A Code of Style: The Gentleman’s Movement

We hear it over and over, from our friends to the magazines to the message boards. Men want to step up their game, cast off the teenage garments that have taken many of them far into their 40s, allow the marketers and the designers to steer them towards the classicist world of traditional gentleman’s raiment, and emerge as the best dressed that they can be.

Year in, year out over the falling years of this early 21st century decade, the messages in the best dressed lists and the interweb lionising of renaissance men from 50 years or more prior all lead to one conclusion – the suit and tie separates the men from the boys and its benefits are so enriching as to leave no faults corrected. Put simply, dapper is king.

But is the movement actually taking flight? The touchstones of the well dressed seem to have remained stable (if not wholly inspiring) over this decade – actors and fictional characters, television presenters and awards ceremonies, the odd singer and whimsical music videos – but it strangely seems that so little seem to have gotten the message, and the old reticence of looking overdressed remains.

In my experience, nowhere else is the idea that elegance in dress is constrictive more exemplified than at the events at which dressing up used to be most mandatory – evenings out at operas, ballet, theatre and fine restaurants. And further disbelief results from it taking place in Britain, because it means the effects of America’s stripped down, jeans-and-t-shirt/shorts-and-flip-flops approach to event dressing has become a more pervasive influence than before. From nowhere else in the world do I hear so many anecdotes of grown men mocking pocket squares to the extent of snatching them out of another’s breast pocket, nor tales of young partygoers being hassled by aggressive attendees for “dressing up” in a shirt and chinos, or even clubbers in New York being asked if they were “Gay or European?” due to the relative “outlandishness” of their attire (again, a simple shirt and trousers combination).

On the other hand, America knows how to celebrate its style heroes as positive influences. The term, “The Gentleman’s Movement”, is most associated with Derek Watkins, better known as Fonzworth Bentley, entertainer and former valet to Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs. His dedication to improving style may be sensationalistic and shallow to some, but to my eyes, he is committed and sincere. He rarely is seen in t-shirts but for promotional appearances, he spent time during club appearances giving “gentleman’s makeovers” to the low-slung jeans set and his reality show, ‘From G’s to Gents’, revealed a man who put on no truly pretentious airs (his televisual persona was straightforward, steely and free of flowery prose), emphasised fair play, respect and correctness, and was always interestingly turned out with a key trait that is paramount for a good dresser in these times – a lack of self consciousness. While his efforts, and those of his friend Andre Benjamin, did not cause a paradigm shift in the attire of their fanbases, those amongst their peer group and their followers who were receptive followed suit, so to speak. Not for nothing have they become darlings, and sometimes pariahs, of the online style sets.

Indeed, a consistently well-dressed man can become an icon of male style, as the increased interest in the wardrobes – and related minutiae – of departed legends such as Fred Astaire, Gianni Agnelli and the Duke of Windsor proves, along with the more than passing approval of present-day men of refinement such as Prince Charles, Gay Talese, Willie Brown and Beppe Modenese. And each of these men would utilise their sense of style in practically every area of their wardrobe. The remit of this site alone is to foster the development and expression of personal style, and I think that this should be just as apparent “off-duty” as “on”.

I’m not so churlish as to think that casual items such as jeans, sweaters and comfortable footwear have no place in a gentleman’s wardrobe. But I feel that some will rather wear less conspicuous items outside of their well-made working wardrobes so that they can avoid the stigma of being “the dressed-up guy” or even a “dandy” (in the context of “fop” as interchangeable with “dandy”) amongst social circles. I have always believed, as does Bentley apparently, that being well turned out is all encompassing, and that even the most casual outfit for a night on the town should have some flair.

My experiences are personal and subjective, but appreciation can be shown for the smallest of efforts such as a flower in the buttonhole, a well cut jacket, a good watch or elegant footwear. The pocket square might be frowned upon or even mocked overenthusiastically by other men at an event, but the response from women may often be far more positive and encouraging. And the use of aristocrats, gentlemen and dandies as cornerstones in many an au-courant fashion designer’s collections proves that the great traditions of menswear are not going away. If their presentations are stories, then the morals all conclude that being a gentleman in all situations and climates is a bedrock of fashion and style. Not always is the person who differs from the crowd, who places an emphasis on dressing best to dance, to drink and to decompress on a friend’s sofa, the object of criticism and disdain. On occasion, his attire will open up conversations and doors, for on the surface he might be the most interesting person in the room.

Being well dressed outside the office doesn’t mean costumes or caricature or foppery, just an expression of how much you enjoy adapting your style to suit your environment. Just because you’ve left work for the day, does not mean your style should too.

This is guest post by Barima Owusu-Nyantekyi, a freelance copywriter, marketer and researcher living in London. He is also an observer of popular culture, popular music and personal style who always dresses for dancing. His musings may be found at Style Time (barimavox.blogspot.com)