Posted: March 21, 2003
man, when putting together ensembles, should think about how formal are his garments and how dandified. When he understands this, he will have done his part and will find no difficulty in dressing with style and grace. What makes for dandification is panache or strikingness combined with rarity. The dandified, while often unusual, always follows the classic rules of dress (though not necessarily a rule that is still widely observed), or else is based on a judicious breaking of those rules. There is always some risk in wearing what is dandified.
Formality is dressiness; or, to say better, conformity to established modes of propriety, especially those concerning occasions held important and dignified. And if ever you are at a loss as to whether this or that is formal or not, you should consider if you would feel comfortable in it attending your mother's funeral. Heads of state, captains of industry, and those accountable to large numbers of people tend at all times to dress formally. There is rarely any risk in wearing what is formal, unless you wear it to the beach or some similarly unsuitable place. The tension between the two was taught covertly by P.G. Wodehouse, who represented formality in the character of Jeeves, and dandification in Bertie Wooster. There is hardly a story about them in which Bertie's enthusiasm for an adventurous garment does not run afoul of Jeeves's stern sense of propriety. To show two sartorially knowledgeable gentlemen continually disputing the virtue of various garments means nothing other than that a man needs to know how to use both principles; and the one without the other is not elegant.
Short of evening dress, the most formal combination a man can wear is a dark blue suit, a white shirt, and black shoes, and that none of these is the least bit dandified. Similarly formal are all solid suits, and solids generally, and dark colors—except in the case of shirts and handkerchiefs, where white is the most formal (because, these things dwelling close to the skin, they have more occasion to become soiled, and in the days before cleaning was cheap and easy, white was a mark of gentility). Conversely, white suits and shoes are informal to the highest degree, but dandified to the highest degree—as are suede shoes, slant pockets, Panama hats, and tab collar shirts. And yet, in all other cases, color is more dandified than its absence, but rarely more formal, except in the case of navy or midnight blue suits. Similarly, patterns are always more dandified than solids, but rarely more formal.
And just as there are some things which are neither—like single-breasted blazers, button-down shirts and penny loafers (for nothing common can be dandified)—so too are there some which are both—like the double-breasted jacket, because of its complexity, sophistication, and rarity.
In addition, I say that some things, though not dandified in themselves, can become dandified by their use. Fred Astaire loved the soft nonchalance of Brooks Brothers button-down shirts, and knew that this least dandified of garments became so when paired with a three piece suit. Similarly, he always preferred brown shoes to black, even when wearing nothing else that was brown, because of their added color and richness. And he often used solid ties, which are so grave, to balance and unify a shirt and jacket of differing lively patterns. Some have said that he occasionally took this mode too far, as when he wore his button-down shirts with double-breasted suits. But he never went so far as to wear moccasins with a three-piece suit, or an antique-stripe contrast collar shirt with a blazer and khakis. Not through haphazard mixing but by creating stylish incongruities, he became the foremost dandy of the age and maintained himself in that place with many spirited and daring innovations.
In this, he was not unlike the men of Milan, the best dressed men in the world. The Milanese take without hesitation whatever looks good from every part of the world and make it their own. On them it becomes style. Thus will you always see them wearing brown shoes, even with dark blue suits, and wearing olive corduroy trousers with cashmere jackets and seven-fold ties, and French-cuff shirts with blazers and gray flannels, and Brooks Brothers button down shirts with worsted suits and Macclesfield ties, a favorite mode of the late Milanese dandy Gianni Agnelli.
Thus does the stylish dresser vary the modes of his clothing, and, while always avoiding those which should not exist at all, he judiciously mixes models, colors and patterns to effect a less studied and more nonchalant look.
* * *
It might perhaps appear to many, considering the sartorial habits of some American presidents, that such stylish modes are not natural to Americans, and that it is folly for us to emulate them. Since I want to respond to this objection, I shall discuss the habits of certain presidents, showing that in many cases they dressed better than you think. And I want it to suffice for me to take all the modern presidents, from Roosevelt the younger to George Bush: these were Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and his son, and Bill Clinton. And first it has to be considered that whereas heads of state in other countries have leave to dress well, either because their position does not depend upon the people, or else because their people are not offended by fine clothes, American presidents must contend with a people that demands formality from their leaders but eschews and punishes dandification.
For the cause mentioned above, Eisenhower was rewarded with a second term, for he always dressed formally, but never with panache (for vests, while dandified today, were common in his time). Ford almost won despite the corruption of his predecessor, because his formal yet unassuming clothes gave him great credit with the people in sartorially difficult times. Though he had no choice but to wear wide ties, big collars and wide lapels—for none but these were made or sold during his administration—he always chose the least oversized and most sedate.
Before he became Vice President, Johnson dressed modestly, and his few forays into dandification, such as cowboy boots, were consistent with his origins. But later he became envious of the fine clothes he saw on Kennedy, and sought out a London tailor whom he told to make him "look like a British diplomat." Thereafter he began to dress with more flair—in side vents, slant pockets, bold stripes and the like—and, losing credit with the people, he was ruined. Nixon, who famously wore black wingtips to the beach, never lacked formality, but he somehow was reduced to the thrall of those wide, gaudy ties and fishmouth-lapelled suits that came into vogue in the 1970s. He would have been ruined regardless, but in wearing these he did not help himself. For while they might have been popular with some, even those who wore them did not want to see them on their president, whom they expected to uphold the dignity of his office. Later, when he wanted to rehabilitate his reputation, he returned to the plain style that had served him well before he became president, and this helped him establish himself as an elder statesman.
The first George Bush dressed formally, and, he thought, not at all dandified. But the people recognized in all those rep ties, sack suits, and linen hankies the quality known as "preppiness," and, as this reminded them of his patrician heritage, it fixed in their mind the impression that he did not understand them or care about them, and so he was ruined. His son, learning from this error, dresses with the crisp formality of a CEO, but without any hint of preppyness, so that if he is ruined, it will not be because of his clothes.
* * *
Reviewing now, by contrast, the habits of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan, you will find them very formal but also somewhat dandified. To satisfy the people, they always dressed with the dignity required of a president; yet to satisfy themselves, they allowed themselves subtle professions of style; and all except Kennedy were reelected. Reagan had grown accustomed to fine clothing during his days in Hollywood, and when he became president he did not want to give it up. His great virtue enabled him to arrange his ensembles so that while everything he wore was first rate in quality, cut, fit, and style, they were nonetheless always formal and proper. And fortune provided him nothing but the opportunity to follow a president who had offended the people by dressing shoddily, so that his stylishness was welcome to them. And remembering that he had been a movie star, they could even tolerate in him some measure of dandification. Kennedy always dressed with style, and when he ventured into dandification, like wearing a top hat to his inauguration, the people not only forgave him, but loved him more, because they judged the occasion worthy, and because he looked good in it. And even when, in the conduct of his day-to-day affairs, he avoided overt dandification, he was always better dressed than everyone around him, because after acquiring a taste for the Drape when a student in London in the 1930s, he never abandoned it—not in the 1950s, when every upper-class American was wearing the Sack, nor in the 1960s, when the Continental was sweeping the globe. Roosevelt dressed like an Upstate New York grandee, and since he was one, offended no one—not even at Yalta, where he wore a black velvet cape lined in scarlet satin. For since Democrats are held to be more sympathetic to the people, and less priggish, and also because it is considered less commonplace that a man of the people dress with style, they are given more leeway. Whereas Republicans, who are held to be not only avatars of business and the rich, but also scolds, give offense if they do not dress formally yet plainly. For these reasons, dandification that is condemned as insolence in a Republican is praised as elegance in a Democrat, provided he is well born. Thus could Roosevelt dress in any manner he pleased and not be hurt by it, whereas had Landon or Willkie or Dewey attained office and tried the same, they would have been ruined.
But let us come to Truman, who was the least formal and most dandified of presidents. He was the only modern president to wear bow ties, and until recently the only one to wear double-breasted suits. He also favored fancy hats, Panamas and snap brims and such, and did not hesitate to wear lively patterns, light colors, exotic cloths like linen and cotton, and two-tone shoes. And he always wore a pocket handkerchief. Oftentimes in photos you will see him gathered with his advisors, who all blend together in their plain, dark single-breasted suits and white shirts, while he stands out in his boldly checked double-breasted suit and striped shirt. And doubtless the delight he took in dressing stemmed from his days as a haberdasher. But eventually his informality, which at first had seemed so endearing, came to grate on the people. He tried to assuage their anger by switching to dark, three-piece suits, but he was too late, and so as not to risk ruin, he chose not to run again.
* * *
It remains now to tell the habits of Clinton. And because these were notable, I want to show briefly how well he judged necessity in choosing his wardrobe. When Clinton first sought the office, knowing of the weakness of his rivals, he did not take steps to change his mode of dress, which had remained bedraggled for the whole of his life. But when a scare was put into him in New Hampshire, he judged that what had worked in Arkansas might not avail him nationwide. So he adopted the Washington uniform of a dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, and was soon for the first time being called "presidential"; and he became president. Then, having gained a taste for the high life afforded to him by the office, he began to find ordinary clothes intolerable. His Hollywood friends introduced him to the designer Donna Karan, who soon began supplying all his clothes. But when the Congress was lost to him, throwing his administration into disarray, an advisor warned him that to regain credit with the people, he had to return to modest modes of dress. Thus was he re-elected.
And though he wished immediately to return to his former ostentation, scandal forced him to remain unobtrusive for many months, though when he traveled abroad, he allowed himself more panache than when at home. Then, once he judged that his enemies were unable to hurt him with the scandal, he began to dress with more display than ever, and became the first president since Truman to wear double-breasted suits. But when a new and greater scandal threatened to ruin him, he returned to modesty, even resorting to the sobriety of the Washington uniform when addressing the people regarding it. The conduct of his enemies, however, so enraged him that he came to judge it as cowardice to vary his dress to placate them, and so to defy them, he again returned to opulence. And because he was successful at deflecting the people's anger from himself and onto his enemies, they did not pay attention to his clothes, and he survived. Thus whoever examines minutely the habits of this man will find him a most astute judge of the mood of the people and his own exposure to danger, and will see that he varied his dress accordingly, and will not marvel that he was able to escape ruin on so many occasions.
I do not want to reason about Carter, who, because he dressed altogether contemptibly, was quickly ruined; except to say that it is one thing to wear Hawaiian shirts in Key West, or jeans and cowboy boots when splitting wood, and quite another to address the people from the Oval Office in a sweater. But, coming to the conclusion of this discourse, I say that those in our time whose positions depend on the people are forced when they dress to take account of their feelings; and that politicians are hurt both by a lack of formality and too much dandification, but entertainers and others must take care to include some dandification, as was said.
But let us return to our matter. I say that whoever considers the discourse written above will see that formality and dandification are the twin principles that determine which combinations look good, which shoddy, which inappropriate, and which ridiculous. For each individual garment you can wear is formal or informal to its own degree, and also dandified or plain; and through judicious mixing you can combine the two qualities, or their absence, to produce ensembles that themselves are either formal or informal, dandified or plain, or some level in between. In all cases you must avoid the extremes of the one or the other. Therefore, a man cannot follow the predilections of Jeeves, lest he end up looking like an undertaker, nor can he in all things imitate Wooster, without being mistaken for a riverboat gambler; but he should take from Jeeves as much formality as an occasion requires, and from Wooster as much dandification as it allows.