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Dressing the Man: The Art of Permanent Fashion

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This is one of those reviews that will appeal to a very limited audience–what Tom Wolfe once referred to as “the super-secret order of American dandies”. And I have to confess: I consider myself a (junior) member of that club. I like dressing up. I like suits, suspenders, cufflinks, ties, patterned socks, cap-toed shoes, and tuxedos. And I like learning about their history.

Mind you, I don’t dress up everyday: unlike Wolfe, I don’t feel the need to put on a suit before I sit down at my PC and write. But when I go out at night, I like to look good.

There, I said it. Still with me?

If you’re not, I can understand–ever since the 1970s, being well dressed has been seen as a strange affectation for a man. And yet, to get through life (not to mention dating, job interviews, 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, 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 hitch at St. Mary’s Hall in New Jersey, a private college preparatory school where I wore a blue blazer, light blue button down 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. Many of the clothes I’ve bought since, I still wear from time to time, even after 15 years or so of ownership.

Appropriate Styles That Will Last

That’s the whole point of Flusser’s latest book, Dressing the Man: The Art of Permanent Fashion: 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, 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 (GQ’s predecessor) and Esquire.

I don’t want to give the impression that Flusser’s book is merely a photo-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 are gradually heading 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!

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Eric Olsen

    Great Ed, I’ve got some interviews myself to dress for.

  • Earl Adams

    You write, “…most books on menswear (and I’ve collected a few of the better ones over the years)…”. Would you please name a few of these books.

    Earl

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com Ed Driscoll

    Earl,

    Here are some of the better ones on my bookshelf:

    Flussers’ previous books, which include his first book, Making the Man, the afore mentioned Clothes and the Man, and his next book, Style and the Man.

    Paul Keers’ A Gentleman’s Wardrobe is a fun mid-1980s look at classic Saville Row style. If you’re an Anglophile when it comes to clothes, then this is your book.

    Speaking of which, I picked up a copy of The Duke of Windsor’s late 1950s’ book, Windsor Revisited from Bookfinder.com last year. While it proports to be an autobiography, it’s really a look at his taste in clothes and the styles he introduced. Lots of fun.

    Bernhard Roetzel’s Gentlemen: A Timeless Fashion, makes a nice companion to Flusser’s latest book. Similarly coffee table-sized, It has a more European slant to the clothes presented.

    And finally, if you’re never read Tom Wolfe’s essay from around 1964, where he first outed himself as a dandy, “The Secret Vice”, it’s available in his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

    Those should keep you buy for a little while!

    Regards,

    Ed

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com Ed Driscoll

    Earl,

    Oops–Freudian slip there. Buy=busy. But you knew that.

    Regards,

    Ed

  • Duane Gran

    Nice review. I have also read the book and lament the downturn in men’s fashion as of late. I appreciate the tip on the Duke’s book. I was not aware of that resource.