What happens to all those style magazines whose brief apparitions sometimes seem so perfectly to reflect a period’s zeitgeist, before inevitably flaring out into the immeasurable void? A few of us sometimes capture a few of them, firefly-like, in an attempt to preserve some bits of meaning. In the end, everything – both what we have saved and what we only misremember – is subject to the appropriation and reinterpretation of future audiences for their own ulterior purposes.
The new book The Gentry Man: A Guide for the Civilized Male reminded me of this inescapable impermanence. This enormously entertaining 255-page volume anthologizes the best of the 1950s magazine Gentry, reprinting pieces on George Washington’s tips for living, John Scarne (whose book on cards found its way across the Atlantic to the fictional library of the literary James Bond around the same time) on gambling, sharp sports writing, witty drinks and recipes for 1950s roués, and cars and clothing for an intended audience of unexpectedly refined midcentury American men.
The Gentry Man’s sections on drinks and sophisticated and swinging manly men’s recipes remind me of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, a similarly fun reprint from 1949 that was reissued some years ago featuring conspiratorial advice on entertaining and parlor games for the urbane, unreconstructed host. But The Gentry Man’s sections on style are something to see. The inspiration is creative: suggesting a suit made out of wool jersey, and, as if in direct retort to Will, “We saw them in Nassau… patent leather evening pumps with bright red bows.” Creative enough to be interesting and interesting enough to be provocative. A two-page special on new colors abounds with East Asian imagery that reminds me of, say, the Formosa Café in Hollywood: before these were nostalgic and charmingly kitsch they were exotic and new, in their time. Indeed, much of The Gentry Man reminds me of some of the romantically preserved corners of Los Angeles and Pasadena where midcentury American eyes interpreted the Asian and the European in a spirit of optimism and unself-conscious confidence that could not endure. Other gems include an analysis of the most faithful theatrical version of Beau Brummell, as well as copious wardrobe recommendations featuring well-edited selections from grand old names like Lefcourt, Chipp and Saks Fifth Avenue back when that used to mean something. Some of the clothes, such as the hand-knit skiing sweaters with designs, remind one of those featured in the 1930s glory days of Apparel Arts, while others, including the lengthily explained “new double-breasted suit,” emphasize the changes since that period in cut, class and fabric design. A recipe, then, for food for thought.
A section on Gentry’s favorite cars is chrome-and-fins kitsch, while The Gentry Man’s guides to other pursuits (ranging from how to watch a football fame to how to appreciate contemporary art) are amusingly authoritative and flip. According to the book, introduced by former The New York Times Magazine men’s style editor Hal Rubinstein, the magazine Gentry lasted only 22 issues, from 1951 to 1957, and was perhaps too exclusive to live. Its founder also ran clothing industry publications, so the case of Gentry is similar to that of Esquire and its former sister publication Apparel Arts: in the years following World War II, Esquire evolved from a gentleman’s fashion and general interest magazine to, by the 1960s, a hip New Journalism hangout, while Apparel Arts went from showcasing clothing trends to retailers and tailors to, eventually, being spun off into what was then a slightly dodgy niche men’s fashion magazine called Gentlemen’s Quarterly.
Which brings us to the second book by GQ’s own Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist: Closer, which is sort of his Highlander II: The Quickening: what did his first installment leave out that required a second? At least Highlander II brought back Sean Connery. Perhaps the third Sartorialist book will bring us Mario Van Peebles as an evil Sartorialist. The Sartorialist: The Quickening brings us more pictures of people featured on his blog, now (according to the overleaf) with photos of street style from a wider range of cities. A quick look at the index of photos reveals that in addition to the hundreds of photos of his usual subjects in the professions of fashion, media and bulimia in New York City, Italy, London and Paris are a smattering of photos (slightly over 10%) taken elsewhere, such as those of a hotel maid in Rio or kimono-ed girls in Tokyo. Despite this Henry Stanley-like intrepidness, the effect remains broadly coherent with the Sartorialist’s past work: skinny girls are still riding bikes, but now they are showing a lot of leg or wearing see-through dresses; people are now wearing lace-up dress shoes without socks; and the knowledgeable reader will find not ecumenism but the consistency of motifs that indicates contemporary trends.
I’ve been quite unkind to the Sartorialist in these pages, but then again he’s made himself into a bit of cultural tête à claques too. I understand that the Sartorialist is doing a book tour for this book, which raises some logistical concerns to me. Will he read from his book? It has even less text than Bruce Boyer’s last work. Will he instead project some of his photos and read the captions and comments from his blog? What is beyond question, however, is that he (and his fans) have made his photos the record of the fashions of the last five years, for better or for worse. These will be the resources our descendants, whether Eloi or Morlock, will turn to for examples of what we wore, regardless of whether we actually did or not. For, as with other periods, what gets remembered will be the most typed and the most mannered, and in any case the Sartorialist has the support of one of the major media companies and the audience both to help propagate a style and to propagate its memory. So the printed pages of The Sartorialist: Closer make concrete one man’s creation of collective memory, a future reference once memory of what is actually elegant has been lost to time.