Lessons in Elegance
The good news is that style and taste are not innate, they’re learned. “Know thyself” has always been The Golden Rule. And like everything else that’s learned, the earlier one starts the better. I tend to be allergic to rules, but there are a few that are helpful. Simplicity is usually a virtue. Avoid trends, flash, gimmicks, and fads. Buy quality, and think in terms of sustainability. Insist on comfort. Dress appropriately to the occasion, which becomes more difficult when the rules about what is appropriate become more invisible every day. As a general rule never wear anything cheap, overly ornate, or synthetic. Style is an individual’s attempt to perfect a point of view, it reveals the psyche of the person. Taste grows, expands, develops., and this is completely natural. I’m relying here more on gut instinct than thorough analysis, but I think maybe it’s never really occurred to fashion theorists that people may simply enjoy wearing clothes.
The general reality is that clothes are like jokes, they’re indications of social inclusion. We all invent ourselves, but in doing so can’t help but identifying ourselves with others. In other words, we all want to be individuals, but also a member of the group too. But who are we, and with which group (s) do we wish to be identified? I’m aware that I became interested in appearance starting around five years old. What I was interested in before that I can’t remember, probably just hanging around the house and playing with tin soldiers. And so the way I dress is very much imprisoned by the years of my childhood and youth.
I don’t want to lose my amateur standing as a psychiatrist, but I think the catalyst for me was wanting to find acceptance in a world in which I thought I might be an outsider. This isn’t overly unusual with children, particularly those who suffer a bit of trauma in their early lives. I noticed very early on that some young people in the neighborhood seemed to get more attention and were more interesting by the virtue nature of their style. I began to see style as a tool to put in my survival box. That’s the short answer.
My latest thought on the subject is that an elegant person is someone who’s taken what he’s (or she’s) been given and created an individually authentic point of view. Put that way it sounds rather simple, but it isn’t because creating yourself means making decisions based on trying to be honest at least with yourself about who you are and want to become. Style has a way of condensing these decisions into a visible persona, a simple way of saying complicated things. I’m not completely satisfied with that definition, but it will have to do for the moment.
I honestly don’t think my style has changed much since I was perhaps 17 or so. And I’ve got the photos to prove it. I experimented with a great variety of dress when I was very young, found out what I could use and what I needed to discard. Late in my teenage years I took up American Ivy League style mixed with a large dollop of Savile Row style and I ‘ve kept to that pretty much ever since. Around 20 I became aware of Italian clothing and injected a dose of color into the palette of my wardrobe. Changes since then can be measured in quarter-inches. I find that as I age, I become more interested in simplicity, paring down, minimalizing. I’m a great deal more Doric than Corinthian these days. Simplicity of cut has become a hallmark.
My first essential would be a good navy single-breasted blazer in a medium weight fresco cloth that I could wear almost all year round. And I prefer dark horn buttons to the flashier metal ones. Second, a pair of light-weight medium grey flannel trousers have always been in my wardrobe. And third would a small collection of pinpoint blue oxford cloth button-downs. From that basis you can build a wardrobe of serviceable clothes that will suffice for most occasions, can be dressed up or down easily, and are suitable for travel almost anywhere in the world.
Men are disastrously scared of dressing elegantly. And far too many of them look like they took their sartorial advice from Rasputin. First, there’s still the ridiculous idea that it’s either feminine or gay to want to look attractive. How some men continue to harbor such ideas in the 21st Century is beyond me, but there you are. Then, we all have a fear of being thought vain or superficial. But vanity only comes into play with obsession, and trying to appear pleasing to others isn’t superficial, unless I suppose you’re a cannibal.
The other fear is more of a survival mechanism. We’re pack animals and feel it’s a bit chancy to step out in the open, you might have to defend yourself alone, you might get hurt. Better perhaps to be beneath competition. But we also say we prize individuality and uniqueness. Clearly, we’re completely capable of living with contradiction and balancing out the merits of both positions. I’ve also argued that the balance is something of a fine line. There’s nothing wrong with necessary conformity, I just wish more men would understand that trying to be a bit more creative with their appearance will make their lives more interesting and happier. I really believe that. And so much nicer that walking around looking like a potato in human form.
We all find much of our inspiration from others. When I was very young, I took my inspiration from family members – my uncles were very natty gentlemen – and a bit later from the older boys in the neighborhood whom I noticed had a sense of personal style and were therefore accorded a bit more respect. Respect for people in a lower-class neighborhood can crucially important, and personal style has always been one of the ways it’s won. We all went to the movies when I was a youngster, and I came to be mesmerized by the grace and elegance of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Marcell Mastroianni, all of whom I studied carefully. In college I noticed the way certain profs dressed, and later when I started to make trips to Europe, I thought the men strolling the streets of London’s West End, and of Milan’s Via Montenapoleone were dazzlingly urbane.
Today I still find those gentlemen an inspiration, it’s just that many of them have a history in the clothing industry in one way or another. I never see Michael Drake and Luciano Barbera, or Francesco Barberis Canonico without learning something, without being inspired. I like the eccentricity of Gian Maurizio Fercioni and Michel Barnes, the slightly casual sprezzatura of Michael Jondral and Gianluca Migliarotti and Albert Goldberg, the polish of Jeremy Hackett. I think Charlie Watts was a wonderful dresser, and I like the slightly more devil-may-care attitude and sense of color of Michael Hill, and the casually quiet elegance of architect Renzo Piano. And younger guys like Freddie Foulkes and Eric Twardzik are well on their way. It’s not just the clothes of course, it’s their vivacity for life.
Music has been such a great influence in my life, and to tie this to clothing, the way particularly that jazz musicians dress, or used to. Great jazz musicians like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington were incomparable dressers and scintillating style that infused everything they did. I don’t think it would too much to say that style and substance were fused in them. They were all elegant men who commanded attention and respect, they were artists with rhapsodic gifts and real accomplishments that will stand the test of time. Jazz, blues, and early rock – which also happens to be the title of my latest book, I thought you’d never ask – have given me more pleasure than most things I can think of. And I might add that I was also one helluva dancer in my day. I could ballroom with the best of them. And in my old neighborhood, when you went to a dance you had to look like you knew what you were doing.
The whole trend in men’s clothing in the 20th Century was towards comfort, and that continues today in a number of positive ways. Clothes are much lighter in weight than ever, the trend towards less infrastructure in tailored garments has been a wonderful advance in the wardrobe, as have softer fabrics. For me personally, the idea of mixing the formal with the casual has always had its appeal, and I see this more today than I did yesterday.
The mix provides the potential for more creativity and individuality, and can make us all more comfortable and approachable. Of course, there’s more product out there than ever before too, and while the plethora can lead to soul-wrenching confusion, with a little guidance it can also promote a real sense of freedom. For me this should always take place within the bounds of propriety, but we can all differ in our opinions about that and still have a good time.