Sunday, September 25, 2005

Be a man, Russell

Russell Smith, the Toronto novelist and short-story writer, excels at humorously skewering the pretensions of the young and hip, the artsy and the academic, particularly those living in Toronto. I recommend him to you. It seems a tad ironic, then, that Smith is one of Toronto’s premier dandies. This guy is serious about clothes. When I first encountered him in The Globe and Mail, writing about the correct way for a man to lace up his shoes, my immediate reaction was “Get a life!” – a reaction that I retain to this sort of foppery. Simultaneously, however, I admire him for saying, in effect, “Here are the standards by which I choose to live, and I don’t care whether they’re popular or not.” It’s the feeling I have when I’m in the supermarket and see an elderly gentleman in a suit and tie, there amid all the others in the jogging outfits and baseball caps. “Good for him,” I think, “he’s doing it his way.” (Cue Frank Sinatra.)

Smith defends his obsession with clothes in a new, non-fiction book, Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress, excerpted in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. He detests the word “metrosexual”, likely because it implies that being a dandy (a word he doesn’t use in the article) is less than manly, and he wants to argue that masculinity and a concern with clothing style go well together. He asks: if it’s not considered shallow to enjoy the pretty colours and “rich materiality” of painters like Matisse and Vermeer, why should it be considered shallow to enjoy the attractive surfaces of clothes? “I crave Matisse as I crave a silk tie or a plummy Burgundy”, says Smith. Appreciation of music, of painting, of food, of clothes – all these are cut from the same cloth (if I may put a metaphor in his mouth). Smith then goes on to defend the artificial by pointing out that art and artifice have a common root and that all art is artificial. “I would no more return to the natural than I would give up Shostakovich and Brahms and the Louvre.”

That’s where I think he goes off the rails, in setting art against nature. I prefer the view of William Morris (1834-1896), who maintained that “everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her....” Speaking of what he called the decorative arts, “that great body of art by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life”, Morris said:
Now it is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in: forms and intricacies that do not necessarily imitate nature, but in which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web [i.e., woven fabric], the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.
In The Garments of Caean, by the under-appreciated science-fiction writer Barrington J. Bayley, fetishists of the Art of Attire are described as “clothes robots”. The novel introduces us to Peder Forbarth, a humble tailor who longs for the sartorial splendours of the planet Caean, where clothes are a way of life. The Caeanics believe that the individual’s range of attire confers on him a greater command over his own personality, enabling him to escape the dictates of biology. They esteem the artificial over the natural, and indeed have a horror of the naked human body. After an illegal salvage expedition to a crashed Caeanic clothes-freighter, Forbarth becomes the proud owner of a suit constituted of the fabulous Prossim fabric – and made by the hands of the one and only Frachonard himself! On donning this artistic masterpiece, Forbarth immediately becomes one of the five best-dressed men in the universe, self-confident and charismatic. The catch is that before long the Frachonard suit owns its wearer, who feels helpless and lost without it. “A Caeanic’s raiment is his interface with the universe, the sole means by which his existence can be validated and his hidden abilities brought into play….” Superficially assuming a new dynamism, our hero becomes in reality the ultimate in clothes robots, now leading his life under a compulsion that seems to spring from the suit itself. The Garments of Caean is probably not Bayley’s best piece of fiction, but (and I’m not pointing a finger at Russell Smith here) he does have a message for those who think that success is to be found in the rent-an-image dictates of the dominant culture: Suit yourself!

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