Both Derek Guy and Ed Morel have commented recently on the deleterious effects of using staged photos from the Internet as inspiration for your own style. They both argue that what looks good on a model in a photo shoot online doesn’t always look good on you in the real world. Clothes in photographs are different from clothes in person.
This is a valid and important point to make. But I want to go even further and suggest that there is much more to style than clothes. The Internet, with its anonymous and bytified interactions, forces us to concentrate on arcane knowledge, amassed purchases, nifty bespoke ideas, clever combinations, and, indeed, well staged photos. Everyone is turned into a mannequin. While Derek and Ed argue that this is too reductionist because real people move around and inhabit social environments as opposed to shop windows and staged sets, I want to suggest that the more important abstraction is that real people talk, laugh, and listen. What people say and do comprises their style at least as much as their clothes, as well as affecting the stylishness of their clothes themselves.
Let us consider the original dandy Beau Brummell as an example. That his celebrity owed something to his sartorial success is evidenced by the immediate adoption of the forms of dress he originated, the pains his tailors took to gain and advertise his patronage, the book he wrote on clothes, and last but not least, the throng of young dandies that waited outside his apartment every morning in hopes of gaining that most highly valued of all dandified prizes, an invitation to Brummell’s dressing room to witness his cravat-tying methods first hand.
It is true that the Beau was considered very good looking, had magnificent taste in clothing, and spent hours every day preparing himself to perform his starring role in London’s social scene. But even all these qualities would not have vaulted him to the stylistic prominence he achieved had it not been for one other trait that was more important than any other: He was really funny.
This, not his clothes, was what first made him beloved by his classmates at Eton. Even in his later years, long after syphilis had deprived his body of its former glory and penury had decimated his wardrobe, he was still a valued dinner guest from Calais to Caen thanks to his entertaining stories and quick wit. Only when his venereal disease finally took his brain, too, did he then lose his style.
Nor did his sense of humor come by birth. It was sharpened in those formative years at Eton, largely by studying Latin and Greek. The dandy attitude of bemused indifference that Brummell affected and then popularized is a sort of bastardization of classical ideals. Many times in Brummell’s life, when berated by a higher ranking officer in the military, scolded by the Prince regent, or harangued by his creditors, he escaped the situation looking all the more elegant and stylish by delivering a well-timed bon mot.
I’d guess that a sense of humor is something that almost all truly stylish people have in common. The reason is that style, in clothing as well as generally, is a matter of manners. It’s about recognizing a social situation, your own place in it, the rules governing behavior in this situation, and shaking it up in just the right unexpected way, so that your fellow humans are titillated and energized but not quite offended. This is a very fine line, which is why so few people are really and truly stylish or funny.
To illustrate, let me take as example an episode from the early career of Brummell’s successor as London’s most celebrated dandy, the Count d’Orsay.
D’Orsay was invited to a dinner party at the house of an imperious but very socially influential older lady. He is given the honor of being seated next to the host. The host drops her napkin from her lap and asks the Count to pick it up and hand it to her. D’Orsay fulfills his duty cheerfully. Then the host does the same thing again. And again. And again. It becomes obvious she is doing this on purpose to make a point. Finally after another such incident, d’Orsay asks, “Wouldn’t it be better if I ate my dinner under the table, Madame, to be able to hand you your napkin more quickly?”
Everything is here. It’s cheerful. It’s funny. At the same time, it unveils the host’s petty intentions. It takes a situation where d’Orsay is being belittled and turns it around to make him a gallant knight. It’s a clear defense against the assault of the host, but not quite so brash as to be offensive. But ALMOST.
That’s style. And you won’t find it in a picture on the internet.
*Source on Brummell info: Beau Brummell by Ian Kelly. On d’Orsay: Nick Foulke’s Last of the Dandies.
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