The Shuttle Sheet, 1999 - Alan Flusser Knows You're From Boston

Or New York. Or. D.C. It’s the way you’re dressed — and the way you could be.

First published in Delta Airlines’ The Shuttle Sheet, September 1999.

By Paul Burnham Finney

It doesn’t take a DNA sample or fingerprint for Alan J. Flusser to pinpoint where you’re from and what you do. The superstar tailor who dressed Michael Doulas in a power suit in Wall Street knows all about you simply by the way you dress.

“Gunboat shoes,” says Alan Flusser. “A dead giveaway that you’re a Washington bureaucrat. Blue or gray suit, natural shoulder, single-vent, a white button-down shirt, some sort of figured or striped tie. It smacks of the CIA of the 50’s and 60’s. They didn’t want to call attention to themselves — that was the idea.

“A brown cap-toe shoe?” He goes on. “Now that’s a Boston Brahmin tradition and a sign of old money and a lawyerly life. Or a rumpled, tweedy look, sometimes with  bow-tie and horn-rimmed glasses? That’s the uniform of a Boston academic.”

Is there a Big Apple look? “New Yorkers are experimental and eccentric,” says the tailor to CEOs and celebs. “The costumed New Yorkers you see on buses or subways and in offices can look like a Woody Allen casting call.” He pauses to ponder. “Well, a striped suit, white collar on a colored shirt, French cuffs. That says New York executive. Stylish, aggressive, fearless dressing — nattier than D.C. or Boston. But,” he adds, “if you’re going before a Senate committee, I’d wear something more nondescript.”

We’re in Flusser’s Saks Fifth Avenue salon, talking about Eastern Elitists — the well compensated folks who float between Boston, New York, and Washington on business — and the uniforms they wear to work. With the peacock revolution in men’s fashion long underway, there’s nowhere like the Northeast to see the business crowd still sporting revealing uniforms. Bostonians, for instance, are so attached to tradition that one wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Paul Revere wore a blue blazer, button-down shirts, gray flannels, and Brooks Brothers loafers on his famous ride.    

Women follow sit to some extent, says Flusser, with styles that run from Boston Brahmin to New York brazen to Washington bland. But he admits female identities, even in the age of corporate conformity, aren’t so easy to spot.

“Women in upper management are no longer looking like faux men,” he says. “They dress in a feminine way. Women learn early on to choose clothes so they’ll be looked at, whereas men dress to fit in. It’s a disaster if a woman sees another dressed like her, but a man can feel just right if he looks like everyone else.”

With a top-echelon exception, of course. In Flusser’s Wall Street fashion statement Gordon Gekko shrieked independence and a “take me on my own terms” look. True grit Michael Douglas became someone undeniably New York in style, with a fashion identity as clear as a brigadier general in full dress with fruit salad down the front.

Nearly a decade later, the liberation of male attire goes on. Armani was brilliant,” says Flusser. He took the stuffing out of men’s clothes and made them lighter and softer.” But Flusser considers some of the mishmash of styles that has emerged since “sartorial goulash,” not faulting the new individuality, but clearly uncomfortable with a dress-for-excess approach.

Who truly rates as best dressed in a world where Nick Nolte goes to the supermarket in pajamas and Jerry Sienfeld owns several nice sweaters and still make the Best Dressed list in People? Is it Tom Wolfe, author of the bestseller A Man in Full and incorrigible dandy, who always dresses in white suits? “I’ve been Tom’s friend for years because I don’t dress him!” says Flusser. “Tom has is own views of clothes and how to present himself. He’s an admirer of Adolphe Menjou.” With this, Flusser reaches into a file and pulls our a glossy still of the dapper 30’s-era actor smoking with a cigarette holder in the shape of a female nude.

Flusser acknowledges that men easily give up their plumage and take on a follow-the-leader style out of insecurity. Ironically, the peacock in the male pysche is already turning back to a kind of Ivy-league preppiness by way of Ralph Lauren. “Ralph is now the Brooks Brothers of men’s fashion,” says Flusser. “It’s British style sugarcoated with Americana. I’d call it the homogenization of fashion, a WASP lifestyle sold to the aspiring masses.”

Casual Fridays? Flusser is nostalgic about the good old days, when “men dressed right rather than just “smart casual.” It’s not fashion but a lifestyle way of dressing,” sniffs Flusser. “It’s hard enough to coordinate a shirt, tie, and suit. The men’s clothing industry hasn’t been good in helping people look casual but businesslike. Putting together a sport shirt, sport jacket, and a pair of pants is difficult.”

Flusser grew up i a New Jersey country-club community and inherited his fashion fondness from his real-estate broker father. His eyes look you up and down as though trying to figure you out before hanging a suit on you. Flusser asserts that he is one of the few American male fashion historians (Style and the Man, HarperCollins, 1996, and Clothes and the Man: Principles of Fine Men’s Dress, Random House, 1985) because few others have tried to be. Flusser plays to the male desire for status and prestige. “I want my customers to find themselves through their clothes. What they wear reflects not just their jobs but who they think they are.”

Where is men’s fashion in the Shuttle Cities? For Flusser, the Bostonian penchant for patrician tweeds and frayed button-downs that “look as though they could go another 50 years before they rot” is “a symbol of breeding rather than fashion.” In New York, the Brooks Brothers to which Flusser once made pilgrimages has become a mere shadow of its former self and the soft-shouldered look of a Paul Stuart suit is “closer to the mark” than that of any establishment left on midtown’s Madison Avenue, a place where New York makes can “trade herringbone authenticity for something a bit off-beat.” Men’s fashion per se has moved to Ralph Lauren’s mansion further uptown.

Alas, Washington has yet to get the fashion message, according to Flusser. “It’s barely a style at all,” he sighs, just “a way of blending into the bureaucracy. Politicians aren’t style setters. It is a trick for them — standing out from a crowd but not looking better than their constituents. The last Washingtonians to dress well were Clark Clifford and John Tower.”

Surely there has been a stylishly clad president in this century? “Jack Kennedy,” Flusser affirms. “He could wear a white linen pocket square and make it look just right.”

In Flusser’s latest book, he asserts that style isn’t a matter of money but something deeper. If it were only a matter of money, Bill Gates would be a trendsetter. “Gates looks like a cross between a professor and a teenager,” Flusser says. “He’s just now buying his first good clothes because he has to make appearances before adults.

And with that, Flusser is off to another appointment, preaching the gospel of grown-up style for those who know that while image isn’t everything, it can often be the only thing standing between a client and success.