A Menswear Reader: The Best Books About Men's Style

Why great books about clothes and men's style aren't easy to find

Most Popular

Beau Brummell destroyed his books. Or at least, the ones he'd kept when he fled to France at the height of his fame. His debtors seized his London library, a collection excitably billed by Christie's as "The Genuine Property of a Man of Fashion… Books, Chiefly of French, Italian and English Literature, the best Editions, and in fine condition".

The few volumes that survived into his long, painful exile were ripped to shreds; aghast visitors told of a destitute, scruffy man maddened by syphilis, using the pages to wrap his beard clippings. But the demise of the man who once cared so much about every detail didn't matter, in the end; the man he'd once been had already become myth, thanks to Honoré de Balzac's 1830 Treatise d'Elegance (Treatise on Elegant Living).

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In a previous age, a gentleman's library was one of the things that made him a man of fashion. Indeed, the narrator of Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Fashion (1835), by Charles Harper and John Williams, admired a friend's carefully-chosen library as much as he did his well-stocked wine cellar. Balzac's Treatise d'Elegance kick-started a flurry of Victorian examinations of masculine life and style, having elevated Brummel from London legend to international style icon.

Most Popular

Today, it seems the interest has faded. Visit any bookshop and you'll find the fashion section teeming with coffee-table blockbusters and lavish biographies, personal memoirs and academic tomes all about womenswear. Occasionally, somewhere around ankle level, you will find a cluster of dated menswear titles, their covers running the gamut of self-effacing discretion from navy to flannel grey.

They nearly always follow a tried-and-tested path, with Brummell himself as the starting point: Chapter 1, Page 1 — The Dandy. From there we get the Duke of Windsor to the Teddy boys and mods; then on to James Dean and Steve McQueen, with detours for the Swinging Sixties and good-for-a-laugh Seventies.

"The thing with menswear publications," sighs Paul Lawrence of London's vintage specialist November Books, "is they mostly all say the same thing whether pictorial histories or rulebooks. It's always the same icons, the same stereotypes."

Patrick Grant, creative director of tailors E Tautz, agrees. "I think there are lots of good books about clothes, about how to dress, what shoes to wear with what suit and so on, but that might just be the problem. An obsession with the rules of dress masks what's truly interesting."

What interests Grant is the character within the clothing. For him, it's less about rules and more about the people abiding by them or, indeed, breaking them. He's made a convincing case by publishing his own book, Original Man (2014), featuring an off-piste cast of icons ranging from Federico Fellini to Ernest Shackleton. In doing so, Grant is mirroring a tailor-turned-author progression perhaps most famously tested by Hardy Amies in 1964, when he published ABC of Men's Fashion.

Though Amies' slim guide remains as elegantly put-together as its author, those letters, A, B, C, too often cover everything that's wrong with menswear writing. Books have a tendency to be simplistic, with moody photography and elegant aphorisms. But there are rare exceptions, particularly when you realise, as Paul Lawrence points out, that most great fashion books aren't about fashion at all.

Think of F Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, the nowhere boy dressed in emperor's new-world clothes. Or Gatsby's demon descendant, Patrick Bateman, his brain crawling with Eighties labels in American Psycho (1991). Or the unnamed hero of Colin MacInnes' Absolute Beginners (1959), a photographer rejoicing in his threads; "grey pointed alligator casuals, the pink neon pair of ankle crepe nylon-stretch, my Cambridge blue glove-cut jeans, a vertical-striped happy shirt revealing my lucky neck-charm on its chain, and the Roman-cut short-arse jacket".

MacInnes' fetishistically precise fiction meets its real-world mirror in Robert Elms' 2005 memoir of clothes and coming of age, The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads.

"I'd intended to write a more objective history of British youth culture fashion," he explains, "then I realised it was a more interesting book as a memoir because I had worn all those outfits, been a member of all those wonderful trouser tribes."

The narrative, littered with flares, Wayfarers and Ben Shermans, is intensely specific. But as a tale of desire and disappointment, acquisition and obsession, it struck a chord with a broad readership. "The response, from gentlemen of a certain age, has been touching," Elms says. "Paul Weller sent me a letter saying it was the story of his life."

Why, if menswear means so much to so many, aren't there more great books on men and clothing? Elms shrugs: "There's a bizarre assumption that we don't care, that men aren't interested."

It's this "caring", being seen to have thought too much about one's appearance, that lays at the root of the male concern about fashion. Beau Brummell cared. So did Gatsby and Bateman, though both were sent up by their authors for favouring appearance over character.

In fact, it's a common literary trope. Look at Peter Templer in Anthony Powell's 12-book A Dance to the Music of Time series, introduced with the words, "You get more like an advertisement for gents' tailoring every day."

What is clear, though, is that men care about style regardless of ridicule, and that they read about it, too. Indeed, it only takes a little persuasion to get people to reveal what their favourite books on the subject are.

Novelist Simon van Booy suggests Brideshead Revisited (1945) by Evelyn Waugh and Three Men in a Boat (1889) by Jerome K Jerome.

Patrick Grant recommends the resource book Vintage Menswear (2012). Many of the best, though, are out-of-print rarities: Paul Lawrence plumps for German photographer Roswitha Hecke's Mann für Mann (1989), a simple, powerful document on men of all ages and backgrounds from around the world.

Unsurprisingly, the paucity of literature on this subject makes the few exceptions really stand out. English academic John Harvey's cleverly disturbing Men in Black (1995), with its pointed reflections on the links between black clothing, rebellion and repression, springs to mind.

Take Ivy, the now seminal book on US preppy style, first published in 1965, is still hugely influential. So is Farid Chenoune's A History of Men's Fashion (1993), an elegantly written journey through familiar territory, made fascinating by the author's Parisian vantage point.

If you're looking for one book, though, make it Nik Cohn's Today There Are No Gentlemen. Written in 1971, it's a blend of documentary history, social commentary and cultural criticism; a book that asks "does it matter?" before the end of the first page, and then spends the rest of the volume explaining why it does.

If nothing else, it will introduce you to British fashion historian and author James Laver's patriarchal principle; the maxim that, until the mid-20th century, men actively chose to model themselves on their fathers: and that then, spectacularly, they didn't. It also captures, as no other book I've read has, the when, who and, crucially, the why behind the story of modern menswear.

Everything from the dullness of pre-war clothing, "nobody cared, and nobody tried", to the fierce, ration-era resentment that exploded into mod versus Teddy boy violence. It's also full of wonderfully cut writing: "Too well dressed, that catches it exactly. One must be correct, yes, but the correctness must be instinctive, inbred. One must not try, because effort was common. In fact, one must go to the other extreme, make efforts to be anti-effort. If one bought a new suit it must not look new: if its creases hung sharp as a knife, one must scruff them up a bit, or else be thought a parvenu: 'Very spruce,' said The Times of Rex Harrison, and meant it as a put-down."

Cohn's journey ends in Manchester, where he goes to measure London's menswear hype against the North's reality. There, he meets a young chemist, the proud owner of seven Burton suits. "When I buy a new suit," he tells Cohn on the book's last page, "it's almost like getting a promotion."

It's a short line, retold with minimal fuss. But I can't think of a more honest, more eloquent statement about the fundamental power of men's clothing, and the absurdity of not writing about it. It makes you wish that Cohn, or someone like him, would tackle the subject of men and clothes today. Because we're worth it, aren't we? 


Everything You Need To Know About Buying A Watch
Why Converse Is Still The Ultimate Shoe
5 Of London's Most Stylish Streets

Minority report James Corden
Watch James Corden Hilariously Recreate Tom Cruise's Film Career
​​"Show me the monaaaay!"​
​This New Bike Lock Will Spray Disgusting Smelly Gas At Would-Be Thieves
​Think again before you stink again, bike robbers
Charlie Brooker
Charlie Brooker On The Imminent Technology Apocalypse
The British screenwriter shares his thoughts ahead of the new season of Black Mirror​​
Barack Obama
The First Trailer For The Netflix Obama Biopic Has Landed
​We go Barack to Obama's formative years​
Kendall Gigi
This Magazine Photoshopped Out Gigi Hadid And Kendall Jenner's Knees Because Why Not?
​​And the internet lost their shit​
Nocturnal Animals
Nocturnal Animals Review: Tom Ford's Smart, Multilayered Thriller Is A Delight
​Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal​ star in one of the best films of the year so far​
The iPhone Has A Secret Keyboard Nobody Knew About
Our eyes are finally open
These New Zelda Trailers Will Make You Crave A 'Nintendo Switch'
Nintendo's back in the game​
Gary Lineker
The Sun Is Trying To Get Gary Lineker Sacked For Showing Basic Human Decency
He's handling it well​
This Is The Saddest Song In The World... According To Scientists
Go ahead, give it a listen