G. Bruce Boyer is one of the greatest men’s style authorities alive.
Today we have the good fortune to publish a work entitled “My Life as a Style Writer” by G. Bruce Boyer himself.
Run (don’t walk) to read these words. If you’re like us, you’ll find yourself returning again and again to the text, to absorb a vital portion of contemporary menswear history that may not be recorded anywhere else in its entirety, as is done in the following words of Mr. Boyer.
Let the story begin.
Hugo and Sonya Jacomet
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My Life as a Style Writer
by G. Bruce Boyer
Strictly speaking I’ve not really been a fashion writer in the traditional sense, but rather a clothing writer. Traditionally what was meant by fashion writing in magazines over the past century and well into this one has historically been simply a matter of breezy caption writing as an adjunct to selling the clothing shown in illustrations of one kind and another, while writing about clothing – I want to think – has a longer, more honorable and literary history. I’ve always been more of a features writer who happens to be interested in the history, style, and quality of clothing more than fashion. After all, as Oscar Wilde so perfectly noted, fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable, it’s necessary to alter it every six months. I wanted my writing to have more of a shelf life than that. And I wanted to be taken seriously. I suppose I might have thought that I wanted to be in the tradition of essay writing of the Max Beerbohm’s of this world, and wanted to apply that style to the subject of men’s clothing.
I started out as a clothing writer at a most fortuitous moment, and you simply can’t beat timing. In 1973 I left off being a college English professor and started to write about men’s clothes. It was, funnily enough, perhaps the first time I had really followed my heart.
The early 70s were absolutely the right moment to write about men’s clothing because it was at exactly that moment when the fashion world and the general public were becoming aware of the idea of men’s fashion designers. The first generation of menswear designers, the pioneers, the innovators, the inventors of the genre, had first arrived in Europe and the USA in the latter 1950s — John Weitz, Bill Blass, Pierre Cardin, the Brioni label, Hardy Amies, Oleg Cassini, Rupert Lycett Green, and a few other Europeans and Americans — as the world finally began to recover from a three-decade period of wars and depressions that had almost seamlessly stretched from 1914 to 1945. In women’s clothing of course Christian Dior is the most obvious example of the post-war yearning for prosperity, peace, and the new awakening to luxury. Dior, along with his followers, imitators, and customers wallowed in the excess of fabric which seemed a throwback to a previous century.
But with the end of WWII, and the energy of the postwar peace, this new group of designers (most of whom had cut their teeth in women’s wear) tentatively entered the menswear market and found some purchase, enough that a second generation began to emerge by the mid-’60s – some of whom had absolutely no connection to women’s wear, sometimes not even to design training – and by the early 70s there were both Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, not to forget Alexander Julian, Geoffrey Beene, Perry Ellis, Stanley Blacker, Jeffrey Banks, Pietro Dimitri, Carlo Palazzi, Tommy Nutter, Michael Fish, and a growing number of even younger designers hot on their heels.
Clothing labels now began to make that telling switch from manufacturer’s names to designer’s names. THAT WAS A WATERSHED which indicated, as nothing else had, that the designer in menswear had arrived. Quickly designers began putting their names and logos on every form of product from the clothing to bed sheets and eye glass frames, cars, candy, and cans of paint. Perhaps they had reached some sort of endgame with Louis Vuition’s logo-imprinted condoms (for the man who really does have everything).
Lifestyle marketing was a watershed too. These designers brought the concept of lifestyle to the larger audience. “Lifestyle designing” at this point meant designing for people whose lives were thought to have no style.
In short, I came to writing about men’s clothing just shortly after the designers came to it. The ground floor of the building had just been laid. Lucky for me, I was in at the start of it all. And it was something of an international affair: there were designers from Great Britain via Savile Row and Carnaby Street, and from Rome and Milan, Paris and New York via the startling “New Wave” and “Neo-Realism” cinema which had emerged after WW II. The war had left a cultural vacuum, as well as the more obvious political and economic ones.
Designers jumped into the breech. And so did I.
I trolled the streets of London and Paris, Rome and Milan with pad and pencil at the same time guys like Ralph Lauren were there doing the same thing, looking for inspiration and ideas. Lauren’s break-through item in 1968 was the wide tie, which he’d seen in the streets of London and which had originally been designed by Michael Fish, who had done his apprenticeship at the famous Turnbull & Asser shirt shop in London’s Jermyn Street. Lauren copied that item, and the rest is lucrative history beyond the dreams of avarice.
But a more important insight for me was my feeling that writing about men’s clothing had to be much different from writing about women’s clothing. I thought that it could be, it should be more serious, more meaningful. Writing about women’s clothing usually went something like this: burn your old wardrobe and get these new things so you’ll be thought both in style and youthful. Is it much different today? Fashion has a wonderful way of making us feel that, even if we don’t have the youth and beauty of runway models, even though we may be down, we’re not out. It keeps us in the game, and like religion, it offers hope and salvation.
My feeling was that men’s fashion writing should reflect, should be tied to something beyond itself, rather than this free-floating “fashion for fashion’s sake” sort of thing. Fashion writing should try to understand what clothing is about within a context, something in the tone of the age, the zeitgeist, something in the culture, something in both our emotional and intellectual life. As a philosophy student in college, I was always opposed to the idea that any aspect of human endeavor occurs in a vacuum, isolated from other aspects of life. In that sense, I suppose I’ve a holistic philosophy. This idea of “art for art’s sake” never appealed or even made any sense to me. What the hell is the sake of art anyway? It was all too rarefied, ethereal, and segregated for me.
I wanted to tie fashion and our concerns about clothing to other aspects of culture to make it more real and relevant, to integrate it into our cultural and intellectual outlook somehow: I wanted to tie it to sociology, or history, or psychology, or literature, politics, or biography. To something, so that it wouldn’t exist in this artificially imposed isolation understood only by the acolytes, this vacuum of magical aesthetic navel gazing. I was not writing for dandies, but for the man who simply wanted to be more aware and in control of his appearance. I wanted to make writing about clothing readable and approachable for men who were not necessarily interested in fashion, but were particularly interested in dressing well and understanding its importance. And for those who found clothing a joy in their lives.
I think my contribution, if I can call it that, was that I wanted to do popular fashion writing in the way that some writers do popular history or popular biography. Fashion writing that was serious yet popular, without it being academically rigorous or difficult. In short, I saw (and still see) myself as not so much selling clothes, or as an academic in the field, but rather as a populizer of the subject.
And I must say immediately I was not the first to think of or do this.
My models were the American journalist George Frazier and the British journalist John Taylor. Frazier worked mainly for the Boston Globe newspaper and Esquire magazine. He was something of a conservative dandy, an expert on jazz and sports and literature, and an astute follower of American culture. The essays that he wrote for Esquire in the 50s, 60s, and 70s are just as readable today as ever, and I would highly recommend them to you. John Taylor was an Englishman who was for years editor of the British magazine “Tailor and Cutter” (the trade journal of the British tailoring guild), unofficial spokesman for the British menswear custom trades, and a steady contributor to Punch magazine. He was a fount of wisdom and history about men’s clothing, and an incredibly witty writer. I recommend him as well.
My early writing was modeled on the styles of Frazier and Taylor – which is to say I stole “approaches” and some of my style from them – both of whom had that High Mandarin voice, and they wrote with taste, flair, and knowledge of their subject. Their approach was both serious and popular. They both differed from other fashion writers in that they were not interested in selling clothes per se, at least not any specific clothes. Brands and labels and designer names were not mentioned in their reportage. Proper names were limited to the world’s great tailors, shirtmakers, bootmakers, and a few other purveyors of highly crafted luxury items for gentlemen. They wanted to talk seriously about clothes and introduce men to a subject from which they could derive much pleasure and some profit. How simple and how refreshing! I am deeply indebted to both of them. Their editorial comments and opinions had not been imprisoned by the advertising department, as editorial comment seems to be today. Their feature articles weren’t calculated to exist in tandem with ad copy.
I wanted to write like that too, because I believed there was a fine line that a good fashion writer should walk. On the one hand, most people don’t take clothes seriously enough, they feel that clothes don’t matter, that we can and should all wear whatever we want. That idea is at the same time delusional, non historic, and frankly stupid, and people who believe such a blatant misreading of the obvious get what they insist on deserving. Whether we should or not, the reality is that we do all judge by outward appearances, if for no other reason than we simply don’t have enough time to get to know deeply enough most people with whom we must daily deal. We must get our signals where we can and as quickly as we can. Uniforms, to name the most obvious example of clothing, are both inclusive and exclusive. We use clothing to tell us about the people we meet. What the clothes tell us depends upon how closely we listen.
But there are others – people in the fashion industry among them – who take clothes much too seriously. Fashion is not a cure for many of the world’s problems.
Ever since the Englishman Charles Worth arrived in Paris in the third quarter of the 19th Century – designers have been celebrities of a sort. And designers may be fascinating people or bores, insightful observers of society or merely clever packagers, brilliant artists or just trendy editors willing to run with the particular idiocy of the moment. But what they are not is bio-medical researchers working on ways to provide cheap pure drinking water to undeveloped countries; they are not involved with solving the problems of poverty, famine, crime, drug addiction, nuclear disarmament, global warming or over-population. At most, and apart from the economic rewards, they are trying to make us look a little better, get along a little easier and more comfortably into our aspirational stratums of society, and think a bit more highly of ourselves.
I don’t mean to underestimate or minimize these goals at all, and this is no mean feat. The right clothes are a potentially useful tool socially and psychologically, just as the carefully constructed language, sense of propriety, and demeanor are. So there is this fine balance, and that’s how I try to write about my subject. Don’t take it too seriously, but understand its real importance in our lives.
Secondly, I think of myself as a stylist when it comes to writing.
I don’t write long, involved, ornately researched monographs or treatises on the history-making issues of the 21st Century. I certainly don’t do any ground-breaking original research, although occasionally I make a connection nobody seems to have noticed or mentioned before. That’s real fun. I don’t try to carve images on Mt. Rushmore. I carve my portraits on peach stones and olive pits. I try to understand my subject and offer my thoughts in an easily read way. The essay is my favorite and chosen genre. I try to be welcomingly approachable and to give a “good read”. The best compliments I get are from people who say, “I’m not really interested in clothes, but it was more interesting than I had imagined.”
And finally, I’ve always had a love and abiding interest in my subject, not as an academic, and certainly not as a scholar, but as a clothes-wearing man. I’ve been interested in clothes since I was a boy – how they could provide a “role” or an “image”, how they could give and convey confidence, how they could provide entry into a group, how they could be distinguishing, and in my case how they could appeal to women – and the rewards that might convey. How, in short, clothing can be understood as a social tool.
I’ve always felt that clothes were both a transcending delight and a serious business. The idea, to use an antique phrase, of “being properly dressed” has a comfort for me beyond the serenity of prayer. I’ve learned about my subject because I have a love of it. And the more I learn, the more interested I become. I’m interested in how clothes are made, how they’re designed, how they’re bought and sold, how they evolve, how they’re worn, why they change. Styles of dress just don’t drop from the trees, they come from somewhere, they have a history, a narrative. I’m interested in the arch of that story almost as much as I am in the day-to-day wearing of clothes.
And I’m very interested in those who are just becoming interested.
I learn so much from the young bloggers and their clothing websites in which editorial has not yet become slavishly tied to an advertising stream. So many advertorially driven magazines seem so dusty now, museum pieces, and so unwilling to grant their readers any intelligence or real individual style. In short – and this is the worst condemnation you can make about fashion magazines – they seem so old fashioned. The bloggers of course are not yet so beholden to their sponsors, they can talk about real style wherever they find it.
And they find it all over the place. They can talk about style in an unfettered way, from a slightly less commercial perspective and still appeal to the consumer. They can be educators, tastemakers, style indicators and directors.
This of course is the biggest change in the fashion industry: the blogosphere.
The rapid dissemination of information is what has characterized the modern world at least since the invention of the telegraph in 1837 (I suppose we could as easily go back to Guttenberg and moveable type). And these websites are very adept at getting the information out there much quicker, they’re much more flexible and facile, they have the ability to instantly capture the moment and mood, and then just as quickly move on. In this respect the blogs and websites work more like very sophisticated niche daily newspapers than like monthly magazines. Or, as others have mentioned, more like canoes than cruise ships.
So the tempo of fashion news is greatly quickening. What this pace will do to traditional views about fashion – the seasonal cycle, how stores will respond with their inventories, and the rest – isn’t clear to me, it’s an emerging readjustment.
What I do notice is that these sites have not only taken over the duties of the traditional fashion magazines – i. e., providing seasonal fashion looks, editorial comment, shopping guides, interviews with people in the fashion industry, answering questions of dress etiquette and giving style tips, and cultural pieces – but they’ve started providing their own shopping venues with “online shops”, of which there are now dozens attached to these sites.
The effective model has been : start a niche information website, and when you get enough loyal readers, open an online shop to cater to that constituency. These interactive niche sites sell clothes to a loyal following. They’re not so much advertorial as shopatorial. Which means that the guidance and the garments themselves are gotten from the same blog or website.
What this will eventually mean, I have yet to discover.
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Further reading : The Art of Wearing Clothes by George Frazier (Esquire, September 1960)