Railroad industry tycoon Alfred Vanderbilt, who decided last-minute not to return to the U.S. on the Titanic, but ironically, died three years later during the sinking of the RMS Lusitania
This article is a contribution from Dr. Michael Gesell (pen name) who already wrote for PG in 2015 a piece entitled Of Aristocratic Blue Blood and Old Money Style.
Money speaks different languages
Fashion makes us think of cloths and designs fleeting in popularity, while the word style connotes “individual decisions” about what to wear—decisions which are able to refuse outside influence.
What you wear expresses who you are, or your individuality. But lest we forget, how you dress can also offer clues about the specific philosophy, society and class you represent.
While the study of garments from past eras apply well to historians, ancient garments have little influence over what we wear today. Even so, an exceptional era worth attention is the era of the ‘great tycoons, industrialists and barons’ of the late 19th century.
Why to care? You may say we have nothing in common with people such as John Pierpont Morgan or John D. Rockefeller. But this is not entirely true. Although many of us may not have the means to parallel their vast fortunes, what these eminent men wore during their era has in many ways, shaped what we wear now. Therefore, in this writing, I would like to shed light on some of the more prominent men of the late 1800s and what we can learn from them.
The mood of an era
You enter the common room in a luxurious New York City hotel, circa 1900.
The room is lined with mural-filled trimmed walls, oil portraits and heavy drapery. Heirloom carpets lay atop flooring and polished mahogany furniture reflects the light shot down from crystal chandeliers suspended from high ceilings.
Cigar smoke-filled air mingles with the scent of aged whiskey and hints of bay rum and citrusy colognes. Surrounded by well-dressed men, the “men-only” atmosphere permits a sense of relaxation, as waistcoats unbutton to reveal longer lengths of pocketwatch chains
Some read newspapers. Others discuss loudly the condition of the stock market or political happenings. A common thread throughout the room: each man, young and old, appears to sport carefully parted hair cemented with thick pomade, notwithstanding a signature mustache or beard.
The “look” of the evening consists of somber three-piece suits made with dark and heavy fabrics. Waistcoats are cut so high, you don’t see much shirting (as shirts are considered to be part of underwear). Stiff, removable collars are fastened to shirts by a button in the middle of the back of the neck. Ties are also dark with tie-fabric secured together with a gold pin (some with and others without a diamond or other precious stone encrusted into the pin).
Instead of shoes, carefully polished lace-up boots are worn, which function to safely cross streets while steering clear of horse manure and mud. As no decent man would leave any place without a hat, gloves and a cane, these items patiently await for retrieval from the cloakroom. The ambience smacks of manliness, dignity and wealth.
How is this scenario meaningful now? The answer lies in the point that the definitive style of this era is easy to borrow from, if the sartorial style appeals to you.
It has been said that in order to dress well, you may look at the men whose style you respect and admire and then emulate their sartorial habits. This act alone is able to amp up your appearance and even improve your prospects in business.
Leaders tend to employ and do business with prospects who look and behave like those in the employer’s peer group. When you dress the part, you’re more likely to gain entry into accomplished social circles (if you have the inclination to do so). If you wish to open such doors, dressing the part will help you move forward.
Be who you are—but never let outward appearance block you from any situation. You don’t have to fall prey to others impeding your progress if the “basic act” of dressing better can improve their confidence in you.
John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan
John Pierpont Morgan, a financier and banker who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation
Few embodied old-fashioned masculinity better than legendary banker and magnate John Pierpont Morgan.
While considered far from handsome, he embodied a sense of strength and masculinity. A formidable man with massive shoulders and piercing eyes, and a thick mustache, J.P. spoke with a deep, authoritative voice. He reportedly had a tremendous physical effect on people. One man said that a visit from Morgan left him feeling “as if a gale had blown through the house”.
Even though Mr. Pierpont was lucky to live in an era where his large morphology worked to his advantage, he had a physical insecurity—an enlarged, purple nose caused by rosacea. Nevertheless, his charisma and social status lured many woman to him (and he subsequently became a notorious womanizer).
Old photos show Morgan impeccably dressed in heavy fabric of black or dark grey, striped trousers, and waistcoats with lapels and a tie. He wore frock coats—long suit jackets cut at the knee, despite such attire being considered passé at the time.
Usually, Morgan wore wide paisley or polka-dotted ties with tiepin. He donned large cufflinks with his shirts, which looked proportional to his massive figure.
Accessories included a heavy pocketwatch chain made of gold and spectacles suspended from string around his neck. John Pierpont smoked dozens of his favorite Havana cigars throughout the day and was an avid yachtsman and notable collector of reputable books and paintings.
His very specific style is not easily replicated, but this great magnate lends us some lessons from which we can borrow:
No matter how imperfect the body, one can look charismatic and authoritative, which are intensely attractive qualities. While a self-conscious man with a larger body may concern himself mostly with diets and health regimens, a self-assured man converts his “current size” into an image of strength, power and dignity. Though sheer intent, he is able to complement his body with well-chosen garments, resulting in a look which can translate into admiration and respect by others, wherever he goes. J. P. Morgan teaches us that there is no need to dress “in the name of fashion” in an attempt to look better or younger. Instead, a heavier man may choose to dress to relay a sense of power and authority.
John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Standard Oil Trust became an industrial monster thanks to the drive and vision of John D. Rockefeller
Blockbuster business titan, John D. Rockefeller. Sr., once said, “Long before I was eighteen years old, people didn’t call me John, but Mr. Rockefeller!”. Known for his calm, analytical character and a dignified appearance—above everything, Mr. Rockefeller valued respect.
His friends called him “John D.”, and he struck a tall and slim figure (although his body was strengthened by years of heavy farm work from his childhood). His strict diet of mainly vegetables and milk and strict avoidance of alcohol gave him a physical presence which was out-of-line with an era who saw a well-dressed man with a “thick body” as a symbol of wealth.
As a deeply religious Protestant, Rockefeller had an intense dislike for flashiness and focused heavily on developing his business without overlooking charitable causes. His mission was, according to his own words, “to make as much money as I could, and then give away as much as I could!”.
As an extremely disciplined and calculating person, he was well aware of the importance of looking prosperous. Contemporary photographs show him as calm, composed and elegant, but also typically stern—in a simple, almost priest-like form.
His clothes were like an armor, which relayed his social position but little else. In an era when men expressed their individuality with colourful waistcoats or flashy fabric, John D. preferred precisely tailored and immaculately clean black or dark grey suits, a white shirt and the simplest dark tie. By the time he was 30 and already wealthy, he continued to be cautious with his spending and take great consideration of each purchase. In his words,
“When I was young, I could not secure the most fashionable cut of clothing. I remember I bought mine then of a cheap clothier. He sold me clothing cheap, clothing such as I could pay for, and it was a great deal better than buying clothing that I could not pay for.”
There are great lessons we can borrow from Mr. Rockefeller. Although you may not have the means to buy what you want, through considering each purchase with care, you can still build a reasonable wardrobe and gain respect through both your character and your appearance. To look proper and dignified, you don’t need many suits if you adopt your own standard look which defines your personality.
One or two good suits and a few ties and shirts will, if kept immaculately clean and handled with care, look better than a vast array of cheap clothing. If you adopt a basic approach to dressing well, then owning ‘less of a good thing’ can deliver more of an impact than owning ‘more of a subpar thing’, while saving a lot of time when deciding what to wear. This time you save worrying about your clothes and your appearance throughout the day can instead be used towards developing your own form of success—just as John D. Rockefeller did.
The Rothschild Family
Parisian born Edmond de Rothschild, member the the French branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty
Varying wildly from the Rockefeller story is the tale of an European-counterpart family : The Rothschilds.
In a rags-to-riches story, the Rothschild decendants originated from a poor Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, Germany. However, this banking family would go on to amass fantastic wealth through its five sons whom established themselves in the five European capitals of London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Naples in the beginning of the 19th century.
Due to their religion and the status of the “new rich”, the Rothschild family found difficulty to be accepted among well-established aristocratic circles.
As the family was often rejected by the elite of the day based on their pedigree, they eventually gained acceptance through wealth and good taste. Thus, the famous coined phrase “Le Goût Rothschild” or “The Rothschild taste” was created.
The Rothschild’s abode was lavished with extravagant heavy textile fabrics of damask, brocade, and velvet with much gilding, elaborate stucco ceilings, and precious wooden panelling and parquet flooring. The heavy abundance was combined with eighteenth-century, (mostly French) furniture, often of royal provenance. Soon after, grand American families like the Vanderbilts, the Astors or the Du Ponts appeared to imitate Rothschild’s home decorating preferences.
Although the “Rothschild style” is most known in housing and decorative arts, the clothing style of family members also held an influence in society. The finest fabrics and most exclusive tailors were sought to craft garments.
For example, baron Arthur de Rothschild owned around 2,000 ties, carefully arranged by category and colour within the drawers of custom furniture designed specially to store and display ties.
It has been noted that Arthur de Rothschild rarely wore the same tie twice, and changed his ties two or three times a day to match the ornamentation on his shirt. What did he do with all those ties he refused to re-wear? Every other month, he sent a parcel of magnificent ties to various friends or close business associates.
Although his interest bordered obsession, he sent a clear message that he had “made it” in his business affairs. In this sense, the legend he created with his neckties proved effective.
Too much of a good thing?
Unless you choose to express yourself as a “dandy”, or your occupation is associated with clothing, overdoing can appear ostentatious and self-indulging.
When money is not an issue, how do you walk the line between elegance and vulgarity?
The answer resides in nurturing one’s character as a person and with education, and the rest will follow. The academy section of this site can be useful as you continue working with tailors and craftsmen to hand-make your clothing, shirts, ties and shoes—as these artisans are worthy of support.
Tailors such as Rubinacci in Naples, Camps de Luca in Paris, Anderson and Sheppard in London or A.Caraceni in Milan are but a few well-known names in the business of craftsmanship (also see our shoe selection here and here).
Even the plastic pen you’ve been using can be thrown out and replaced with a custom-made or vintage fountain pen. If you smoke, unique cigarettes can be made just for you by Dunhill or Davidoff. The lovely people at Cartier or Dupont, both of Paris, also can create a lighter just for you.
Briefcases, luggage and perfumes also relay your personal taste. With a little attention to details, everything from your underwear to your watch can be a unique presentation of yourself, whether custom, handmade or high quality off-the-peg. You can own less but own better—and yourself and others will feel the difference, even if on a subconscious level.
When the money isn’t there but you want to improve your style
Wealth aside, adding a few elements to your current style can be done without a major investment.
Instead of visiting the most expensive tailors, try commissioning a local tailor whose work you like; and look for nice made-to-measure shirts from Italy instead of immediately going full-out bespoke. Look for unique cigarettes which aren’t on the local market. Examine even the smallest element of your style and ask yourself how can it be improved.
If you are financially unable to try these things, try to dress vintage, and you will rarely go wrong. Be gentle with yourself, as the journey to improve your style can be just as interesting as the destination.
The mindset of the tycoon
All of us, either consciously or unconsciously, choose our clothes based on the values we want to represent.
A man in a power suit wants to be taken seriously. On the other hand, the same man dressed in shorts and a t-shirt wants to express his youth, freedom and disrespect for social conventions. Yet, if you want to propel your success in business, look the part and feel the part. To look the part, consider more than what pleases aesthetically. Ask yourself: Does this particular piece of clothing reflect my values? Does it express seriousness and style? Does it communicate “power, wisdom, or success”? Adopt the aforementioned frame of thinking and you will never approach the subject of clothing in the same way [guaranteed].
Please stop spending time lamenting about imperfections of the body or limited means of income and instead use what you do have to your advantage.
Try to be impeccably dressed according to your capability (the Parisian Gentleman Academy can help) and be prepared for business from the moment you rise in the morning. And if it happens that you succeed in amassing a fortune, please do us all a favor and “flash your wealth” with true style.