The best anecdote I can give is Mr Evander Berry Wall, a wealthy New Yorker who earnt his fortune the old-fashioned way – by inheriting it. Shortly after he died in 1940, Time magazine described his tumultuous life as drifting “from race track to race track, from hotel to hotel, from gambling casino to gambling casino, with a miscellaneous society that included the Duchess of Windsor, the Grand Duke Dmitri, the Aga Khan, King Alfonso and ex-King Nicholas of Montenegro, ‘a magnificent old darling’.”
Wall wore winglike capes, wide-legged trousers turned up several inches at the cuff to show off his white spats and varnished shoes, and voluminous coats cut from startling horse-blanket plaids. He decorated his high detachable collars with lush ascots, of which he reportedly owned 5,000. Wall had the French bespoke shirtmaker Charvet produce matching ascot sets for him and his dog, a chow he affectionately named Chi Chi, so the two could look like a couple while dining together at The Ritz.
Wall lived like the aristocratic salonnières of Parisian high society, who were his neighbours when he moved from France during the belle époque. Those exotic golden birds of French society changed their clothes upwards of eight times a day, so they could pose in innovative outfits while being captured by portrait photographers such as Mr Otto Wegener or Mr Félix Nadar.
Wall, too, loved to be seen in different clothes throughout the day. When the financier Mr John “Bet-A-Million” Gates wagered that Wall could not go through 40 changes of clothes between breakfast and dinner, the American dandy rose to the challenge. He appeared at a racetrack one day in one elaborate ensemble after another until he ended the performance by arriving at a ballroom in flawless evening attire (he was met with wild applause).
During the Great Blizzard of 1888, he won a sartorial competition against fellow dandy Mr Robert Hilliard (“Handsome Bob”) when he confidently strode into a bar while wearing gleaming patent leather boots that went up to his hips. After the competition, journalist Mr Blakely Hall crowned Wall as the “King of the Dudes”.
Few men have the gumption, means, and lifestyle to support the sort of originality that Wall displayed. But it’s remarkable how much Wall’s style communicated something deeper about himself, and that tells us something about how to dress originally.
Wall led the life of a dandy socialite. He spent much of his time dancing in exotic locations, gambling at horse races and indulging in bodily pleasures (“My idea was that life was worth enjoying. I liked the struggle, racing, gambling,” he once stated). He claimed to have brought the foxtrot to Spain, played poker with US Generals Atterbury, Russell and Bliss, and once nearly had to fight a duel.
By the time he died, Wall had squandered much of his $2,000,000 inheritance from his grandfather and mother, leaving his heirs with only $12,608. It’s difficult to imagine such a character in conservative dark worsted suits and silk foulard ties. No, Wall couldn’t put on anything other than the gaudy clothes that carried him throughout his life. By the same token, a Harvard engineering processor may look “original” in Wall’s clothes, but his style would be a miserable failure.