Another great article from our friends at the National Endowment for the Humanities (another great resource for taxpayers!) A fantastic interview with Michael Anton, the author of The Suit, and a real life and true fashionista.
Humanities, March/April 2008
Volume 29, Number 2
A Conversation with Michael Anton
Michael Anton is the author of The Suit, a parody of Machiavelli's The Prince and a ringing defense of old-fashioned dressiness for men, written under the nom de plume Nicholas Antongiavanni. He is also a speechwriter who has worked for Governor Pete Wilson, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the National Security Council, President Bush, and, more recently, Rupert Murdoch, (the mind behind the creation of Fox News). His articles on men's fashion have appeared in the American, the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, and other publications.
This interview can be viewed in it's entirety on the National Endowment for the Humanities website, and also see the NEH homepage for news, events, and grant programs. Now, please enjoy this great interview:
NEH Chairman Bruce Cole:Thanks for coming all the way from New York.
Michael Anton:To me this is an honor. The National Endowment for the Humanities should be reserved, in my mind, for the great figures in American letters. Just to be in their company, in any kind of way, is staggering to me.
Anton: He's one of my heroes. And Harvey Mansfield, who gave the Jefferson Lecture last year, is another.
Cole: Do you know him?
Anton: Yes, a little. My ambition for the book was fulfilled when Mansfield told me he liked it. He said, “I finished your book, I enjoyed it very much. And as soon as I was done, I went shopping.”
Cole: First off, what should we call you?
Anton: You can call me Mike Anton. My pen name, Nicholas Antongiavanni, is not meant to obscure my real identity. It is kind of a two-pronged joke. One is to make the name sound more like Niccolò Machiavelli, who is the inspiration for the book and who gives the architecture for the book and for all kinds of literary devices. Second, it is meant to conjure this imagined figure of authority on men's fashion. I pictured Nicholas Antongiavanni as a very dashing boulevardier who you might think was qualified to give you clothing advice.
He's an alter ego, which I needed because I am kind of a dull person in real life. I have a regular job and a suburban home and all that, but I overdress. I aspire to be a dandy in that sense only. The word "dandy" comes up a lot in the book; it's my term of highest praise. But it's very much a clothing-oriented dandy.
The original conception was taken over by French theorists—surprise—in the mid-nineteenth century. They expanded the idea to encompass an entire lifestyle, including a certain dissoluteness. And I am not like that. But in the sense of somebody who is too into clothes, to the point of it being not exactly respectable, then, yeah, I am.
People have wondered, Why didn't you write the book in your own name? Are you ashamed of writing about clothes? Well, a little. I'd rather be known for some really substantive intellectual achievement, but this is what I wrote. And I do love the subject.
You know, the original title of the book was supposed to be The Dandy. Just one title, no subtitle, and the author's name, Nicholas Antongiavanni. I thought the parallel to The Prince would be a little closer. Also, the dandy, like the prince, is a type of man.
The publisher thought the word would turn off readers, and so they decided to change it. But, to me, the purpose of the book was as much to do Machiavelli pastiche as it was to write about clothes. So I was lucky and grateful to find a publisher that would publish it more or less exactly as I wanted it, even though they made me change the title.
Cole: What led you to write this? In several parts, it is actually more of a how-to-dress book.
Cole: But it's much more than that.
Anton: It is like The Prince. It's meant to be a normative book, and sometimes it has a bullying tone, "Thou shall do this, Thou shall not do that," very categorical, like The Prince. But, also like The Prince, there's usually some trapdoor underneath the categorical rules that the reader who's skimming it will miss. And if you follow the rules too closely, you're led into error.
The inspiration was simply that I love clothes and I love Machiavelli. I came to unite the two by chance when I was in grad school. I was working on a paper about The Prince. And I had this idea. I mean, here's this classic book on how to rule. Wouldn't it be funny if there were such a book on how to dress? And I wrote the table of contents, and later I fiddled with it a little bit, but it mostly stuck.
Then I started to write the easy chapters, the short ones. But I skipped around. I conceived the book in the fall of 1994, and I finished writing it in August of 2002. It took another four years to get it published.
Cole: And published very handsomely. I mean they really did a nice job. Who did your illustrations?
Anton: Edwin Fotheringham. They gave him the manuscript and an idea of what I wanted. My only regret is there weren't more illustrations. I think it would have really enriched the book, but ultimately it was a cost issue.
Cole: You start off with a dedicatory letter, right?
Anton: Yes, exactly like The Prince. It has the same number of chapters as The Prince. It has the same pattern of chapter groupings, although unstated. The reader has to figure it out, and I think it's easier to figure out my book than The Prince. But it's still not made explicit.
And there are any number of passages from The Prince that I borrow from in parody. I tried to keep it as chapter-to-chapter symmetrical as possible, but it wasn't always possible. I also was a little bit loose about stealing things from the Discourses and the Florentine Histories.
Cole: But you have an ulterior motive in this letter, right?
Anton: Sure, the letter is an introduction to the book, and it's a sort of guide to how to read the book.
Cole: And you're also currying favor?
Anton: Right, just like Machiavelli. Scholars to this day debate how seriously Machiavelli meant the dedicatory letter. Was he really trying to get a job from Lorenzo de' Medici? I agree with the school that says he probably would have taken it if offered, but that he wasn't under any illusions that it was going to be offered. So the dedicatory letter really serves another, covert purpose.
Cole: Then you have the last chapter, right, which circles back.
Cole: It's an exhortation, right?
Anton: Yes. You can either count the book as a dedicatory letter plus twenty-six chapters, which is one way, or you can count the dedicatory letter and Chapter 26 both as framing material, and the meat of the book as the twenty-five chapters, in which Chapter 13 is the central chapter.
I love the way Machiavelli uses different plans at the same time overlapping one another. And depending on from which angle you look at this plan, it has a different aspect. And every one of them is sort of correct and true to what he's trying to do. I didn't get even a tenth of his complexity, or probably even a hundredth, but everything I could understand and mimic, I tried to do.
Cole: What was the publisher's reaction when you showed them this?
Anton: Well, first I tried agents, and I got numerous replies saying, Gee, I really see the merits in this, but I don't know what I can do with it.
I got a few offers saying, Look, you know a lot, there's lot of history in here, there's a lot of guidelines in here, but the structure is weird, and the writing style will turn everybody off. So let's start over with a new proposal and build a real book.
The first time somebody said that to me, I actually did it. I wrote the proposal, or at least most of it, but my heart was not in it. I came to the conclusion that it had to be this way or not at all.
Cole: The book has a very good balance between Machiavelli and your own interest in contemporary and historical clothing. That makes for an interesting mix.
Anton: Well, that is another thing I borrowed from Machiavelli. He says, in The Prince, that his knowledge of how to rule has two fundamental sources. One is his experience as a high official in the Florentine government for fourteen years. The other is his deep reading of ancient things, by which he means Roman and Greek ancient history. My parallel to that is my own experience as a wearer of clothes and an observer of what I see around me, and, for the historical part, my reading of literature and my study of film and photographs of the greats from the thirties. And, for me, the canonical source, my Livy as it were, is Esquire and Apparel Arts magazine from the 1930s.
Cole: What is Apparel Arts?
Anton: Apparel Artswas a trade magazine for men's clothing stores. It reported on what was being worn at the highest echelons of society, what was popular, and it sort of gave advice on what to stock, and it gave ideas for outfits and displays and things like that.
It was a big hardback quarterly started in the thirties, geared to the clothing trade. It was meant for shop owners, buyers, and the like, and it gave advice on what men wanted, what was fashionable, how to set up displays, and so on.
Apparel Artsgave birth to Esquire. It was so successful with men generally, and not just the trade, that Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor, thought a general interest men's magazine that had a lot of fashion in it would be successful. And, of course, Esquire published Dos Passos and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and everybody. And they had long-form reporting and cartoons. Those Esquires from the thirties are real gold mines.
I look at them, and I marvel that there's no magazine like it today. Every issue had twelve pages of fashion illustrations with captions, usually a one-paragraph caption, most of them written by Gingrich himself, very pithy descriptions of the clothes you were seeing. There were never photographs of models. They never covered brands. They just covered types of clothing pieces.
Here is a blue shantung custom suit, that kind of thing, worn with this and this, shown at a location to give you a kind of context, all very highfalutin. It was sort of Ralph Lauren before Ralph Lauren. If they wanted to do beachwear, the location would be Palm Beach or Cap d'Antibes. There were great pictures of the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, stuff like that.
This was in the middle of the Depression. But very fluffy comedies about the high life were incredibly popular in the middle of the Depression.
Cole: It's kind of escapist.
Anton: Yeah. People down on their luck wanted to go and watch Preston Sturges's comedies about rich people fooling around on a steam cruiser. And that's what Esquire also gave them.
Cole: Apparel Artscame with little swatches in them, right?
Anton: Yes. They would have swatches in them. If you can find them with swatches still in there, those are extremely valuable. But the swatches were just glued on, and they've either been ripped out or they've fallen out.
I first came in contact with Esquire or with Apparel Arts in, of all places, the Santa Cruz County, California, Public Library, which has four of them. This was before I really got into clothing, before I started spending money anyway. I am also inspired by Alan Flusser's books.
Flusser knows everything about clothes, and his books are beautifully done. His Clothes and the Man has a lot of Esquire and Apparel Arts plates at the front, a dozen of them at least.
Cole: I wonder how those magazines got in the Santa Cruz public library.
Anton: I have no idea. But whenever I went home, I would borrow one of my parent's cars, go down to the library, and go back to the stall to study those things, take notes off of them, really look at the pictures and learn from them.
When I moved to New York in the early nineties, I came across a complete set. The Fashion Institute of Technology and the New York Public Library have them all. It's a little complicated to get access, but it can be done.
Cole: Sort of the Holy Grail.
Anton: To people who really get into this to an unhealthy degree like I have, it is the Holy Grail. Apparel Arts offers the sort of beau ideal of a great male wardrobe. Even if everything in there is not something you would do today, like wearing white chamois gloves and carrying a malacca cane.
I have commissioned suits or coats or put together ensembles based on something I saw in Apparel Arts. A friend of mine who lives in Europe has a relationship with cloth mills. He has commissioned mills to copy old patterns. He'll get ten guys to each take 3 or 4 meters and can then justify a run of 30 or 60, because that's usually the minimum these mills will do. This is when you know you've lost it.
Cole: Have you noticed how the fifties have come back after being despised for so many years?
Anton: Every era comes back. The past will be an eternal inspiration for designers, because the burden of coming up with new ideas all the time is sort of unbearable.
Cole: It's also true in the history of art, where the art of your grandfather and grandmother's generation is always being revived. And what's really interesting is not only the culture and style that's being revived, but why they're being revived. It's important too.
Anton: Though it depends on what you mean by "important." In the larger scheme of things, I'd be the first to admit, clothing's not important.
Cole: I think that fashion is one way of understanding what we're about, and it's also one way of understanding what the past is about. What is that great Mark Twain quote in your book?
Anton: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
—Courtesy of Collins (Click to enlarge)
Anton: I don’t mean to denigrate the subject of clothing. People say to me, Who cares that you wrote a book about fashion? It’s not an important subject like war or peace or high finance or public policy. And all I can say to that is, Right, of course it’s not.
Cole: But it’s not insignificant either.
Cole: I know you have thought a lot about art and class, and where fashion inspiration comes from.
Anton: Chapter 24 is a mini history of clothing since the French Revolution, a philosophic history the way Machiavelli would do it, very lightly stating underlying reasons and offering sweeping generalities. You are free to say, Oh, you’re just making this up. I want to see a footnote here. And I have gotten a little of that blowback, to which I just say, It’s not that kind of book. I mean, it is a book, like the Discourses or like The Prince, that boldly charges ahead with an argument.
Cole: Talk a little bit about that. What is your argument?
Anton: That basically throughout human history, the tone of society was set by the top, at every level, and that included clothes. The major changes came from the top, and even when a trend was to dress down, that mostly came from the top.
The last big earthquake for us, in men’s clothing was after World War I. The twenties shook everything up. Then things got hammered out in the thirties, and we are still living with those rules.
But all that was based on trends that had arisen decades or even centuries before. First, you had the rise of the country gentleman in Britain, who was sort of conservative and set in his ways, but also contemptuous of or just had no time for court attire and that kind of fanciness. And his clothes became popular. He would wear them to town, in a way that was not done in prior epochs. And then you have this history-making figure in Beau Brummell.
He took the country squire garb, changed it a little, explaining to his tailors exactly what he wanted them to do, and he was copied by everybody in London from the prince regent on down. He revolutionized the way the upper class, and the striving upper middle class, in Britain dressed for the entire nineteenth century.
Brummell put a stake through the heart of peacockery, yet when you think Brummell, you think overdressed dandy. But at the time he was considered ascetic almost, you know, blue coat, buff trousers, black boots, white linen, no ostentation, everything defined. The excellence of clothing was in how well it was cut, and how well it fit.
Cole: As opposed to what?
Anton: As opposed to gold braid and lace and ostentation. Think of pre-1789 French court dress. He was the enemy of all of that.
Brummell’s basic idea of being plain and sober and clean carried throughout the nineteenth century. It gets a new twist with the Victorian era. The Victorians keep the basic premise but change a few things. For some reason blue goes out for coats, and black comes in. The history of black is in itself a very strange and controversial topic. You’d be surprised how much passion it ignites.
But the democratizing force or element of Brummell’s innovation was not intended by him. Well, it was partially intended by him. Try to remember who he was. He was not an upper class kid. His father was a court functionary, who basically stole money from the treasury. He built up a small fortune of several thousand pounds, which was an enormous amount of money in those days.
And so George, or Beau, in his late teens inherits this money and uses it to join an extremely fashionable regiment, which was the regiment of which the prince regent was a colonel. They did nothing. They just camped out near Brighton and had parties all the time. When the regiment was actually posted to do something, Brummell resigned his commission, and said, Well, the party is over, I don’t want to play anymore.
He took his money, moved to London, bought a townhouse in Mayfair, and basically started living a kind of dissolute life, where he’d get up late and take a lot of time to get dressed and go to lunch and come back and dress again and go play cards and dress, et cetera.
One reason that he changed clothing, I think, was to level the playing field. If the rules were going to remain the same, he couldn’t compete. He didn’t have rank, position, or enough money to really spend in that fashion.
Cole: Why did his innovations catch on?
Anton: One, the prince regent loved the style, and he adopted it in total. He worshiped Brummell, until they had a falling-out. And everybody copied the prince as much they copied Brummell. But there was also a certain aesthetic, you know, a purity or perfection of virtue to it. And there was probably also a desire for change.
Cole: Did that make London a fashion capital of the world?
Anton: Yes. London was the men’s fashion capital in the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, without question. Apparel Arts would just take for granted, and Esquire too, that it was London for men, Paris for women.
There’s no question that the modern suit as we know it was born in London, refined in London, and perfected in London. Anybody who is wearing a suit with shoulders, lapels, a collar, and front buttons is wearing something that is a direct descendant of what English country squires wore, that was brought to town, perfected by Brummell, and refined in the Victorian era. (And today we have the bespoke custom suit, which is makes it all the world better).
The suit that we wear was the track suit of its day. It’s called a “lounge suit.” This term has fallen out of use. You still see it in formal diplomatic invitations, in the U.K. for example. It will say, “Dress: Lounge Suit.” What they mean is a suit with a jacket that matches the trousers. The lounge suit takes a short coat—meaning a coat that doesn’t come down to the knees, either all the way around like a frock coat, or only in the back like a morning coat. When it first started to be worn, it was considered informal.
You were not supposed to wear it for business, or to any kind of ceremony, or to church, certainly not to dinner anywhere. It was to knock around in during the day. It was sort of scandalous to wear it anywhere else.
It eventually pushed aside its peer competitors for daywear at least. Evening wear hung on a lot longer, and it’s still sort of with us. The tailcoat is not quite dead, but it’s almost. Black tie is still doing reasonably well, better in Europe than in the United States.
Cole: But these sort of vestigial remains signify a certain kind of event or a certain kind of gravity, right?
Anton: Yes, there has always been a pyramid or a hierarchy of formality in clothes, and it’s very strict at the top. White tie is the strictest of all, morning coat, et cetera. There is not a whole lot of variation there.
One of the frequent topics that comes up on Internet forums is, I got an invitation to X, and here’s what the dress code says, what does that mean?
People don’t know anymore. And the people giving the invitations don’t quite know what to say. So they’ll just say something like “business casual,” or “dressy contemporary,” and you go, What the heck? But in the old days you knew it.
It said “formal,” and if it was in the daytime, that meant a morning coat, which is a long cutaway coat like Spencer Tracy wore in Father of the Bride. If it said “formal,” and it was in the nighttime, that meant a tailcoat, which is cut very short in front and has the long tails at the back. If it said “semi-formal,” it meant either a stroller, which is a short black coat worn with odd striped trousers for the daytime, or what we call black tie today, a tuxedo.
“Informal” meant what you and I have on, a suit and shirt and tie. And there was no, “Don’t wear a tie” in those days. It was just inconceivable, maybe in your own house, but not if you were going to be seen by other people. In Apparel Arts there are drawings of people skiing in ties, of people fly-fishing in ties. Now there is a debate about how much Apparel Arts actually reflected what was going on, but I don’t doubt that everything they claim to have seen and reported actually happened somewhere.
Cole: When people talk about being a Beau Brummell, does anybody know what that means anymore?
Anton: I think the name still resonates. I just saw an ad for a new store in downtown New York called Beau Brummell.
Anton: But they sell duck-billed shoes and other slick stuff that Brummell wouldn’t wear if he suddenly came back to us. But the name still resonates.
Cole: But when people think of Beau Brummell, they think what?
Anton: They think flash. Which he was the antithesis of. Because he’s known as the well-dressed man, the fastidious man, and it’s hard not to think flash, even though he was the antithesis of flash.
Cole: You talked about how fashion used to come from the top, right? Now what’s going on today?
Anton: Well, I don’t pretend to be a general fashion expert. I know little about women’s fashion, for example. And I am actually kind of a weekend slob.
Cole: That’s shocking.
Anton: I mean if I go out to dinner, I will wear trousers and an odd jacket, which is when your jacket doesn’t match your trousers. My wife calls that “dandy casual.” I won’t wear an odd jacket and trousers to work in an office building. Which has become completely acceptable. But not that long ago it was something you were just not supposed to do.
Cole: Okay. What are the sources for today’s fashion, if not the upper echelons of society?
Anton: I would say there are bottom-up fads and top-down fads. The bottom-up fads are things conceived on the street or in the school playgrounds. You don’t know exactly where they come from, but they catch on, and all of a sudden they are everywhere. These are popular with kids, or people pretending to be kids, but they hardly touch grown-up clothes.
Other fads, I think, are just created by designers. They come up with an idea, and it takes the world by storm. Another source of change is the creeping casualization of society.
People don’t want to put up with inconvenience, or any discomfort, and one of the ways that they are pushing refinement out of their lives is through their clothes.
When I was a little kid in the seventies, everybody wore a tie to work. Downtown San Francisco in the mid-1970s looked like a movie of Manhattan in the forties. It was the suit-and-tie capital west of the Mississippi.
I go home every year, and I usually take a walk around. And standing at the corner of Montgomery and California—which is like the Wall and Broad of the West—one morning, I saw one guy in ten minutes go by in a suit and tie. It happened to be a bespoke suit, beautifully done up. I gave him the thumbs up, but everybody else is casual. And it was like 9:00 a.m.
People don’t want to wear the stuff anymore, unless they have to. And as a kind of perk, business began to lighten up the dress codes. But it was also the rise of the more freewheeling, meritocratic industries, particularly Hollywood and the dotcoms. The Silicon Valley guys never wear ties. And as their business became more and more important, and they interacted with big law firms and the big banks and things like that, their casual style spread.
Cole: But when did this all start?
Anton: I think casualization starts in the seventies. The country went a little crazy in the sixties and decided to rein it in in the eighties.
Cole: Do you think of the seventies as the most egregious period in the history of fashion?
Anton: I don’t know about that. I like certain things about the seventies. It was a more dressed-up time than we are in today. Sure, they wore wide ties and wacky lapels, stuff you would never want to see again. But, in aggregate, there were more suits and ties.
There was also an emphasis on fit and silhouette. In tailoring, I prefer a little softer and slouchier style, but I do think the seventies suit had an echo of Brummell’s clean line and the form-fitting aesthetic—even if it looks kind of crazy to our eyes today.
The seventies was also the last great era of the vest, and I like vests. I get them with everything but summer suits. And I’m sort of sad to see the vest go.
Cole: The double-breasted with the vest—that’s rare.
Anton: The double-breasted with the vest is rare, and I used to be one of those who believe that double-breasted should not have a vest.
Cole: I think it should.
Anton: Part of the original conception of the double-breasted suit was that you didn’t have to have the vest. The double-breast keeps your torso covered. For that reason, in England, the double-breasted was considered less formal than a single-breasted three-piece.
Cole: What about the eighties?
Anton: I think there was a kind of comeback for formality in the eighties. It’s no accident that Martha Stewart became huge in the eighties. Preppy came back in the eighties. Was that just a function of the Preppy Handbook? I don’t think so, but the Preppy Handbook was probably both cause and effect in that sense. And the nineties was very bad for clothing.
Not in the sense that you saw all kinds of crazy things that you never want to see again. Instead it was bad because people stopped caring. Clothing became an afterthought, and then the casualization wave really started to roll in the mid-nineties, and through the dotcom bubble, after which you had a bit of a counterreaction. Many of the biggest banks and law firms, which had gone business casual, reverted in ’01, ’02, ’03.
Cole: How do you define business casual?
Anton: Well, the acid definition is you don’t have to wear a suit and tie every day to work in an industry where previously you did, and for the last hundred years it was absolutely expected. There are a lot of problems with it, but one of them is it’s impossible to define, and that has actually caused a lot of confusion and angst among men.
The feeling is, I know how to wear a suit and tie every day, even if I find it boring or if it annoys me, but I know what it is. What is business casual? A jacket but no tie? Is it jeans? Are khakis okay? But I don’t think business casual undermined the suit. I think what undermined the suit are, A, men think it’s uncomfortable and, B, they don’t want the bother.
Now I don’t think it is uncomfortable. As clothing became less important, people concentrated less on fit, and if your clothes don’t really fit well, they aren’t going to be comfortable. If they do fit well, you shouldn’t be that uncomfortable in your suit and tie.
Cole: Is it that clothes no longer denote a kind of status and hierarchy?
Anton: I don’t think that’s actually new. The point of the suit was to rid clothing of status distinction. In Brummell’s London, you’d go into one of those clubs. And everybody in there is above a certain level, but when everybody is wearing that blue coat and buff trousers and the black polished boots, you don’t necessarily know which one’s the duke, which one is the impoverished son of a viscount, and which one has no family connection to a title at all.
During America’s postwar economic expansion, the era from, say, ’45 to ’65, you could not tell by dress the CEO from yesterday’s hire.
The CEO might have French cuffs, while the kid would have buttoned cuffs and a buttoned-down collar, but they would both be wearing the uniform: a very sober dark suit, single-breasted, almost always in that era, a white or blue shirt, you know, a plain sober tie, and black or burgundy shoes.
What’s new is this desire for comfort and to be done with the bother. You will read articles sometimes saying the suit is back. Don’t believe them. The suit is never going to be back as the mass uniform of the everyday worker.
Its last holdout will be government. A certain formality is expected when you’re doing the people’s work. But otherwise I think the suit will be a special occasion garment for client meetings and big-time things in business, and ultimately what may happen is, if the tail coat completely dies, then black tie will move up to become the super ceremonial garment, and most events that today require black tie will become suit and tie.
Cole: Well, what about white tie?
Anton: I don’t think there are even half a dozen white-tie social events left in this country.
Cole: The Gridiron Dinner.
Anton: Right. And there will be maybe one white-tie state dinner in an entire administration. I researched this for a long article in City Journal in ’02. It turns out that Clinton wore white tie three times.
There used to be a diplomatic reception once a term. The president would host the entire diplomatic corps at the White House. And that was always white tie, and Clinton did it white tie. The other time was when they hosted the emperor and empress of Japan.
The Japanese are still more formal than we are. The Japanese still wear morning dress, for instance. When you see a photo of the Japanese Cabinet, from the prime minister on, they’ll all be in morning dress.
Cole: I was in Japan. I was surprised at the level of dress and, first of all, the formality. Everybody is wearing a suit all the time. And if you go into some of these big department stores, Ginza, for instance, they have their own bespoke shops right there. Very impressive.
Anton: There are a lot of dandies over there.
Cole: One thing I love in your book is when you talk about how dressing the wrong way can ruin you. “And thus he was ruined.”
Anton: Right. That’s a Machiavellian phrase. He loves the word “ruined,” and he likes to apply it tongue in cheek. My book is over the top on purpose. You’re not supposed to take it entirely seriously.
Cole: Let’s talk about presidents.
Anton: There are a few passages that I’m really proud of, and that’s one of them. Chapter 19 of The Prince is the longest chapter in the book, and arguably the most important. Machiavelli takes a grand tour of the Roman emperors. I take you through the modern presidents. And that chapter, also 19, is a very important chapter in my book. It’s about formality and dandification as the twin principles that govern dress and how they are often in tension and often complementary, and the best dressers strike the right balance.
Cole: That’s an important point in your book.
Anton: Yes. Formality is dressiness. It means adherence to a strict code, which is more traditional. It’s about dressing appropriately for the occasion and being quiet. It’s about conformity and sobriety.
Dandification is being a little splashy. And there are a number of ways to do it. One is just by being loud, wearing a loud pattern or a bright color. Another is to take liberties in the way you mix things.
For instance, the shoes I wore today are a mid-brown color called chestnut, and I have on a dark blue suit. That’s, strictly speaking, a violation of the rules. If I wore these shoes with this suit in London, and the most proper city gent were to look down and see my feet, he’d think I was naff, that I was really out of it, because I should be wearing black shoes.
So it’s a little dandified to mix this shoe with this suit. But each thing in itself is not terribly dandified. If you want to just be straight-up formal and not get yourself in any trouble at all, you wear a dark suit, grey or blue, definitely not double-breasted, a white shirt, and a very discrete blue tie and black shoes. As soon as you start playing around with that, you are dandifying.
In my book, I use the modern presidents as examples of how they reconciled the dandified and the formal and thus do I explain their political success or failure. Which is of course a joke.
Cole: I kind of believe it, I have to say.
Anton: Well, a politician’s clothing could send certain signals. John Kerry had a problem being seen as a northeasterner, really rich, out of touch, kind of an elite guy. And he was always wearing shirts from Turnbull and Asser. Anybody who knows how Turnbull and Asser makes the shape of their collar or the cuffs could tell. And his ties were from Hermes.
He knew it was a problem. So he started wearing American shirts, and then he got his ties, which looked quite a bit like Hermes ties, from this little company called Vineyard Vines. But they’re Massachusetts-made.
But even then, I don’t think Kerry overcame his problem of appearing to be an effete, elite northeasterner in the American mind.
We Americans don’t like politicians to be too flashy. If you want to make it in national politics, you’ve got to be low-key, formal. You’ve got to look prepared for the job, serious, grown-up.
Cole: And not call attention to your clothes, right?
But that was in the pre-television, pre-Internet age. It was probably easier to be a little bit dandified than it would be today. Truman was actually a very spiffy president, double-breasted all the time, bow ties, hats. He had been a haberdasher and was clearly into it. But in the end, I claim, his clothes brought him down. Eisenhower was the absolute epitome of a kind of middle-American, stolid, conservative dresser.
I rank FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan as the most elegant presidents, because all of them combined dandification and formality successfully, though in different ways. And Johnson? There is a wonderful quote that I got from Tom Wolfe where Johnson, who sort of dresses like a hick, becomes Kennedy’s running mate. And Kennedy at the time was getting his suits made in England—this became a controversy by the way, because it suggested a taste for the high life. Any American politician who gets a Savile Row-made suit and tries to run for office will find that it’s a problem because it marks you as an elitist and because you’re not buying American.
In Hatless Jack, Neil Steinberg explains how Kennedy actually had a press conference in which he announced he’d gotten another tailor, a New York tailor, and explained that he was getting his suits made in New York, and that guy charged more than Savile Row charged at the time, but at least the controversy died down.
Cole: Nobody raised the issue that he had a bespoke suit though, right?
Anton: It was more accepted in those days if you were, you know, well-born and a high-ranking official.
Cole: When I first started going to Italy, this was sort of the transitional era when buying something off the rack was something you didn’t do. As an impoverished graduate student, I had all my suits made by a tailor who worked with his wife, parents, and assorted cousins.
Cole: But you could afford to do that back then. That’s the difference.
Cole: But we were talking about Kennedy.
Anton: Yes. He popularized the two-button suit, which was sort of a big deal at the time because Americans had by and large been wearing the three-button suit for fifteen years. He updated the Ivy League look that dominated America from 1945 through the fifties. Kennedy spruced it up, gave it a few English touches, and smartened it a little bit, like what Brummel did for country clothes.
But, as I was saying about Johnson, he dressed off the rack in Texas, and then he becomes Kennedy’s running mate. He sees these suits that fit Kennedy so fabulously well. So Johnson goes to Savile Row and says to the tailor, "Make me look like a British diplomat." And he started getting Savile Row from that point on.
Cole: You know, that’s interesting. I don’t know if you’ve read Caro’s biography.
Anton: No, I haven’t.
Cole: I’m not sure that’s right, because Caro talks about how, once he got into the Senate, Johnson was fanatical about clothes, and he wanted the absolute best clothes he could get and the most expensive clothes and evidently had a big collection of cuff links. But you also have a very interesting passage on Carter.
Anton: A lot of what I say about politicians’ clothing is intended tongue in cheek, but I do think Carter really hurt himself dressing the way he did. It suggested a downgrading of the presidency, of making it smaller. Take the address from the Oval Office in a sweater about how we all need to cut our energy use. Well, the message may have been appropriate at the time, but the clothes didn’t help.
I think he thought he was leading by example. But that undercut his image quite a bit. Reagan won the election for much larger reasons than clothing. But part of it indeed was how presidential Reagan looked in his crisply tailored Hollywood suits.
Cole: Reagan wouldn’t go into the Oval Office without a tie and a jacket.
Anton: Right. I worked for the Bush White House, and this current president is the same way. But Reagan came out of Hollywood and was the first president in a long time to dress not in the quintessential American Ivy League way. His suits were a lot more fitted. They had very strong shoulders as opposed to the more slouchy Ivy League look, very fitted in the waist, tapered, trim, always French-cuffed shirt, and the spread collar, and the big windsor knot, which is something I don’t actually like, but it looked good on him. And always a white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket.
Cole: He could wear clothes, definitely.
Anton: And he famously revived the brown suit, which had become a kind of joke. Sometime in the seventies the brown suit became a mark that you were from the Midwest, a bad marker, not marking you as a good, down-home American, but as a rube. But Reagan brought it back to life.
Cole: And is it thriving, the brown suit?
Anton: Depends on where you go. London has had a prejudice against brown in town from time immemorial, although the Federation of Merchant Tailors, which is the trade association of London tailors, issued a press release in 1993 saying the rule has been repealed. No doubt they were just saying, We want to do anything we can to boost sales. However, brown is still hardly ever seen in London, and in finance and the major industries, you will not see it, and wearing it will be considered a faux pas.
The Italians love brown suits, and my dandy friends also love brown suits. There is a sense that it’s fine for almost everything, except you wouldn’t wear it to a job interview, you wouldn’t wear it to a major presentation where you are the focus of attention. Other than that, I’d say it’s a great alternative.
Cole: Well, this has been terrific.
Anton: Thanks for having me.
We have great appreciation to the National Endowment for the Humanities for this terrific interview with Michael Anton.
Humanities, March/April 2008, Volume 29/Number 2