NEW YORK — The Duke of Windsor had it. Fred Astaire has it and used to dance with it. Even Cary Grant, who was born with a large head, knows how to use it to his advantage, or so men’s wear designer Alan Flusser says when describing style, that essential element
in any discussion of quality.
“The Thirties was the height of elegance and style in America,” he says, sitting in his office which is filled with bits of that era’s memorabilia. He glances at a cardboard standup model of Fred Astaire in top hat and tails in the corner, and brings out well-worn sketches by men’s wear illustrator Larry Fellows to reinforce his point.
“The quality of things in general was far superior to today, and there was a level of knowledge then about how to dress which people used as a criterion for what to wear.” The 40-year old designer, who started his men’s wear business in 1980, admits a certain nostalgia for the time when tailors knew about shape and proportion- custom tailors who knew. for example, “that Cary Grant should wear suits with wide rather than natural shoulders” to balance his colossal head.
In his gray-blue peak lapel suit and requisite accoutrements – suspenders, lisle socks and red carnation – Flusser is clearly an exponent of that period. He credits the sartorial splendor of the Thirties to English royally and to Hollywood film stars who set the standards of dressing. “Style endures. There is no obsolescence in the style of someone such as the Duke of Windsor,” he says of the man who changed the look of fashion by his imaginative, often idiosyncratic choices.
In addition to introducing the Windsor knot, the tab collar and the double-breasted jacket with long roll Kent lapel, the elegant Duke popularized the fair lisle sweater as well as the panama hat. In one incident of many related in Flusser’s second book, “Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress,” to be published by Villard in September, the Duke of Windsor wore a pa1r of brown buckskin shoes with a chalk-stripe flannel to a polo match in Meadowbrook, Long Island. The result was that the following year hundreds of those in attendance appeared with their own version of the unconventional suede shoes.
While the Duke is considered by many to be the most stylish man of the Thirties, Flusser found a dissenting opinion. “Douglas Fairbanks Jr. told me the Duke of Kent was actually the best dressed man of the era, and that some found his brother a little flashy.”
In the Twenties and Thirties, Flusser points out, there were no designers, only those “socially prominent” arbiters of taste who knew that “clothes ought to be part of the man, not the other way around.” How clothes fit was a key consideration, with custom-made clothes conforming to the natural lines of the body. Astaire, for instance, liked to twirl around his tailor’s shop rather than stand still during a fitting to test how a suit felt. Style and quality “were equated not with what was most costly but “what looked and felt best on a man’s body.”
John F. Kennedy best exemplified this kind of fashionable nonchalance, according to the designer. Kennedy, “who rarely wore a hat, dressed in natural-shoulder, two-button, shaped suits and allowed the force and charm of his personality to project style. When pressed for a current list of well-dressed men. Flusser remarks that few in the public eye can be considered even interesting. “Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Gay Talese come to mind,” but he laments, “Tom Wolfe once said that you have to suffer to look good, and not many people want to do that.” However, Flusser sees an encouraging sign in what he calls “The Eighties’ Search for Quality,” a natural outgrowth of The Sixties’ search for self-expression. “People want things with integrity,” he explains, and in response to that, he is ‘opening a custom-tailor shop adjacent to his offices. Calling it “an experiment in taste,” the designer hopes to find those willing to embrace the haberdashery spirit.