Book Review: Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
There's a difficulty that all writers of men's style books have, which is what exactly is the book to say? Is it a guide to how to dress? A history of clothes? A discussion of men's fashion in general, or only that particular area of men's fashion that the author likes?

The days when men required a book to tell them the precise rules of dressing in polite society are long gone, except for one or two very niche dress codes such as Royal Ascot or a White Tie Ball. Indeed, those days probably never existed since men were presumably brought up to dress well according to their social status and, if they really had social mobility in mind, they need only observe and copy the dress of their social 'superiors'. Magazines covered the changes in fashion, but surely guidebooks of the type so popular now were superfluous?

My point being that a book (and there are many) which claims to tell men the rules of 'dressing for success', 'dressing as a gentleman' or anything similar is very difficult to write, for the simple reason that those rules don't exist. A book might very well tell you how to dress as a 1930s gentleman, or a 1950s gentleman, or perhaps a member of the elderly landed gentry in 2010, but all of these would be costume guides, not style guides. Therein, I feel, lies the problem with so many men's style books.

All of which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of this review. Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion. I've got the more up-to-date 2009 edition, which has a pinstriped cover. The much older one has a red cover and a picture of a man in his underwear on the front. Take your pick.

Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion (Lifestyle)

I thought I would love this book, and I do... a bit. But not quite as much as I had thought. It suffers, I feel, from the problem I've discussed above in that the author seems to have set out to write a guide to the rules of being a well-dressed gentleman, and then wisely backed off at the last minute when he realised that such a task is impossible. Instead, the book is a mish-mash of the history of clothes, suggestions on where particular items might be bought, rare and timidly-worded guidance on what is and what is not appropriate in certain cituations, and the occasional incongruous bit of highly specific advice (a page on which socks to wear with which shoes, and pictures of the difference between Italian, US, French and English casual outfits, for example).

Areas where the author might genuinely have been able to offer some useful insight are oddly skirted around. For example, he hints at the vital importance of knowing when to wear gloves with white tie, but says nothing as to what the rules might actually be.

On the plus side, the book is incredibly wide-ranging; covering everything from underwear to shaving kit to golf shoes, and everything is illustrated with an array of attractive full-colour photos. It may well inspire you to buy a proper shaving brush, a few more cashmere jumpers, or a tweed suit. On the other hand, it's less likely to give you any practical guidance on which ones to buy. It, like so many of these books, is really best suited to the coffee-table or perhaps the five minutes before sleep.