Nowadays, most of us receive our information on tiny, hand-held screens. We do so for a few seconds at a time and often in 140-character or meme-sized doses. We need warnings when we’re about to click on an article that’s going to take more than three minutes to read.
Everything has to be a top ten list with us nowadays. And that’s ten pictures with ten accompanying sentences. What’s happened to our attention spans?
The beauty of G. Bruce Boyer’s True Style is that it is none of these things. It is a book for people into menswear who also enjoy reading for reading’s sake. Equal parts history book and philosophy tome, it’s a must-own for a man curious about why we wear what we do, who’s looking to expand his knowledge and answer the question, “What is style?”
Boyer’s name is renowned in menswear circles. He’s a former menswear editor at Town & Country, GQ, and Esquire. His writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other such publications. He’s also co-curated several exhibitions at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
He himself is superbly dressed.
Interestingly, he worked as an English literature professor for seven years before getting into media. I was unsurprised to learn this after reading the book, because his overall tone and knowledge base is quite professorial.
True Style Review & Favorite Parts
Sometimes it’s easier to define things not by what they are, but rather by what they aren’t. Here’s a brief list of things that True Style isn’t:
A collection of photos and drawings: There are a few illustrations here and there, but the visuals take a backseat to the text. I personally like this more in theory than I do in practice, but more on that shortly.
A book about the basics: It’s not that Boyer explains nothing throughout the course of the work, but the nature of the content is such that it’s expected that the reader has at least some background in menswear, at least as an aficionado. More than once, Boyer addresses the reader as a “friend,” politely (if inaccurately) insinuating that we’re on the same level as he.
Not as funny as Glenn O’Brien nor as poetic as Alan Flusser, Boyer’s tone and delivery is more that of an approachable, knowledgeable professor. True Style is more of a work in which philosophy meets menswear history. It’s a treatise on what makes style, style.
If Mr. Boyer had decided to make his career as an image consultant, he would have been very successful. At various points in his book, he mentions the concept of clothing being a tool for communication, and this concept is 100% true. Our clothing and how we wear it has spoken volumes about us for centuries. Boyer even references “A Case Of Identity,” wherein Sherlock says to Watson, “I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.”
The book is set up in alphabetically-chapters focused on what Boyer feels are key elements to style. Some examples include, “Sprezzatura,” “Denim,” “Craftsmanship,” “Business Attire,” and “Maintenance.” I’d like to dive a bit deeper into my two favorites: The English Country House Look (ECHL) and Italian Style.
The English Country House Look
Mixing high and low genres is one element of ECHL
Before discussing the English Country House Look, we need to understand the importance of the English Country House, at least as it relates to design.
The idea of English country house decor is that many generations of owners have lived in the same home over the span of years, and with each owner there’s been a different flavor of decor. The impression is such that that layers of aesthetic taste have been passed down by those successive owners and that though the whole is perhaps incongruous, it is also natural, self-assured, and is the result of a collective history.
The idea is that the age of everything speaks to its quality, and its continued existence speaks to its timeless taste. Pedigree is a helpful concept to think about here.
To take the example into an American context, picture a home with Revolutionary-era chairs atop Civil War carpets with mid-century sideboards. It’s all mixed up and comes off as perhaps a bit shabby.
If we relate this back to clothing, we get into the concept of looking “lived in” (not shabby), casually unprepared, and mixing genres, most often town and country. Some examples that Boyer gives are a tweed suit with dress shirt and silk dotted tie, a Barbour jacket with a city suit, or even a blazer with denim.
The ability to take the best of certain genres and mate them with the best of other genres requires an eye for style and taste, and the wearer looks great when this is done successfully. One example of this is “high-low” dressing, as pictured above.
Slim trousers with suede tassel loafers is a very Italian look
Though we often look to England as the Mecca of men’s tailored clothing, reading Boyer’s chapter on Italian style made me reconsider this.
Given Italy’s geographical place in the world, it makes sense that much of their economy is based off of the export and consumption of things that are beautiful. The landscape is beautiful. In the south especially, the weather is incredible much of the time. This fact leads to a key difference between typical British and Italian styles.
Though the global economy and loss of tradition has blurred these lines, much of British dressing is centered around not standing out. A man dressed in his home for his family or guests, and when he left the house, he went to a private social club. Note that it is often rainy in Britain.
Compare this with sunny Italy, on the other hand. Italian dressing is centered around being in public, sitting at outdoor cafes and piazzas. This is much more of a “see and be seen” scenario, and knowing this, it’s not a surprise that Italians have a bit more propensity for showing off the body with tailored clothes than the Brits do.
The Italians have also been making clothes at a somewhat mass level as early as 1032. There’s record of a tailor shop in Florence, the physical location of which is noted as “Casa Florentii Sarti.” Not quite a thousand years later, a particular Italian named Giorgio Armani took the menswear world by storm in the 1980’s and gave suiting a softer, more romantic (one might even say more feminine) feel.
Thirty years before that, Brioni, a Roman firm, was the first to put menswear on a fashion runway. Kiton, of Naples, is widely renowned for removing bulk from suits but still somehow maintaining their shape.
*Editor’s Note: Vacation in Italy at next earliest convenience.*
Well-written, unique take on menswear concepts
Tone is approachable, but knowledgable
The “Maxims” chapter is great fun
Not for newbies. There’s little explanation of certain sartorial concepts, and while that’s not what the book is trying to do, it doesn’t “instruct” in the typical sense.
Lacks visuals to a fault. There are plenty of instances in which Boyer is describing a photo or painting in words; while I appreciate having to use my brain, these descriptions could have been made more concise and effective by simply adding the visual he was describing
Selected Quotes & Notable Tidbits
Note that chapter sixteen is entitled “Maxims” and is literally nothing but quotes that Boyer himself came up with. All quotes you see below are taken from elsewhere in the book.
“The fact is that well-dressed men are well dressed not because they follow every little rule about clothing, but because they have good taste, individuality, style, and a sense of history.”
“…you can tie a bow tie. If I hear another grown man say he can’t, I’ll shoot myself.”
Napoleon had a standing order for fifty bottles of cologne per month
On eyeglasses: “You can jauntily take them off, twirl them in your hand, and affect a contemplative look…An effective way to buy a few extra moments to figure out what the hell’s going on.”
Edwardian England saw men dressing for time of day and occasion several times a day. We have no right to complain about dress codes.
“Fashion is echo, but style is voice.” -Dr. Cornel West
Final Rating: Four Out Of Five Stars
True Style is a fantastic book. Though it’s lacking in visuals that would otherwise be helpful, it’s a wonderful philosophical tome that can help the menswear enthusiast truly find his way to stylishness. If you have a background in menswear, appreciate the history of things, or have simply wondered what makes a stylish man stylish, you should pick up this book.
True Style: The History And Principles Of Classic Menswear
G. Bruce Boyer
Reviewed by Michael Oxman on .
“Boyer is a professorial author, teaching us why we wear what we wear.
The author discusses many different facets of style and why he thinks they’re important, and it’s a great philosophical tome.”