Ed Driscoll

Hope For The Secret Vice?

Speaking of the Grey Lady, here’s a Times article on menswear by Cathy Horyn that I enjoyed, but even so, there’s a hint of baby boomer absentmindedness to it:

Peacock displays seem to come in 20-year cycles, reflecting the stock market as well as social changes. In the 60’s, when Mr. Wolfe wrote “The Secret Vice,” about the mania for custom suits, Pop artists had come uptown, London was swinging, and it was cool to have your clothes made on Savile Row. Even Lyndon Johnson did, ordering six suits from the firm of Carr, Son & Woor, following the 1960 election, with the instructions, “I want to look like a British diplomat.”

But this assumes that menswear began in 1960, as opposed to observing a millennia of change. (It’s ironic: the left is absolutely mortified of the concept of Creationism and its theory that God created the Earth 6000 years ago being taught in schools. But you get the sense that so many baby boomers seem to believe that the universe only dates back to about 1963, with JFK’s assassination as the Big Bang.)

As Wolfe himself wrote in his wonderful “Secret Vice” article–which was written in the early, Kennedy-era ’60s, not its later Austin Powers phase when pop artists had come uptown, and London was swinging:

In Europe, all over England, in France, the mass ready-made suit industry is a new thing. All men, great and small, have had tailors make their suits for years, and they tend to talk a little more with each other about what they’re getting. But in America it’s the secret vice.

In the excerpt quoted above, Horyn also wrote, “Peacock displays seem to come in 20-year cycles, reflecting the stock market as well as social changes”. But in actuality, as menswear designer and fashion historian Alan Flusser has written in his various books (most recently in this one), it was the 1930s, when the stock market was at its lowest ebb, that menswear design was its peak, curtailed only by World War II. As to the second half of Horyn’s statement, the apogee of menswear’s style in the 1930s had nothing to do with the election of FDR, but rather as a continuation of design trends of the 1920s, and the ability of the Duke of Windsor to seemingly invent and introduce new styles at will.

I’m glad to see that the Times has hope though. And I’ll second that emotion: while in San Francisco yesterday, Nina and I stopped by Cable Car Clothiers, which we were surprised to see in a much larger location that they moved into a couple of years ago (“with quite a long-term lease”, a salesman told me), in addition to their Internet portal and wonderful “dead tree” catalog. (Cable Car’s owner, a spry octogenarian named Charles Pivnick, understood in the late 1960s that mail order was a key to his business’s survival.)

At the other end of the Bay, a handsome new Brooks Brothers opened last week in The Village Santana Row in San Jose. And Brooks as a whole is undergoing an interesting revival, as current owner Claudio Del Vecchio, who purchased the line in 2001, is steering it away from its dark and pitiful era in the 1990s when England’s Marks & Spencer owned it, back to its more traditional 1920s and ’30s look. He’s brought back some very nice items from the past, including club-collared dress shirts and other handsome designs long since thought dead.

Who knows: maybe there’s hope for how the average American man dresses (as opposed to you and I, of course) yet.