Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Dialectic Of Men’s Dress

This post was written for Parisian Gentleman.

Pitti-Uomo-83

We’ll start with a few questions:

1) When wearing a necktie, should the tail extend below the front?

2) Name one occasion when it would be appropriate to wear a dinner jacket with shorts.

3) On a three-button jacket, would you fasten the top, middle or bottom button?

4) You are wearing a dark blue double-breasted jacket, light blue tie, white shirt and black trousers. What colour of trainers would you choose to complement this outfit?

5) You leave home in the morning with a pair of sunglasses and gloves. Realising that there is rarely an occasion when you would need to wear both of these accessories together, do you:

a) Wear them anyway because they’re beautiful; who cares that it’s overcast and mild?

b) Place them in your top jacket pocket for all to see, ensuring that the arms of the glasses clearly display the brand logo?

c) Feel slightly embarrassed and place both accessories in a shopping bag, deep pocket or any concealed crevice so passers-by won’t notice that you are incapable of choosing seasonal-appropriate clothing.

 (Answers at the end)

Thirty years ago, I suspect that even the most dedicated followers of men’s fashion would have been hard pressed to conceive of some of these questions, let alone answer them. MODs, Punks and New Romantics were avant-garde and dressed ostentatiously, but their raiment communicated through a vestimentary vernacular that was relatively straightforward for (Western) people to understand and adopt. Questions one and three would not have posed difficulties for eighties style aficionados, although their answers would doubtless differ to those of contemporaries. Today, these five questions are conceivable – they all derive from real and recent sartorial observations – but they are no less difficult to answer. The reason for this is that men’s vestimentary vernacular has become infinitely more complex within the last three decades. Double-breasted jackets are now routinely worn with trainers and catwalk models wear dinner jackets with shorts; in the show that I am thinking of – Nuno Gama Spring/Summer 2014 – the models also wore motorbike helmets. The blades of neckties can hang well below the waistline; ties can also be worn over pullovers.

photo 5

 

Styles that were once separated by chronology, geography and culture are now blended within a single man’s outfit, sometimes seamlessly; on other occasions, to create a deliberate clash. But even this observation, true as it is, does not completely capture the kaleidoscopic state of male clothing, for alongside men who mix n’ match, there are an increasing number who strive for aesthetic asceticism and grapple with ‘the lapel gape’, ‘the collar gap’ and ‘sleeve pitch’ in order to wear a suit with an exactitude that would impress an army drill sergeant; Parisian Gentleman’s Hugo Jacomet and Sonya Glyn Nicholson have written various articles on this theme.[i] The dandy, who is similarly fastidious in his approach to dress, although generally less austere, has returned, heralded by exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. I am currently researching the style of Cecil Beaton, whom contemporaries regarded as a dandy, for a series of lectures that will accompany an upcoming exhibition on his life at Ashcombe and Reddish House.[ii]

The question, which a number of commentators are now beginning to tackle, is why? Why are we living in a period with the greatest sartorial diversity since the nineteenth century, when Beau Brummell and Alfred d’Orsay popularised the wearing of trousers, contrasting colours and textures?

photo 1

Nineteenth-century essayist and social critic Charles Baudelaire thought Brummell and his ilk were ephemeral exemplars of societal ennui. He surmised that, ‘dandyism is especially likely to appear in those transitional ages in which democracy is not yet all-powerful and the aristocracy is only partially faltering and debased. In the confusion of such times certain men, déclassé, disgruntled, idle, but all endowed with native strength, may conceive the project of founding a new kind of aristocracy, which will be all the more difficult to destroy as it will be based on the most precious and indestructible faculties, and on the God-given gifts which work and wealth cannot bestow.’[iii] In the twenty-first century democracy is established rather than ascendant, but the social unease that Baudelaire believed to be the impetus for social recasting and sartorial innovation has spread far and wide since the economic slump of 2008. The indissoluble connection between finance capital and culture in our post modern world meant the collapse of the banking sector triggered a corresponding social crisis, as debt, unemployment and income gaps increased.[iv] As western models of male success continue to revolve around finance and fortunes, men suffered acutely.

I have previously suggested that the diversity of menswear accessories, from pocket squares to belt chains, reveals men’s attempt to rebrand themselves and prove, once and for all, that the stereotype of the greedy, feckless banker, is passé.[v] However subconscious the motivation, the profusion of styles that enable men to reaffirm a rugged masculinity or proclaim that they possess more feminine (read: desirable[vi]) qualities, suggest that many are recasting, or at least reflecting critically upon, their persona. Whilst the rudiments of this argument hold, the prevalence of sartorial sub-cultures, from the discipline of the East Londoners who wear their tie-less shirts buttoned up,[vii] to the gaiety of the Congolese Sapeurs recently depicted in a TV commercial for Guinness, reveals that men are responding to society’s changes very differently. The point is not unexpected, but it is little remarked upon; commentaries on dress rarely move beyond the dichotomy of ‘The West and The Rest’ or ‘Europe and America’.[viii]

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If Charles Baudelaire recognised the influence of society on an individual’s independent thought and collective behaviour, German Sociologist Norbert Elias sought to understand it. He observed that profound societal developments would always cause people to reappraise their public and private roles and so create new opportunities for individualisation.[ix] He also suggested that the growth and increasing complexity of society would cause interpersonal bonds to diminish. As the number of people in an individual’s personal and professional networks increased, their familiarity with each would decrease proportionately – it is probably possible to remain in frequent contact with fifty Facebook followers, but virtually impossible to do so with fifteen-hundred. The bitter paradox is that people living in today’s globally networked society are more likely to feel isolated and despondent than their forebears, who maintained closer connections with their kin group and knew far fewer people.[x]

photo 3

Norbert Elias speculated whether it would be possible to reach equilibrium between the social needs and desires of the individual and the demands of society. He did not consider whether things could go full circle. I wonder to what extent the present dichotomies in dress reveal that men are creating new identities and communities through clothing to realise a sense of belonging that does not exist because our culture, abstracted by its links to finance capital, is global and public rather than local and personal? It is striking how many popular male accessories are time bound and reference periods when men’s socio-economic position was firmer. It us as though the objects that once connoted material and social success can be redeployed, in some cases ninety years later, to achieve the same sartorial impact. The idea that clothes communicate through rules as nuanced as any spoken language (à la Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes) has never been explored that seriously by academics, but the complex fusion of historic and global styles might persuade us to think otherwise. Prima facie, the decision to wear an eighties-style white wristwatch with a red and gold zip-up jacket that could have been inspired by the orient or the Renaissance is a story of personal expression, facilitated by commercialisation and technological innovation, but the profusion of such dichotomous styles of dress over a geographically wide area within a chronologically specific time frame should leave pause for thought.

Aside from their novelty and sartorial accomplishment, these styles warrant attention because they could reveal more than they intend. When Hugo recently wrote that the Devil is in the details, he could have been more true than he realised, and for a completely different reason.[xi] If the observations of Baudelaire and Elias are right, such modish dress suggests a degree of heterogeneity and social divergence that has probably not existed since the nineteenth century. If clothes make man, as I recently argued, the garb of today’s gents reveal that he is very confused indeed.[xii] Is it possible, then, that the creative and commercial success of the menswear industry is a result of deep-set social anxieties?

photo 2

*Answers to introductory questions:

1) According to Drake’s of London, ‘In an ideal world the tie should reach the top of the trouser waistband with both the front and tail finishing at the same length. If this can’t be achieved, better to have the tail slightly longer than the front.’[xiii]; 2) The ‘correct’ answer should be never, but I am sure many stylists would argue that the wearer’s sense of comfort dictates what is appropriate, not the venue and crowd; 3) Conventionally, it is the second button of a three-button jacket that is fastened, but there is presently a preference for the top button to be done up; 4) If you refused to answer this question because you believe that trainers should never be worn off the sports field, good for you. Alas, present sartorial styles suggest that trainers of any colour could be worn; 5) If you chose option c), you probably own a copy of Alan Flusser’s Clothes and the Man, are aged over thirty and are still confused by question four. If you picked option a) or b) you should consider if your clothing choices are overly determined by what you see on Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest or Flickr. Invest in a copy of Alan Flusser’s Clothes and the Man.


[i] S. Glyn Nicholson, ‘Lapel Gape Never Again! Canvasses, Chest Pieces and Other Suit Mysteries’ (25 November, 2013). www.parisiangentleman.co.uk/2013/11/25/lapel-gape-never-again-chest-pieces-and-other-suit-mysteries; Eadem, ‘Seven Things to Look for in a Suit’ (3 September, 2013). www.parisiangentleman.co.uk/2013/09/03/the-well-dressed-rebel-seven-things-to-look-for-in-a-suit.

[iii] Quoted by G. O’Brien in Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion, ed. K. Irvin & L. Brewer (New Haven, 2013), 16.

[iv] F. Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24:1 (1997), 246-65.

[v] ‘The Suit Is Dead! Long Live The Suit!’. http://linleywild.com/2013/02/26/the-suit-is-dead-long-live-the-suit/.

[vi] J. Gerzema & M. D’Antonio, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And The Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule The Future (San Francisco, 2012).

[vii] G. Jonkers & J. van Bennekom, Buttoned-Up: A survey of a curious fashion phenomenon (London, 2013).

[viii] Recent online debates from The New York Times demonstrate this point well: M. Carey-Campbell, ‘Casual Dress Has Gone Global’ (3 February, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/02/03/the-casual-couture-of-the-average-american/casual-dress-has-gone-global. Accessed: 2 March, 2014; K. Gale, ‘Free Your Style, Free Your Thoughts’ (4 February, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/02/03/the-casual-couture-of-the-average-american/free-your-style-free-your-thoughts. Accessed: 2 March, 2014

[ix] N. Elias, The Society of Individuals, (ed.) Michael Schröter (London, 1987), 167-68.

[x] Ibid., 129-30; R. Brand, ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’, New Statesman (25-31 October 2013).

[xi] H. Jacomet, ‘Bespoke Tailoring: the Parisian Devil is in the Details…’ (1 March 2014). www.parisiangentleman.co.uk/2014/03/01/bespoke-tailoring-the-parisian-devil-is-in-the-details.

[xii] ‘Do Clothes Make Man?’ (11 February, 2014). http://linleywild.com/2014/02/11/do-clothes-make-man.

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