Time Capsules

We can find inspiration in everything, as Paul Smith wrote. During these times of sheltering in place, we may have to. The mind has limits, though. A colleague recommended Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage Around My Room), a travelogue of staying at home.  I bought it a decade ago after reading about it in the memoirs of self-styled gentleman pornographer Maurice Girodias and never finished it, so clearly that voyage tired me. On the other hand, I’ve been rereading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and while its narrator’s unscathed wanderings around plague-stricken 1665 London constitute another sort of epic, I can’t say I’d recommend it to other readers right now. 

Instead, I’ve been inspired to turn to The Sartorial Travel Guide by the inimitable Simon Crompton for a glimpse of what already seems like a very different time, one where we were free to move around without fear of killing or being killed, one where brick-and-mortar retail existed and was worth the journey. In truth, physical shopfronts, retail that required the buyer to come to it, have been steadily disappearing for years, even before our modern age of contagion threatened to make them collateral damage by shuttering their doors, trapping staff in employment oblivion, and laying clear economic faults so great they may lead to a depression.  When times finally change, what may be left of the stations in this literary pilgrimage? Some of them may be only memories.

I do not mind travelling along the highways of memory. Those nostalgic epics are, in fact, my favorite clothing books, those that describe what was, and what made those phantoms interesting. My own book, to emerge one year or another, is precisely about Parisian places of wonder whose luxury today is that neither money nor social media influence can conjure them, only knowledge and the ability to turn back the clock, an ability we only have with our pens and our words. 

20 years ago the Internet levelled physical retail. Those of us seeking a particular brand of English shoes, for example, no longer needed to wait for a glossy catalog from South Carolina to arrive with its American-market prices, but could search the world and import them ourselves for far less from a small shop in a Malaysian mall.  Brands which had built their reputations on expensive, exclusive aloofness, dismissing unwelcome casual visitors to their few stores, suddenly sprinted to set up websites, webstores and social media accounts, along with fruitful relationships with well-chosen influencers.

I love the travelogue of international tailors, bootmakers and haberdashers in Alan Flusser’s 1981 book Making the Man far more than the basic clothing advice it contains, and which Flusser has republished multiples times in various forms. In fact, I return to that listing time and again as I find other pieces that fit with the puzzles he set out. With Flusser’s Making the Man and Style and the Man as its clear antecedents, The Sartorial Travel Guide is a similar time capsule, this one from a very recent, yet very distant, past. It rewrites the map Flusser had created, charting new capitals – a far more far-flung, dispersed, heterogenous set where Flusser sometimes had come across as telling the reader where, all over the world, to buy British and American clothes. 

30 years after Flusser, however, stores need more than merchandise to stay open, let alone make them of international note to Crompton’s sartorial traveler.  They need alchemy: a nearly mystical, wholly unscientific combination of incongruous elements: pedigree, as with the handful of Savile Row tailors in his London chapter; heritage, as with so many of the small traditional artisans he names all over the world; novelty, evident in the oddities of so many small shops; and above all, curation, the vision to juxtapose unexpected items memorably. 

Even as #menswear physical retail has thinned, the ranks of #menswear enthusiasts have swelled. Thus, The Sartorial Travel Guide is dedicated to shopping without the pretense of providing dressing advice, something that Flusser included with all of his books so that earlier readers could justify their consumption of clothing porn. Instead, The Sartorial Travel Guide includes interviews about shopping with various figures in the #menswear-industrial complex like Anderson & Sheppard’s Anda Rowland and The Rakes Wei Koh, lists of various figures’ favorite shops around the world, and plenty of colorful pretty pictures, a far cry from the handful of murky greyscale images of Flusser’s books.  Crompton recognizes that today clothes themselves can be a hobby.  In our ever-busier age, as capitalism sucks up every drop of our free time and personal moments, the middle class embraces hobbies in items and activities that earlier generations took for granted: food, cocktails, clothing, coffee… 

Today of all times we can allow ourselves the indulgence of reading and fantasizing about former commonplaces, because they, and their wares, are exotic now if they were not already so a year ago.  A book worth the trip.

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