is pulled through, single cuffs “kiss” the undersides of the cuff fabric together, with the link then passing through the holes on each side. It looks cleaner and simpler than the double cuff, which needlessly folds back an extended cuff onto itself, requiring a link to pass through four holes in order to emerge on the other side. Their formality of the single cuff comes from this simplicity, and the fact that they are considered the only correct cuff style for white tie.
Since the cuff link that joins a single cuff has fewer layers layers of fabric to penetrate, links designed for French cuffs, such as the blue ones with the swivel back above, can sometimes leave them too loose. Far better, I find, are snap links, such as those on the left. They aren’t made much any more, but you can find reasonably nice and affordable vintage ones on eBay and Etsy shops. I like to keep my links clean and simple; I only wear white shirts at night or quite formal occasions, when black, white, and silver are preferable to more radiant gemstones.
Black and white snap backs into single cuffs are my ideal choice for a white dress shirt. At first glance the cuff looks like any other, but it’s just different enough to attract the interest of the careful observer, and reward his attentions with an echo of Victorian propriety.
Huntsman house tweeds. My full story on Huntsman here.