My series of menswear-related book reviews for Put This On (see also my Marketplace of Ideas interview about PTO with Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor) debuts today with a writeup of Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man:
If I didn’t know the name Alan Flusser, I’d still trust Dressing the Man by virtue of heft alone. Its size, shape, and weight could deal serious damage, although those cumbersome qualities keep me from carrying it around to test in a street fight, and even if I could easily carry it around, would I? I don’t mind learning how to dress in public — we always have to, in some sense — but it feels somehow inappropriate to reading a big, shiny book on how to dress in public. Then gain, if you’re going to learn how to dress that way, make it with a big, shiny book by a guy like Flusser, who dressed Michael Douglas for Wall Street and, more importantly, appeared in the sixth episode of Put This On’s first season (as well as an interview minisode).
But does this one rise above its closest-looking relative in publishing, the coffee-table book? All the lush, often page-filling photography of the Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, and Luciano Barbera, not to mention the jaunty vintage illustrations, makes you wonder. After so many school years of bloated, distraction-laden textbooks, my alarms sound at the sight of splashy chapter-opening spreads, fonts a little too large, lines set a little too far apart, or boxes which may or may not enclose information. The aesthetics of Dressing the Man outshine most educational publishers’ strongest design efforts, but a confusion of purpose remains: is this an analysis of the best men have worn, or a primer for those who need to know how a shirt works? Reaching for both audiences, the book generates a certain friction: experienced dressers will wonder why they’re opening fold-out sections showing which fabrics are which, while learners like myself will, buoyed by how nifty they find those fold-outs, proceed to mire themselves in a discussion of dinner jacket trousers versus full-dress trousers. (Something to do with stripes.) Flusser includes a glossary to help us find our way home, deepen the feeling of textbookishness though it may.
Hence my suggestion that the next edition be titled something like Permanent Fashion: Theory and Practice. Flusser introduces this concept, which should ring familiar to longtime Put This On followers, with an explanation born of a paradox. “Menswear has enjoyed three decades of unprecedented growth and freedom to configure and reconfigure the sartorial tastes of several generations,” he writes, “yet there are fewer genuinely well-dressed men now than before. There has been nothing permanent about recent fashion.” He roots his proposed alternative as deeply as possible in the era between the World Wars, noting that, despite the “considerable economic tumult for America,” this time produced, regardless of wealth or class, “the best-dressed generation in the twentieth century.” This opens the door to 21st-century man’s standard objection: he fears looking like an octogenarian on his way to a costume party. But the book’s images seem curated to dispel just these reservations; who, even today, would laugh a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or a Leslie Howard out of the room? (Even the Howard wearing an unflatteringly narrow collar in a photo Flusser uses as a negative example commands respect.)
Read the whole thing at putthison.com.
(And hey, do any of you Tumblr people know how to add HSPACE and/or VSPACE to an image you upload into a Tumblr post? I’ve tried inserting the code directly into the HTML, but it doesn’t take.)