EDITOR’S NOTE: Nathaniel Means was kind enough to offer up this review of Alan Flusser’s book on Ralph Lauren. It’s a thought and reaction-provoking review, and if you haven’t read through the book, you should. I revisited the book itself in preparation for this article, and here is what I was left with. First, it helps to know who Flusser is. Flusser, now retired, dressed Gordon Gekko. And other stuff sure, but he dressed Gekko. Flusser was (still is I would imagine, but he’s retired, so – ) one of the best at this – the balancing act between the clothes and the person wearing them. Flusser’s gift was designing and writing about that balance. He made it an equitable partnership – person and outfit. I am not sure that Ralph Lauren, who is the most influential designer in our space whether you like it or not, can strike that same balance. Lauren’s work is so epic it overshadows its subject. And on me, it never-point-never (an Animal House reference, let me know if you get it) fits, either. Second, I once sat next to Ralph Lauren and his wife in the balcony of a movie theater we had to ourselves, and he couldn’t have been more fun. We hung our feet over the edge (he was on crutches) and made jokes together. Uncommon for a person of Ralph Lauren’s celebrity to seek out interaction, yet he did. That always left a mark. – JB
Even at the risk of over-using superlatives, Ralph Lauren stands indisputably as a singular figure in men’s fashion and the unsurpassed promoter of the Ivy Style over the past half century. Finally, the entire span of Lauren’s life and contributions have been thoroughly explicated by Alan Flusser a designer and masterful prose stylist who stands as one of the most well-respected commentators on men’s fashion. For those interested in the Ivy Look, Ralph Lauren’s illustrious career, and the entire span of both men and women’s fashion over the past century, Flusser’s comprehensive study of Lauren is essential reading.
Flusser details the myriad of Lauren’s contributions in marketing both the Ivy Style and his many interpretations of it. Ralph Lauren was the first to convince department stores like Bloomingdales to feature an exclusive boutique of Lauren’s shirts, trousers, shorts and jackets all together in one place so that the customer was not just buying one or two articles of the brand but an ensemble meant to be worn together. His partnership with the fashion photographer Bruce Weber festooned nationally and internationally circulated advertisements his whole vision of an upper-class style suddenly democratized for aspiring men and women on the make far beyond the confines of America’s elite universities, New York, Newport, and Palm Beach.
Ralph Lauren sold a “look,” but he also made enormous contributions to a style that may have appeared permanent but one that was also constantly changing. Readers will enjoy a marvelous introduction to Brooks Brothers’ critical contributions to the style and accoutrements of the old WASP elite that wore the clothes that became and set the fashions. Lauren constantly re-invented the look with his own creativity. He favored two button jackets so as to reveal more of the tie and longer shirt collars, altering proportions to change how people saw the man in the clothes. Jackets bore enormous influence from English tailors: he adopted side vents and suppressed waists, embraced tweed, and favored softer shoulders borrowed from the English “dress soft” movement popularized by the Duke of Windsor. Ralph Lauren combined those English elements with the Ivy essentials of button down oxford shirts, Shetland sweaters, and polo coats to create his own take on the Ivy Style, neither completely formal nor casual, but leaving the man donning his clothes convinced that he had attained sartorial membership in the old Wasp elite to which people now referred simply as the world of Ralph Lauren. He helped to make “khakis” a mainstay of a man’s wardrobe, and popularized his own knit shirts that made Polo an eponym for those short sleeved, three buttoned, collard athletic shirts that are ubiquitous.
Equally thorough is Flusser’s attention to a wide array of Lauren’s other interests. Chapters feature Lauren’s houses, cars, and his love of the American West. Ralph Lauren’s limitless vision to see endless possibilities of creativity led him to transpose so many elements of men’s clothing onto his many contributions to women’s fashion: he put women in comfortable, outdoor country blends of tweeds, jeans, and corduroy. For one interested particularly in the Ivy Style, it is the first half of the book that addresses Lauren’s early career that will receive the most attention.
Followers of the Ivy Style will no doubt debate endlessly the extent to which Ralph Lauren changed the style, deviated from it, or invented something new altogether. Ralph Lauren certainly inspired generations of Americans to contend with the Ivy Style and engage in that same endless spirit of creative mixing with which undergraduates of Princeton and Yale and other Ivy League schools did in their own routine of choosing and dressing.
Alan Flusser’s painstaking detail and depth of analysis makes Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion an exceptionally fine, cogent study of one of the most important figures in the past half century.
More Editor’s Notes: got into the comments and thought, they are right, you never see Ralph in a button down collar. Here he is:
A true American success story. The man has done it all!
Thanks for the post, Nathaniel, and for the reminiscence about Ralph at the movies, John. Also, anyone who has not read Mr. Flusser’s books, particularly Clothes and the Man, is missing a great source of practical as well as stylistic information on dressing well, whether Ivy, Savile Row, or standard American business style.
One need not embrace as gospel every item that issues from Ralph Lauren’s shops or Mr. Flusser’s pen, but both are most assuredly worth consulting in the matter of men’s clothing. Along with a small handful of writers (Boyer perhaps most prominently) and retailers (J. Press, old Brooks, and a few others) they have had a huge positive impact on American style through the 70s and on into the 21st century. Polo in particular spread an awareness of tweeds, oxford cloth, repp ties, etc. to thousands who otherwise would never have thought about anything beyond the poly-blend stuff available at J.C. Penney. Hats off to Lauren and Flusser.
Thank you! I’ve just added the book to my Amazon wishlist.
This looks like a must-read. Mr. Flusser’s Dressing The Man was hugely influential in my own personal style. No, I don’t walk around dressed like the Duke of Windsor or Cary Grant, but the way Flusser describes how clothes can accentuate or enhance one’s figure and shape, and how different colors, contrasts, and patterns pair with different complexions, is something I think of every time I make a new clothing purchase. No doubt his tome on Ralph is worth the read. Thanks!
Ralph Lauren is a marketing genius who brilliantly saw the potential of “Ivy” and “Prep” to exploit the insecurity of gullible suburbanites. He has made his vast fortune from selling Polo branded garbage that is made in Asia and China. The elite of the Ivy League universities would not be seen dead with a “Phoney Pony” (as it’s called by my Savile Row tailor) on their chests.
Correction “Dressing the Man” is the Flusser book I had intended to highlight. And Nevada gets it exactly right.
Charlottesville, I had to look it up, as I forgot that Flusser also wrote Clothes And The Man. I don’t have that one, but I imagine the two similarly-titled books must cover a good deal of overlapping territory.
Nevada – You are correct. Dressing the Man is the more up-to-date, expanded and well-illustrated of the two books. If you like this sort of thing, I also recommend Bernhard Roetzel’s Gentleman, A Timeless Guide to Fashion. He is German, and most of his examples skew English, but the illustrations and information are well worth a look. I have the 2011 English-language edition, but I believe that there is an updated version available now.
I have commended on this before but, I have never once in all the pictures of Ralph over the years, seen him wearing a button down collar shirt.
Hi Frederick – check out the bottom of the post. – JB
Frederick J Johnson,
Unless I have a very faulty memory, I have never seen a picture of Bruce Boyer wearing a button down collar shirt, either.
Hi Dutch, check out the bottom of the post for Ralph Lauren; Boyer I have to work on. – JB
One of Ralph Lauren’s wisest decisions was to make his jackets in two-button style , just as Ben Silver of Charleston, SC and The Andover Shop have always done.
Minimalist Trad — As you point out, there is certainly precedent for the 2-button Ivy jacket, and they have long been available not only from The Andover Shop and Ben Silver, but even from heyday era Brooks and J. Press (see Dick Cavett).
Two-button may have been the default for Ralph Lauren, but double-breasted was always part of his look and I have three single-breasted Polo suits and a sport coat, all of which are three-button, with the lapel rolled to the center button. I used to have two more in the same configuration, but gave them away a couple of years ago. I still own a two-button, darted Polo blazer but the sole 2-button Polo suit I have owned was also passed on to Goodwill some time ago. Most of what remains in my closet are Brooks No. 1 sacks, or J. Press.
I saw Lauren twice. The first time was at Bloomingdales in late 60s in the men’s furnishings dept.
He was arranging his wide ties and talking with the salesmen. Fast forward 30 years, I saw him at the
Pebble Beach Concours dressed exactly as in the photo with his Bugatti 57, but he was wearing
yellow slacks. Was it the same year as the photo? Did he change his slacks? My daughter’s best friend from
high school is (was) close Lauren’s daughter at Duke. From her I learned that the Lauren’s were a very
normal American family with middle class values, despite their billions.
“If Mr. Lauren isn’t Ivy, what does he know about us that affords him the foundation to design Ivy so well?”
My two cents: Ralph doesn’t design Ivy well. He’s just better than any other retailer at selling Ivy as simultaneously aspirational and attainable. That said, his vintage, made-in-America, not-really-Ivy stuff on eBay is playful, even goofy, pretty cute, and cozy. I wouldn’t wear his Ivy and Ivy-adjacent stuff, though. Vintage BB is far better.
Freeing oneself from the grip of the three-button obsession is the first step toward developing a personal style that includes English country and Ivy elements.
Charlottesville, thanks for the recommendation of the Roetzel book. Another one for my shopping list.
The lifestyle image that Ralph Lauren sells is a marvelous marriage of flashy ostentation and tweedy ivy practicality. In terms of overall style, I really am partial to the gentle curve of a 3/2 roll jacket’s lapel, à la J. Press. But I do have a couple of vintage RL sport coats with just the two buttons and more aggressive lapels, and they do make a bolder statement. They’re not usually my go-tos, but they’re nice to have in the wardrobe for days when I want to feel a little more audacious.
Nevada – I will even confess to having several double breasted Polo suits and a custom made DB blazer, all with darts and double vents, but please don’t tell anyone or they might boot me out of the comment section. As with you, not my standard kit, but a nice change now and then.
Darts and double vents? Them’s fighting words to some in these parts. But variety is the spice of life, and if it looks good it looks good. A custom DB is on my wishlist for one of these days. (Undecided on darts/vents for that one.)
I once had a fantastic two button blazer from Ralph Lauren. The button stance was low and the lapels were on the wide side with a bit more padding in the shoulders than I prefer. Made me look like a movie star. I couldn’t pull the look off without looking like I was wearing a costume. One of the reasons I don’t own a camel polo coat. It was in mint condition at a thrift store for $5. I will always regret giving it back to charity.
I pulled out my only double breasted blazer the other day (hop sack cloth, patch pockets with no flaps, no darts and un-vented-Austin Reed) and decided that, with my crew cut and sea captain beard, I would look fairly dashing and like I was wearing a costume. Sticking to 3/2 roll.
Nevada — So true. FWIW, I say, go ahead and get the DB blazer; even if you only wear it a few times a year, I bet you will enjoy it. Perhaps you could start with a Polo version from e-Bay to see of you like it. You may have to check for a while to find the right size, but you may get lucky.
Will — I think the Ghost and Mrs. Muir look might be just the thing for a cool fall weekend. However, I acknowledge that I have to be in the right frame of mind when venturing out in a DB rig. One doesn’t want to hear “Hello Admiral” or, worse, “What are you supposed to be?” The usual, “Why are you so dressed up?” when I’m wearing a blazer, button-down, khakis and penny loafers is bad enough.
I think the DB suits probably works better in NY than C’ville, although I do see an occasional DB blazer around town. Now, if only I could find an occasion to wear my boater or bowler, but I fear neither can be worn these days outside of a costume party.
I had an early morning appointment to get a cortisone shot in my back the other day. I wore a pair of khakis and an OCBD which had just come out of the laundry and were quite wrinkled. The nurses commented on how nice and dressed up I looked. I think their heads would have exploded if I wore a double breasted blazer.
Will – If you didn’t insist on running those 200 mile races, you wouldn’t need the cortisone shots.
I was at a medical office earlier this week wearing a button down, repp tie, blazer, khakis and penny loafers, and the nurse seemed somewhat nonplussed by all that grandeur. A DB suit would definitely have put her over the top.
Funny thing-this week I also went to an early morning dental appointment(before work) wearing a white OCBD, a repp tie, a Polo plaid sport coat, khakis and penny loafers.The dental hygienist commented that I looked really well dressed. I think many people still appreciate men and women trying to avoid looking like slobs. I get similar comments many mornings when I enter the building where I work. It is a thrill to dress well-one of the many things that make life worth living. I guess the challenge is to look neat and tidy without looking buffoonish. Seems like many of the posters to this site have met the challenge. BTW, I happen to own a double breasted camel overcoat-have worn it for years each winter and the reviews are always positive-at least to me directly. Nice clothes are great fun-I have been fortunate to have been blessed with many amazing items as I have learned from some real superstars over the years. This is a wonderful website.