What does the conservative gentleman wear? As there is no ideology for the conservative in politics, neither is there in dress. But the examples of Russell Kirk and other historical figures may guide us.
Women thrive on novelty and are easy meat for the commerce of fashion. Men prefer old pipes and torn jackets. –Anthony Burgess
During my time at Piety Hill I don’t know that I ever saw Russell Kirk without a coat and tie other than perhaps once or twice by happenstance in his home. Whether at breakfast, working in the library, or gardening in the yard, Dr. Kirk always held himself to a standard of dress.
Dr. Kirk’s clothes were well suited to a country squire. He embraced the tweed, typical of a man of letters, echoing the moors that he had haunted as a student at St. Andrews decades before. For years he had maintained a home in Scotland.
Besides the scores of enviable books he brought back from the British Isles were some bespoke suits and sport coats. I don’t know how many of these Dr. Kirk had made, but he pointed out to me that he had specified interior pockets that would easily accommodate books. Such are the benefits of bespoke. Dr. Kirk was still wearing these decades after he had them made. No slave to the vagaries of fashion was he.
But everyone reflects his time in style of dress. Dr. Kirk had a fondness for kipper ties, a short and wide tie popular in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, and the occasional bolo tie, a fondness I do not share. Few of us would garden in a tie these days. Our culture is more casual, certainly. But there is a point where the conservative, the civilized man, must say “no more.”
As the imaginative conservative pursues the true, the good, and the beautiful, surely this must also translate into how we live, with what we surround ourselves, and what we choose to wear. Conservatives continue to embrace standards amidst a sea of relativism.
I think we can (or at least ought to) recoil in horror at, say, wearing pajamas on an airplane. Or men wearing flip flops to church. Or anyone wearing crocs at any time. These are signs of cultural decay, manifestations of the same ills that lead to moral and political breakdowns.
Then what does the conservative wear? As there is no ideology for the conservative in politics, neither is there in dress. But there are historical examples to guide us.
The catalog of men’s dress was largely codified during the mid- to late-1930s. Clothes are not frozen in time, but one could mine the classics of the 1930s and they would look perfectly natural today. A certain ideal in cut in proportion was reached then that serves as an able anchor for modern men’s clothing.
The classics of men’s style were brilliantly portrayed in Esquire magazine and its companion publication Apparel Arts, largely by illustrator Laurence Fellows. It is to these that we turn time and again. Some of the styles now seem flamboyant or overly formal for today’s situation and taste, but overall they are remarkably current. They provide a valuable sourcebook from which modern men’s style writers such as Alan Flusser and Bruce Boyer have drawn.
T.S. Eliot embraced the bankerly, pinstriped version of this classic 1930s look. He often wore the three-piece suit that was dominant until World War II when they waned due to cloth rationing. Photos of Eliot show he clearly took a good deal of care with his clothes.
Kirk himself, when not in the hinterlands of the Michigan stump country, would wear three-piece suits at speaking engagements or when meeting dignitaries. He recognized the age-old distinction between town and country attire.
One of the major post-war influences on men’s clothing was the rise of the Ivy League look. Clothiers like Brooks Brothers and J. Press became the recognized source for the Northeastern set who wore sack suits, repp ties, button-down collar shirts, and penny loafers. It’s a soft, more casual style that dresses up or down easily.
William F. Buckley, Jr. exemplified that Ivy League look. Like Kirk’s British tweeds, his clothing wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply what one with his background and experiences wore. (Buckley’s fellow Yale Man President George Bush famously wore Ivy League clothes from New Haven clothier J. Press. His son, President George W. Bush, did not.)
Unlike Kirk, Eliot, or Buckley, it is likely disastrous simply to adopt the clothing around us. If we do, it may be velour tracksuits, oversized sports jerseys, or untucked striped shirts and jeans for us. To dress well, then, becomes an act of recovery, of reaction.
It was once the case that men could stroll into a local independent men’s shop and be kitted out with quality made-in-America or made-in-England goods. Like Dr. Kirk’s bespoke jackets, these items could last for decades. Now the best most do is wear disposable clothes from China or Bangladesh, even from “better” stores.
There is a difference between a conservative and a reenactor. As much as some of us might like, we cannot bring back days gone by. But the conservative can revive and renew old ways, uphold needed standards. How we visibly present ourselves to others can be a worthwhile way to do just that.
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The featured image is “Men Looking At A Print” (1921) and is in the public domain, courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections. The in-text images are “Single-button and two-button suits” (1942) and “Light gray three-button pinstripe suit” (1931). They are in the public domain and also appear here courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections. All images have been enhanced for clarity.