By G. Bruce Boyer
The Gothic Business Look (all laser-cut black suits and pointed shoes), the Made-in-America Blue Collar Look, the Neo-Japanese Preppy Look, the Neapolitan Relaxed Elegance Look. There are so many looks around these days to tempt a young man at the onset of his wardrobing life. What's a fella to do?
May I suggest taking one step forward by taking two steps backwards: the tried & true English Country House Look (ECHL). It's stood the test of time, has proven adaptable to virtually any body shape, continues to have enviable street creds, and can be worked and re-worked over and over infinitum.
In his distinctive book, On Decorating, Mark Hampton slyly puts his finger on the secret of the ECHL:
…rooms with old worn carpets and turn-of-the-century upholstered furniture which, instead of being newly reupholstered, is covered in loose slipcovers that look (and perhaps are) homemade. There are books everywhere and leather club fenders in front of smoke-streaked mantelpieces. This is commonly called the undecorated look. Sometimes it is the result of happenstance; sometimes a subtle effort has been made …
“Sometimes a subtle effort” would be a good title for a study of this subject that speaks to both interior design and to clothes. Since Mr. Hampton has noted the touchstones of the interior design genre, let's look at the salient points of the ECHL pertaining to clothes.
- Aspirational gentility: the perceptive Ralph Lauren has, over these many years, firmly convinced us that our grandfathers all had mahogany-lined speedboats and polo ponies, even though they were in fact slaving away down some mine shaft or other. You can't beat the past as a commodity.
- Disdain for technology: why would anyone bother with a Blackberry, cellphone, headsets, ipod, Kindle, or laptop when a simple Montblanc and Moleskin diary will suffice, and not ruin the lines of the suit. Let solitude be a time for thought.
- Untidiness trumps symmetry and organization: consider Nancy Mitford's famous dictum: “All nice rooms are a bit shabby.” This applies to dress as well. Otherwise there's the suspicion of calculation.
- A preference for the mildly tatty over the new and shiny. Flaunting new labels, or any labels for that matter, gives the impression of insecurity.
- Comfort triumphs: never sacrifice a cozy, warm, homey feeling to fashionable trends. You don't have to.
- Eccentric within reason is charming: we preach individuality, but how refreshing to actually see it. Wear the orange cashmere tie and purple socks with the navy suit, or a plastic shopping bag for a briefcase.
- On the other hand, novelty is as unwelcome as excessive tidiness. Just because a person likes something is not a good enough reason to wear it. Denim dinner jackets and chinchilla bow ties are cute and whimsical. That's the problem.
- Be sentimental: style is about attitude. Wearing Granddad's old pocket watch from a chain through your buttonhole is a perfect touch, even if the face keeps falling out of it.
But don't take my word for it. Just ask Ralph.
Guest author G. Bruce Boyer has been a noted fashion writer and editor for more than thirty-five years. He is the author of two books on the history and direction of men's fashion: Elegance (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1985) and Eminently Suitable (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1990). He is also the author of two books on the history of fashion in the cinema: Rebel Style: Cinematic Heroes of the Fifties (Assouline Press, 2006), and Fred Astaire Style (Assouline Press, 2005), a co-author of a three-volume study of American menswear in the 1930s entitled Apparel Arts (Gruppo GFT, Milan, 1989), and a contributor and consultant to The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Charles’ Scribners’ Sons, 2004).
Photo: Ben Baker