G. Bruce Boyer and thirty years of Elegance

G. Bruce Boyer photographed by Rose Callahan.

G. Bruce Boyer photographed by Rose Callahan.

In the latest issue of Zoomer Magazine, which is focused on style, you will find a couple of articles penned by yours truly. There’s a long memoir about how another man’s wardrobe changed me and my perceptions of fatherhood and manhood (pictured below). And there’s a short piece about G. Bruce Boyer. Mr. Boyer is the most important and influential menswear writer of the last forty years and it was a true honour to interview him about his classic volume Elegance, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. I asked Mr. Boyer about how much has changed and hasn’t in the world of menswear since the book was published, specific questions about what he wrote in 1985 and also some questions about his upcoming book, True Style, which is set for release this September. Below is our interview in full upon which the article is based.


How menswear has changed

When I read the book, I was quite taken by how much we’ve lost and how much has changed for the worse. How does the book make you feel, thirty years later?

Funnily enough, I’m still happy with Elegance, except for the “service” elements of it, i.e. those list of shops which are sadly out of date. In my defence, my publisher at the time insisted that the service lists be included in the text because it was thought that would help sell the book. I pointed out — sometimes I feel exactly like Cassandra — that the list would be out of date within five years, but that argument lost out. It’s very sad for me that some of the great New York stores — I’m thinking of the old Abercrombie & Fitch, M. J. Knoud Saddlery, H. Kauffman & Sons, Fulton Supply, and other places where you could find authentic sports clothing — are no longer with us. But life moves on, manners and mores change, and there are new venues to seek out and patronize.

What changes have there been to your personal approach to style and your wardrobe in the last 30 years?

I’m afraid I’m a prisoner of my youth. When I was a young man — 12 to 20 — I experimented with all sorts of dress, but more and more drifted to American Ivy Style clothes with a British influence. As early as 1958 or so I was also already aware of the Italian approach — we called it “Continental” style at the time — and was affected by that too. By that time I had stopped experimenting with styles and was more interested in simply finding shops and craftsmen who could give me what I wanted. In other words, by the time I was 20 or so, I was honing my style and taste, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I admit to looking a bit old-fashioned, but then I’m not a young man any more so it doesn’t really matter. I’m comfortable with style, whatever that is. I’ve made my bed and I’m happy to sleep in it.

You wrote about a return to elegance in the Eighties, similar to what is happening now. But is it happening for the same reasons?

I think there are always a number of young men who will be interested in elegance, and the times will determine what that concept means and how it is envisioned. Thirty years ago of course there was no widespread internet of shopping and blogging advice. Today many more men are aware of the golden names of craftsmanship and quality in clothing that they were in the Eighties. Also today we have witnessed the great rise of the Tokyo-Singapore-Hong Kong triangle. Asia has become a major player in men’s fashion, we are aware of stores like The Armoury and Kamakura, the great Japanese fashion magazines, and The Rake (from Singapore). The influence is more pervasive and international today than it was in the Eighties.

When you spoke of “bespoke” and “hand-lasted”, I get the impression that far more men knew terms like those 30 years ago than today. Is that true?

The problem is that these terms — bespoke, custom, made-to-measure, bench-made, hand-lasted, and others — used to have definite and distinct meanings. But because of commercial greed and lax legislation, they are now used indiscriminately to sell product. From what I gather, even the British courts will not take a stand on the use of these words. So now everyone uses the word “bespoke” to the detriment of the unwary consumer. When anything can mean anything, the consumer must educate himself to a high degree or get robbed. That’s how capitalism works: Let the buyer beware.

It seemed at the time that the Eighties were the end of the “let’s-dress-any-old-way-we-want” era, yet that seems more true today than ever. Do you feel hope for the future of tailored clothes or is this current trend a last gasp?

This is the real question, and if I could answer it I would probably be phoning in this interview from a rather capacious mansion in the South of France. On a philosophical-sociological level, clothing has always been a way of showing one’s place in the social sphere, and I think that this will always be so. Even with saints and communists, some will want to look a bit better than others. But the slice of the pie of tailored clothing is very small today, every retailer is fighting desperately for a crumb of it. Further, the tailored wardrobe, as we know it — suit, shirt & tie, leather shoes — has had a long go of it, hasn’t changed much at all in 150 years, which is an incredibly long time when you consider what’s happened in science — think of transportation, medicine, technology — in those years. We can have a nice cup of coffee 50,000 feet in the air, and all the while be dressed the way we were a hundred years ago.


How “Elegance” has changed

Could you re-write your chapter “Mail-order clothes” and simply call it “Online clothes?” How do you think they compare, online today to mail-order of yesterday?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the online shopping experience is superior to the catalogue. And the proof is that the retailers themselves understand this: at best catalogues today simply tug your sleeve to what’s available on the retail site.

You called Savile Row “the greatest tailoring street in the world. Period.” Do you still feel this way?

Yes, simply because it still has the largest group of tailors in the smallest space. My feeling is that this is a very good thing, because they can all help and feed off each other, trade ideas while still be in competition. Craftsmen and artists must talk to each other. Other cities would do well to institute “Craft Zones.” Savile Row is always under assault by developers, until it’s pointed out to the London City Council that a great deal of money accrues to the city by tourists coming to the Row to buy clothes and leaving a lot of money behind.

Of all the major retailers featured in the book, it seems L.L. Bean has changed the least. Would you agree?

No, I’m afraid that L.L. Bean has changed along with the rest. What we see in every great retailer is that quality continues to go down as quantity increases. To be fair, it’s a vicious cycle: if people want more instead of better, that’s what retailers will sell them. Many people today would rather have six pair of cheap shoes than one pair of good shoes.

You have a separate chapter for “Italian Style”, but considering even Brooks Brothers is making short, tight and unstructured suits, is it fair to say styles are now melded and globalized? Is that a good thing?

Styles today are intermingled, they are hybrids because we have a global economy, because the internet is global, and because so many people travel regularly to other countries. It’s very rare today that a man will be devoted to one style, so rare that we may consider that man to be almost wearing a costume. Today most men’s clothing is a mix of British, American, Italian styles, with French, and Japanese flair. There are fine Spanish designers, Hungarian shoes, Chinese ready-wear. Once you’re aware that a suit may be designed in Milan from Japanese fabric, produced in a Chinese factory, and finished in Romania, how is it possible to talk about national styles? Fashion today, like it or not, has an international look. The days of business clothing having a distinct country-of-origin style seem to be over.

The chapter on Brooks Brothers almost breaks my heart. You wrote with such passion and admiration for the store, yet it has changed so much. Is it fair to say that the Brooks Brothers we have now is more a simulation of the past than a continuation?

It’s probably worse than that. Today Brooks Brothers seems to be a low-rent Italian department store. Brooks was never a high-priced store. It prided itself , and made it’s reputation, on being being good quality at a fair price, which along with conservative understated taste appealed to The Eastern Establishment. Today I’m not sure to whom Brooks appeals.

On “True Style”


Will True Style also be a collection of previously published essays or an entirely new work?

True Style is a collection of my previously published magazine essays since my last collection (Eminently Suitable), with some new material written for this book. Publication date is set for September 1st, but I note — and I hope I’m not sounding too meretricious —  it’s available for pre-order on Amazon now. The format is the same as Elegance and Eminently Suitable, and really constitutes the third volume of my essays. I’m also working on an historic period study, but it would be premature to talk about it now.

Will your new book be a 21st century update of Elegance?

I think it’s more of a continuing discussion of classic style, and the history and philosophy of traditional clothing brought into the 21st Century. In that regard, it’s both contemporary and historical.

Why did you feel the need to write True Style?

A number of guys I know have mentioned to me that they would like to have read the essays I’ve written in The Rake, Mr. Porter’s Journal, several blog sites, L’Uomo Vogue, and other places but didn’t see them when first published. Others have encouraged me to compile them into a single, more collectable volume. I’m grateful for that encouragement, and Basic Books (my publisher) have given me a free hand with this collection.

G. Bruce Boyer photographed by Rose Callahan.

G. Bruce Boyer photographed by Rose Callahan.

[Photos of Mr. Boyer from The Dandy Portraits, used by permission.]