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The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style
By Nicholas Antongiavanni
HarperCollins
HC, 240 pg., US$18.95
ISBN: 0-0608-9186-6

The art of dressing well

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 31, 2006

The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's StyleThough one wouldn't know if judging by the average man on the street today, for much of history it was the male who was expected to be stylishly and fashionably dressed. For centuries men, at least those who could afford to do so, strode like peacocks in silk and lace. Even when the suit became the standard uniform, it was possible for a man who show his individuality with cut, fabric, pattern and accessories. The cultural revolution of the 1960s, however, inaugurated the long, slow decline of men's interest in higher sartorial matters, culminating in our Dockers and golf shirt clad society.

Recently, however, many men have evinced a renewed interest in dressing well. They have been handicapped by two unfortunate facts. First, the traditional avenue by which knowledge was passed -- from father to son -- broke down decades ago thanks to the rising casualness of dress. Rules and guidelines that had been carefully passed down over the years have been forgotten in the mad rush to embrace the allegedly youthful look of sloth. Second, many of the books released today in the hopes of cashing in on the trend of dressing well are filled with questionable pronouncements, just as likely to send a man down the wrong path as they are of properly informing him.

It is into this crowded arena that Nicholas Antongiavanni enters with his unique effort The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style. Antongiavanni, a penname for a former Bush administration speechwriter, draws a clear line in the sand when it comes to men's style. Rather than mindlessly follow the latest dictates from designers, magazines and -- let it be said, the women in their lives -- Antongiavanni argues that men should build a wardrobe based on the classic elements and principles of men's clothing.

Part of what makes The Suit so unique is that it is written in the style of Machiavelli's The Prince, complete with similar structure and language. That would suggest that The Suit is, in fact, a parody of itself. Indeed, that argument is given some weight when one reads the book and finds that proscriptions laid out earlier in the book are directly contradicted later on. Students of Machiavelli know, however, that The Prince engages in the same bit of mischievousness. Whatever Machiavelli's ultimate purpose for The Prince was -- whether parody or honest attempt at advice -- this works for Antongiavanni's The Suit.

The truth is when it comes to style is that you can only make it your own by learning the rules and then carefully deciding which ones you will break. Being a dandy means simultaneously following the path laid down by others but also striking out on your own occasionally. We all want to be the stylish equivalents of dandy icon Cary Grant but as the late actor famously said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant; even I want to be Cary Grant."

To that end, Antongiavanni casts his eye on the entirety of business clothing, from shoes to suits and almost everything else that can be found in between. Those expecting avant-garde pronouncements will be disappointed. The rules that The Suit lays out are ones that your forebears would have been comfortable with. That may sound like Antongiavanni is a hidebound conservative hostile to anything reeking of modernity but that is not actually the case. Traditions that make little sense to the 21st century - such as the age-old English prohibition of wearing brown shoes in the city - are ignored in favour of advice to only buy quality shoes.

The real strength of The Suit aren't the rules, but rather Antongiavanni's illustrative commentary. Even the most iron of style rules has plenty of wiggle room and with that in mind he generally explains the possible variations contained within each one. Antongiavanni often uses examples from today and past years to explain his pronouncements, taking aim at modern figures for their sartorial errors while lauding men of the past for setting examples we still hold as the standard of being well dressed.

If The Suit has a weakness it is the lack of meaningful illustrations. Given that the book is likely to be read by those who need its advice, this can be a critical shortcoming. Terms like "point collar," "nailhead" or "poplin" will likely mean little to men who have previously worn golf shirts, chinos and running shoes to weddings. Even line drawings would have helped to illustrate many key points to the sartorially uninitiated.

That, however, is the only mark against The Suit. Though by itself it may represent a steep learning curve for a beginner, in tandem with other texts -- such as Alan Flusser's classic Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men's Dress -- Antongiavanni's effort is nonetheless a valuable resource. As The Suit itself illustrates, there really is no such thing as a bible of men's dress, rather a body of often-conflicting knowledge that men must wade through in order to find their style. The Suit joins that canon thanks to its passion and informed analysis and prescriptions.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style at Amazon.com for only $12.89 (32% off)

Other related essays:

  • Dressing like a man by Steven Martinovich (October 24, 2005)
    Despite no excuse for doing so, men continue to dress appallingly. Steve Martinovich says Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress is one way to fix that problem

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