– Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Almost Famous (2000)
The infatuation with being cool may be one of the few motivations that bind people everywhere. It doesn’t matter the stage of the life arc because we all, inherently, desire to be recognized by our peers by whatever the actual or imaginary scale of coolness we choose. The desire to be cool is what makes movies like Almost Famous or The Edge of Seventeen so relatable; both films focus on characters who have sensed, fairly early on, that they do not meet the criteria of whatever demarcates cool from uncool, but are determined in their own individualistic ways to keep on truckin’.
David Coggins is the king of cool. The Condé Nast Traveler editor and writer is a well-established author on the things that identify us as cool and he has finally coalesced a lifetime’s worth of thoughts, ruminations, and advice into a charming volume. Men and Style: Essays, Interviews, and Considerations is one of the most beautifully curated books I have seen in a long time. It has the feel of a coffee table book, but the slimness of a read that would work well on a plane, at the beach, or on your deck. The physical manifestations of the book match its theme perfectly, and I wonder if Coggins was also involved in the book’s actual production.
In his foreword, Glenn O’Brien writes, “This is not a book about fashion. It is a book about style, that holistic aestheticism that gives us reason for living. Fashion is what the social climbers are wearing; fashion is for followers. The dandy is an individualist, a man of style. He does things his own way, right or wrong — and if wrong, instructively so. If he has anything to do with fashion, he’s likely not to notice it’s following directly behind him.”
This book — a collection of essays, vignettes, interviews with experts, and beautiful photographs (including style icons like Lee Marvin, Fred Astaire, Michael Caine, Miles Davis, Dennis Hopper) — is devoted to men, and the styles they have imitated, borrowed, stole, or innovated. Men and Style consists of three sections, and arranged in the chronology of a man’s development from child to adult, and the stages along the way that set himself up for the person he will be later (like T.S. Eliot’s “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”) Coggins’ gift as essayist is to really deconstruct what it means to want to be a man stylistically, and to try and imagine what those influences are along the way. To that end, there are chapters and essays on shoes (especially white ones), first colognes, secondhand clothes, beards, socks, school uniforms, fathers, hats, cooking, grandfathers, ties, prom, Playboy, college, tattoos, first cars, etc.
Men and Style is further split into two distinct halves that are woven together in a flowing pastiche. One half of this book is Coggin’s autobiography, and the second half includes his detailed and extensive interviews, which consist of one-off persons of interest (like Gay Talese or Anthony Peck on his father, Gregory), and curated conversations with a range of experts who offer their thoughts on questions such as “How Did You Dress as a Boy?”, “How Did Your Father Dress?”, and “What Did You Wear to Your Wedding?”
While I appreciated the input of the numerous experts — 87 in total! — whom Coggins called on for input, the author is really what makes this book so good. He writes superbly with the kind of style (naturally) that makes you want to mark up Men and Style with a pen or pencil, and then think twice of it because that would take away from the book’s beauty. Some of my favorite Coggins-isms include:
On blazers: “Get a good one and you’ll be shocked at how often you choose to put it on, and how many compliments you receive.”
“A life without certain embarrassments has not been fully embraced — that’s why they take your picture at prom. Those photos exist to remind you that you didn’t know everything always, especially if you rented a tuxedo.”
On ties: “A good tie announces your understanding of society and your place in it. The tie maintains a cultural power even in its absence; that’s why you notice somebody in a position of authority isn’t wearing one.”
“A wardrobe, like an apartment or a library, takes years to build.
“Dressing has the power to reassure and to shock.”
On pocket squares: “The easiest way to sport the pocket square is the Don Draper approach — straight and white as an index card. This no-nonsense approach works best with a narrow-lapel coat, an ice-cold martini, and a worldview that takes no prisoners.”
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.
We can’t survive without your support.
This is the kind of gift you give to someone who still appreciates books, and would rather hold something in their hand they can physically annotate then receive in the form of alerts, Tweets, or a style tip every day on one of those obnoxious “365 Days of _____” desk calendars.
Yet, in an age of renewed discussion and debate over the true definition of masculinity “versus” femininity (itself a false binary), how relevant is a book like Men and Style? Or is it already a painful anachronism, a reminder of a time that we imagine as a “Golden Age” of style and identity, yet one built over the silent screams and rage of sexual violence, vindication, and heteronormative male aggression? While Coggins’ focus is decidedly apolitical, it’s a bit difficult to get through a volume that only refers to women’s voices on pink-colored pages or includes statements like this advice on suits: “The price is going to be dear, but you’re going to take it like a man.”
Like President-elect Donald Trump’s recent comments that Time magazine’s choice of the phrase “Person of the Year” versus “Man of the Year” was some sort of politically correct bullshit, how much place do we need to provide in the current era for works like Men and Style that insist that to be a man, and to be a cool and successful one at that, you need to grab life, literally, by the balls … because that’s what men do. (Or is it now, by the pussy?)
Coggins ends with the piece that I saw coming — a conversation with his father — who, as expected, set the foundation for the style-obsessed man Coggins would become. While I will never borrow my dad’s ‘80s infatuation with pocket protectors or Sylvester the Cat ties, I can appreciate now that he was not only a creature of his time, but chose his own independent style without any subversive tendency, but rather because he wanted to always be, at home or at work, the nerdy guy that he was naturally.
After reading Men and Style, I definitely appreciate my father’s influence more, and realize that no matter how much I believe that I defy or deny expectations, I am, at the end of the day, charting a stylistic course that is heavily shaped by him. This is not a book about fatherhood, per se, but it is a tribute to fathers and the men who come into our lives and leave their lasting impact in a thousand different ways.