Tailored menswear is a loaded category if you ask me. It seems to carry rather a lot of baggage whether it’s discussed in forums, on YouTube or on blogs. You find the usual “how-to” talks that attempt to educate men who have never had any role model teach them about tailored clothing. Seemingly implied in this didactic education about classic menswear is the conception that, while wearing these clothes, you ought to act like a gentleman. Go to YouTube.com and scroll through the Gentleman’s Gazette, Sartorial Talks or any number of excellent video blogs and you’ll end up seeing multiple episodes detailing how and what it means to be a gentleman, including what kind of table manners you should use, how to address royalty (as if any of us will ever need that), et cetera.
So long as you were not raised in a markedly different social context from your peers you would already be equipped with an understanding of the customs and etiquette of whichever milieu you happen to be a part. Few men are skyrocketing from obscurity into polite society through daring or fortune; the numbers don’t requisite this many videos on manners and gentlemanly conduct. But–of course–wearing a style of clothing so steeped in tradition will help change some aspects of your lifestyle. If you want to get the big promotion or desire to be taken more seriously at work, a nice suit might be a small part of how to achieve it… possibly.
But lusting for success or the good life is only a fraction of the story reemphasizing gentlemanly behavior. The renaissance of tailored menswear in the last two decades speaks to several important realities of our world. That is, the re-definition of manhood in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of feminism and the reclamation of a sense of masculine tradition by men after the 1990s.
When I was a boy in the middle 1990s, I remember feeling a strong sense that being a man in our time was undergoing a fundamental reconsideration. As a result of the strong sense of pluralism and tolerance that emerged after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which included the maturation of feminism as a social force, and following the yuppie-power decade of the 1980s, the 90s emerged as a moment in which a new male identity was being created. The 90s man was kinder, gentler, more in touch with his feelings, and particularly sensitive to the needs of women. As early as 1991 the Chicago Tribune was touting the 90s man as someone who “[sees] himself as more in tune with women’s needs; more mindful of leisure time; more willing to do chores around the house; and, when a father, more willing to be involved with the children.” Boys like me were growing up in a world where old masculine norms were being torn down and where men were expected to embrace gender equality with open arms.
This isn’t an anti-woman piece. I believe that emphasizing gender equality is not only the right thing to do in our age; it has also personally benefited me as my spouse has taken advantage of new opportunities to let her talents shine, which has brought us both increased prosperity. Hopefully, this note will serve as sufficient disclaimer.
But yet, something peculiar was happening around me in the 90s. My sense is that, in an effort to increase gender equality, the roles and abilities of girls were being emphasized at the expense of boys, and not in insignificant ways. The same forces that were at work constructing exciting new ways of looking at how men and women interact were simultaneously attempting to de-construct old notions of manhood. Who were these forces? Feminists, sure. But even non-feminists were taking gender equality and running with it, re-interpreting it in their own way. Television shows like Party of Five and Dawson’s Creek, not exactly militant in their feminism, embodied the weepy male persona of that era. They seemed to say “Listen up, boys. You don’t always need to win. Spend some time exploring your feelings instead and don’t be so competitive!” At the same time, girls were being told they could do anything.
Out of this world the boys of my era, now men, seemed to emerge from the 20th century lost. Unsure of what their manhood was or what it should be in the 21st century. The traditional markings of masculinity seemed ripe for scorn. “Wear a suit? Why? I’m not some Republican or something.” Remember Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties? He was so out of place and so scorned for his absurdly exaggerated and distasteful “masculinity.” Even the daily act of shaving was so maligned that men tried to nearly eliminate it altogether with electric razors and plastic disposable junk that would see a 5 o’clock shadow emerge after lunch. For these contraptions, we have an earlier generation to “thank.” Then again, why should we shave at all? Nothing goes with a video game themed t-shirt and cargo shorts better than a scruffy beard.
These new masculine behaviors couldn’t last forever. We know instinctively that there is value in the manliness our grandfathers knew. The men raised to empower women while letting themselves disappear can only take their deference so far. Therefore it may serve as no surprise that the revival of all things masculine began during the mid 2000s. Men, locked away from the mysterious secrets of manhood and in the midst of a long war, yearned to be connected to a society that valued them; this continues to this day. Nothing expresses this sentiment in clearer terms than the 2015 film The Intern, starring Robert De Niro. The film’s secondary male characters are sloppy man-children stumbling through a woman’s world masking their lack of self-worth with video games and an “I don’t care” attitude about their appearance. That is, until De Niro’s character Ben shows up like a phantom from another time. He dresses well, carries himself with confidence, and both embraces his masculinity and is respectful toward women.
But that search for masculinity has not gone uncontested. If #TheFutureIsFemale the implication is that it is not male. Thus, men still engross themselves in various visions of manhood, searching for a lost world among the yellowed pages of the past. It’s partly an imagined past. The way we envision this past certainly says more about us today than it says about history. And because it’s partly an imagined past there will always be a sense of disconnect. You simply can’t have a real connection to something that never existed.
That yearning for an imagined past is, I think, largely what motivates the guides and discussions on how to be a gentleman. The bespoke clothes, the handcrafted leather goods, the 20 year old whiskey, all speaks to the vacuum created with the destruction of the old masculinity. But here’s the rub; you can’t learn to be a gentleman from the old masculinity. No one can. You can learn manners and etiquette and all the trappings of the upper-middle class but so far as the old-guard is concerned–by old-guard I mean the kind of man your great-grandfather would have tipped his hat to, the kind of man whose family tree probably began, for all intents, with the Mayflower Compact–you are either born a gentleman or you aren’t. Like in the appearance of a Jay Gatsby, the privileged men of power, the ones who really can afford the good cigars and the custom cars, would know you didn’t belong before you knew it yourself. You’re wearing a pink suit. And so we re-imagine the past yet again, creating a world in which the title of gentleman can be acquired through training. A world in which being a gentleman is democratic. The implications of imagining a masculine past among wood paneled halls and crystal chandeliers rather than in the coal mines or steel factories is meaningful in itself, but should serve as an exploration for another time.
What is so wrong with this vision of gentlemanliness anyway? Are not manners good? If we re-imagine the gentleman as one who is respected and respects others, isn’t that something to aspire to regardless of the historical problems? If this means that it is good to be good to others then yes. Putting duty before the self, being charitable and kind, being unafraid to love and be loved, all those things are the things that make life in this moment something to be cherished. But you don’t need an education to do that. You don’t need a video blog or a how-to guide to tell you how to be a good person. Such media couldn’t accomplish the task even if you did require it. Become a gentleman in five minutes on YouTube? Not likely. My wife has a term for it. She calls it “putting on airs,” a rather common phrase in the Northeast U.S.
If you too are frustrated by all the emphasis on table manners and the proper way to introduce your spouse to the Contessa of Asti, take heart. More than trying to embody the gentleman of the past, embody the goodness that you can achieve. You won’t always succeed. Sometimes you will make a self conscious decision to ignore your own goodness. But it’s still there. Waiting to be paid some attention. Perhaps this is the masculinity that got thrown out with the old-guard’s bath water. Perhaps by de-constructing the things we honestly see as harmful about the world of our ancestors, we, purposefully or not, de-constructed the good with it. That is, the compulsion to be genuine and thoughtful. To be referential, not to the self, but to the greater society. To be strong enough to feel but to be moderate in your expression of those feelings. We can collect all the pretty things we like. All the mahogany furniture, the leather bound books, and the bespoke clothing, the manners. None of it makes you a gentleman. Sometimes I lose sight of this, too. I get caught up in wanting the good things in life. But the good life only comes when you live a life that is good. Otherwise they are only the trappings of an illusory world.
You are already a man. You have been your whole life. And just like you don’t need admonishments to be weepy or sensitive, you don’t need anyone to tell you how to act among your peers. Just make sure you’ve got a sufficient collar roll.