The F-word is anathema to most menswear devotees. It’s antithetical to our treasured notion of well-curated tailored clothing being impervious to fickle fancy or engineered obsolescence. The entire menswear renaissance is predicated on contempt of fashion as a feminine fixation, embracing instead a sensibly masculine sense of “permanent style” embodied by the golden era of silver screen menswear.
Timelessness, however, wasn’t originally the point. On the contrary, Apparel Arts, Esquire, and other 1930s menswear ur-texts sold themselves with up-to-the-minute reports on what toffs and swells were wearing that season in London, Princeton, Palm Beach, and Saratoga. What saved these publications from being merely obsequious rag gossip -- what elevated them into a canon -- were writers and editors thoroughly grounded in sartorial history and received taste, with an intimate understanding of clothing’s materials and techniques. They ennobled dressing by treating the subject with a gravitas befitting its premier beau monde practitioners.
In all their paunched and balding glory, those trendsetting society playboys and industry titans were at least real individuals, rather than models in advertising campaigns. They (or perhaps their valets) dressed themselves in clothing selected from their own wardrobes, made according to their own taste, by their own tailors. The looks they embraced were fresh and modern, in keeping with a zeitgeist which -- in the midst of global depression and with The Great War a very raw memory -- couldn’t help but be forward-looking: countrified city clothes, ideal for growing ranks of suburban commuters; comfortable sportswear, aspirationally enjoyed by all on novel “weekends”; exotic resort wear, for remote destinations now at least theoretically accessible by air. It was a look simultaneously elite and democratic: elegance for all. Little wonder it endures.
Fashion, in its pure and ideal form, is no more or less than a sartorial reflection of its times, and as such is nothing to be ashamed or contemptuous of. It has, of course, become something quite different over recent decades, as the “fashion industry” has supplanted the clothing trade. The latter is what sponsored Apparel Arts, with advertisements offering dense summaries of any given product’s exquisitely tasteful details, or touting the latest wonder technology which gave it superior comfort or fit. The fashion industry, on the other hand, is primarily in the business of manufacturing image and yearning -- as fleeting and insubstantial as the fragrances which gird its bottom line, and for which actual clothing has only ever been a token.
Fortunately, with each passing year, the fashion industry is calling fewer and fewer tunes. Where not too long ago GQ and a greatly diminished Esquire were the only ready reference for millions of aspirational dressers, they now seem hopelessly behind the curve, hawking sartorial one-night stands to men who are finding a true love for tailoring. When was the last (or first) time anyone reading this bought a Dolce & Gabbana suit? The real arbiters of men’s style today aren’t fashion editors and designers, but the countless bloggers, Instagrammers, and other digital denizens bringing their consumer-grade lenses to bear on the man on the street having fun with his classic clobber.
With fashion’s focus once again where it belongs -- the actual clothing worn by real men in the real world (or for that matter at Pitti Uomo) -- let it go where it may.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]