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“
There has been much in the news lately about the law and the appropriateness of conduct. Here is a short summary: groping people you come across during the course of a workday is illegal. That was easy. Now try this one: when hosting a business lunch, should you direct the seating or let your guests choose their own seats? If you draw the task of picking the wine for the lunch meeting but may not end up paying for it, what sort of bottle should you choose? These and other questions (that may be of small moment to celebrities who risk arrest for sexual harassment or worse but remain of considerable consequence to those very many of us who want to host a successful business lunch) were answered for me in a private session by Skype with the British etiquette consultant William Hanson.
Young, well-spoken and serious about his subject, Mr. Hanson, who appears regularly on British television, proved uniquely qualified to help guide me through these muddles of my own making. The host, he advised, should take it upon himself or herself to assign seats to the invited guests. That was comforting to hear because it is often the case that, in any group of people seated for business, there are one or two you especially want to speak with—and there may also be one or two you know would not take particularly well to speaking to each other. Mr. Hanson’s license to direct the seating was therefore gratefully accepted.
As for the wine: although many has been the time I have thumbed the wine list to survey first-growth Bordeaux bottles from triumphant years, I know better than to stick my host with a four-figure drinks tab. Mr. Hanson recommended a practice I have actually been following (to my relief): ask what everyone is having for a main course, choose an appropriate style of wine and (if needed, with the help of the sommelier) pick a bottle two or so notches up the price scale from the cheapest.
The question of who pays is an interesting one—especially when everyone is presumably on an expense account and is privately measuring the price of the meal in relation to his or her firm’s rules or expectations. One the nice things about bringing guests to your club is that the question of who pays is thereby settled. In a restaurant, Mr. Hanson advised, the host should consider setting up payment with management before the first guest arrives. Failing that, slipping away discretely before the bill comes is also an easy way to handle a sometimes-delicate situation.
There ought to be a law. That has been said so many times about things that are merely annoying, albeit consistently so. For me, there ought to be a law reprimanding any food and beverage manager who permits servers to pour water intended for tea into a coffee chafer urn—because once the urn has been permeated with coffee, the tea will taste from coffee no matter how long you let it steep. Mr. Hanson addressed my related concern: the speaker has stood up and everyone is drinking that so-so coffee or even worse tea—and returning cups onto saucers with clacks that can make the speaker feel as if he or she is addressing a room full of obedient crickets. The solution: practice doing it in silence or muzzle the fall of the cup with a paper napkin.
And finally from Mr. Hanson, a fashion tip (and one I have been giving): for those of us who wear bespoke suits: button all the sleeves—no leaving a couple open so everyone knows you have a tailor. It is obviously a good suit, and the buttons do their assigned good work when closed.
As Mr. Hanson reminded me, good etiquette is simply about putting others before ourselves. If everyone does it, everyone, in business or socially, will feel blessed.
Credit: Alan Behr
It had to happen, and it did in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. Late in February, Jacob Gallagher contributed an article persuasively advocating for a new appreciation of baggy pants. Even as The New York Times obsessively writes about President Trump (Not long after the inauguration, I counted twenty-six pieces revisited to him on The Times‘ home page.), here comes the more conservatively leaning Journal to bring us news we can use: the ins and outs of wearing slouchy trousers.
Menswear runs in somewhat erratic cycles, with lean and trim tailoring having been the look in (roughly speaking) the years following WWI and the 1960s and much of this century, with looser cuts, often led by trousers with pleats, having been in vogue in the decades in between. Risking a generalization, when youth dominates fashion and popular culture, slim is in. Consider The Beatles and all those earnest young and lesser bands of our present era. Giorgio Armani rose to fame when he helped end that earlier cycle with his looser cut suits that draped, rather than seemingly adhered to, Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). In his Journal story, Jacob Gallagher quoted Patrick Grant, the designer for E. Tautz (London): “A lot of people are just not built for skinny trousers, particularly those of us who have a few years under our belt.”
All well and true, except when it isn’t. As Mr. Gallagher just barely hinted, baggy is hard to pull off if you are what he politely termed “vertically challenged”—which is to say, you can all too easily end up looking like a bar mitzvah boy forced to wear one of his father’s suits. I am not short but not anywhere near tall and not in my first youth. Having slimmed down to my high school weight and buffed up in the gym, however, I slide into the trim, Italian-inspired Brooks Brothers Milano cut like a cartridge into a revolver breech. My London tailor, Henry Poole & Co., had to snip my pattern down to comply with the requirements of my new physique. I trimmed the trousers of the Henry Poole suits already in my wardrobe and have gone down two waist sizes, even as I only buy slim cuts in casual wear. A leading fashion stylist who had worked hard in the svelte-deprived ’90s to get me to puff out now says I look great while deflated back to slim. Who wants to upset that?
And so: a thank you to The Journal for letting me know that slouchy has again gone mainstream. This time, I am having none of it. As I said in these pages before, I realized late in life (as a Uniqlo customer), that I have the taste and build of a Japanese teenager. Every other guy can and, if it strikes him as correct, go baggier than Bozo. This fit but not so tall guy is sticking with the trim cut that suits him best.
As my partner Helene Freeman has blogged, we await word from the Supreme Court about what standard will be used to determine what designs on cheerleader uniforms are properly protectable by copyright. (Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al.). That case could have wide implications for anyone whose after-school activities include jumping up and down in decorated tennis dresses in front of football bleachers—and potentially for many others as well. The debate on the cut of trousers, shirts and jackets will, happily, be unaffected. In the USA, despite sincere efforts to change the law, the pattern (outline) of a garment is unprotected as long as it is a functional element—which it nearly always is. Designers and their customers have free reign to go baggy or keep it lean, without interference by lawyers or judges. The question, I am happy to report, is one of taste, not of jurisprudence, at least under American law. Apply your own style sense or consult your own personal stylist, and best wishes with that.
Credit: Alan Behr
While attending the annual meeting of the Copyright Society of the USA in Newport, Rhode Island last year, I walked into a military surplus store and came out the owner of a Swiss military field jacket. I had found a row of them crowded into a single rack. All were a bit malodorous (often a hazard when buying often questionably stored surplus clothes), and although none bore a size label, all were unworn. The first one I tried on fit almost as well as something my tailor might have done up for me, and so, sacrificing the eight-dollar purchase price, I took it home. Much of the summer was occupied with airing it out, but with the first chill of autumn, I wore it on the streets of Manhattan.
It hardly drew a notice from my dinner companion that evening, which was a bit discouraging because she was Swiss. But the payoff came next time out, during a horrid day of wind, chill and rain. The jacket, intended to keep hearty Swiss conscripts dry and toasty in the worst Alpine weather, answered its calling brilliantly. Weaving among New Yorkers who stomped along in the wet ground as if persecuted, I kept up a merry pace, as warm as if I were wearing a space heater. I thought that the nipped-waist, gray-green, single-breasted, many-pocketed jacket, which would have enabled me to blend in seamlessly in an Alpine pine forest, was also quite stylish. It was undeniably practical: there was even space for a Swiss Army knife. But when my prize at last emerged from the foul weather again to rest under the sweet lights of home, my wife had this to say: “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”
That intramural sartorial challenge next led me to a website where I found a green German policeman’s jacket. This wardrobe caprice set me back a relatively dear eleven dollars plus shipping. Also unworn, it bore the fading hang tag of its manufacturer under the name it was called during the days it was a state-run enterprise in East Germany. The jacket appeared to date, however, from a time near the end of the last century when the cops in the German state of its origin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to you geography buffs) switched to much cooler SWAT-team coats of blue. Indeed, these green jackets do tend to make even the most warlike German Polizist look like a bureaucrat—which might well have been the intention in a nation grown uncomfortable with symbols of armed authority.
This time, the outerwear debut took place in the parents’ lounge of the Deutsche Sprachschule (German Language School) attended by my first grader on Saturday mornings. Everyone recognized it, and I got quite a few compliments, but a room full of German expats is not exactly a statistically supportable random sample for this stylistic boundary-pusher. As my son and I were heading up Lexington Avenue on our way home, we saw Eliot Rabin, who owns and designs menswear for the sophisticated Peter Elliot stores. He was busy on his mobile phone, but the moment he saw us, he excused himself to his caller, put down the phone and ran over to say, “That’s a great jacket.”
I was suddenly feeling the kind of confidence in my taste that is unmatched by any male who has not done a turn as the GQ Style Guy. As my wife opened the door for us and caught first sight of my new success, she said, “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”
So much for the old spousal imprimatur. I’ll take that under advisement–even as I troll the web for something chic in a size 38 that is a leftover from the Soviet navy.
Credit: Alan Behr
We have heard that men are the new women, that menswear is growing faster than womenswear, a business and cultural phenomenon that has seemingly taken nearly everyone by surprise. We consider many reasons for that: social media and reality television have made men more aware of the potential power of good style; online dating places a premium on appearance (your make your first impression with photos and a few lines of self-congratulatory text); and there is nothing like a worldwide economic downturn to make a guy consider carefully what he has to wear in order to get and keep a job. It may be for those reasons that menswear designers are offering all sorts of novelties at fashion shows. They appear to be following much of the same strategy as has long been used for womenswear: show something exaggerated or controversial on the runway and, when the buyers come by right after, explain how all of that will be modified into saleable condition (which is to say, something people really will wear) as soon as orders are placed.
It is perhaps for that reason that, as I examine the photographs of menswear runway shows and the editorial pages of fashion magazines, I have had increasingly greater difficulty winning a game I call I Can Wear That. To win, I have to find a complete ensemble, as shown on a living model, that I would wear, head to foot, watch to cufflinks. I can only attribute my defeat at that form of solitaire to the creativity of designers. There are looks that critics call androgynous that I cannot imagine androgynous men would be willing to wear around town. There are floor-dragging coats paired with short pants, making the model look like a schoolboy who has stolen his father’s overcoat. I suppose it is good that designers are showing no fear of color; but I just have not seen too many men grabbing those chartreuse shirts and lilac pants from retail racks.
All of that is healthy, of course. Show a bit of flare and excess, and when it comes time to make a sale, tame it down to what the market will bear. We can go back to 1962. In that year, Rudi Gernreich had no sooner created the “monokini,” the topless bathing suit, than knockoffs appeared with attachable tops. (That was, at least, the explanation my mother gave me for the one my father, a lifelong garmento, had picked up for her at a Seventh Avenue showroom.)
As for my game: when going through WWD, GQ and other publications, I indeed rarely win now at I Can Wear That. But when I go into stores, the shelves and racks are filled with things I can wear and would gladly buy. So everyone must be doing something right, and the fashion pages are always useful for inspiration. Now let me remember—what kind of coat goes best with chino shorts…?
Credit: Alan Behr
See previously published related posts:
As everyone knows, lawyers have far too many stellar qualities to enumerate here. We have a sense of humor. (Who can forget, after all, the priceless nugget of wit that goes: “What do you call one hundred lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.”) We are sure there must be just as many good ones about chiropractors, occupational therapists and entomologists.
And lawyers are media stars. Whenever an attorney is convicted of a felony in the line of duty, doesn’t it always make headlines? Lawyers are also highly respected for their assertiveness, as knows any lawyer whose application to rent an apartment was mysteriously and inexplicably denied.
But who knew that lawyers could also be fashion trend-setters? So it appeared from a blog several months ago, in which the author of this blog was blogged. The post was in the form of a column about accessories worn by attendees at the charity benefit held on the opening night of an antiques fair.
The site is New York Social Diary, in which David Patrick Columbia, combining the roles of Edith Wharton and Henry James for an earlier generation, chronicles the real life moments that those earlier writers drew upon for much of their fiction. The blogger in the guest column was Alison Minton, a friend and queen of New York style, who reports for the site on accessories. In my debut as a fashion icon, you can clearly see the Ralph Lauren necktie and pocket square that were the objects of the author’s attention, along with a fair bit of the Henry Poole bespoke suit that they accented and almost none of my face. As my earlier appearances in New York Social Diary and elsewhere have shown, that omission was no loss at all to the reader. It did, in this instance, force all attention on not who I am but on what I had chosen to wear in the expression of who I am. It demonstrates in pictorial form that what each of us holds as our personal style is both a part of us and an abstraction of us. We are what we wear, but what we wear is also a part of us and a metaphor for how we wish to be perceived.
It also reminds me that, as someone who will on occasion take this forum as a soapbox on which to stand and proclaim what is and is not good style, acting as a fashion authority is uniquely hard work. A theater critic need not act or direct; an art critic is not expected to paint or sculpt; but we all wear clothes. A style critic, therefore, is always in danger of being held accountable for his or her own style success and failures. (And we all have both, to be sure.) This line of work is not for the faint-hearted—but neither is any job in fashion and accessories. Would any of us have it any other way?
Credit: Alan Behr