Book review: History of Men’s Fashion
History of Men’s Fashion: What the Well Dressed Man is Wearing, by Nicholas Storey, is a book evidently written with real passion for the subject.
Personal touches abound, such as Storey’s relation of the fact that Lord Nelson’s hat was stolen from public display “in a planned raid on the National Maritime Museum by some utter tyke(s)”. Equally, Storey suggests that the English taste for wearing red socks with a dark suit “always raise[s] a smile” because “a glimpse of the daring and dashing and dangerous lurking beneath the trousers suggest[s] that these qualities may lurk in the wearer too.”
This personal, and subjective, touch makes the book enjoyable reading. But it is also the book’s greatest weakness. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a primer on menswear, which is ostensibly what it aims to be.
Facts, stories and originations are the book’s strength. I did not know that originally soft felt hats were unacceptable for a man to wear before the end of the London Summer Season. Neither did I know that steel-ribbed umbrellas were invented in 1852 by Samuel Fox as a way of disposing of surplus corset stays.
His description of Beau Brummell is instructive. “Brummell’s ‘exquisite propriety’ was the reverse of foppery – which is generally (mistakenly) associated even now with Brummell’s name,” he says. “There was nothing remarkable about his dress except that it was modest, subdued and most proper to the occasion and of the best materials and making. Strictly, he was a Dandy and certainly not a Popinjay.”
Storey’s point is well argued. And it speaks to our loss of language over the years (or possibly of the people to describe) that few could separate those three words, fop, dandy and popinjay, with decent definitions.
The section of History of Men’s Fashion on evening dress and more formal wear is the most impressive for depth of research. Most people are familiar with black dinner jackets. The slightly more sartorial are aware that midnight blue is a perfectly acceptable and indeed more practical alternative (it looks more black than black under artificial light). But few realise it can be virtually any colour and that Noel Coward wore them in brown. With matching tie and pumps, made at the hands of Douglas Hayward.
Indeed, Storey tells us that “when Brummell began the process which eventually led to monochrome evening dress, his evening coat was…blue, the waistcoat was white, his pantaloon trousers…black and his stockings striped.” It’s hard to argue with anyone about the etiquette of black tie when that little get-up was its starting point.
However, the space allocated to evening wear speaks also of the relevance of this book. Of the 182 pages, almost half is dedicated to chapters four through eight – on formal morning dress, evening dress, leisure wear, sporting dress and hats. Unless the reader of this book goes to enough formal events to justify buying two white waistcoats, or requires hunting breeches, much of this will only be of academic interest.
Which is great, for me. I am probably in the early stages of being an academic on the subject and the facts here are riveting, fascinating, indispensable.
But anyone else will find the book frustrating. It is not really a history of men’s fashion. It includes historical notes and facts during a personal discussion of areas of men’s dress.
Neither is it what the well-dressed man is wearing. That sub-title is a quote from Bertie Wooster, in Right-ho! Jeeves. But what is described is not, despite what Storey might hope, what well-dressed men are wearing today. It is a description of what a very narrow band of British society should be wearing, according to the author.
Throughout the book Storey instructs the reader what he should buy and in what quantity. Under socks he says “have three dozen pairs of wool and nylon half hose” plus “say, six pairs of silk half hose evening stockings and the same quantity of woollen shooting stockings”. That’s 48 pairs of socks, without the ankle socks permitted on the tennis court. How many people do you know who need that many socks?
The recommendations for where to buy your clothes are equally narrow. The best of Jermyn Street and Savile Row is recommended, along with a few less-pricey options. But almost everywhere the reader is encouraged to go bespoke, often because, as is admitted with the riding boots recommended, you actually can’t get them ready to wear.
The attitude is best summed up by the section “the necessary hats to have,” which includes a black top hat, a grey top hat, an opera hat and a hunting-weight silk hat.
Indeed, one could argue that some of the outfits recommended in here would not be in the spirit of Brummell – they would neither be modest or subdued.
At Wimbledon he recommends you wear a blazer, white ducks, co-respondent shoes, a cravat and a panama hat. Even in the members’ enclosure that would hardly be subdued. At Twickenham, meanwhile, Storey says “one should wear cords, a jumper, the Barbour, a cap and stout country shoes.” In what sense “should” one wear that? Is it a tradition going back to the Edwardians?
This book is a treasure trove of facts about British menswear. But it talks as much about the history of tennis (from the Egyptians) as it does about the raw materials of suits. And gives even more space to a rant about the disappearance of country life in the UK, the EU’s agricultural policy and cynical real estate developers.
To the right man, I recommend it. But if you don’t own many books on menswear, buy anything by Alan Flusser first.