It is a pity that this delightful and informative book has been saddled with a title and subtitle that seriously misrepresent its contents. "Elegance" suggests snobbishness and "A Guide to Quality in Menswear" implies self-help, yet neither is really accurate. G. Bruce Boyer certainly has high standards and he does offer many suggestions about proper attire for men, but he is a small-d democrat who believes that anyone can wear clothes well, and he is much less interested in setting forth rigid rules than in providing a large amount of information to help the reader make knowledgeable choices.
This is not to say that Boyer is permissive. To the contrary, he begins by admonishing the reader "to first understand that there are rules." He writes: "Like social discourse, dress has its proprieties -- because of course, dress is social discourse; it speaks for us and about us. And, as we were all taught in English 101, it is necessary to understand the rules before breaking them." Certain kinds or combinations of clothing are properly worn in certain circumstances, and the man who wants to observe the basic proprieties will follow these dictates. He will also, as Boyer most pointedly observes, wear what is most suitable to himself:
"Inasmuch as clothing is still the most obvious sign of one's identity, a man should dress in accordance with his profession and standing in the community. This may sound too Victorian and confining for some, but the social reality is that credibility is still based in large measure on consistency. If a man changes his style too often, we feel he is insecure and trying very hard to impress us. Particularly after the blush of youth has passed. A man should find his style and develop it, should have done his experimenting when young, we feel. A banker who chooses to dress like his 16-year-old son, and who turns up at the First National one morning wearing topsiders without socks, fatigue pants, and a neon-enscrawled T-shirt, is not a man to be trusted with your money or mine."
But as Boyer is at pains to emphasize, within the confines of what we consider appropriate wear for the banker or the executive there is leeway. In a splendid chapter about shopping for suits, he describes many of the variations acceptable for business wear; he admires both the "natural" style favored by many American men and the more tailored double-breasted one of Savile Row and the Continent. He urges men to express themselves in their shirts and neckwear; he takes a catholic view of collars as dissimilar as the spread and the button-down, he welcomes the revival of the bow tie, he recommends the ascot as a happy compromise for occasions that fall somewhere between the formal and the casual.
As he makes his way through these and other questions of style and propriety, Boyer provides a large amount of fascinating and sometimes surprising background material. Not merely does he point out that Harris tweed and Indian madras are splendid materials, he describes the unique circumstances of their manufacture in thorough detail. He notes that khaki trousers originated nearly a century and a half ago in India, where the "sparkling white cotton drill trousers" of British troops "made them terribly obvious targets for unsporting snipers in the dusty countryside"; khaki derives from "the Persian word 'khak,' meaning dirt or dust."
There is nothing unusual about the military origins of khaki; if anything, Boyer demonstrates, modern military life has been a controlling influence on men's fashions, giving us "cavalry twill trousers and khaki-colored suits, leather flight jackets and parkas, the duffel coat, field jacket, and of course the trench coat."
Among the other influences have been advertising, the British universities, sports (especially, oddly enough, polo), political figures and the movies. In particular Boyer notes the great effect upon our sense of what is stylish of Fred Astaire and the Duke of Windsor, who "not only popularized Fair Isle sweaters and socks, suede shoes, the spread-collared shirt, the Windsor knot, regimental ties, the double-breasted suit and brightly checked tweeds, he could be considered something of an authority on the history of modern costume for men."
But the real authority is Boyer himself. In addition to all the subjects already mentioned, he writes about cowboy boots ("the real American footwear"), Panama hats (they are actually made in Ecuador), seersucker suits ("the name seersucker being a Hindi corruption of a Persian phrase, 'shir shakar,' which translates as 'milk and sugar' "), and loafers, which came from Norway in the 1930s "and were known first as 'weejuns' (which is of course a corruption of 'Norwegian')." All of this is accomplished in prose just about as stylish as the clothes Boyer describes, and with a wry wit that helps keep matters in perspective. If a better book about men's clothing has been written, I haven't had the pleasure of reading it.