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Monday, 22 July 2013

Fashion: Toff Love

 Photo Abigail Carreño Miller/WritersClearinghouse News Service


I've been to numerous fashion shows.
Some live.
 Years ago, when I was the men's fashion editor for the Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts and, later, as the men's fashion reporter for The Hartford Courant, these used to be ritualised week-long affairs orchestrated twice a year. Winter fashion in the summer in New York and summer fashion in the winter at a mountain for seashore resort, mostly in New Jersey. (Or, was it winter fashion in New York? Never mind). Lots of models strutting. Lots of designers blowing hot air. And lots of swag bags. They were left in hotel rooms while reporters/editors were out to dinner and an evening event. Inside the bag -- actually, a basket or huge box -- were gifts worth hundreds. The hotel room and all meals were free too. Conflict of interest? Sure. Influence peddling. Not so much. Most colleagues I knew -- at least, the ones who weren't in it simply for the swag -- produced largely unbiased reports. Still, whatever the nature of the reporting, the industry of course got a huge publicity payoff.

Some shows were institutionalised.
These were mostly museum-based mannequin exhibits, largely out of the purview of fashion reporters who like what's putatively 'new.' Museum shows, by definition, are retrospectives. Attendees are fashion historians, art critics, and of course women, who make up the largest contingent of paying customers to the block-buster shows that are being held with ever-greater frequency at institutions with sizable costume holdings, places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victorian & Albert Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
And now, with a current retrospective called 'Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion,' here at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

 This show, which runs through mid August, is atypical in that its male oriented (most museum shows feature female styles to ring up female attendance), historically based (as opposed to the more common, popular designer-based exhibits), and the largely result of the late Richard Merkin, who inspired the whole thing. Merkin, who?

The time-line of modern men's fashion is remarkably short, just from the early 19th century and from Regency England. Its practitioners are remarkably few, from the grandee British tailors of Savile Row and the New York innovators of versions of American classics like Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and other Madison Avenue brethren. On both sides of the Atlantic, we can thank George 'Beau' Brummell as the incubator of modern fashion. In the 20th century, in America, we can thank fashion plates like Cary Grant, the Duke of Windsor (among his bi-ways, he was also bi-national), Douglas Fairbanks, and George Frazier for popularizing the looks that still dominate today. And, yes, Merkin.
Unlike most clotheshorses, Merkin, who died in 2009 at 70, was an academic (a RISD professor) and painter.(He was best known as illustrator of New Yorker covers). But to a small and influential coterie of fashion insiders, he was also a fashion arbiter. And dandy.
Merkin preferred 'toff.'
I got to know Merkin almost thirty years ago as a source and, in meetings in Providence and New York (where he lived), just for conversational refreshment on a cornucopia of topics. He was an expert on such divers subjects as from erotica, the works of John O'Hara, to the history of American men's fashion.
He died far too soon. But, thanks to RISD and the show's in-house curators Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer, his material legacy remains powerfully alive. That was his wardrobe, a large part of which he donated to he Providence college, one of the nation's premier art schools, and what was to become the centerpiece of 'Artist/Rebel/Dandy.'
The show covers the broad expanse of British and American men's fashion, from Brummell, Oscar Wilde, George IV, Sir Max Beerbohm, to the contemporary upstart Thom Browne.
The exhibit is thorough, detailed, and comprehensive. Moreover, explained Museum Director John W. Smith in an accompanying brochure, '[it] comes at time of renewed appreciation for the nuances and attention to detail of traditional tailoring, and also innovation and boldness in menswear design' The historical figure of dandy, he added, is 'central to this development.'
The dandy I came to see was Merkin.
Of all the fashion exhibits I've attended, this was the first that I knew first-hand one of the figures who actually inhabited the clothes on display.
My hope to renew a visceral contact with Richard was disappointing, even sad. I recollected Merkin in these very bespoke clothes on display. At another time, the clothes encased his vitality. His cheekiness. His erudition.
Without the man I knew inside, all I encountered was an empty suit.