Why dress up ?

Dr John SLAMSON

Why dress up ?

“Make your art lively, make your life artful” — a line delivered by Louis Jouvet in Entrée des artistes by Marc Allégret (1938), written by Henri Jeanson.

A question has been gnawing at our readers, dismayed as they are, by recurring frowns and sideways glances: why bother dressing with elegance at all?

Under the pressure of thousands of letters demanding a forthright answer, we have decided to launch a large-scale inquiry, a vast survey that would delve into the secret depths of the sartorial world.

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And so, we proceeded to a poll among a representative sample comprising no less than 23.5 people strolling by the rue Marbeuf in Paris. After adept assessment and analysis, our statisticians have concluded that the ‘good reasons to dress up’ are the following:

  • According to one percent of the survey group : ¨professional necessity¨, said three Pitti top models. Otherwise there were mixed feelings, with two lawyers and three bankers in dark grey suits, vague ties and whitish shirts merging with the grey concrete surroundings, and vanishing from sight at the question. Most other professionals asked for a lawyer to ensure their identity should not be divulged, for fear that their boss may realize an employee was better dressed than he.
  • According to two percent of the survey group: “showing off”, said the other top models. Answers acknowledged no one had noticed just how well-dressed they were, with the rare exception of members of the sartorial tribe (mutually spotted via dapper pocket squares).
  • According to two percent of the survey group: “narcissism”, or at least a disenchanted form of narcissism–most confessed having heard bewildered remarks such as “what’s the use of that handkerchief in your pocket?” as opposed to complimentary feedback.
  • According to one percent of the survey group: “to get wimin”, drooled a leery group of dandies, who acknowledged that the efficiency ratio of their strategy was not without kinship to the growth rate of 19th century Albania.
  • According to 0.1 percent of the survey group: “to help talented alteration tailors”, one person answered. The man had a beard and a double bass and was heavily burdened with various bags, carrying suits by great French and Italian tailors to exchange them for others so as to change the lapel buttonholes. He vanished in the rue Marbeuf straddling a magic wheel.

As for the remaining 93.9 percent, they talked for hours about the most minute details of their clothes. It turns out they are passionate, joyful, and uninhibited about sartorial things. Far from any posing snobbishness or utilitarian tactics, what spurs this group  is the simple pleasure of dressing. Quite humbly, putting together an outfit feels like creating a daily aesthetic composition.

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As many professional contexts now favour casual dress as part of their institutional image, almost precluding formal elegance from their premises, smart dress is less concerned with possible social rewards than practised as a personal pleasure.

There is no conservatism about their behaviour, since sartorialists mark themselves apart from older stuffy styles — and no one really contemplates going back to Victorian etiquette. A devotee to contemporary style is just looking for inspiration within the whole history of iconic clothing (and its characters) and trying to pick out what works best to set off one’s figure.

There is, admittedly, a trace of nostalgia for a time when common decency demanded a certain basic correctness, when rich people wouldn’t slum it with torn jeans, when dress codes applied not to one particular evening but to society as a whole. But no one is trying to return back to that time or to impose new dressing codes; sartorialists are just trying to do their best to look as neat and tidy as possible. Which is anything but dandyism.

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Between innocence and aesthetic ambition, elegance is also about ethics. Whereas snobbishness is concerned with superiority, elegance is an attempt to make one’s presentation as agreeable as possible, including to one’s own eyes, which is no small feat.

And yet, at times it feels vain to make such an effort towards an elegant presentation. A tempered, measured, classic approach to menswear does not necessarily mean anything anymore. What can it mean when a pocket square of a double-breasted suit marks you to stand out more radically than a person with green hair, a visible thong or bits of metal up his nose? I know, it’s bad to have preferences. Everything should be embraced as one more step towards the complete freedom of mankind.

Considering the popular mandate which tells us rules are evil, our times have refused to obey rules–which has become a supreme rule. The past is wholly evil and traditions are necessarily things of the past which are better erased. Everything must go. Actually, there are little to no freedoms gained as of late (staunch moralists are everywhere to tell you what you are allowed to say and think) but rather a radical celebration of frivolity and institutional rebellion. What is non-conformist dissent when piercings and satanists outnumber neckties in the streets?

Clothes show us all just how pervasive this anomic trend is—the choice seems to be between drab outfits and gregarious, marketable eccentricity. In this respect, spectacular bizarreness is nothing more than a part of an ideological disposition, with its pseudo-wildness being nothing more than gratuitous, easy and mechanical adherence to…fashion.

So, gentlemen, why dress up? Perhaps to avoid (or create) general confusion–or preferably, to quote Jeanson’s line, to make one’s life a “little more artful”.

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All photos © Cesare Attolini, Autumn-Winter 2016/2017.