Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Every other inch a gentleman

I'd venture to say that I of the men I know, see, and meet, but a few are true gentlemen, despite the fact that so many fraternities proclaim themselves houses of "True Gentlemen." Has the gentleman - and his aesthetic - become a thing of endangerment, or worse, headed towards extinction? No, I think not, but instead like to muse that perhaps the creation of casual Friday, and casual Monday, and casual Sunday, has instead made the true gentleman stand out from his previously disguised counterparts.


It's a fine line of judging a book by it's cover to say that, because of course, a gentleman can be found in any clothes, and his enemy, found in tie and coat. The men of Mad Men come to mind... But in my perfect world, a gentleman possesses style in its truest essence: not an imitation, or a uniform, but a true personal style that only a confident man can carry, dandy or not.

This is, coincidentally, the case in Lesley M. M. Blume's new book, Let's Bring Back, a collection of writings from her column of the same name on Huffington Post. Of course, her wish list includes everything from "Hats on Men" (yes, please!) to "Crudite platters," but in general it reflects items, behaviors, manners, and ways of living that should be forever classically stylish, and universally held. Style, after all, both transforms and transcends trends.

[Mother, Father - I know you're reading (you're my biggest fans) - this book is definitely on my Christmas / Birthday wish list].

What is it that makes a gentleman, though? A man of style? It seems that everywhere I look lately, somebody is offering their professional opinion (an excellent sign of optimism for this breed), so I thought I'd put together a summary of my recent readings on the subject.

If anyone can help us out, surely it's 192-year-old outfitter of gentlemen, Brooks Brothers. What's their latest take on the modern man of style? If their foray into Twitter this week is any indication, it's one who is social. I became an official follower yesterday, and thus received a DM, with instructions to follow a link this this image, which describes, in succinct style, what tweets to expect from the Brooks Brothers aesthetic:

Take this tweet, as exemplary of their expertise:
Theodore Roosevelt wore a Brooks Brothers military uniform in his famous march up San Juan
Hill. http://bit.ly/d5PWJy.
Brooks Brothers is also on Facebook, where they hold polls meant for sparking "sartorial debate," pose customer style questions to their followers, and of course, share style tips for the gentleman and gentlewoman. They're in good company too; brands such as Southern Proper and Southern Tide regularly tweet and share "American Gentleman Lessons" and the like:

Southern Tide: American Gentleman Lesson No. 69:
Lesson No. 69: A Gentleman Always Dresses to Impress - “The clothes don’t make the man, but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” - Henry Ward Beecher, US Congressional Minister

Let's revisit the Mad Men topic; as I wrote about a year ago, Brooks Brothers is hip with the Mad Men, recruiting costume designer Janie Bryant to create a limited-edition Mad Men suit. And as we return full circle, one, Lesley M. M. Blume, possesses in her arsenal a Mad-Men edition column, a list which includes hats for men, hats for women, and of course, the three martini lunch - noting, that in those golden days, if you worked in advertising or journalism, a four martini lunch was the minimum.

Perhaps my affinity for men of this nature can be tied back to Cary Grant in the classic newspaper film, His Girl Friday.

The newspaper man was the hard-working, hard-drinking, man's man of the intelligentsia (re-call also Brad Pitt's character in A River Runs Through It, the hardened Montana counterpart to his "softer" Dartmouth educated brother, nicknamed "the Professor"). This behavior always brings to mind male friends of mine from college - "Gentleman and Scholars," they called themselves - who used to have evenings in which they indulged in suits, Scotch, cigars, and philosophical debate. As I tend to romanticize a lot, film's such as His Girl Friday both resonate with me and develop in me a nostalgia for an age of journalism I never knew, and never will (as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has developed a certain yearning for more filibusters). But, as my own father, and a true Southern gentleman of style raised me on the classics, it's my personal opinion that the modern gentleman will have studied style icons the likes of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and other such classic film stars.

But with shows such as Mad Men, and recent developments such as Janie Bryant being commissioned to design her own vintage-inspired line, will the growing affinity for the look - a major trend in Fall 2010 runway, as evidenced most clearly by Louis Vuitton's collection - and the nostalgia for the past bring back the behavior as well? Certainly as a culture we've moved forward in many, many positive ways, but if Blume's column and book - and their popularity - are evidence, we miss certain trappings of the lifestyle, even if - like myself - we were too young to have ever lived in such an era.

The Wall Street Journal referenced both Grant, Bogart, Clark Gable and the men of Mad Men in their article the other week on the return of the three-piece suit to menswear:

"The three-piece, a suit with a matching waistcoat (aka vest), is the most formal type of suit, long the provenance of dandies, 1930s film stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Clark Gable, and later, bankers in London and on Wall Street. It's a fussy suit, one with an extra unit, which is why it disappeared for nearly 20 years after World War II as the result of fabric rationing.
[mens suits] 
Ralph Lauren: Ralph Lauren Purple Label pinstripe three-piece suit.

It vanished again in the '90s, suffering the dual blows of minimalism and casual Friday (which spread into casual Everyday). But some men are dressing up again, thank goodness, and not necessarily just for the office; they're even adding flourishes like pocket squares and tie bars. The three-piece suit makes a statement, literally, of one-upmanship in the dressing-up arms race."
And in case you're looking for a more casual three piece look - and in further evidence that style encompasses more than one set look and is not, absolutely not, a uniform - have no fear, because corduroy's been making the waves again, also, often in the case of a three-piece ensemble: http://on.wsj.com/dhyLOV.

Also, Ralph Lauren

To quote the former article, "men are dressing up again, thank goodness," but why? What's going on in our culture that's prompting this resurgence, and is it occurring in Midwestern cities such as mine? And why are we, in a recessionista's economy, less concerned about fabric rationing than our World War II counterparts? As I believe that style encompasses so much more than fashion - involving an invested interest in culture, the arts, the happenings of the world, in exploring all facets of life, and an inner beauty (or in this case, perhaps handsomeness) that is reflected confidently through a personal style and aesthetic - I'll be searching for the answers to all of today's raised questions and more this winter. 

(If you're a male friend or acquaintance of mine - be ready for some questions!)

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