Is Classic Style A Myth?

Words by: Andrew Hodges

At the end of last week’s review of G. Bruce Boyer’s Eminently Suitable I suggested that the current relevance of a twenty-year-old style book is evidence that classic style is timeless. This statement unintentionally sparked an interesting debate between two readers.

“Dave” argues that classic style is not timeless. He believes that “proportion and silhouette are subject to the trends of the era.” He suggests that what we consider classically stylish today has been influenced by fashion-forward dressers like Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. In his opinion, the only reason that Boyer’s book is still relevant is that it describes business clothing that evolves more slowly than streetwear. He asks that I stop spreading the “classic style is timeless” myth.

On the other hand, “Kai” argues that classic style is timeless. In his opinion, “trends are only important if you are interested in looking trendy.” He argues that “to say that classic style isn’t timeless is to negate the very definition of the word ‘classic’.”

I’m sure you know the proverbial saying about opinions. Well I have one too. But first I think it is important to define our subject matter. What is “classic style?” It could be readily argued that “classic style” is not just about clothing. It may include attitude, personality, manners. Writing a thank you note on personalized stationery with a nice fountain pen is pretty classically stylish. However, when it comes to clothing, I think the first step towards becoming classically stylish is gaining an understanding of your body and what clothing is flattering to your shape and complexion. Consider Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who wore jackets with built up shoulders to offset his wide head. That was a choice made to flatter his body and had nothing to do with the “trends of the era.” The second step is to learn the style “rules” that have developed over the past century. I do think “Dave” is correct that certain individuals have influenced the evolution of those rules (think brown suede shoes and gray flannel suits). In my opinion, one who has learned to follow those rules and apply them appropriately to his own body will be considered classically stylish regardless of the current trends.

As an example, think about Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 classic, Wall Street. His wardrobe, created by Alan Flusser, is still often hailed as being very stylish. Gordon Gekko could walk into any boardroom today and look perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, think about the power suits of the 1980s. Those suits had a proportion and silhouette that were subject to the trends of the era. Those suits are now outdated. Why? Because they were trendy, not stylish. Look at old pictures of men like Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, or Fred Astaire. Their clothing looks more current than those power suits from the 1980s because they knew how to dress to flatter their bodies, and they knew how and when to apply the rules. When I can look at a sixty-year-old photograph of Cary Grant, or an eighty-year-old Esquire illustration, and find sartorial inspiration today I must unequivocally state that classic style is timeless.