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by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

In the early days of Internet menswear, those of us who wished to learn more about quality clothing or bespoke had few sources. Few of us were to the manner and the tailor born, with family members and friends to groom and initiate us into those worlds. GQ and Esquire had long since ceased discussing such things with regularity, let alone probity. Those of us who thirsted for words even more than pretty pictures had to reach for other, disparate sources: the occasional book by Alan Flusser, and articles that occasionally popped up on the websites of (and I blush to write this) antediluvian luxury lifestyle magazines like Cigar Aficionado, Departures or The Robb Report by William Kissel or, of course, G. Bruce Boyer.  

Boyer was the dean of classic menswear writing, the author of the definitive description of the softly tailored drape cut and its genesis at the shears of cutter Frederick Scholte, which has been quoted, paraphrased and regurgitated so many times by so many others since he first penned it in an incredible monograph on the seminal 1930s American clothing trade magazine Apparel Arts, an early proponent of the drape cut. However, after two books, Elegance and Eminently Suitable, he went through a long period of distinct succinctness.  His occasional writings, such as Fred Astaire Style, Rebel Style, or his contributions to Maria Cooper Janis’ Gary Cooper: Enduring Style, featured a scant few pages of text to accompany pretty pictures. Apart from his essays for the album Elegance in an Age of Crisis, an exhibition on 1930s clothing which he had co-curated at the Fashion Institute of Technology, it appeared he no longer felt he had much to say.

Given it was a long time since he had waxed prolific, I was afraid Boyer was on the wane. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened Boyer’s new True Style: The History &amp Principles of Classic Menswear, which has just been published.  Would it be another large-print quick read? I’m warmly pleased to report that True Style is a return to form for Boyer. While the Acknowledgments at the end of the book mention that some of the content originally appeared in different form on several style websites, as well as in Boyer’s first two books, this is Bruce Boyer the modern remix, expertly produced, sampling elements of his best work, but with no evidence of literary autotune. As such, True Style is like a fireside conversation with an immensely knowledgeable and charming old friend, who also brought the brandy. 

Boyer doesn’t so much announce a thesis as throw a perfectly-fitting kidskin glove by way of challenge: details, the semiotics of clothing, matter as much as ever, despite the depredations of the superficially democratizing move to casualwear. Rules exist by the score, but change and come into and out of being as unpredictably as particles in theoretical physics. Thus, attempts to observe them are just about as futile – although websites purporting to set out supposed clothing rules have prospered. And these attempts to observe rules, to create and use metrics, prevent us from actually enjoying owning, contemplating and wearing clothing. For that matter, Boyer appears both amused and impressed by the profusion of Internet forums, blogs and other social media devoted to clothing. Quite simply, as he writes, “If you like it, wear it.” This formed part of the so-called Dogma of Menswear Dog’s book (which I recently reviewed), but, counter to Menswear Dog’s ersatz content, Boyer stipulates that you should know what you’re wearing and what it represents, for to deny all rules would be a nihilism that destroys the self. To Boyer, our clothes are integral to how we express ourselves, intentionally or not. So we should be aware of that, and take pleasure in how we choose to express ourselves in that manner. The stage so set, Boyer launches into an exploration of various clothes and styles chapter by alphabetical chapter.

Since Boyer begins with a chapter entitled Ascots (those highfalutin’ neckerchieves worn towards the top of the body) and immediately follows with Boots (footwear, i.e. clothing worn at the other extremity, with an emphasis on the evolution of the cowboy boot), it’s clear that his organization is no simple act of coincidence, but a series of essays with verve that wander through the history of clothes, style, and Boyer’s unique opinions on menswear literally high and low, both classic and what our German friends call “die, workwear.” His chapter on ascots allows him to describe Beau Brummell’s invention of what became the suit, an essential stepping stone for the historical discussions in the later chapters “Business Attire,” “Evening Dress” and “Suits,” among others. And “Boots” allows him to namecheck today’s currently fashionable work boot makers, signaling he’s aware of what we kids are wearing, even as he imparts to us the origin story for L.L. Bean’s invention of the duck boot, which was what passed for workwear among Preppies 25 years ago.

Boyer has perfected a sort of literary sprezzatura, a studied nonchalance of approach that actually reveals complete control and mastery of his subject. He steps from topic to apparently unrelated topic with the aplomb of style icon Fred Astaire (whom he of course evokes). Despite apparent digression, he stitches together a cohesive story of the origins and evolutions of today’s menswear classics, tropes and obsessions – from the English country house look to Italian style to pocket squares to sprezzatura itself. 

One might quibble with his discussion of what passes for sprezzatura today, on which I believe he goes far too easy, although to his credit he notes his disinterest in “the violently trendy and flamboyant uptick of the moment.” He also creates a straw man extreme of business casual, the hypothetical banker dressed like a “drugged-addled surfer” whom he refers to from time to time, usually to suggest the pendulum has swung back towards somewhat more formal work clothing. Hasn’t he seen Point Break? Bodhi dies. I fear that today, whether we like it or not, the waves of non-iron shapeless blue shirts and khakis (that is, what business casual really is) may well by closing in on us, no matter what fashion blogs say.  

But these are minor trifles in an immensely pleasurable read, with the further enticements of an extremely well-chosen list of “The Best Fashion Books for Men” in the appendix (no doubt only True Style’s publication timing caused him to omit the forthcoming books by Parisian Gentleman and Simon Crompton). Reading True Style is a treat for anyone interested in men’s clothing, from the novice (if that concept still exists in a world of instant Internet expertise) to the jaded and cynical (me). Despite all of Boyer’s modesty, he reaches his goal of helping the reader “transcend the moment”: the time it takes to read this will fly, and Boyer’s always gentle, diplomatic encouragements towards individual taste, thought and quality can only be improving.

Photo by Rose Callahan