Parrot Among the Crows

Esquire‘s “Best Dressed Men in the World” issue confers highest honors on pop star Andre 3000. The colorful, creative Andre, inspired by classic finery and a true individual among his musical peers, is the lone natty gent amid a sea of mediocrity and platitude. And Esquire’s decision to eschew time-honored standards of what it means to be well dressed by including t-shirts and jeans — so long as they express the wearer’s “individuality” — should have its editors eating crow.

In its September issue, Esquire writes that fashion director Nick Sullivan and fashion editor Wendell Brown (whose photo barely registers a quiver on the panache seismograph), “combed the earth” seeking out “men whose sense of style stems from an expression of individuality rather than simply designer labels.” They further wished to avoid men who are “sort of famous for being famous, or stylish because they’re famous.” Fashion, they say, “is about knowing what type of guy you are and putting together a look that works for you.”

Yet in an act of apparently unintentional irony, Esquire has done exactly what it said it wouldn’t.

The 18 men included seem to have been chosen more for embodying characteristics the magazine wished to highlight, for being handsome or charismatic, or for representing fields Esquire wished to include (pop culture and politics comprise the bulk of the roster). As for the designer labels remark, half of those featured were dressed and groomed by stylists in attire donated by top fashion brands.

Further, with men selected for mastering looks such “fresh outta the suitcase,” Esquire has completely changed the concept of what “best dressed” means. Does throwing on a suit coat, even a bespoke one, over a political-slogan t-shirt pass as well dressed today?

“Best dressed” is a superlative term. It assumes something quantifiable, a standard of achievement based on agreed-upon values. It proclaims that someone has risen above others, run faster, jumped higher. Yet by its own definition, Esquire‘s evaluation criteria is almost wholly subjective.

Of the men selected, Esquire writes, “their individuality made manifest in everything from a luxurious bespoke suit to a basic pair of jeans.” Yet a bespoke suit alone does not make one well dressed (though it’s a good start), and jeans may make one “stylish” or “cool,” but “best dressed”?

Music producer Pharrell Williams is lauded for showing readers how to mix “old and new into something completely your own.” Hugh Grant may be charming and funny, but his selection as best dressed is more funny than charming. A quote by Spanish actor Javier Bardem has him opining about the “simple things” in his wardrobe — such as his AC/DC concert t-shirt. Actor Paul Bettany, you’ll be fascinated to know, is “as much at home in an Ozwald Boateng cocktail suit as he is in casual jeans and sneakers for bumming around the house.” Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai mixes traditional Afghan dress with Western suit jackets. Innovative, perhaps, except that no one wears Afghan clothing outside of Afghanistan.

In what seems a token nod to the traditional notion of what it means to be well dressed, Prince Charles is included. He’s shown wearing his preferred garb of double-breasted glen plaid suit, spread collar shirt, regimental tie and pocket square — and looks like a prince.

Subjectivism has been a hallmark of our culture since the 1960s. Outside the field of sports, we find it nearly impossible to say anything is better than anything else. This inability to discern the fine from the mediocre is most prevalent precisely where it shouldn’t be, among intellectuals in the arts and media — people who should know better.

While perusing Esquire, a copy of Alan Flusser’s “Dressing the Man” I’d ordered arrived by post. Delving inside, I found an entirely different take on the sartorial state of the contemporary male. Writes Flusser, “In one of fashion’s less fortunate ironies, when asked to name those public figures who now exemplify male decor, American style gurus and menswear professionals come up relatively empty-handed. Likewise, fashion journalists are equally baffled, unable to produce even a foursome of domestic male fashion exemplars under the age of sixty.”

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is fondly remembered today, and less for his film work than for being a style icon. But he dressed in an era of accepted standards. The reason we struggle to find men who are truly well dressed, as Flusser laments, is because with the collapse of shared values and standards of dress, the entire concept of “best dressed” disappears.

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