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Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress
By Russell Smith
McClelland & Stewart
HC, 256 pages
ISBN: 0-7710-8125-1

Dressing like a man

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 24, 2005

Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to DressMen's style, which is a different creature than men's fashion, is a deceptively simple concept. Apart from minor stylistic differences each season -- the width of suit lapels for instance -- men's clothing has been largely static. Nor have the traditional rules of men's changed substantially since the 1930s. Compared to the seasonal and even monthly changes that women endure to stay chic, men have it relatively easy.

Despite that, however, most men dress abysmally. A walk down any street reveals men in ill-fitting suits, clunky and unpolished shoes, shirts that haven't felt the heat of an iron, and wildly inappropriate clothing. Globe and Mail style columnist Russell Smith has made it his mission to save men from themselves with his first non-fiction work Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress, a beginner's guide to dressing smartly for both work and play.

Men's Style opens with an essay entitled "Why Bother?" and indeed the average man could be forgiven for asking that very question. Thanks to decades of male resistance to finery, most women expect little sartorial effort from the men in their life. Men who put effort into dressing well are seen as less trustworthy, a stark reversal from the days of our fathers and grandfathers, while others see distinctions in clothing as reinforcing class distinctions. Ultimately, caring about clothes is seen as shallow, particularly in these serious post-9/11 times.

"I crave Matisse ... But I can say that and not be shallow. Matisse, say the encyclopedias, is not shallow. Discussing Matisse as a sensual stimulus on a sensitive palate -- my psyche -- is also not shallow. When I talk about fashion and go to nightclubs, I am shallow. ... This does not make sense," responds Smith to that and other criticisms. "You are not a superficial man: you are making the world a more beautiful place. This is what art is about, and it is a serious thing to do. It will be, like art, at once pleasurable and intellectual."

From there Smith divides Men's Style into several major sections dealing with shoes, suits, jackets, shirts, ties, casual, underwear, outwear and formal wear. He also delves into areas such as accessories, scent and hair. For the most part Smith plays it safe -- the book is geared to beginners after all -- and explains what is appropriate and why. Once the reader knows the rules, Smith then gently nudges him towards some more experimental terrain -- and sadly the idea of things like a pink shirt or dark brown shoes paired with a navy blue suit for most men is just that, outside their safe boundaries.

Ultimately the point Smith is trying to drive home is that a man can be well dressed and still be comfortable, that it doesn't take much more effort to look put together than it does to look like a slob. Although we've trained ourselves to believe that the height of comfort is a T-shirt and jeans, Smith is right to point out that a properly fitted suit, shirt and tie are no less comfortable than a pair of pajamas. Casual clothing can be done better than a faded concert T-shirt, pleated shorts and hideous rubber sandals. There is no excuse for not shaving every day. There is never an excuse for wearing a ball cap in a restaurant.

The advice in Men's Style, however, shouldn't be taken as biblical authority. Though the vast majority of Smith's prescriptions wouldn't ruffle the feathers of traditionalists, he occasionally proffers some questionable guidance. For the daring he urges clogs ("The perfect clogs are hard to find in North America; you must go to Europe and buy real Dutch ones.") and he asserts dubiously that ascots are "coming back." His absolutist stand against pleats on trousers is misguided at best, especially since designers are reintroducing them after a few years of stressing flat-front pants.

Purists and those dedicated to classic men's style will likely find any number of points to justifiably quibble over, and there were several times Smith exasperated me, but for the beginner Men's Style is an accessible guide to the basic principles of men's dress. While other recent guides attempt to turn men into the preening peacocks or uninspired clones of their fathers, Smith sensibly guides men between these two extremes. If he stops just one man from leaving the house unshaven, swathed in ugly athletic clothing and a ball cap then his mission should be judged a tremendous success.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and a diehard clotheshorse.

Buy Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress at Amazon.com.

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