A couple of months ago, the bespoke tailors of London's famed Savile Row, including directors of its most renowned and venerable firms, took to the street (most discreetly and properly, of course) to demonstrate against increases in rent and taxes that threaten this historic English institution. The rise in property-related costs is fueled in part by the desire of multinational fashion corporations to appropriate the prestige of this fabled address for their mass-produced, no-size-fits-any products. The Westminster City Council has responded with zoning plans and other recommendations to help the home of fine tailoring continue to flourish. Whether it can long withstand powerful institutions and market forces is another question.
This feeling that the barbarians are at the gate would have been familiar to the author of The Prince. Spain was newly united and expansionist, France was meddling again, and the great Lorenzo de'Medici was dead. Florence warred with itself as power swung from royalists to republicans and back. Machiavelli feared for the state's survival. Personally, he cared less for whom he worked, and more that he merely be allowed to serve his city. The advice in his little treatise emphasized that the man of virtú - the strong and effective individual - could change the course of history.
Nicholas Antongiavanni clearly sympathizes with this view. His delightful book stands with those who build (or want to build) a personal style based on good fit and one of several aesthetic traditions, rather than being at the mercy of corporate accountants, fickle designers, and depressing statistics about average body measurements. As other reviewers have noted, the book displays wit as well as the deeper pleasures of intelligent parody, including the pleasure of ideas in conversation across disciplines and centuries. The book is indeed a personal project, and that is its virtue. It is not generic.
Antongiavanni has obviously read Flusser and Boyer, and knows both men. So why would he write a book like theirs? The Suit credits its readers with the sense to know that no single book makes an education in any field. Readers will benefit from testing Antongiavanni's propositions against Flusser's illustrations, and from considering the points where authors differ. Antongiavanni's opinions are strongly flavored and forcefully stated. In part this results from the demands of his parodic template, and no doubt in part from his own inclination. Again, this seems to me a feature rather than a flaw.
The Suit is a refreshing addition to the discourse on men's dress. It has two important strengths: First, it is a book that can speak to men with more serious things to do than flip through picture books, and whose worldview is more complex than that of John T. Molloy. Second, it offers those very men, as well as those without experience, a reliable set of principles on which to build an effective personal style of dress. No garment or ensemble praised in this book will ever embarrass its wearer, assuming it is worn on the appropriate occasion. Many things proscribed in this book can, in fact, be both appropriate and stylish on the right man in the right circumstances. But here's a secret: the author knows this. When the reader understands himself, his culture, and the materials and techniques of clothing well enough, he can use the rules or break them--or make them himself. He will then embody the man of virtú.
For those of us on the way, The Suit is entertaining and informative. Its rhetorical stance of infallible authority (and that of its Florentine model) is like the perfectly draped chest or exquisitely shaped shoulder of a well-cut jacket: a noble lie. Beneath is the human frame with its imperfections. But in the hands of a skilled tailor, both ideas and flesh are made to seem - more than in their naked state - truly themselves.