Styleforum is old school. Not necessarily in the sartorial sense, but because it is fundamentally an artifact of an earlier internet: an online message board -- a visually mundane community of interest, by and for drilled-down dorks, fostering extended discussions of hardcore esoterica. In an online world dominated by the evanescent buzz of social media, there’s something a bit anachronistic about Styleforum’s underlying conceit: that the essential commodity of men’s style isn’t image, or inspiration, but information -- freely shared, carefully parsed, hotly debated, and densely archived in a process more socially mediated than likes, retweets, favorites, and pins can ever provide.
It can be easy to forget how recently classic tailored clothing seemed vestigial, irrelevant even. In the early/mid 90s, as an undergraduate attending morning lectures in vintage three-piece suits, I’m sure plenty of people had me pegged as a rather odd duck, but they probably didn’t see me as part of some weird retro dandy scene, because none existed. Aside from surf and rockabilly elements on the townie fringe, there was no classic clothes culture to be found anywhere on my midwestern campus. Nor was one available even in the men’s fashion magazines which had once made it their central business. Even in New York, while classicists like Flusser, Logsdail, and Raphael were doing a fine business attending an elite clientele of corporate cognoscenti, the triumphant shuffle of Business Casual and the recent excesses of designer and “power” dressing had largely dated, discredited, and even disgraced classic tailored attire as either the oppressive uniform of a square or the showy status symbol of a shark. Aside from a few artisans laboring in real, pre-internet obscurity, the subtle standards of quality make and proper wear that had characterized fine men’s clothing for the previous two centuries would be preserved through that dark age only in the prized analog archives of aesthetes and nostalgists.
Approximately one very poorly-dressed decade later, it was the menswear message boards -- first Ask Andy, but foremost Styleforum, both supplemented by the niche Fedora and London Lounges (and all knee-bitten by a certain warren of leporidae cinephiles) -- that first began coalescing these sparsely scattered dresser-monks into something resembling communities. Across the boards, the best posts of those early years were essentially Promethean brain-dumps of sartorial lore from a new breed of arbiter elegantiarum -- one which derived sartorial authority not from traditional signifiers of wealth, prominence, or cool, but from depth of knowledge.
Whatever one calls us -- enthusiasts, dandies, menswear dorks -- this tribe derives real pleasure (perhaps even a neurochemical buzz?) from a perfectly shivered trouser break, or the easy swale of cloth over the waist of well-cut jacket. To us, these are specifically, uniquely beautiful things: the brush strokes and grace notes of a rarefied sartorial art that actually has very little to do with Fashion, Status, Vanity, or any of the other callow motivations so frequently ascribed to deliberate dressing by those who don’t get its inherent appeal. If menswear truly is all about the details, the significance of those details, the fun of them, is in their recognition and appreciation by one’s peers.
If asked, most men will resolutely insist that they dress for themselves. This would seem especially true of those who choose to risk being tarred as eccentric or effete by outfitting themselves with conspicuous care. What Styleforum and other menswear forums recognize, however, is that most of these recreational dressers -- the guys who really damn the haters and just go for it -- are less motivated to make an individual statement than to be part of an ongoing insider dialogue -- a conversation among connoisseurs.
The tone of that conversation varies from forum to forum, but I think Styleforum has been wise to permit the flourishing of its most infamous attribute: snark. However abrasive, juvenile, or just plain nasty it may be at times, Styleforum’s tolerance for obnoxiousness as helped keep it real, proofing it against members who may have grown too big for their brace-cut britches. By contrast, the policed aspiration to more civilized discourse in other gentler, more genteel menswear fora can sometimes skew precious, bloating the whole enterprise of fine dressing with harrumpfy nostalgia. For the most part, the diverse denizens of Styleforum seek to dress well amid the crass rough and tumble of the real world -- not despite it.
Approximately one much better-dressed decade after Styleforum’s creation, it has clearly emerged as the essential town square of #menswear. Countless onetime n00bs have gone on to start their own tumblrs, blogs, websites, and even entire menswear companies, and the proliferation of menswear-related social media far exceeds my ability to even feign familiarity with it. What was once a niche interest has exploded into a universe of niches, and it can sometimes seem like the old regulars are too busy working their claims to spend much time jawbonin’ down at the saloon. Styleforum, however, continues to play a central role in bringing menswear out of the cultural closet, coaxing a new generation of dudes to take a second look at what's in theirs -- to redefine masculinity with softer shoulders, a touch of drape, and a bit more flare.
[Originally published in The Styleforum Brief.]