This is one of those reviews that will appeal to a very limited audience — those who practice what Tom Wolfe once referred to as “the Secret Vice.” And I have to confess: I consider myself a (junior) member of that club. I like getting dressed up. I like suits, braces, cufflinks, ties, patterned socks, captoed shoes, and dinner jackets. And I like learning about their history.
Mind you, I don’t get especially dressed up every day: I usually wear jeans and a buttondown shirt when blogging, as opposed to PJM’s original namesake garb. But when I go out for dinner, particularly on the weekend or during holidays, I like to look good.
There, I said it. Still with me?
If you’re not, I can understand. Ever since the 1970s, after the era depicted in Mad Men concluded, being well dressed has often been seen as a slightly strange affectation for a man. And yet, to get through life (including job interviews, office work, family gatherings, weddings, upscale restaurants, and other events), there are certain sartorial skills that a man must have.
Fortunately, they’re easily acquired.
At the height of the Silicon Valley boom in the late 1990s, several friends of mine, all in their 40s or 50s, who hadn’t gone on job interviews in ages, each asked me what to wear to them. And in each case, I simply handed them my copy of Alan Flusser’s 1985 book, Clothes and the Man and said, “read this.”
The Long Polyester Hibernation
Confession number two: I wasn’t always much interested in clothes. I became aware of Clothes and the Man in the mid-1980s, when I was in college, having graduated from a 13-year K through 12 hitch at St. Mary’s Hall (now known as Doane Academy) in New Jersey, a private college prep school where I wore a blue blazer, blue buttondown shirt, striped tie and gray trousers every weekday.
Not surprisingly, I left St. Mary’s more than a little confused about what to wear next, especially since simultaneously, menswear was coming out of its long polyester hibernation and into a brief moment of style (Wall Street “power suits,” Miami Vice pastels, suits worn by rock stars in MTV videos, etc.). Of course, with the possible exception of those who were very careful buying their power suits, most ’80s fashion dated very badly, leaving lots of men — including myself — with more than a few momentarily stylish skeletons in their closets. Clothes and the Man helped me avoid many further mistakes: the suits and sports jackets I bought prior to buying Flusser’s book around 1987 have long since been given to Goodwill. (Though I still have the psychedelic Bill Cosby sweater I bought from Boyds in Philadelphia in 1986, just to remind myself of the era.) Some of the clothes I’ve bought post-Flusser, I still wear from time to time, even after a quarter century of ownership.
Appropriate Styles That Will Last
That’s the whole point of Flusser’s most recent book, Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion, which was first published in 2002: finding appropriate styles that flatter a man, and will last. Flusser’s book is copiously illustrated, with a combination of vintage photographs of the usual suspects (Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, Adolphe Menjou, Lucius Beebe, etc.), newly photographed men in a plethora of styles, and classic illustrations from the golden era of such publications such as Apparel Arts, the beautiful 1930s-through the 1950s forerunner of both GQ and Esquire, which I talked to Michael Anton about, back in October.
I don’t want to give the impression that Flusser’s book is merely a photo and illustration-heavy coffee table book without substance. Like his previous books (and frankly, if you own Clothes and the Man, you might want to thumb through Dressing the Man before buying it, unless you get obsessive over this stuff like I do), Flusser has lots of practical advice on his subject.
For example, most books on menswear (and I’ve collected a few of the better ones over the years) go into the basics of what suit types, and what suit shapes are available, which will go the distance, and which will wind up growing cobwebs in the back of the closet. Flusser’s latest is no exception. However, Flusser combines chosing suits, shirts and ties with some excellent suggestions about mating colors with skin tone, hair color, and body type.
Curiously though, unlike his previous books, hats are given remarkably short shrift. I don’t mean baseball caps with Caterpillar Tractor logos on them — I’m referring to fedoras, Homburgs, Trilbies, Panama Optimos and other classic bits of haberdashery. They certainly come in handy for us fellows whose hairlines have retreated towards the North Pole. And mating the right hat to the right suit is becoming a lost art — one whose banishment to obscurity is not helped by the lack of detail in Flusser’s latest book.
Still, there’s so much other information here, it more than makes up for that curious omission. At eight and a half by 11 inches and 320 pages, it makes an excellent coffee table book, not to mention a great Christmas gift. Give one to a friend — or husband — who’s sartorially challenged. You’ll both appreciate the difference it makes.
And you don’t even need to flash the super-secret American dandies membership card to buy a copy.
(A version of this review originally appeared in an early post at Blogcritics.org.)