Genuine Falsehood: Menswear’s Obsession With Authenticity

I was going to say that Americans today are obsessed with authenticity. It’s probably more accurate to say “people” in place of “Americans,” our global network of friends growing so wide, and so homogenous along the way, that the cultural differences that separate our nation from the broader global economy seem ever smaller. For all the rapping about diversity, it is the peculiar trait of our time that we become more the same by the nanosecond, or whatever processor speeds are measured in. By force of technology a niche menswear brand in Naples can influence men in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Tanzania. Indeed, Neapolitan tailoring has become the world’s tailoring thanks largely to social media trend making and some clever brand marketing.

But where does this leave authenticity, that new-millennium watchword that has seeped into the jargon of business leadership, marketing, and even popular philosophy? Permanent Style, Put This On, and this website itself, among many others, have tackled the issue but a great deal of the question still remains: what is authenticity in a global economy where we’re all buying the same clothes? Does authenticity have any meaning when consumers are being influenced by the same relatively small cadre of social media stars?

To find the answers to these questions we must return to the beginning and find the origins of our 21st-century tryst with the purportedly authentic. The historically minded will trace the origins of our present circumstances to the 19th century. As Richard Sennett noted in his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, the 1800s witnessed a monumental shift in the way people interacted in public. Before the late 1700s most communities were awash in ceremonial interactions, like the doffing of a cap in the presence of one’s social betters, that reiterated the rightness of the social order and left few wondering what their place in the broader community was. One wore an actor’s mask in public and the playing of one’s part signaled his approval of the social order. After the upheaval of the American and French revolutions the paying of respect to hierarchies was no longer en vogue, nor possible for elites to demand. What followed when coercive ceremony no longer controlled the outward behavior of ordinary people was a valorization of the ordinary individual. The everyman. And every man thought himself of right to express his inner self in public. There’s an amendment in the Constitution to prove it.

The turn toward the outward expression of the inner self began to replace earlier notions of public ceremony and decorum. And as industrialism fueled the growth of cities, ever larger numbers of strangers were thrust together with no one knowing quite how to act around each other. Thanks in part to the rise of machinery and global trade networks within textile manufacturing, this was also the moment in which tailored clothing became inexpensive and available to more men than ever before. Men’s stores like Brooks Brothers and countless long gone competitors dotted the shopping districts of New York, likely in greater numbers than the men’s stores today. If you were a young man looking to make his way in the city in the mid 1800s, like Melville’s Bartleby, you would find yourself thrust into a world of similarly clothed strangers whose status and social expectations were not readily discernible. Ancient rules of behavior were no longer tenable. How does a man act when his audience is unknown to him? To whom does one doff his cap when all appeared as gentlemen?

In our age clothes have only gotten cheaper and more readily available. I have marveled at the changes in the consumer menswear landscape over just the last decade. You can, today, buy a two piece Minnis Fresco suit for less than $550 USD. That was unthinkable in 2009. This has only exacerbated the problem of the unknown audience that Sennett wrote about in 1974. This is where authenticity came to the rescue. When outward signs of social status and prescribed rules of public discourse become less reliable; the authentic expression of the inner self allowed us to order the public relationships in our world. Theoretically, relationships would not be ordered based on birth status but on the virtue and merit of the individual. Except that the individual now had to convince everyone of his virtue. Politicking had arrived.

This is not a call for a return to monarchical government, sumptuary law, or social stratification. It is, rather, a recognition that all social good comes at a price. The price we have paid for ever more egalitarian societies is the breakdown of value, the abandonment of unifying principles like Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and the angst that comes with the loss of connection to community. Perhaps this price has been well worth paying but we still remain with the questions it demands we answer: what relationship ought we have with the myriad Others who make up the daily urban experiences that most of us share? The answer that we have jointly come up with is a hierarchical one. I’ll doff my cap in our 21st-century way, with a “like” or a re-tweet, to those who appear most virtuous among us.

So how do we signal ourselves to be virtuous? How do we climb our way to the top of the new hierarchy? For this the human capacity for invention knows few boundaries. The same virtuous impulse to support the downtrodden is easily manipulated and made into public performance by influencers and fashion houses to proclaim their supposed inner virtue and to sell consumer products to an appreciative audience. The recent global Pride celebrations are only the latest example. Clothing manufacturers and merchants plastered their social media feeds with rainbow flags and proclamations of solidarity. Maybe this means that gayness is finally becoming normalized enough that you can sell things to middle class Americans with it. That’s not an undesirable thing. But is it authentic? Is it coincidence that brands have embraced the outward appearance of social activism that the burgeoning generation of consumers expects? No to both.

Authenticity has become commodified and our obsession with the term is indicative of a growing anxiety that it might be found nowhere at all. We all know ourselves to be less virtuous than we would like our fellows to believe. Who really thinks that we are as happy as we look on Facebook or as prosperous as we make ourselves out to be on Instagram? Our authenticity has become a mask in itself and Sennett’s argument is in need of revision. We haven’t abandoned our public persona nor thrown away the actor’s mask. How could we? There are none among us who is always genuine unto himself. We all betray our convictions sometimes, are inconsistent sometimes, and sometimes fail despite our best efforts. The public persona has taken on the veneer of the genuine inner-self but it is no less a fiction created for the consumption of the public. And the pressure to live up to the ever higher standards that we set for our public selves, the product of a virtue arms race, leads often to disgrace when we cannot do so.

Even Ivy style, thought by some of its more rigid American adherents to be the remnants of a more virtuous, structured, and honest society, is no such thing. It was the mainstreaming of the Ivy style that likely added to the circumstances we find ourselves in today. After all, it was a patrician style that became an everyman look, a symbol of privilege that was un-ironically appropriated by Joe America, not to mention the now well known Japanese Ivy enthusiasts. That should sound familiar. Ivy style is being appropriated once again in the guise of crossover streetwear brands like Rowing Blazers and heritage brands like Ralph Lauren who are eager to be relevant again. And, like the first time it happened, all varieties of Americans, and a slew of non-Americans, are in on the act. 

So what is authenticity when style is constantly being re-appropriated, re-interpreted, and re-tread? It’s nothing. It’s a stopgap measure. A way for us to make sense out of a confusing world of strangers that only seems to grow more chaotic by the day. But its commodification has only served to add to the confusion and its days are numbered. If I could express anything to you, dear menswear consumer, it would be to stop worrying so much about authenticity. If your clothes look good, are made to last, and draw the appreciation of your peers, wear them. Authenticity is, after all, a private matter. — PANI M.

33 Comments on "Genuine Falsehood: Menswear’s Obsession With Authenticity"

  1. elder prep | August 8, 2019 at 2:35 pm |

    The entire substance of the article if captured in the last three sentences. The authanticy essesce is also found in many pages of the TOPH e.g. classic, never changing, durable, well made. If your happy the way you look, that may be all that matters.

  2. University Striped | August 8, 2019 at 2:50 pm |

    Good piece, though one thing puzzled me:

    “The price we have paid for ever more egalitarian societies is… the abandonment of unifying principles like Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.”

    “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

    Seems like your take on “more egalitarian societies” could use some more unpacking.

  3. Technology is the culprit behind the anxiety over authenticity. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all create facades that are false images of unlimited success, wealth, and privilege.

    Ironically, this blog is a part of social media, though it has true street cred. I get the impression that Christian, the commentariat, and the many educated contributors like Pani are as authentic as it gets. Other blogs and other forms of social media are chock full of poseurs however.

  4. Caustic Man | August 8, 2019 at 3:07 pm |

    University Striped,

    That’s a fair comment. What I meant by that, and should have explained further, is that MLK Jr.’s dream was, in my estimation, based on a notion of equality at least theoretically supported by most people of all races at the time. To be judged not by the color of your skin but by the content of your character. In the 1960s MLK Jr. only demanded what white America had already promised to its citizens: equal treatment regardless of skin color.

    Today, by contrast, there are strong voices calling for people to be judged on just that, the color of your skin. Theories on privilege and unconscious bias project dubious notions of whiteness and blackness as nearly immutable characteristics, we partition language by race when one group may use certain words and another may not, and we are pressured from some corners to see all people of a certain class as oppressors and others of a different class as oppressed.

    The unifying principle that all people should be treated equal regardless of skin color (The Dream) has broken down in the face of the splintering of value systems which has resulted in even marginalized people calling for judgment based on race.

    I hope that clears up what I meant by that.

  5. Caustic Man | August 8, 2019 at 3:08 pm |

    I should add that MLK demanded what white America had promised to its citizens but, especially in the case of black people, had failed to deliver on.

  6. University Striped | August 8, 2019 at 3:14 pm |

    @Caustic Man – thanks for the clarification. I think we disagree about some stuff in there but I see where you’re coming from, and on a big picture level we agree.

    Moving on, the issue of authenticity in Ivy seems especially thorny. In 2019, mass-market Ivy from 1966 is authentic. But compared to Brooks Brothers or J. Press from, say, 1959, even that could be said to be inauthentic. I agree with your conclusion that the best thing to do in our current age of fashion is to make one’s own authenticity. It’s not really about what you wear, but how you wear it.

  7. whiskeydent | August 8, 2019 at 3:43 pm |

    Dead solid perfect Caustic Pani!

    Today, the appearance of authenticity is more important than authenticity itself. It’s a highly curated synthesis of handmade, American made, artisanal, sustainable, old school with modern touches, the latest technology with traditional style, and next level horseshit.

  8. Pani M. is way overthinking this. Everything you need to know about authenticity as it relates to Ivy is contained in Geoffrey Wolff’s novel “The Final Club.”

  9. Old School Tie | August 8, 2019 at 4:27 pm |

    My tuppenceworth – now, I still have all my various “old school ties” and wear them sometimes, however, at any Old Boys get togethers I always wear an RL tie I spotted one time in their Bond St store (maybe I’ve said all this before), anyway, I wear this tie because it is almost identical to my school tie (the iteration when I attended) but it is narrower and just looks better. A more authentic looking old school tie than the real thing. Better than the real thing in many ways. Not only only do I think that, but the other chaps concur. Not authentic, just better.

  10. Charlottesville | August 8, 2019 at 5:18 pm |

    Great piece, Caustic Man. Well made clothes that look good and are made to last, both as to longevity of materials and longevity of style, seems to me to be more important than a mythic authenticity. A short, tight suit from Thom Browne may authentically represent a particular point in American style, and based on what I saw of his Black Fleece line I would bet the cloth and workmanship are fine, but so what? Many of my clothes are a couple of decades old, but because they were well made and avoided exaggerated details of fads and fashions, they still look good. When I have made the error of going down the fashion road (e.g., too-wide or too-narrow lapels or ties), I have usually regretted it and disposed of the piece within a year or so.

  11. Authenticity is a cultural value that changes with the times. Woolf’s early ’90s novel remembering the late ’50s is one angle; Pani is looking at it in 2019.

  12. Faded blue canvas Top-Siders spattered by specks of bronze boat-bottom paint mean the same thing today as they did in 1958. The difference between today and 1958 is that today the guy wearing them may never have been near a sailboat.

  13. Henry Contestwinner | August 8, 2019 at 6:09 pm |

    Hipsters seeking authenticity are some of the biggest phonies around.

  14. Good point, Trace. But that world has shrivelled to almost nothing, correct?

    So there was authentic authenticity, and now there’s fake “authenticity”?

    Very postmodern.

  15. NaturalShoulder | August 8, 2019 at 9:25 pm |

    Pani – probably best piece you have contribute to IS to date. I agree with your thesis and it seems that the search for authenticity demonstrates, ironically, a lack of authenticity in those seeking it.

  16. Re: “Authenticity is, after all, a private matter.”

    authentic: from authentes “one acting on one’s own authority,” from autos “self” + hentes “doer, being

  17. Christian

    I’ve a faded pair of blue canvas 75th anniversary Sperry Topsiders with a couple of drips of red One Shot paint from when I painted Lady Brett Ashley in Spencerian script on the transom of a friends Cheoy Lee about eight years ago.

    I am in negotiations to purchase a Cape Dory Typhoon which I plan to name Sylvia Trench. Black hull, white sails and just enough teak. Gold paint I think.

    We are still out here.



  18. whiskeydent | August 9, 2019 at 11:54 am |

    Out west, there is a parallel: the drugstore cowboy.

    He is seen at lunch counters in drugstores and is desperate to look like a real cowboy. He has the right hat, shirt, jeans and boots. If he’s really dedicated, his jeans might be a little faded and his boots a bit scuffed. He is perfectly authentic.

    But everybody knows he’s not a real cowboy. Why? Because cowboys are too busy working very hard out in the hot sun or the cold wind. They’re not found sitting on their asses in a drugstore.

  19. Marc Chevalier | August 9, 2019 at 12:26 pm |

    Want authentic Ivy clothes? Go to vintage stores, eBay, Etsy, Instagram, etc., and buy Ivy vintage clothing from before 1950. Pre-heyday. I recently bought a 1920s Brooks Brother three-piece sack suit for $400: the cut and tweed cloth look just as good today as they did 90+ years ago…and the quality is outstanding.

  20. Marc Chevalier | August 9, 2019 at 12:27 pm |

    (Correction: Brooks Brothers.)

  21. John T. Marshall | August 9, 2019 at 2:40 pm |

    About that lunch counter cowboy…
    My late father-in-law was a Kansas cattleman for more than 70 years – short, wiry, survived countless injuries on his ranch and tough as they came. In all the time I knew him I never saw him wear jeans (always khaki work slacks), or cowboy boots (he preferred work shoes or lace-up boots) or a “cowboy” hat. He was always in some kind cap because he loved baseball; a cowboy hat could “come off in the wind and be in Nebraska before you could turn around,” he’d say. His cattle won all the big awards at the national shows – Denver, Phoenix, Fort Worth and so on. When showing cattle, he wore jodhpurs.
    He never needed to advertise that he was a cattleman. People knew. If they didn’t, no matter.

  22. Charlottesville | August 9, 2019 at 4:48 pm |

    Mr. Marshall – What a great remembrance. Your father-in-law was truly authentic.

    Marc — That suit sounds like quite a find. What was a 20’s era BB suit like, and was it custom made? I have a couple of eBay finds that I think, but do not know, are from the 60s. One is a two-piece gray and the other is a three-piece in navy. While they have a butterfly lining in the shoulders, and a higher button stance, the basic look is the same 3/2 sack I bought in the 80s, and the lapels are about the same width. The fabric, though, wears like iron. My guess is that they were considered fairly lightweight at the time, but would be regarded as fall or winter suits today. For someone like me who is happy with the classic Brooks 3/2 sack, they really don’t change a lot over the decades.

  23. Calls to mind a quote by Samuel Goldwyn, or George Burns…”Sincerity, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

  24. MacMcConnell | August 10, 2019 at 12:26 pm |

    John T. Marshall
    So your father in-law dressed like LBJ, when LBJ was in Johnson City. From my experience it’s about 50-50 on the jeans verses khaki work slacks, but then it depends on what they are doing on any given day. Knew a man with a very large operation in northern Missouri, only saw him in bib overalls, work boots and a Dekalb cap except at funerals.

  25. whiskeydent | August 10, 2019 at 4:50 pm |

    Mac, LBJ wasn’t a cowboy and undoubtedly had some conventional shoes growing up in Johnson City (about 30 miles from where I sit), but he loved his boots:

    Texas cowboys wear tall boots to ward off the sharp thorns on mesquite and cacti. The toes are pointed to make it easier to enter the stirrups and the heals are high to help keep them there.

    Some, particularly in South Texas, wear drill cloth khakis, which are almost as tough as jeans but breathe better in the omnipresent humidity and heat down there.

    Mexican vaqueros had an enormous influence on all of this stuff. The clothing, horsemanship, roping skills and general handling of cattle all came from the them. One could say the original American cowboy was a Mexican.

  26. MacMcConnell | August 10, 2019 at 5:00 pm |

    Yes I know. I lived at Randolph Field in the sixties. My best friend’s father was LBJ’s Marine helicopter pilot stationed a Randolph for that purpose only.

    There is a difference between cattlemen and cowboys, although sometimes they are the same.

  27. whiskeydent | August 10, 2019 at 5:20 pm |

    Now this is getting weird. I lived at Randolph ’64-’68. I remember the address, 59 Outer Octagon.

  28. @elderprep said it first and best… The last three sentences of the article are the only ones that matter.

  29. Caustic Man | August 12, 2019 at 7:11 am |

    Re: the urban cowboy

    I suppose in Texas everything needs a disclaimer considering how proudly different many Texans are from other westerners, but cowboy hats here are worn by anyone. In this state it signifies something less than working cowboy but something more than urban faker.

  30. whiskeydent | August 12, 2019 at 7:53 am |

    I probably overstated things. Not everyone who dresses western in Texas is a cowboy or necessarily trying to look like one. They simply like the style.

    Often, they incorporate elements of the look, particularly the boots. Sadly, some wear boots with tailored clothing. Ugh. Hats are the least common commonly worn but stand out more.

    It’s not unusual to see a guy in a button-down collar shirt, chinos, and boots — often ropers that have a lower heal like a regular shoe. It’s a Texas Trad thing. That’s a common look for yours truly.

  31. Caustic Man | August 12, 2019 at 2:14 pm |

    I should think it fortunate for you to have grown up in an environment so self consciously confident in itself. To the point that you all do things in spite of, or perhaps because of, the rest of society’s disdain for those things. It’s true. Hats may be the less commonly worn than boots but it’s less about the frequency of wear than the reaction when one encounters it. I recently saw a black man in a white shirt, tie, and slacks wearing a cowboy hat. He was by himself. Having lunch. I saw a white insurance salesman at a booth wearing a black cowboy hat as he pitched his product. I see Mexicans wearing them most of all; that northern Mexican contribution to cowboy culture is not to be underestimated. But in all cases no one even seemed to notice that anything different was going on. Maybe they did in their heads, I don’t know. But in Southern California, where I was raised, such a thing would raise eyebrows and prompt comments and questions. Except if worn by the Mexicans. They will do it anywhere, any time.

  32. whiskeydent | August 12, 2019 at 3:04 pm |

    I was in London when the Bush-Gore recount was going on, and my accent set off alarms in the pubs. After a couple of days, I’d simply stride up to the bar and loudly announce: “I worked against Bush and I’m as angry as you are.” The bartender would nod and smile as he poured my pint.

  33. I suppose when Brooks Brothers first introduced their “Original Polo”, traditionalists scoffed that they were aping and appropriating a style from overseas, as they panicked that they would no longer be able to wear heavily starched shirts with removable collars.

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