From choosing the right pair of eyeglasses to properly coordinating a shirt, tie, and pocket square, getting dressed is an art to be mastered. Yet, how many of us just throw on, well, whatever each morning? How many understand the subtleties of selecting the right pair of socks or the most compatible patterns of our various garments—much less the history, imperatives, and importance of our choices?
In True Style, acclaimed fashion expert G. Bruce Boyer provides a crisp, indispensable primer for this daily ritual, cataloguing the essential elements of the male wardrobe and showing how best to employ them. In witty, stylish prose, Boyer breezes through classic items and traditions in menswear, detailing the evolution and best uses of fabrics like denim and linen, accoutrements like neckties and eyeglasses, and principles for combining patterns, colors, and textures. He enlightens readers about acceptable circumstances for donning a turtleneck, declaims the evils of wearing dress shoes without socks, and trumpets the virtues of sprezzatura, the artistry of concealing effort beneath a cloak of nonchalance.
With a gentle yet firm approach to the rules of dressing and an incredible working knowledge of the different items, styles, and principles of menswear, Boyer provides essential wardrobe guidance for the discriminating gentleman, explaining what true style looks like—and why.
The Elements of Style
The problem with dandyism is that one can easily end up looking like an overdressed Easter egg.
By HENRIK BERING
Oct. 2, 2015 4:24 p.m. ET
In my wardrobe, a few of my grandfather’s belongings from the late 1920s still survive: his ankle-length touring greatcoat made of thick herringbone tweed lined with fur, his officer’s dress cape with its golden service buckle, his pith helmet, and his white tie and tails, exquisitely tailored and still perfectly usable. Sadly lost in the intervening years was his sword stick, from a Paris outfit specializing in such exotic accessories, as well as his leather suitcases, with their destination labels: Rome, Menton, St. Moritz, Cairo. But the black-and-white photos of him in these locations suggest an infinitely more stylish age.
Where fashion was once dictated from the top down, it now rises from the street up. But as G. Bruce Boyer shows in “True Style,” islands of elegance still survive. As the author warns, the book is not a manual that will tell the reader how to figure out the shirtfront for his tux or tie a Windsor knot. Such elementary knowledge is taken as a given. Rather, it is a cheerful attempt to define the underlying principles for dressing well, while at the same time providing some of the history behind what we wear.
Mr. Boyer, a former editor at Town & Country, goes for timeless elegance, a combination of “ease and charm and tradition.” Not for him the arbitrary dictates of the fashionistas, as when some designer at Yves Saint Laurent decrees that suits should be so tight-fitting and the jackets so short that they make an adult man look like Pee-wee Herman. Or when a shoe firm suddenly decides that men’s shoes should be so long and pointy that they start to curl upward like something worn by a tax collector in the Ottoman Empire.
Rather, Mr. Boyer’s hero is the renaissance author Baldasar Castiglione, who in the “Book of the Courtier” (1528) introduced the concept of sprezzatura, advising his reader “to steer away from affectation at all costs, as if it were a dangerous reef, and to preach in all things a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”
But the word sprezzatura conveys more than mere thoughtless spontaneity, notes Mr. Boyer: it is “a matter of reaching for perfection, while cultivating the impression of never having given it thought.” By holding back, it “implies greatness unseen, . . . a strength held in reserve.” Thus the general mistake of the nouveaux riches is that they tend to put it all on display. The impulse, Mr. Boyer suggests, is akin to the owners of the French formal garden that was designed, in the supposed words of the playwright George S. Kaufman, “to show what God could have done if He’d have had money.” By contrast, an English garden appears subtle and natural. So should the way we dress.
The classic example of sprezzatura is afforded by the Regency buck Beau Brummell, who discarded the standard court get-up of wig, jeweled waistcoat and knee breeches in favor of a more natural and understated look. As the arbiter of taste, notes Mr. Boyer, he would spend hours arranging his neckcloth to achieve the right degree of “corrugated dishabille” before venturing out. Once a visitor dropped by Brummell’s place and saw cravats scattered everywhere. Asked what was going on, Brummell’s valet responded, “Oh, Sir, those are our failures.”
According to Brummell’s contemporaneous biographer, Capt. William Jesse, his subject “shunned all external peculiarity and trusted alone that ease and grace of manner which he possessed to a remarkable degree. His chief aim was to avoid anything marked.”
The problem with the dandy, a figure whom Max Beerbohm defined as “a painter whose canvas was himself,” is that not everybody possesses Brummell’s restraint: One can easily end up looking like an overdressed Easter egg or a rare and extremely poisonous tropical flower. “Your clothes should not in themselves be more memorable than you are,” notes Mr. Boyer. “Individuality should be in evidence quietly.” This is what marks the difference between the gentleman and the poseur.
Mr. Boyer’s own preference is for a slightly faded elegance, “the mildly rumpled” rather than “the new and shiny.” As Nancy Mitford put it, “All nice rooms are a bit shabby.” For daily wear, Mr. Boyer is fond of the Ivy style, a “uniquely American look” developed on campuses whose golden age ran from 1945 to 1965 and that re-emerged as the neo-preppy style of the 1980s. Which is fine, provided the wearer does not become too tweedily professorial or too youthfully preppy. Clothes should never become a theatrical costume.
As regards neckwear on formal occasions, Mr. Boyer regrets today’s penchant for ditching the tie in the name of comfort and greater approachability. From politicians holding high office and from certain professions, such as bankers and lawyers, he reminds us, we do require a certain gravitas. Besides, an open shirt front has the added disadvantage of exposing turkey wattles when men get older.
For semiformal occasions, where a tie is too much and polo shirt too little, Mr. Boyer goes to bat for the ascot tie. As he notes, some men avoid it for fear that they cannot live up to its aristocratic associations, but if you watch movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s with Michael Caine, Alain Delon, Dirk Bogarde, Marcello Mastroianni and Edward Fox, you will see that it was quite popular. He is less keen on turtleneck sweaters at cocktail parties, which, paired with double-breasted blazers, tend to make wearers look like “extras between takes of ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ ”
On the question of socks, Mr. Boyer seems to break his own cardinal rule that a clothes item should not be allowed to direct attention away from the wearer by endorsing socks with playful motifs such as pink flamingos or skulls and bones. I’m afraid this reviewer’s sense of humor does not extend to socks. He accepts bare feet in loafers in hot climates—and why not?—but rightly condemns as downright evil sockless feet in wing tips or with suits.
My only reservation about Mr. Boyer’s overall message is the degree of hard work that seems to be involved in achieving an appearance of effortlessness and the constant concern with the impression you make on your surroundings. Over the years, dressing tastefully should become second nature—intuitive. And if you are reasonably self-confident, you should not worry overmuch about what others think.
In the book, a young Noël Coward provides a splendid example of a quick recovery from a faux pas: Arriving for his first meeting at the fancy literary Tomorrow Club wearing evening dress, he found himself facing a phalanx of members wearing day clothes. After a brief silence, Coward exclaimed: “I don’t want anybody to feel embarrassed.” Now, that’s self-confidence.
—Mr. Bering is a journalist and critic.
AN INTERVIEW WITH G. BRUCE BOYER
By Derek Guy
Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man is popularly considered to be the book to read if you’re interested in classic men’s clothing. For the regular forumite, however, a lot of the stuff in there might be old hat (especially if you spend your time debating how to fold pocket squares). Better, I think, are Bruce Boyer’s Elegance, Eminently Suitable, and the recently published True Style. Bruce is arguably the best menswear writer of our time. Mixing historical insight with practical advice, he ties social history with changes in men’s dress, and gives some useful guidelines on how to wear tailored clothing in today’s casual age.
For our upcoming StyleForum x A&H Magazine trunk show, Bruce Boyer will be joining us to sign copies of his new book True Style (which will be available for sale at the show). He sat down with us last week to share some of his thoughts on men’s style.
I’ve always admired your ability to gently suggest rules to your readers without seeming overly rigid or dogmatic. Do you feel rules are necessary for developing good taste, or are they two separate things?
Most rules about dress turn out to be silly, because fashion, like sin, changes. With more classic or traditional tailored clothes, changes are less perceptible but is still influenced by fashion. So any rule becomes an exercise in futility. I've tried to suggest that the best way to fight the vagaries and vicissitudes of fashion is to develop your own style.
I'm not sure that taste is even a consideration, because taste is a concept related to class, as I think Roland Barthes pointed out in The Fashion System. Our tastes, as well as our biases, don't usually come rationally nor individually. But some people develop their own style quickly and then hold to it. Think about Woody Allen, a man who developed his style early on and has dressed pretty much the same his whole life. I would say his style is beyond taste, or that taste is not really the point.
I'm repulsed by anarchy, and believe it's always good to first learn what the rules are, whether it's for manners, writing, dressing, or any other aspect of civilized life. I think even the geniuses among us, those who construct their own worlds, first learn from the past before breaking away into the future. Lord Chesterfield said, "Dress is a foolish thing; and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed." Style is what happens when a person bends fashion to his personality.
Do you think it’s necessary to answer those existential questions when deciding on how to dress yourself? On the one hand, the most stylish men I know dress in a way that accords with their personality. On the other hand, fashion has this large element of fantasy, where it allows us to feel like the person we wish to be. Do you think men should stick to one style, or is it OK to dabble here and there as trends pass?
I think a person must have some sense of himself as an individual to develop style. Philosophically I believe we all come into the world tabula rasa, and we're left to invent ourselves as best we can. To name an obvious example, Cary Grant started off as Archibald Leach, a child from a lower-middle class family in Bristol, England. Consciously modeling himself on several successful, sophisticated celebrities, he eventually became the suave actor we recognize as Cary Grant. Of course he was smart enough to know his persona was consciously constructed, as he sometimes replied to strangers who said, "I wish I were Cary Grant", by saying, "Me too."
Many people simply take on the roles provided for them (by the media, retailers, designers, or whatever). But I find that usually men (and women too for that matter) of style develop "signatures," whether they be uniforms or little eccentricities that distinguish them. This happens because the sort of person with whom we associate style has studied himself sufficiently to understand what works for him and what doesn't. Or perhaps it's better to say what his attitude can carry.
What do you see as the future of tailored clothing? Formality has been declining for over a hundred years … and yet, there’s been this huge revival among younger consumers who are eager to dress up again. Will classic clothes remain for the foreseeable future, or will they eventually be subsumed by designers – living on only as reinterpretations?
If you look at the statistics, there doesn't seem to be much argument: the tailored wardrobe as it existed since the 1870s has been in retreat since the Great Depression of 1929. It is interesting that the suit is still with us in relatively the same form as it was in 1870. Almost 150 years is a pretty long run for a garment, and it still has its appeal. That it has some appeal with young men can easily be seen from the history of J. Crew, to name only an obvious example. J. Crew started off selling casual clothes, and now they stock dinner jackets.
My own theory, if I may call it that, is that tailored clothing now has its appeal precisely because it isn't a uniform anymore. Fewer and fewer men have to wear suits, so buying one becomes a very personal style choice, as well as something of an investment. Young men wear tailored clothing now because there's a "coolness" it that sort of an outfit, it's different and hip. And mature men like tailored clothes because that sort of outfit represents, symbolizes, success. Clothing, despite what people think, is not primarily about sexuality or protection. It's about status. I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood, and clothing-as-status was decidedly important. Any public occasion called for dressing up because dignity and respect were paramount to people who didn't have much in the way of material possessions.
It does feel like tailored clothing has stuck around because of its connotations with status. At the same time, so much nuance has been lost. A three-roll-two, hook vent sport coat doesn’t mean the same thing in 2015 as it did in the 1960s. You can’t infer anything about the wearer anymore. I’m reminded of an article in The Guardian, where the author says youth subcultures have lost their distinct uniforms. Everyone just dresses in this vaguely hip way now. Similarly, a lot of tailored clothing is morphing into this Italian-American style and we’re losing a lot of distinctions.
As a person who has written a lot about the semiotics of dress, what do you think of this shift?
There has been a shift in the semiotics of dress simply because everything now is international. In menswear this is Internationalism #2, because in the 1930s the English tailors of Savile Row provided the first wave of internationalism. I would agree with the journalist from The Guardian that many youth subcultures seem to have lost their distinct uniforms. This has always happened to a certain degree. Consumerism co-opts everything and the modern history of the arts is drowned in consumerism. Even social protest movements such as feminism, Black Power (see John Oliver Killens’ wonderfully funny novel The Cotillion: or, One Good Bull is Half the Herd), and homosexual rights have been co-opted by consumerism. The Eastern Establishment Elite style of dressing -- we called it "Ivy League" in the 50s -- became "Preppy" when commercial designers got a hold of it, and it changed from a lifestyle dress to a fashion trend. Even tradition is for sale; Downtown Abbey is not so much history as it is an industry.
Since the internet has now made us all global consumers, it's easy to believe that brands with strong regional roots will be co-opted too (think of Burberry, which used to be as English as fish and chips; and of course Brooks Brothers actually used to represent something stylistically). In a sense, this is what seems to have happened in places like Japan, where Western costumes mix together easily.
For a person trying to define himself this should theoretically mean that there are more choices, since a person sitting at home in Topeka, Kansas can shop anywhere in the world online. But on the other hand, it's more and more true that regardless of where you go, you find yourself in a place that mirrors an American mall: the same stores, the same fast food, the same fashions. Armani boutiques are ubiquitous. And what's the difference between a Starbucks in Paris and one in San Diego? Small, artisanal shops find it hard to survive, but I'm hoping that somehow the internet will become more of a help to these venues that cater to more individual tastes. It's very difficult because we're now accustomed to believing that the way to be somebody is to be like everybody else, to buy something that makes you like everybody else who's bought the same thing. Consumption, not individualism, is considered the moral good.
A friend of mine recently remarked that he’s only seen photos of you in tweed, flannel, and cavalry twills. What do you wear in the warmer months?
It's true that I'm mad about tweed and flannel, and would wear them all year 'round if I could stand the heat of a Mid-Atlantic summer. For warmer weather I prefer pure cottons and linens for trousers and jackets. Seersucker, poplin, and linen wrinkle badly, but I don't care and, in fact, think they look better when broken in. I must have a dozen pair of cotton khakis in various weights, mostly from Cordings because they still do a narrow leg with a high rise. I have a couple of tropical worsted suits, the most recent a DB by Leonard Logsdail. And I love linen sports jackets; I'd have one in every color if I could afford it. I think if clothes are well-made, you don't have to sacrifice comfort to looking decent.
I recently saw a photo of you on Jake Grantham's Instagram, where you were pictured in jeans, a navy jacket, and a floppy hat (which looked great, by the way). For our members who wear more casual attire, who made the items in that photo?
Jake took that photo of me after we had lunch one rainy summer day. I was wearing old jeans, and a dark blue linen safari jacket from The Armoury that had been made by Ascot Chang; it's become my favorite default summer jacket and I want to get that jacket in a few other colors. The hat is an old khaki cotton casual number from Lock Hatters. I like it because I can crumble it up in a ball, and stuff it in my pocket or bag when not wearing it.
Thanks for your time, Bruce. I'll end with the two most popular questions on the board: when is the next Brooks Brothers sale and do you have a TBS code I can use?
I probably won't make the next Brooks sale unless they have the French-back underwear on sale; that's about the only thing I buy at the store any more. What's a TBS code?