'Men's Fashion' a fitting read, cover to cover

November 18, 1993|By Genevieve Buck | Genevieve Buck,Chicago Tribune

A Frenchman named Farid Chenoune has written a beautifully illustrated book called, quite simply, "A History of Men's Fashion." It begins with clothes worn in 1760 -- frock coats and snug breeches were big then -- and continues right up to the beginning of the '90s, ending with a section called "Pin Stripes and Black Leather."

Mr. Chenoune's "History" is all about what men wore and, quite often, it goes into why they wore what they wore. It's about street fashion, meaning the clothes men have worn through the ages for business and traveling, for lounging, cycling, even FTC fencing (shirts, ties, no jackets, suspenders dangling around the hips).

In other words, unlike so many books on women's fashions, this one is not devoted to designers or to runway fashions (though both do come into play late in Mr. Chenoune's book). And, unlike other menswear books, this one has nothing to do with where or what to buy, nor does it deal with the rules or no-no's of achieving style or elegance.

It is, very literally, a history book, a social and cultural history of men's fashion. It's a solid reference tool for students, costumers or lovers of fashion, especially those who seriously study clothes -- who consider them in relation to the times in which they appear and who also see clothes as a mirror of the people who wear them.

It is not a frivolous read, though there's much trivia that might impress or add a bit of amusement to cocktail hour chatter, especially if the cocktails were being consumed, say, at the Chicago Historical Society.

You learn, for example, that in the 1700s, when men of the upper classes went off to battle, their campaign kits carried their perfume, lip cream, powder puff and eyelash brush. Or, how in 1842 French military authorities decided to replace the horizontal front flap on regulation trousers with a modern fly. "Although tailors and doctors agreed that pants with flies were healthier and easier to put on and take off," decency banned them from salons until some years later.

Most readers, however, will probably find the chapters from the 1930s on to recent times more to their liking. Always interesting, for example, is the influence of movies and movie stars on fashion, but this segment highlights Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper in addition to the more predictable Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

Then there's the zoot suit, spurred by the black American jazz scene; the emergence of Pierre Cardin and French style, followed by the growing interest in designer-labeled clothes.

And yes, there is even a chapter on the underworld, the influence of "Hoods and Good Lookers" -- gangsters, that is -- on men's clothing.

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