Men In Style: The Golden Age Of Fashion From Esquire

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This book, which I mentioned in a recent post, is rather an inspiration.

You know how you flick through men’s magazines, hoping against hope that there will be an inspiring fashion shoot of suits, ties and shirts, demonstrating bold colour combinations you hadn’t considered, illustrating textbook use of pattern density and pushing the boundaries for contrast in texture? Styling that encompasses the rich past of menswear yet enervating it with effective modern interpretations?

Well I do. And outside an occasional spread in the Esquire Big Black Book, and slightly more frequent line-ups in The Rake, they are hard to find. Inspiration for me more often comes from runways, blogs like The Sartorialist and men I just see around on the street.

Which is ironic. Because the illustrations from Esquire that are collected in Men in Style are a composite of those inspirations: what men are wearing, slightly idealised, and slightly styled. No one sits quite that nonchalantly assembling his fishing rod, perched on the edge of the desk. But men are wearing wide peaked collars with single-breasted suits. And the pattern combination among check, herringbone, stripe and crocodile is certainly inspirational.

Esquire was some magazine, containing articles and stories by writers like Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett and John dos Passos. It was progressive, boldly printing a tale by a black author about a romantic multi-racial triangle – at readers’ request. And most importantly, it employed some great illustrators – particularly Laurence Fellows, Leslie Saalburg and Robert Goodman. Each had their strengths, but all could paint texture, cloth and drape extremely well. This was their primary skill – where modern fashion shoots focus on atmosphere at the expense of detail, these illustrations showed the shine of every button and the subtlety of every pattern.

Those were the good old days, you may say. No one would produce that kind of thing now. But when Esquire launched it was entirely unique on the newsstand. As Woody Hochswender says in his introduction, “the conventional wisdom was that men were not interested in fashion, at least not interested enough to be caught dead looking at it in a magazine.” So Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor, sought articles “substantial enough to deodorise the lavender whiff coming from the mere presence of fashion pages.”

Men’s fashion magazines today feature many articles. But you wouldn’t call many of them substantial. If I see another grooming piece telling me how to shave I’ll kill someone. Hemingway it ain’t.

The original Esquire was brave and different. And it launched as the world clambered out of global recession. Coincidence?

Old Before My Time: Sock Suspenders

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As a man gets older his tastes and manner are supposed to evolve. And yet, since crashing through the 30 year barrier a while ago (alright, 4 years ago) I’ve noticed a number of alarming trends creeping into my life. Firstly, I seem to need to pee in the middle of the night. Secondly, manoeuvring into a chair I have an inexplicable requirement to make an “Ahh” noise as I touchdown. I’m sat hear writing this on a Saturday night (dear Lord…); And now, I’m considering buying sock suspenders!

Read enough books on style and clothing you soon realise that while the English receive deserved praise for the quality of our suiting, shirting, shoes and they way they’re worn, there is near universal contempt, and some mockery, for our socks –or rather the type of socks we wear and how we wear them.

Nicholas Antongiavanni in ‘The Suit’ dedicates a near chapter to English shortcomings in this area; and the Italian’s, the Englishman’s natural sartorial nemesis, can be particularly creative in regard to denigrating sayings. But just recently I’ve realised they have a point.

Conduct an unscientific survey of fellow travellers on the Tube and our sins become obvious. Many men wear short socks barely clearing the ankle, others long socks but allow them to lazily slope down and gather at the ankle. In either case the result is the same –the exposure of hairy, pasty white calf. Others, particularly public school boys (read private school) have a habit of wearing hockey socks with suits, in materials all together too thick and heavy for combining with suiting.

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Just when I developed this appreciation for an elegantly crossed leg, with taut sock and no sign of calf is a mystery. But you only have to look at pictures of Cary Grant sat cross legged to instantly get the aesthetic.

But long socks, even with elasticated tops, will eventually make their way down towards the ankle. And so, I have reluctantly concluded the only remedy is sock suspenders.

Cary Collection: Manhattan Treasure Trove

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New Yorkers have mastered the art of living luxuriously in small spaces. Visiting Leonard Logsdail and Stephen Kempson in midtown last week was a good example: you step straight from the elevator into a compact yet very well-appointed tailoring studio, complete with armchairs, drink and racks of cloth. Alan Flusser’s small boutique is similar.

But the “bachelor flat/cum showrooms” of Thomas Cary (as he himself described it to me by email) are something else. As the pictures here amply demonstrate, the four small rooms on the upper-east side are stuffed from floor to ceiling with gentlemen’s collectibles and accoutrements.

From an old Dunhill walking stick with concealed blade to an Asprey catalogue featuring beautiful painted boards; from Christmas cards drawn by Cecil Beaton to vintage velvet slippers. And of course books, mountains and mountains of books. Regular customers include Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, who have bought items both for display and design inspiration.

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I had discovered Thomas while searching for a copy of Men in Style: The Golden Age of Fashion from Esquire by Woody Hochswender. Although only published in 1993 it is now out of print, and is the only collected edition of illustrations from Esquire or Apparel Arts as far as I know. Outside of this volume there are the original editions of both magazines, but they usually only contain a few plates and are much more expensive.

As I was to be in New York, and one seller on AbeBooks.com (Thomas) lived in the city, I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out the book. Little did I know the treasure trove I was discovering.

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Thomas also owns several hardback editions of the original Apparel Arts, which are truly beautiful things. The adverts are just as attractive as the features – as those that have seen scanned copies on various style fora can attest. But I didn’t realise that they also include swatches of cloth tacked to the pages. Not big ones, but enough to give a prospective buyer a sense of the weight and handle. If only my pockets were deeper (the set of six is on for $4500).

I did end up with Men in Style though, which I was very happy with. Fans of classic style will be familiar with many of the illustrations, but it is lovely to have them collected and in one’s hands. And doubtless they will provide inspiration for many blog posts in the future.

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[Pictures from Tina Barney’s portraits of the showrooms for Nest Magazine in Spring 2000.]

Clothes With (A) Character

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One morning, a gentleman by the name of Paul Stuart awoke, put on his navy worsted suit with a solid grenadine tie and brown wingtips, only to find upon arriving at his shop that it had already been opened for the day. Venturing in, he found his son, long gone jet-setting all around the world, waiting for him in a very sharp pinstripe suit and a wild plaid tie at his neck. “Where have you been, and where did you get that suit?” his father quickly exclaimed. “Everywhere and Right Here” was his son’s response.

This ‘errant son,’ as Paul Stuart describes him, is Phineas Cole, the fictional inspiration for Paul Stuart’s more youthful, adventurous collection. Rather than asking a high-profile fashion designer to do what he has already been doing for years, and then slapping a classic label on it, Paul Stuart took a slightly different route. Without abandoning the heritage and classic focus that makes Paul Stuart such a mainstay in traditional men’s dressing, it found a way to reach out to new customers who might be looking for something a bit different. Paul Stuart invented not only a new line of clothes, but also a new exemplary customer to wear them and symbolize them. I find this immensely inspiring. Our clothes are not only a reflection of who we are, but we are also to some degree defined by how they present us to the world. Phineas straddles this line gracefully and with ease.

While most designers might describe “The So-and-So Man of This Season” is doing this or wearing that, Phineas is a more intricate persona. He is a young, vibrant, adventurous man, probably somewhere in his late twenties to mid thirties, who spends his days as the always-gentlemanly life of every party, no matter where that party may be. You are not just entering into a season’s unifying aesthetic, but also a lifestyle and attitude. It is this idea of expressing a particular lifestyle or ideal through one’s dress that made me fall in love with the idea of Phineas Cole the first time I came across it. And, it so happens, his is a lifestyle of living life to the fullest and pursuing the best no matter where it takes you – and I can get behind that without a moment’s hesitation. As you can see, their marketing is working quite well on me.

The Way We Wear Denim

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It’s rather uncanny that the garment in a gentleman’s wardrobe that reveals the most about his style progress is the ubiquitous denim jean. As a teen youth, he may have worn them wild and ripped; covered in beer spilled from plastic cups at one of the many gigs he attended. As a young early-twenty-something, he may have ‘upgraded’ to the bootcut style, with the carelessly frayed bottoms, to be worn with his overcoat when at university. He may have discarded the unkempt look entirely by his mid twenties and realised that dishevelled denim was for poor students and protestors and was not the sort of thing a trainee accountant should be wearing as he advances towards the psychologically important age of thirty years of age. His weekend look might be something like a straight-leg, dark denim, ever so slightly washed, worn high, just kissing the tassels of his oxblood loafers.

I once looked through the ghastly graveyard of my denim collection and was shocked by the number and style of the purged; it’s humbling how following fashion so closely can result in such a quantity of uselessness. Like that moment experienced by most young people when they think over folly, realising that their parents had been right all along.

Beyond the straight-leg dark denim of our hypothetical trainee accountant, it is considered that there is no denim of appropriate elegance for our gentleman of style. The ferociously anti-denim forum writers and followers of dandy purism often refuse to acknowledge denim as clothing; indeed there may be many readers of these columns who deem jeans to be beneath a gentleman’s consideration. There is something compelling in their argument that simply because a garment happens to be popular, it does not mean that a man of singular and self-determined style need be troubled with it. However, I find it difficult to reject denim entirely. And it has nothing to do with denim’s dominance in the market of casual clothing.

It has a work-a-day quality that contrasts with the finesse of tailoring, which I like. It is hard wearing and, though its comfort is overrated, in denim you do not feel particularly precious in the midst of some of the more sartorially unfriendly activities of modern life. Linen is comparable to it in this respect.

The problem for a gentleman who is cultivating a wardrobe of waistcoats, blazers, bow ties and smart shoes is finding the right denim to complement such elegance. It seems to me there are two routes to take; the gentleman in question could approach the denim question in search of an exaggerated contrast or, he could opt for a denim of classic camouflage.

I use both approaches. Sometimes I will wear a pair of washed skinny jeans with some loafers, an odd jacket and a shirt and tie – I like the aesthetic contrast between the materials; my lower half is exaggeratedly contemporary whereas my upper half is arguably inter-war. On other occasions, I will slip on a pair of straight leg dark and unwashed (non-raw) jeans that masquerade as blue trousers. This look forms a more classic silhouette that is recommended for lovers of the classical. The reason why this look works is because of the way denim works as a fabric; a slight bunching or creasing around the knees is not unwanted or unattractive, whereas on a pair of cotton or wool trousers it would be. Trousers are required to be crisply pressed whereas denim looks far better when it is un-ironed. It is for this reason that denim is such an excellent lifestyle material.