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Guy guides: nostalgia for when men were masters of the universe

It's spring and so time for a new round of how-to-be-a-gentleman guides: the men's magazines issue their giant reference guides to clothing and decorating (such as Esquire's Big Black Book - Canada's own Sharp magazine is now doing something similar, called the Book For Men) and book publishers put out more general encyclopedias to manly living, with similar titles. Just now I have been perusing the second edition of The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy and Vice by Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro, a new one to add to a shelf full of titles crammed with eccentric lists of important guy novels one should have read and classic jazz one should have listened to.

There is a remarkable consistency of tone in all my guy guides: often a jocularly archaic writing style that delights in circumlocution and winking euphemism, as if the true gentleman would not only possess a number of engraved hip flasks and meerschaum pipes but an Edwardian vocabulary to match. And their morality is earnest as well: One reads these things to be reminded that a true gentleman is very horny but doesn't cheat on his wife, is an expert on Scotch but never gets drunk and has a duty to participate in every expensive bachelor party but avoid drugs. Every purported guide to vice ends up recommending against it. (Peter Sagal's 2007 The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them), despite its promising title, offers 272 pages of Middle-American giggling and disapproval.)

What links all these delights? Guy guides aim at being bibles not just for the sartorially obsessed but also for those who are nervous about etiquette, manliness generally and even morality. The word gentleman sprouts a lot in this annual harvest, a stubborn root with uncertain nutritional value.

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I am in this racket myself, having published a men's clothing guide and written many an advice column on etiquette, and I still puzzle over the meaning and value of gentlemanliness - as well as the question of why that concept tends to come up automatically in any protracted discussion of clothing, as if aesthetics and morality were aspects of the same thing. (Some modern people will tell you they are not.) I also find when addressing it that my writing style, as if of its own will, starts winding toward the arch and ornate - as if the key to understanding the question of gentlemanliness is to put oneself in the past.

Nostalgia is key to the whole discussion. The favoured style icons of men's magazine are almost always pictured in photographs from before 1970 (Connery, Eastwood, McQueen, the Duke of Windsor are constants). Who hasn't enjoyed the marketing campaign for Hendrick's gin, a caricature of Edwardian Britishness, all whiskers and pith helmets and booze and cigars all day long (values closely allied to those of The Chap magazine, another manically conservative escapist fantasy)?

Every contemporary guy's style guide stresses the pleasures of the custom-made - not just clothes but briefcases and sunglasses and personalized suntan-oil application (this one is for real; it's in Esquire). This kind of human attention - now rare and expensive - reminds us men of a time when we had more social power generally, when even a modicum of education granted us underpaid minions to do our dull work for us. The gentleman of the imagination is powerful: He earns more than his lady and she wants him to choose the wine. And of course in discussions of gentlemanliness there is no mention of how best to divide child care or confer with a kindergarten teacher.

Some of these nostalgias are valuable. I do believe in the affinity between aesthetics and morality, for example: the idea of manners contains them both. But nostalgia for a time when men were masters of the universe is mostly just a soothing escapist balm for the anxiety of our actually unrepressed and unguided modern life. Our collective fixation with manly ideals reveals our discomfort with being adrift in a sea of roles. These books also attempt to fill the massive voids in contemporary education: their potted histories of art and music ("Five composers you should know," "How to talk about architecture") address our craving for a kind of knowledge once a part of common schooling and now eclipsed by popular culture. Men's guides are indicators of everything we feel we are missing.

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