Unser Freund Robert Sacheli teilt freundlicherweise künftig häufiger seine Gedanken mit uns:

For me, it began with Henry Higgins. Or more precisely, Rex Harrison.

Harrison’s role as George Bernard Shaw’s professor in the musical “My Fair Lady” left a lasting impression when I saw the movie as a young teen. In Harrison’s bravura performance, Higgins was a man who clearly knew who he was. It was reflected not only in his tweeds, smoking jacket, and his velvet-collared tailcoat (the most memorable item in the film for me), but most of all in his attitude to life. Here was a character who, though undeniably self-centered, was supremely self-confident—an “ordinary man,” as he ironically described himself, with an extraordinary personal style.

I’m far removed from the debonair British type exemplified by Rex Harrison, but I can still look to his performance for signposts to a specific kind of style that I think of as classic. Though other influences have had their impact on the way that I approach clothes, it’s interesting for me to be able to pinpoint exactly where that quest for a personal style took root.

Personal style is an amalgam of the specific and the elusive, a mixture influenced by physical type and age, geography and philosophy, the functional and the fashionable. Ultimately, though, personal style transcends fashion. In his classic 1964 book ABCs of Men’s Fashion, the British designer Hardy Amies suggested that men should aim “at a style that is something more than being stylish. It means a harmonious and individual interpretation of current fashions, and even sometimes a demonstration of a wish not to abandon an old style too quickly, if at all…. To attain style in dress, you must look perfectly happy and relaxed in your clothes that must appear part of you rather than a wardrobe you have just donned.”

Curious about the links in my own thinking about style (which range from The Avengers to the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory to the music of Cole Porter and Noel Coward), I began wondering what influences other men have found as they developed their attitude towards dressing. I undertook an informal survey of a number of acquaintances and found some particularly intriguing responses when asked for their thoughts on what has shaped their personal style.

Pablo, who is from Texas, points to a whole range of inspirations: “I’ve come a long way from Mr. ‘I-Worship-Che-Guevara’ punk kid. I’d have to say my looks are influenced in part by bohemian dress styles, period films and costume dramas, various historical figures, Art Nouveau, the 60s, and Victoriana.”

Sean from Florida recalls some fatherly advice: “He said if you want to know how to dress, then just rent a Cary Grant film. It was advice that literally took me two decades to heed and that I’m still trying to put to use. Just look at Cary Grant: his taste was impeccable and his style is timeless. He was a great example of understated elegance.” As a history aficionado, “I would also say that I’ve always been drawn to that old-world aristocratic vibe. This is where my infatuation with Fabergé cufflinks and John Lobb shoes comes from.”

Films—and Cary Grant again—also come up when you talk style with Michael from California. He points to the romanticized, gentlemanly past conjured up by the movies of Walt Disney from the 50s, 60s, and 70s as a prime influence. “Layer on top of that old black-and-white movies like Casablanca, film noir, and movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest —in which Cary Grant struts around with his own monogrammed matches—and you’ve got a visual feast of style.” “Of course,” he adds, “Wilde and Baudelaire and Stendhal all had their effects as well.”

Not every man wants to be Cary Grant. Tim from Scotland says, “a couple of weeks ago, the wife and I were watching The Philadelphia Story again and she asked who I’d rather be, Cary Grant or James Stewart. I didn’t hesitate: it would be Jimmy Stewart every time. For reasons unknown, even to myself, I carried a picture of him in my wallet for years. Maybe it was an indicator of a latent desire to cut a dash. With the Stewart thing, perhaps it’s down to body shape. I’m six foot three and for most of my adult life weighed about ten and a half stone, so I can do gangling fairly well. Stewart’s a pretty good model for that.”

Mid-twentieth-century fashion photography as well as paterntal guidance have guided the sensibilities of Ryan from Australia. A famous 1944 Cartier-Bresson photo of Albert Camus “also left a lasting impression.” With his turned-up overcoat collar and dangling cigarette, the philospher-writer is decidedly cool.

Perhaps it’s Bill’s story that offers the most complete look at the evolution of a personal style. “I was rather the nerdy outcast in school,” he recalls, “and I had no desire to be like the cool, trendy kids, whom I saw as shallow and stupid. Thus I had no pressure to follow the dictates of popular fashion during my formative years.”  The native of North Carolina was brought up in a house filled with what he calls “old stuff”—Victorian, Edwardian, and pre-World War II family furniture, books, and pictures, and that is where he found his ultimate inspiration.

“I liked reading the old books and became enamored of that period’s culture and ethos. It seemed nice, polite, and courteous—a marked difference from my school experience. Everyone was also well-dressed, no matter how old or what they were doing.” He was drawn to films and television shows that depicted the 19th and early 20th centuries, and responded to the style of actors such as Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes on film), Jeremy Brett (Holmes on television), and Rex Harrison.

By high school “I didn’t have a particular look yet, but I did favor ties and waistcoats, I liked pocket watches, tended to slick my hair, and had a head full of arcane knowledge. Everything I owned seemed to be predominantly in some shade of dark grey.”  Well-meaning friends softened that look somewhat by introducing him to the possibilities of color and pattern. “In college, I tended toward whatever thrift store finds came my way, leaning towards tweedy jackets and button-downs. And so it went, dressing as well as I could with what I had, but living in sort of a sartorial vacuum. I learned to sew out of necessity, and altered and hemmed the bargains I bought to fit better. Then I learned to make stuff from scratch.”

So Bill’s future as an amateur tailor and fashion historian took shape, later augmented by his online discovery that there were other men interested in retro style and dandyism—a pair of outlooks that sometimes, but not always, intersected.

“Every day is a balancing act,” he says, “blending in retro elements with everyday clothes to make a harmonious composition. Too much one way, a single element looks out of place; too much the other, and it’s a costume. I still have a fondness for lapelled waistcoats, jacketing of heavier fabrics and tweed, detachable shirt collars, and ties, including bow ties, and occasionally cravats. I like my jackets to have a fair amount of waist suppression in the fit, and proper balance. Of course, now I can make these things myself—something I never had the proper ability to do before, which opens up a whole new world of possibility.”

Bill’s bow ties and nostalgic tweeds—or Pablo’s bohemian chic or Sean’s heirloom cufflinks— may not be for everyone, but they illustrate that dress is firmly rooted in knowing who you are. Personal style, then, is something grown into rather than purchased. It’s a gathering of life experience, not an accumulation of clothing. It expands as a person’s sense of self comes into stronger focus. Ultimately, there are as many expressions of personal style as there are men—which make the sidewalks of the world far more interesting places.