I was discussing the history of style with Alan Flusser in his office on East 48th Street in Manhattan, a convivial nook that shares the floor with his showroom and workroom. I turned to a topic about which I knew, from Mr. Flusser’s informative writings, that he had much to say: how it is that the typical American businessman or professional man used to look so natty and how is it that his descendants came to look—rather as they now do.
“First of all,” Mr. Flusser told me, “in between the wars, you had a situation in which a lot of people couldn’t afford clothes. It was the Depression. On the other side of it, there were still a lot of wealthy people. And there was also Hollywood, and in Hollywood at the time, when moviemaking was at its zenith of popularity, you had great male leading actors whose job it was to project Hollywood glamour, not just on screen but in their social lives.”
Anyone so young as to wonder if celebrity worship started with iPhone apps and social media should read a good history of American popular culture to know what Mr. Flusser means. My mother, a spiritual child of the Golden Age of Hollywood, grew up hoping to copy every button and bow on her favorite stars and still sees actors as transcendent personalities. For men, however, as Mr. Flusser went on to note, the catalyst was a “confluence of male sartorial role models,” from British aristocrats, politicians and businessmen to those movie stars. Men were taking an interest in dressing well, in part due to those examples, which were regularly offered in the new media of film, picture magazines and, later, television.
“In Hollywood at the time,” continued Mr. Flusser,” you had about twenty men who individually set their own kind of style” and thereby marked the path for those millions interested in following. He noted in particular Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. “In terms of learning how to dress, there developed between the two world wars the kind of clothing that we wear today, soft clothing that you could move in comfortably—lounge clothing, it was called—not stiff and Victorian.” Indeed, although the modern business suit’s origins can be traced back to nineteenth-century military uniforms, it was the resulting lounge suit of British gentlemen that evolved into the contemporary international business suit. (If you do not believe that, put on a suit of the London cut, turn up the collar and pull the lapels toward each other. You will look just a bit like the Duke of Wellington.)
That is all well and good, but who in the public eye right now would a young man seek to emulate? Attention, Millennials, this one is for you: “I would be hard-pressed to come up with a single person,” said Mr. Flusser, a note of frustration overtaking what had been an assertive tone. He suggested George Clooney, who is not in his first youth, of course, but did not feel comfortable naming anyone else in entertainment.
As I now knew was his method, Mr. Flusser offered history: “In the 1960s, you had the Peacock Revolution. There was a rebellion against ‘the Establishment’ and the more traditional dress that people associated with their parents. From about 1968 until the 1980s, there was a void of good guidance on how men should dress. If you take the generation after that, you get pretty close to where we are today, and you find two complete generations of men who never had the benefit of having any kind of solid information on the elements of stylish dressing. By then, you had had a complete inversion. Instead of style being handed down from above, it bubbled up from below—from the street.” And street wear, as we know, makes its mark by aspirating toward a state of cool—a hard state to reach and an even harder one to maintain.
Where does that leave us now? “It’s a very confusing period of time in terms of trying to learn how to dress and come to terms with what you know about how to present yourself,” concluded Mr. Flusser. True enough, but at least, because of our conversation, I had come to understand why that is so.
Credit: Alan Behr
See previous post…”Alan Flusser – Part 1: A Question of Balance“
“One of the principles that I teach is that clothes should lead the eye of the viewer to the face of the person wearing the clothes. That’s particularly important in the legal profession, where you do a lot of communicating.” Hardly had I started my conversation with Alan Flusser, who is one of the premier custom tailors on this side of the Atlantic, when I was the recipient of such good advice. I had come to Mr. Flusser’s shop, in midtown Manhattan, with a three-button jacket he had made for me so long ago that I had missed a fitting on the morning of 9/11 (for quite obvious reasons). Although it had been worn often, Mr. Flusser and his team had just returned the altered piece to me looking as if it had left the workroom for the first time. Not only had it been recut for my late-blooming athletic physique (I had at long last learned to sit less and to pump more iron), but shorter and now boasting a pinched-in waist, it was also quite au courant. A hidden benefit of quality custom-tailoring is economy: every off-the-rack garment I owned back then has long ago been sent away.
With that good start behind me, I joined Mr. Flusser in the office of his shop. Mr. Flusser sat in one of his guest chairs, appearing at ease in an open-collared shirt, unbuttoned jacket and casual shoes minus socks. With my notes spread in front of me, I probably looked to him like a defense lawyer trying to impress a trial judge. He continued: “What is closest to the face is the dress shirt collar. You should look at it as a painting and a frame—your head is the painting and you are trying to give it a frame that complements your face but doesn’t distract from it. The criteria for making the decisions about that—the size of your chin and the shape of your head, for example—are not changeable or subject to fashion. So if you discover what kind of dress shirt collar best presents your face, and build on that, what you figure out will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
When I asked what was the most common collar mistake, his answer was immediate: “Most men wear dress shirt collars that are too small for their faces. If you are 5’10” or above, the likelihood is that you will be wearing a dress shirt that does not sit tall enough on your neck. Instead, the dress shirt decorates the bottom half of your neck, and if you add a necktie, it will look like a dead fish hanging around your neck. That has nothing to do with fashion. It only has to do with your own physiology. And it’s not about knowing how much you should pay for something. It costs no more to wear a shirt with a collar that is appropriate for you than not. If you don’t wish to spend a lot of money, but you understand what works for you, it will look just fine. All of this is just about knowledge.”
Feeling my moment of reckoning had come, I noted the obvious: that I have a large head and a wrestler’s neck. My shirt collar was tall enough, it turned out—but that was just the start of the conversation. Before I knew it, Mr. Flusser had unfastened my tie in order to relieve it of the Windsor knot I have been using since I was a first-year associate and retied it with a more rakish four in hand. “Much better,” he said, and then he replaced my machine-finished pocket square with a proper French-made, hand-rolled model. It all came together just so. And that is what style is really about: helping you look your best, not the best of someone seen in a magazine or on a social media page.
Credit: Alan Behr
Alan Flusser maintains his custom atelier at 3 East 48th Street in New York City. He is the author of “Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion” and other works about men’s style. (www.alanflusser.com)
See next post…”Alan Flusser – Part 2: The American Male and His Wardrobe“