Reflections of a Style Guy
On of the most reliable sources of style wisdom in the business, Glenn O’Brien has finally channeled his wit into an all-encompassing 300-page guide to life. The book is titled How to Be a Man, and it lives up to its name with chapters like “How to be Sexual,” “How to Exit” (on death), and “Immortality: What to Do Later.” We sat down with Mr. O’Brien for a conversation about manhood, manners and when New York was at its coolest.
Where do you think modern men are slipping up the most? I think men are unaware of occasions. They tend to just wear the same thing by default. They have a default uniform so they can just not pay any attention to what they’re wearing. One of my regular beefs is, I’ll see a couple on a date and the girl will be wearing a pretty little black dress and high heels and makeup and have nice coiffeur. And the guy will be dressed like Jerry Seinfeld, with white sneakers and acid wash jeans. You just think, “I hope they’re not together.”
How did it happen? I think it’s sort of the result of a generation or two of parents taking their eye off the ball and dressing the kid in t-shirt and jeans and sneakers. They just wore that until they became 19 and had to go to college. And then they were put into a college sweatshirt and different sneakers and different jeans and then they suddenly have a job and they don’t know what to do.
What effect are you hoping the book will have on the men of the world? Better manners or just better shoes? I hope it makes them more philosophical. I mean, if everyone had good manners we wouldn’t need laws. I think that’s the great hope of civility, that we can control society through cultural means rather than through lawyers.
Did you have any other sources of inspiration for How to Be a Man? One loose model is J. P. Donleavy’s The Unexpurgated Code. I think it’s one of the funniest books ever written. It’s about manners but he deals with, for instance, what do you do when the plane is crashing? Things like that. He also looks at social climbing and things that don’t really occur in a normal behavior book. It’s a rude etiquette book.
Nostalgia seems to be everywhere, especially in New York. What’s your take on places decorated to look like they’re out of the Truman era? Well, I think most of the old-time bars are simulated old-time bars. A place will look 100 years old or 70 years old as soon as it opens. There’s something comforting about that. Like the way meatloaf and macaroni and cheese are comfort food, a 40s-looking restaurant is a comfort environment. There’s nothing too threatening about it.
Why do you think that era became the touchstone? I think that’s when New York was cool. It’s when you had café society. If you watch The Sweet Smell of Success, it’s all about that. You had the 21 Club and El Morocco and the Stork Club and this feeling that there were these people out there, you know, talking fast and living fast. It was exciting. There was that feeling that, if you go out, something’s going to happen. The feeling of possibility. Now we have the illusion of the feeling of possibility.