This dippy, if seemingly harmless, book on men's style serves as an unintentional marker of certain pop sociology trends. "The Gentlemen's Guide to Grooming" proclaims that "hirsute is hip," a pronouncement that will hardly come as news to anyone living in metropolitan areas where the young and stylish congregate.
The text reads like an unfunny parody of a lost British aristocracy. "As you are aware, chums, I am not averse to a bit of globe-trotting," chirps retired Capt. Peabody Fawcett, the book's supposed author and the mascot for a website that sells men's grooming products. The reader is subjected to such interjections as "toodle pip" and "tally ho!" This grating faux-Anglophilia hearkens after a bluff English neverland of exaggerated courtesy and Kiplingesque nonchalance, with a whiff of steampunk kink thrown in for good measure.
"The Gentlemen's Guide" highlights the hallmarks of hipster consumerism at its most annoying, including the fetishization of obscure implements and an emphasis on the artisanal and the handmade. (Ever wanted to make your own hair tonic?) Of course, this barbering and waxing and pomading and its attendant hale fellowship requires time, which is another way of saying that it requires money.
For all its appropriation of the signifiers of the sturdy virility of the working man, the aesthetics presented in the "Gentlemen's Guide" reek of the moneyed urban dilettante. An honest-to-God rural working man is unlikely to start his day with "a selection of historic grooming items beautifully made from silver, pewter, ivory, ebony, leather, or fine porcelain." He probably barely has time to run a disposable razor over his cheeks before trudging off to his decidedly un-artisanal workplace.
One does not need advocate a return to the clean-cut conformity of the Eisenhower era to find the folderol being sold here fundamentally spurious. The flamboyant hair and dress of beatniks, hippies and punks was genuinely transgressive because it was authentically risky; showing up at that job interview in leather had quantifiable consequences. And if we've learned anything from the rise of Silicon Valley, it's that the unkempt look is, in fact, fully compatible with grotesque forms of corporate greed.
The rebel-outsider attitude depends upon a wholly self-contradictory and finally unsustainable idea of a mass bohemia, one that would require the majority of the population to feel superior to itself. The "Gentleman's Guide" represents the selling of what we think we want to be, and in this, it may be the perfectly groomed sign of our times.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
By Capt. Peabody Fawcett, Ret.
Sterling. 176 pp. $19.95