I suspect that most men find an interest in tailored clothing through one of three paths: tradition, ambition, or nostalgia. By tradition, I mean the paternal (or at least paternalistic) example and instruction that once helped usher boys into manhood amid the heaped tables of Brooks Brothers and a thousand other men’s stores. I’m not sure this happens much anymore. It certainly didn’t happen to me. Nor do I share the “dress for success and/or sex” mentality which drives the musky readership of men’s glossies to buy their skinny black suits two sizes too small and their watches too large. I am, however, deeply implicated in that great yearning for the past that’s fueling the renaissance in tailored clothing today.
Alan Flusser and Bruce Boyer are largely to blame here. They understood that men’s style wasn't found simply in cut or cloth, but also legend and lore, and the romantic narrative of tailored elegance they assembled at its popular nadir helped inspire the historicist appreciation so prevalent today. Young metropolitan dandies fetishize the sexy swagger of the 70s, the sleek modernity of the 60s, the respectful reserve of the 50s, the bold confidence of the 40s, the louche elegance of the 30s, the awkward exuberance of the 20s, and even turn-of-the-century proletarian pride. These best of these looks seek to avoid pastiche, but their antique inspiration can still provoke tarring with the broad brush of retro hipsterdom.
Clever company has always reviled nostalgia as sentimental at best, reactionary at worst -- the antithesis of the modern, the progressive, the original, the new. Of course, the whole notion of modernity is a bit outdated these days: for better and for worse, our Here and Now is a whole lot of This and That, Once Upon a Time. The internet has made the past an unprecedentedly vital part of the cultural present, a roiling synthesis of styles and traditions from which individuals are free to cull their identities not according to who they are, strictly speaking, but who they wish to be. “Authenticity” -- that Holy Grail of contemporary Arts & Leisure -- is now less an embodied quality than a principled intention: to live beyond irony.
Way back in what already felt like the irony-saturated 1990s, David Foster Wallace hopefully theorized in his epochal essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” that the next generation of tastemakers might
have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles...eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue...risk disapproval...the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists.
Wallace was writing about future “literary rebels,” but his prescient manifesto also nails the motivation of this new generation of dandies. Whatever one thinks of our more egregiously anachronistic foibles, we are rediscovering sartorial style for its own sake, according to our own tastes -- a refreshingly sincere phenomenon which will resonate far beyond the current vintage vogue. When posterity pronounces the cultural archetypes of our era, the retro hipster will be among them; even the most hopelessly nostalgic young fogey should embrace the fact that he’s not only a product of his times -- he’s quintessentially so.
And to the more seasoned and subtle dressers out there hoping to elude charges of Gatsby/Gangster/Gekko pastiche by denying yourselves the pleasures of spectators, fedoras, or braces: never forget that in the blinkered eyes of the sartorial incognoscenti, you remain in mildly pretentious costume simply by virtue of wearing a jacket and tie to anything but Gainful Employment or a Life Event.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]