Recent events, and recent reactions by my doughty friend @dirnelli (who is to suits what Lon Chaney, Sr. was to faces), caused the brakes to fail on my train of thought. Commenting about a recently anointed world leader with appalling clothing habits despite an expensive wardrobe, @dirnelli rightly notes that “[t]he most expensive threads don’t buy you an ounce of style.” With that I agree. My friend also asserts that he could not call, for example, the Duke of Windsor “an elegant human being” despite being “a fine dresser” due to the Duke’s infamous admiration of Adolf Hitler.
I agree with the sentiment animating my friend’s response but, with great sadness, disagree with his suggestion. Sadness because I wish that evil and elegance were exclusive, that willful ignorance and bigotry always manifested themselves physically so that we could recognize and avoid the objectionable, instead of normalizing it by tousling its hair or, as one magazine did, writing a style profile of the young, well-off leader of the neo-Nazi fanatics who now use the euphemism “alternative.”
Evil is dangerous because it is seductive and almost always ambiguous. Good and evil are rarely so broadly drawn as to paint an evil leader as a discolored blowhard in an ill-fitting, unbuttoned suit and obnoxiously bright, wide and overlong tie whose underside blows up in the wind to betray pathetic attempts to secure it with Scotch tape. Even if such a ridiculous figure exists at the forefront of a movement, he cannot exist without the support of many, many others proselytizing for him, financing him, rationalizing him for their own material or ideological advancement. Those others put an unobjectionable face on the objectionable.
The Duke of Windsor today is a figure of ridicule, except in two circles: incurable romantics who find something compelling in his constitutional crisis and abdication to marry a woman of similarly objectionable politics; and fashion lovers who worship his wardrobe. In the most charitable light, the man was a complete idiot. But undeniably a well-dressed one and, I must admit, the single most influential figure in men’s fashion of the 20th century. All this despite being everything @dirnelli says, as well as, I must also say, an elegant man of his class.
That class, the blinkered upper class of England, numbered many of the deplorable and indefensible who admired the Nazis for, among other things, cracking down on left-wing activists and, in some cases, shared anti-Semitism. One of the most vocal of these sympathizers was the second Duke of Westminster, one of the richest men in the world and, according to various profiles of the last seventy years, a great rake and bon vivant despite his objectively disgusting views and actions (including getting Coco Chanel to try to broker a peace deal with Churchill on behalf of her Nazi lover). In fact, one of the most flattering of his profiles is on the website of a major luxury brand that owns the Duke’s former townhouse, and offers high-rolling customers the chance to spend the night in his bedroom. The profile doesn’t go into the hosting-dinners-with-Nazis stuff.
A sad corollary to the impossibility of excluding elegance and evil is the continued celebration of elegant man without acknowledging the evil they did. Adolphe Menjou, whose very autobiography was entitled It Took Nine Tailors (from the incomprehensible old saying that “It takes nine tailors to make a man”), was undeniably a very elegant man, but he brought his cinematic duplicitous suavity to real life when he participated with zeal in the Hollywood red scare witch hunts. A recent paean to him in the best English-language men’s style magazine elides the fact that he helped ruin lives.
Wealth and what used to be called breeding can give you elegance and style, as well as class in the sense that most of the #menswear world, to its detriment, uses it. As I’ve written before, it’s wrong to conflate being a gentleman in the current day and what it meant, historically, to be a gentleman: attributes of social class and signifiers that in no way meant personal honor, morality, or probity. Part of that sort of gentlemanliness meant knowing codes of dress – to the exclusion of others of different class. Today, and I repeat myself, if you want to be a gentleman, be a mensch. And if you don’t know what that is, message me. It means having class in the Fat Albert “School on Saturday” sense, not that of dead deplorable dukes.
Stand for something, and know that it doesn’t matter what you wear if you don’t.