English-speaking lovers of that receding Atlantis known as classic #menswear have their totem in the form of Arnold Gingrich’s Apparel Arts. That magazine’s 1930s clothing illustrations and articles effectively chronicled and set what we now call classic. Collectors treasure old issues; a three-volume monograph on Apparel Arts produced a few decades ago itself can retail for over a thousand dollars, such was the influence an American magazine conveying information about the dress habits of the English upper class to Depression-era clothing salesmen has had. Entire clothing forums have been founded based on one of its old articles.
The lovely retrospective Monsieur, produced with the assistance of the editors of the current magazine to bear that name, reminds us that America’s rosy-tinted transatlantic lens was not the only perspective on an elegance we only latterly call classic. This omnibus of period articles and advertisements throws into relief how Monsieur’s different place, timing and target readership created a vivid and distinct style record. And as the punch line to the old joke goes, Vive la différence.
Time: Jacques Hébertot and the couturier Paul Poiret founded Monsieur in 1920, a Jazz Age away from the heyday of Apparel Arts, whose copy could seem positively Keynesian at times. Apparel Arts urged 1930s clothiers to spend money to make money through technological improvements, investing in the best quality merchandise, even bettering themselves in order to more easily sell to a high-class clientele. In contrast, Monsieur emerged a few years and miles from the horrors of the Somme and the Marne, facing a freer, wealthier age – even if the wealth of old European empires was passing to other loci. Luckily, enough of the possessors of that new wealth – among them the Argentines and Americans satirized in a Monsieur excerpt comparing men’s fashions around the world – still passed through Monsieur’s native Paris. And Monsieur was able to advise its intended readers– leisured French gentlemen – how to address the various tensions of their new age.
Apparel Arts conveyed its impressions (as illustrated by Laurence Fellows) of the styles of the Prince of Wales, or of a long-gone and mythical Ivy League set, to guide American clothing salesmen selecting similar patterns, cuts and accessories for their customers. In contrast, Monsieur, with the gorgeous and fanciful illustrations of Bernard Boutet de Monvel and others, aimed to inform France’s own upper and upper middle classes about the leading styles and makers to patronize, rather than to copy, and about how to navigate the uncertain prosperities of the 1920s. We encounter monographs on how to order at a restaurant so as not to be mistaken for an unfashionably over-rushed “business-man,” how to enjoy those new-fangled American cocktails, how to partake in sports (a necessary fashion, even if Monsieur prefers to stay ringside rather than to box himself), even how to talk to a worker (!). An article on how not to pay one’s tailor asserts that (after the first order) only provincials and the badly dressed paid their tailors. I think wistfully of the present day, when certain of the most famous and prestigious tailors will make a customer pay to fix their mistakes.
Hand in hand with these guides to engaging with their own changed present, Monsieur evoked figures and tropes of the past, from bygone dandies like the author Eugène Sue to dandyism itself. Refreshingly, Monsieur’s writers were intelligent enough to note that what constitutes a dandy had changed and changes dramatically over time, and audacious enough to attack Beau Brummell, normally hailed as the first and greatest modern dandy. Their attacks (Vive la France!) included arguments for the competing concept of French grace instead of Brummell’s arrogant discourtesy, his art of only knowing how to dress well and look perpetually bored. Comment dit-on “shots fired”? Another piece entitled “Is Dandyism Dead?” observes that the Great War had extinguished many affectations. Along with so many other uncertainties, we no longer could know what dandyism is, except that it had become an art, infinitely more complex than before, of reconciling different extremes.
As to actual #steez, Monsieur traffics both in earnest and in surreal jest – beauty tips for the modern man include getting beat up by a boxer in order to get that more current rougher look, for example. Jests aside, men’s suits and accessories were approaching their current idealized form. Monsieur provided its Parisian perspective with magnificently patterned handkerchieves from the new French outpost of the American haberdasher Sulka (along with a guide to avoiding déclassé flamboyant pocket squares), ties from the shirtmaker Boivin jeune (“woven in our old French centers”), and much more. In that age of irrational exuberance – where older sophistication encountered newer boldness – wonderful things appeared, and Monsieur chronicled them. Until, like so many other interwar institutions, it didn’t.