The Grand Trompe L'oeil
When it comes to clothes, most young men are ignorant, and in our ignorance we will listen to anyone who looks halfway decent and speaks with authority. So it goes for the progeny of business-casual, “creative black tie” parents. The old rules are gone, crushed under the Nikes and Birkenstocks of our fathers, but in their place? Ruins. This is the general sentiment of the Styleforum crowd, a group of online menswear aficionados, who gathered en masse for the first iteration of a new, high-end trade show called “Proper Kit,” presented by Styleforum. Some of the best artisanal tailors and cobblers would be there, promises of free Scotch and lobster mac’n’cheese, but the main draw was a book signing for True Style, a collection of essays written by fashion critic and cult menswear icon, Bruce Boyer.
Like so many young New Yorkers, I do many things part-time, and one of these part-time jobs is writing fashion criticism. It was out of this semi-professional curiosity that I began lurking on Styleforum, which is how I’d learned about their gathering. Styleforum is the internet’s most fastidious club for clothes-obsessed men; men who know and appreciate the difference between pinstripe and chalkstripe, between a roped shoulder and la spalla camicia. No subject is too arcane. My favorite thread is “HOF: What Are You Wearing Right Now IV,” which has over 2,000 pages of comments. It’s mostly dominated by the same group of regulars, who every day exchange photos of their absurdly calculated outfits, posting them for group critique and appreciation.
“…I feel like I went astray by doing cool colors up top and warm on the bottom; plus the top is hopsack and shantung (S/S) and the bottom is flannel and suede (F/W). I offer it up here for education purposes as I think I missed the mark again, but what says the jury? Too many clashes?”
“…I love your audacity, but this looks a bit too costumey to me.”
As I got dressed for the Proper Kit, I mulled over this dilemma; my outfit shouldn’t look too put together, but I wanted it to look nicer than everyday. And since I planned to write about the show, I figured something neutral would be best, so as to avoid notice—but not too neutral since I’d be surrounded by dandies—call it neurosis, call it the price of looking good—but I had become paralyzed with indecision. I needed to quiet the voices in my head, to forget the trend-chasers decked out in every current bit of kit, to ignore the dogmatists so obsessed with period detail they look like they’ve walked off the set of Boardwalk Empire. For lack of imagination, I fell back on my New York formula: charcoal gray jacket, medium gray pants, blue-gray sweater, black suede shoes. Perhaps I needed the guidance of a trusted expert to get out of my monochrome rut, somebody like Bruce Boyer.
On my way to the train, I spotted one. He was a few paces ahead of me, almost power-walking, a young man around my age wearing a skinny powder blue suit, chocolate suede Oxfords, and a spread collar white shirt with a large, fire-engine red tie wider than his lapels. On the station platform, he kept on his aviator sunglasses. He didn’t seem to be wearing socks. Inside the car now, I watched him preen in the reflection of the window, adjusting his tie knot. He had to be one of them, a fellow traveller. When at Union Square he got off the train—but the trade-show was in the garment district near Herald Square!—I realized my mistake and decided that I was relieved to see him go. Everything about his outfit had been wrong according to the latest #menswear tastes, which were increasingly becoming my own. Styleforum favors big lapels with a nipped waist; his short sack-jacket was passé. Worse still, the suit’s fabric was pure summer (in winter!), and his bare, chalky ankles … unforgivable.
I rode the elevator to the 11th floor of an anonymous building, on a block just above K-town. The doors parted to reveal a wide vista of white walls, old pipes, and older, beaten planks of wood. When it’s not hosting coxcombs, Gary’s Loft apparently does weddings and fashion photoshoots, renting out to anybody who wants that increasingly hard to find New York loft aesthetic—it even has a kitchen-set equipped with all mid-century appliances (with a real kitchen sealed off behind closed doors). Along the walls, vendors had spread out with booths to display their merchandise: the immaculate salesmen of Beckett and Robb, leather trunks and portable racks of heavy coats from No Man Walks Alone, mannequins with handmade suits by Francesco Serraiocco. There were miles of knitted wool ties in every conceivable pattern from Monsieur Fox and Miller’s Oath, shelves stocked with glistening shoes by Carmina. Next to their shoe displays lay heavy swatch-books, whose alternately glossy and beaten leather pages had names like “Snuff Suede” and “Calf Whiskey.” Running my hand over the thick pages, pinching the nap between my thumb and index finger, I had to wonder why I had ever bothered with museums when here, I could touch the art.
The Carmina booth was mobbed, and the room had begun to feel congested with too many bodies. Despite the high temperature, everyone in the place had turned up in their warmest gear. The smart vendors positioned themselves in front of huge windows, opened as wide as possible to keep themselves from sweating too badly. The rest just had to suffer. Aspiring to enact a New York version of Florence’s Pitti Uomo, all manner of fops and dandies had arrived, each attempting to outdo the others. Heavy speckled tweeds were in abundance, matched with slubby ties and jewel-tone corduroy. One brave soul attempted a historical banker look, with a three-piece pinstripe and waxed mustache. Others had adopted the pose of Riviera playboys—high gorged jackets in saturated blues with soft shoulders and tapered trousers. They seemed intent on giving the impression that they’d just broken off a torrid, but doomed affair with an older woman, a countess perhaps. Everyone had some square of colorful fabric bursting from his pocket. Over the course of the three hours I spent in Gary’s Loft, I saw maybe twenty women out of a few hundred men, all browsing the Carmina booth (which sold a few women’s shoes), or playing the roles of dutiful girlfriend or smiling saleswoman.
After making a few circuits, I got in line to get my copy of True Style signed. The queue was moving slowly; each person wanted his face-time with the most trusted voice in menswear. One guy had bought six or seven books, and was having Boyer autograph and address each one differently, so I leafed through my copy to pass the time. True Style is less a how-to manual and more of an index of men’s tailoring, sportswear, and workwear. Boyer organizes his entries alphabetically, cross-referencing here and there, offering a mixture of history, advice, and personal reflection. Like the English essayist and critic Max Beerbohm (whose writing on Beau Brummell appears in the introduction), Boyer admits that his gifts are small, but he has endeavored to use them to their fullest. He has a knack for aphorism and a lively prose style. On the problem of an exposed neck, Boyer writes, “When not safely ensnaring their napes in a necktie, they seem to either forego all other options and literally stick their necks out, airing them like so many turkey wattles projecting from their open collars…”
Looking up, I found I had approached the front of the line, and there was the man himself, wearing an earth-toned sport coat, tan cardigan, gray flannel trousers, and a dusty madder tie, the living embodiment of what he terms in another chapter “the English country house look.” Boyer has a shaved head, tortoise-shell glasses, and an easy laugh. He wears his button down shirts with the collar points unfastened. “I tell the tailor to leave button holes out since I never use them anyway,” he explained. “It’s an obvious affectation, but I like it.”
Boyer is a great admirer of sprezzatura and makes a virtue of the paradox I’d faced that morning, a self-conscious unselfconsciousness requiring years of practiced nonchalance to achieve. In his chapter dedicated to the subject Boyer advises:
Cultivate the impression of never having prepared … A designer friend I happen to know spends considerable time each morning trying on different combinations of gear before venturing out, but never admits to anything but ‘simply grabbing the top shirt in the drawer.’ … Sprezzatura is the grand trompe l'oeil of style in the aesthetics of public life.
From his art-historical references and his perfectly rumpled outfit, it was easy to tell that Boyer had been an English professor before entering the fashion world as an editor at Town and Country. This is perhaps why I’ve always felt an affinity for his writing—unlike so many other fashion writers, Boyer manages to treat his subject rigorously without taking himself seriously. He deftly connects clothing to the world of which it’s a part, and doesn’t shill. I imagined he would have made a good faculty advisor; he was generous with his time and chatted amiably with me while a few other admirers gathered around him. It wasn’t hard to picture him strolling across a quad somewhere, trailed by a cadre of young men, discoursing on proper boot care and the advantages of a slightly askew four in hand knot—or maybe I was just falling under the same spell he’d cast on the rest of his fans.
After signing my copy, Boyer introduced me to the men standing around his table. There was a tall middle-aged guy with a short beard and slicked back Gordon Gekko-length hair, decked out in traditional blue blazer, tie, and white oxford button down. Beside him stood another guy so comparatively young he looked less like a peer than a nephew. The kid had a high voice, and a face as smooth and shiny as his friend’s hair, but already he had the comportment of a man deep into his forties. He wore a tan plaid sport coat with a full chest, and high-waisted, full-cut trousers. Both of them wrote for Ivy Style, a menswear site dedicated to all things “trad” and preppy. They were in the middle of an animated discussion, so I stayed quiet and listened.
“And you have to ask permission for everything,” said Gekko, smiling with disbelief. “May I have a conversation with you, may I get you a drink—do you consent to that?”
The kid snorted. “Consent. It’s awful,” he said, shaking his head. “And don’t even think about hitting on them at the gym. You can’t do that.”
Boyer turned to me. “Danny here is on campus,” he said by way of introduction. “What do you think of what’s going on in the colleges?”
What to say? I thought I’d come to Proper Kit to discuss men’s fashion, but it looked like we’d be dealing with weightier subjects. Hoping to confuse and offend them as little as possible, I settled on a statistical argument: one in four women will be the victim of sexual assault during her college career. Perhaps so much emphasis on consent may seem silly to them but—
“You can’t trust those statistics,” Gekko said.
“Yeah,” the kid added.
“Okay,” I said. “What if it’s just one in five, doesn’t that still seem too high?”
“Of course, I’m not talking about anything like that…” Gekko trailed off.
The kid turned to Boyer. “Did you see my piece about so-called ‘white privilege?’”
Boyer smiled genially. “No I don’t think so.” It was hard to get a read on him—was this politeness just part of his gentleman schtick? Were these Ivy Style writers desperate hangers-on like myself, or did Boyer really hang out with them? His face was a mask of mild interest.
Gekko interrupted with an announcement. “What I’m saying is this: mine was the last great generation.” I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow, but said nothing to contradict him.
“Generation X,” Gekko continued, stuffing his fists into his pockets and puffing out his chest for emphasis. He had a faraway look in his eyes. “If it were up to me, we would go back to the ‘90s.”
“Really, the 1990s?” I asked. I’d always thought of the ‘90s as a time when progressivism was ascendent, or at least a kind of soft liberalism had taken hold. Gekko didn’t strike me as the granola-cruncher, more of a “Morning in America” guy.
“No, the 1890s—that was the best era.” Against my will, my second eyebrow followed its companion. “Everybody says, ‘But what about the racism and so forth?’ So of course I’d want the 1890s without all that.”
There it was, a final confirmation of what I’d long suspected: these guys weren’t retro so much as retrograde. For years I’ve been hovering at the edge of this weird little fashion community, unsure what it would mean to join. My trepidation stemmed from a fear that you can’t uncouple conservative aesthetics from conservative politics, that the man in the Brooks Brothers suit is usually The Man. To a kid in the late 90’s and mid-aughts, well-cut suits seemed like a beautiful departure from the blob-like poly-blends I saw men wear on the street. Now I wondered whether I’d mistaken reactionaries for radicals.
I tuned back in as Gekko’s lecture on the merits of Victorian times was coming to a close. Offering another regressive decade to praise, the kid suggested the ‘50s. “Everybody says the ‘50s were so conservative, but—”
Gekko jumped in again, “But you had all kinds of radical things happening then: bee-bop jazz, beatniks, abstract expressionism.” Had he been alive then, I imagine Gekko would have spat on a beatnik and called a black jazz musician something unprintable, but with the distance of time, here he was, praising Pollock. I very much wanted to explain this notion to him, but Boyer looked like he wanted to speak.
“I was around for the ‘50s,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. The three of us fell silent, awaiting his judgement. “They were great!”
 Ed. note: In fashion scholar Eugenia Paulicelli's book, Fashion Under Fascism, Italian diplomat and Renaissance author Baldassarre Castiglione's foundational writings on Italian style are adopted for Paulicelli's own interpretation of the term, sprezzatura, calling the art of minimizing superfluous distractions in one's appearance “lightening.” This strategy counters affettazione (affectation), the act of simply trying too hard, a projected heaviness.
(Thumbnail Image Courtesy Anh Phan/Stocksnap.io)