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Book Review: The Best Dressed Man in the Room

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 
Classic menswear is constantly at war with itself over how conspicuous a well-dressed man's clothes should be. The root of this argument is Beau Brummell's famous quote that "If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed." This from a man whose every thread and fold were minutely examined by every man in London. The sincerity of Brummell's quote notwithstanding, the spirit of it - that a man's dress should play a supporting role in his presentation of himself, yielding the leading role to either the man himself or his date - holds considerable power over the male sex's natural tendency towards peacockery in the animal kingdom.

Which is what makes it so interesting to me to see the same tension, for different reasons, in gangster dress in Dan Flores' (known to StyleForumites also as @PhiloVance) The Best Dressed Man in the Room, available in both hardcover and eBook. These extensive (and, so far as I know, previously unavailable, or at least uncollected) photographs show a group of men with a legal interest in dressing to camouflage themselves among the poor working saps around them, but with the class-anxious businessman's urge to display personal superiority and financial success. These guys are dressing with a chip on their shoulder, which they try to disguise with a well-formed shoulder pad.

America seems to have an unending fascination with organized crime. For some perhaps it's the Scarface-style machine gun orgies that are the real attraction, but I think the deeper resonance is with the supposed honor among these thieves - a code (The Wire's Omar Little - another honorable thief - lived with the maxim, "a man's gotta have a code") somehow more dignified and ancient than the rules we live by in a capitalist democracy. It's a mirage, of course. These were brutal men who made name and fortune for themselves killing people, innocent or otherwise, intimidating others, and stealing whatever they could get their hands on. But their gorgeous clothes are part of what make you wonder.

The book title comes, tellingly, not from an admirer of the criminal underworld, but from Police Chief Lewis Valentine:
Look at him...He's the best dressed man in the room...When you meet men like Strauss, draw quickly and shoot accurately...Blood should be smeared all over that velvet collar.

He is telling his troops not to be captivated and tricked by the gangster's costume. That such a forceful speech was required speaks to the power these clothes had.

Today in the United States, thankfully we know this milieu best through its fictional representations, most famously in The Godfather, but in countless films since, and most recently in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, a show which demonstrates a corollary of Brummell's thesis, that costuming without screenplay is an expensive way to produce something worth seeing at the very most an hour every Sunday. But the academic in me is grateful for an opportunity to go straight to source materials, which this book allows more than any other of which I am aware.

I have amused myself more than once since reading the book what these characters might have thought of a book about their clothing published some 80 years after their hey-day. Some of the photos appear poised to jump off the page to administer a firm beating if you examine their jacket a little too closely. But I think the gangsters might be unsurprised, and perhaps even satisfied, that their wardrobes remain celebrated. These men were brutal, but clever. They understood what it means to project an image. They are still projecting it to us today, long after their misdeeds are through, in black and white photos, some faded enough that their hands almost look clean.

post #2 of 6
Unbel, thanks for the nice write up - much appreciated!
post #3 of 6
Thread Starter 
My pleasure, Dan - I hope this project gets a lot of attention. Some really great photos in there.
post #4 of 6
I've been a fan of SF's RJMan, Reginald-Jerome de Mans, for some time now. So I was doubly pleased to read his review of The Best Dressed Man In The Room for A Suitable Wardrobe:

post #5 of 6
A nice little mention/recommendation of The Best Dressed Man In The Room in the Sunday edition of the New York Times by Sam Roberts, the Urban Affairs Correspondent:

post #6 of 6
The January 2014 issue of the Rake (No. 31) features an article that I wrote on The Best Dressed Man In The Room - out now!

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