well-groomed

After a spell of breaking-news interruptions, we’re finally returning to the topic of rules when it comes to dressing. It all started, you may recall, with a Japanese graphic that included the word “rules” along with “snob.” This got me free-associating about a certain type of fusty clotheshorse who takes pride not in anything original or unique about the way he dresses, but in his ability to follow rules with scrupulous assiduity.

I may have been overreacting. Like many who weren’t raised in a sartorially advanced household or community, I learned a lot from Alan Flusser’s books, first getting “Clothes And The Man” when I was about 19. There’s much wisdom in what it teaches, and the old cliché about needing to know the rules before you can break them became a hackneyed old phrase for a reason: it’s pretty damn true.

Before Flusser there were plenty of other style writers eager to help men dress better. One of them was syndicated men’s fashion writer Bert Bacharach, who in 1955 published “Right Dress.” As you’d expect from a book aimed at the mass market, it presents pragmatic reasons for dressing better, such as having a better chance of winning love and money, the two most important things in life. Bacharach isn’t exactly interested in encouraging personal style as an existential statement. It’s practical advice for the practical, and the book’s subtitle is “Success Through Better Grooming.”

Most of the book’s advice is either common sense, banal, or simply archaic. But “Right Dress” provided some period insight for our “rise and fall” essay, and it’s worth repeating those passages here, as well as some others that pertain to the Ivy League Look, which was just entering the national spotlight at the time of the book’s publication.

As you can see, the alpha wooer in the above image is wearing a three-button suit, buttondown shirt and rep tie. But don’t be fooled that Bacharach is recommending the Ivy League Look to his Main Street reader. In fact, he thinks natural-shouldered jackets make you look like a wimp. Bacharach writes:

The well-dressed man avoids extremes in clothing models. He passes up the so-called Ivy League type which makes him look emaciated and underfed. He shuns the overly padded and overly squared shoulders which make him look like a muscle-bound wrestler. He picks, instead, a model that is midway between the two, with body lines and slight shoulder padding which flatters the figure.

It’s been suggested that the reason the Eastern Establishment embraced the natural shoulder was because sport was such a part of their culture that men didn’t need any artificial shoulder padding, having plenty of muscle there from rowing, football, squash and tennis. My opinion is that is has more to do with the WASP ethos than corpore sano: natural-shouldered jackets are honest and unadorned, befitting a group of people who reviled falsity and overstatement.

In his rundown of collar options, Bacharach has this to say about buttondowns:

This style is a favorite of both college men and postgraduates. It has a casual appearance because of its slight roll.

He also has an entire section called “Clothes For The Campus,” from which comes this extended excerpt:

Before World War II, many experts considered the college students of this country the best-dressed men to be found anywhere. Fashion scouts at first concentrated their attention on the Big Three — Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Then other Ivy League colleges came to the fore sartorially, and eventually schools and universities all over the country became as prominent in the fashion picture as the big Eastern schools. The colleges gave rise to many important fashions, among them the gray flannel suit, the camel’s-hair overcoat, the button-down collar-attached shirt, the narrow-brimmed hat and the white buckskin shoe.

But World War II changed all this. During the war, and in the years immediately following it, the majority of students were attending school on the GI Bill, and apparel became unimportant. The average student then wore his old Army field jacket, suntan pants or “pinks” or anything else he owned. These fellows were there for serious study, making up the time they’d lost while in the service, and nothing else mattered.

As the years passed, this mode of dressing had is effect. When Army clothes wore out, or when the men tired of them, they adopted extremely casual clothes. T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweaters were worn with denims and Levi’s. This vogue for extremely casual attire, which approached sloppiness, lasted for about four years, and, although many college men still dress this way, the trend of late has been toward better grooming. And once again, certain colleges are serving as fashion sources for the nation.

The passage on the GI Bill is especially interesting. Conventional wisdom has it that the GI Bill helped spread the Ivy League Look. I think it most surely did, but Bacharach suggests that it may also have undermined campus dress as well. In fact, the influx of merit-based students on the GI Bill so infuriated certain Yale faculty members that they felt it necessary to instill a dress code, something that previously social custom took care of. We haven’t yet explored Yale’s post-GI Bill dress code, but will in a future post.

Some of Bacharach’s admonitions are just plain amusing. Imagine the gall of those successful suburban country club types who insist on wearing their rumpled pipe-smoke-reeking tweed to the Saturday dance!

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In closing, there is much sensible advice in the book, as there is in every other “dress for success” offering. Then there’s the evil flipside of sensible advice, such as pronouncements like this:

There can be no correct substitute for a white shirt for any occasion when the clock shows that it is after 6 pm.

Most of us are happy to leave the office and head out to dinner in the same blue, pink, striped and tattersall shirt we put on in the morning. However, even in 2013 there are still men cursed with an orthodox temperament, who feel a sense of moral superiority for having changed into a white shirt — which may or may not complement what they’re wearing — when leaving the office for an evening engagement.

I’m reminded of the wise words of a dear friend, who once noted that such men know everything about clothes except how to enjoy them. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD