Against Intelligent Design

I write these words with apologies to a personal friend, a man who taught me an enormous number of things, who steered me right when I was thinking of all sorts of asking for all sorts of passing trendy details on a pair of custom shoes, and who set me on the path to discovering the best shirtmakers and tailors in the world, unsung though they were at the time. 

Some time ago my friend dismissed the words of a prominent Teutonic style author whom I’ll call Vogelkundler, a proponent of supposed English and Italian clothing styles, asserting instead that no one can teach you to be a gentleman or an elegant man, that trying to copy the styles of another culture inevitably fails terribly so that trying to dress like a country squire is as much of a failure in Gotham as on Gothos. “Style,” my friend proclaimed, “is absolutely something one is born with since genuine style is individual and the code is provided to each of us at birth.”

I thought of my friend’s words as I prepare to get rid of the first two shirts pictured here, perhaps by donating them to a costume museum. 

After all, costume is what my friend had called most of what people who learn how to dress from books like Vogelkundler’s wear, an inauthentic pastiche of others’ ideas of elegance. How much expense could be avoided, he suggests, if we simply expressed our own inner personal style, a style without reflection or conscious thought?  This must make him the Zeus of clothing fora founders, for in his universe style springs forth like Pallas Athena, fully developed, from his head.  To him, personal elegance appears to be the revelation of a fundamental and completely thought-out truth whose elements were always present.

My 14-year-old shirts are evidence against this concept of intelligent design, my friend’s premise of unchanging and permanent personal style truths.  Even if we remain ever true to ourselves, that truth has another dimension – that’s the fourth dimension, time (okay, come at me, physics bros).  Our tastes evolve over time. To the extent we feel our style, and our clothes as its expression, are an extension of ourselves, over time as our style changes bit by bit we may favor a piece of clothing for slightly different reasons, combine it with different sorts of outfits, wear it for different purposes, or take what we liked about it and try to reproduce those discrete features in searching for or ordering new items with those attributes.  

My friend is correct that even the best written, most informative book on style, like Vogelkundler’s, may not give us style.  But what it can do is help us take the first steps.  Even if those are initially in the wrong direction, even if they are stumbles off a cliff, they start a process of progress. My friend does not acknowledge that anyone who does not hold himself out to be an expert online is looking for one, looking for an authority to give one some immediate direction. He derides those who are obsessed with clothing enough to look for a resource.  However, today, to develop a personal style, we need to have what most others would think an obsession –the will to learn, to try and to refine.

And we learn through our inevitable failure to divine in advance what at some given moment in middle age will pass for perfection.  I bought these shirts because I loved their flamboyant turquoises and purples and even more flamboyant patterns (the designer pretentiously called it a “double shadowstripe”). I recognize my tastes sprang from a reaction against the oppressive wretchedness that is real true prep during my adolescence. And in a time before Internet experts and long before meeting my friend, my inspirations were novels and films -- the bold stripes and cuts of 1960s films, my Technicolor dream of a Swinging London at a distance of decades.  These shirts with their tight darts, high, shark-fin collars and brazen palette captured all of that for me, my desire to appropriate a little of what I thought was elegant rebellion against convention. 

Revelation of true self is not the realization of a beautiful sculpture already imagined within a block of marble.  That’s a pleasant lie.  As in anything else, there is no intelligent design, no incontrovertible style truths inbuilt into our DNA, only ad hoc reactions to the sartorial chaos around us that can sometimes build on each other to better things.  As I prepared to pass these shirts on, I realized that they were an unavoidable stepping stone in my development – that years later I knew more about cloth, construction, and so on, and used all that I’d learned about that and all that I’d learned from owning, enjoying, and feeling gradually more self-conscious in these shirts to have the shirts in the second pictures made.  Unlike the shirts in the first picture, they were made to fit me, not bought off the rack at the risk of looking like an extra from the opening credits of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.  The collars, based on what I had come to love about my older shirts, are a bit flamboyantly higher than normal shirt collars, although a lot more restrained than those I used to wear, and slightly rounded at the points – a preference learned over trial and error.  The cuffs are still two-button cuffs, like on those older shirts –  back then I’d thought they just seemed more British and bespoke to me, and today I think that they make for a better fit.  The stripes are a tad more restrained – even if the colors are almost exactly the same as on my older shirts. 

In no way could I have moved directly from nascent style seeker to owner of the more restrained, better made, more sophisticated shirts in my second picture.  We gain our personal style as much from what looking back are misadventures as from the lessons we think we learn from others.  And things that we bought during our journey that we might not purchase now still serve, even if in different ways, like the denim shirt I wrote about some time back.  You are your own sum total, and that includes your regrets.

My friend emphasized the importance of gaining confidence to express our innate sartorial knowledge.  In my case, over the last decade and a half, it has been a matter of gaining the confidence to escape other’s notions of propriety – including his.  I still favor the features of the suits I used to dream of back at the time I bought those first shirts.  Back then it was because they seemed especially Savile Row, especially 1960s like the gaudy films I loved (and I know how embarrassing that is to admit): single-breasted two-button suits, slant pockets and double vents… But in my first custom suit orders I restrained myself from asking for a too-colorful suit lining, having read that flashy linings were a sure sign of a novice, an arriviste (as if I have actually arrived) or a ready-to-wear suit masquerading as bespoke.  Recently I had a final fitting on a suit where I finally let myself have a deep violet lining, finally letting myself admire that gorgeous, deep color contrasting against Minnis grey flannel. And today the books of linings my tailors carry are full of violently patterned and colored linings of all sorts, making my indulgent purple now seem positively sober.  We do come around to ourselves, even if the world changes.

The world has indeed changed, and to survive we keep reacting and adapting to it, even if we do not change in the same way. I continue to believe that favoring one item in a particular style, one particular idea of elegance like a nice suit, does not dictate conforming to popular ideas of conservative elegance in other areas, evolve though we may: For 25 years ago I’ve been a fan of Faith No More, first sincerely, then sort-of-ironically in that Gen X way, then as a #dadcore lost soul.  Yet as I finish this, I’m listening to a recent album of covers of 1960s Italian genre movie themes (in particular that of Danger: Diabolik) performed, with orchestral accompaniment, by their lead singer, Mike Patton, and named after another famous cult movie, Mondo Cane. Far afield from Patton’s early work with FNM, or what I initially liked them for, but anyone who knows me can tell nothing could be more in my wheelhouse than this. It feels right (deep, deep down).  It just took a long time to get here.

Perhaps, to my friend, I do not have style.  But I am me.

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