Book Bites- For What Ails You

Recently I’ve been struggling with writer’s block over multiple pieces for No Man Walks Alone. My forum admirers who have criticized my “rambling flow of thought or speech” (a DSM-IV-listed symptom of caffeine intoxication) may find that hard to believe, given my frequent and wordy ejaculations of Schadenfreude over the newest awful book about men’s clothing that some hack has crapped out. However, as I’ve realized, the last few clothing books I’ve been reading have been unexpectedly good, all in different ways. I’m unused to reading #menswear books I actually want to engage with – after all, I once wrote that “most books about clothing make me want to put a bullet in my head.” 

Of course, many of them simply give people what they want, pornography: pictures of expensive clothing seductively shot, sometimes dressed up (no pun intended) with some nonsensical text, more exiguous than a fig leaf, that further flatters the reader’s pretensions. You can play Bingo with the keywords in such books: elegance, timelessness, heritage, gentleman, and so on, but in general any actual writing in them is about as inane as the narrative in a Penthouse Letter, or the mail the Rakish Man receives (“Dear Léon Philippe, I never thought it would happen to me but…”).

As a compromise to accommodate my perverse gusto for the unworthy, and in order to clear a few worthy books off my desk, I’ve come up with a list of recent offenders and alternatives much more worthy of your time and attention. The offenders are ordered by increasing level of offense. Think of my alternatives as pornography for the thinking man, as opposed to the easily led. (And yes, Isle, I accept that even thinking men appreciate Das Butt now and again.)

Offender: James Sherwood’s Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke, 2009

Crimes: More like misdemeanors. Lack of anything new to say, heavy reliance on Richard Walker’s definitive 1987 history Savile Row, disjointed and repetitive presentation of tailor after tailor with narrow individual histories rather than a synthesis with any insight. Any luxury house of any age will have famous customers, quirky anecdotes, and so on. What makes Savile Row unique is its aggregation of dozens of tailors in a single area creating some of the best tailored clothing in the world for 200 years, a story greater than any one house can tell. 

Alternative: Savile Row and America: A Sartorial Special Relationship, 2016

The catalog for an evolving exhibition of the historical and current work of the tailors of Savile Row that originated in a show at Florence’s Palazzo Pitti in 2006 or 2007 (Sherwood coincidentally compiled a related book, The London Cut), which I then missed due to a bibulous lunch at Gagnaire with the woman I love when it came through the British ambassador’s residence in Paris and later, when it resurfaced, due to reality that intervenes in all of our aspirational, pretentious fantasies – toddler bath night. Gorgeous pictures of Savile Row bespoke military uniforms, costumes and suits that illustrate the connection between the English tailoring tradition and the American customers who became one of their main sources of sustenance, and the pretend English taste those customers brought to their ordering patterns and habits. That cohesive collection, featuring pieces from tailors two centuries ago up to the present day, from Henry Poole (founded 1806) to the new designers-cum-tailors who set up in the Row in the 1990s, permits the reader to see an evolution not just in the styles of clothing ordered but also in the adaptations in identity and profile that the tailors of Savile Row have had to adapt in order to survive, or subsist, to the current day. A worthy companion to Richard Walker’s Savile Row.

Offender: Barrie, 2016

Crimes: Evangelia Kranioti’s photos of gorgeous Scottish seascapes, spools of yarn and fields of heather only momentarily divert the reader from Anne Berest’s pathetically bad scraps of text, betraying complete ignorance of how cashmere is made and what makes for good cashmere. No matter, the product put out by Barrie Knitwear, now owned by Chanel (whose idea it probably was to come out with this book as a marketing move) is, in my recent experience, not much better. A sad coda to the demise of Scottish cashmere: a few middling companies relying on image and the heritage of the dead greats. 

Alternative: Esko Mannikko, 100% Cashmere, 2003

Where the Barrie book featured nothing but empty seascapes and landscapes with the occasional model in the distance, and perhaps a couple of closeups of a detail of a knitting machine along with pictures of yarn spools (which are not made at a cashmere knitter’s), this book in the same size and format is devoted to photographing the people of Innerleithen, Scotland who worked at the Ballantyne Cashmere factory at Caerlee Mills. Ballantyne was the last great Scottish cashmere producer until Italian owners (led by Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, whom I will never forgive) bought the brand and drove the plant into liquidation. These people, in all of their prosaic, homely, unassuming presence, were the experienced, hardworking folk whose knowledge and skill with the old, complicated hand flat knitting machines made old Ballantyne cashmere so great. Mannikko captures their apparent normalcy and earthiness (including, in the shot of the security guard’s cubicle, a dirty pictures calendar), reminding us that the sublime is often created by humble, hardworking hands. A year ago Caerlee Mills was razed to make a subdivision. Its workers have been dispersed, the machines literally smashed up. Scotland remains beautiful, but the place that created the wonderful product has been destroyed. The magic of craft is in the creation of wonder and beauty from the mundane, not in postcard images of pretty beaches and fields. If you can find a copy, it will provoke thought.

Offender: Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan, I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman

Crimes: Naïve conflation of dandyism with elegance, and of both of those concepts with what it means to be a gentleman in behavior (that is, a mensch) or in any historical meaning of the word. Aggravating factors: With the exception of the inclusion of a few true originals like Barima Nyantekyi or titans like Bruce Boyer, the authors fails in their premise by confusing a bunch of Internet creeps, grifters and cosplayers with elegance or gentlemen.

Alternative: Daniele Tamagni’s Fashion Tribes, 2015

One of the rare but refreshing books about fashion of social groups that has something interesting and new to say and to show, with the assistance of our friendly neighborhood Gentlemen of Bacongo, the sapeurs of sub-Saharan Africa who made her earlier book of that name a breakout hit. They only play in a supporting role, alongside Senegalese Dirriankhes, Myanmar metalheads, and more colorful, virtually unknown style subpopulations in gorgeous detail and colorful photography. Tamagni’s intrepid vision is the antithesis of the intellectual and esthetic laziness in books like I Am Dandy.

Offender: Various hacks, One Savile Row: Gieves & Hawkes and the Invention of the English Gentleman, 2014

Crimes: A deeply superficial collection of pictures of the creations of a Savile Row tailor which has lived off of its cheaper ready-to-wear product for decades, this book is already dated given that the creative director who designed the pieces featured left G&H a year later. Needless to say, the text does not bear out the title’s promise to explicate G&H’s connection with the rise of the English gentleman, unless its gratingly repetitive praise of genocidal bastard Henry Morton Stanley, a man likely responsible for the death of at least ten million people and the untold suffering of millions more, is intended to suggest that brutal and rapacious colonialism invented the English gentleman. That at least would have been an interesting thesis. 

Alternative: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton, 2014

In this Pulitzer Prize finalist, Beckert makes a scholarly, well researched and grippingly persuasive case for how a cotton polygon, not a Rum Triangle, drove the creation of colonial and mercantile empires on the backs of slavery. The labor-intensive process of growing and picking cotton, and the technically demanding tasks of weaving it, drove European colonialists to find ways to drive its original Indian artisans out of business and later hold them back through laws prohibiting its spinning and weaving in the colonies (not for nothing was the Wheel of Law on the Indian flag originally a spinning wheel). The transatlantic slave trade, involving the trading of printed and finished cotton cloth to encourage the capture and sale of slaves, facilitated the cultivation of greater and greater quantities of cotton in regions of the Americas whose climates proved favorable to its growth. The attentive reader will also learn, in passing, of the experiments with Gossypium barbadense, the long-staple cotton first successfully cultivated in the Sea Islands off Georgia, and more recently bred into even finer strains in tiny quantities in certain parts of Egypt. The book ends, however, reminding us of the innate brutality of our blind and ignorant demand for cheap raw materials, as countries like Uzbekistan provide cheap cotton today using the forced labor of much of their population. Truly, the fabric of our lives. 

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