Men with Glenn O’Brien’s point of view are actually quite rare. That’s why he wrote his man-ifestation of better conduct, How To Be A Man: A Guide to Style and Behavior for the Modern Gentleman (Rizzoli USA). Here, in an exclusive, he weighed in on Austin, Marfa, Warhol and how style really matters in the long run with our very own Lance Avery Morgan.
We all grew up wth the style guide GQ. That’s why you’ve known Glenn O’Brien’s as GQ magazine’s monthly Style Guy contributor, dispensing useful bits of information in his won sardonic way. I caught recently up with O’Brian, who is easily one of the best beacons and chroniclers of today’s pop culture, to discuss his new book and how he sees modern day society. It’s an eye-opener, and if you consider being politically correct just standing by and not acknowledging societal indiscretions, this book isn’t for you. The tome has been a long time in the works, by the way. Talk about a guy who has been around the block.
O’Brien was such an eye witness to pop culture that it started by working with the King of Pop Culture, Andy Warhol. When I ask him about the experience, he said, “It was great. In college I studied art and was always interested in art and filmmaking, so Warhol was a great hero to me.”
He went on to share, “I lucked into working for him as a first job. You know, people have odd ideas of how the Warhol scene was – after Andy got shot he didn’t like to have nutty people around.” O’Brien’s work with the contemporary art genius had its lessons. “I learned how to work effectively because he [Warhol] really worked hard and did everything the best he could, whether it was his art, a record cover, or a TV commercial for Shraft’s ice cream. He always brought intelligence to a project.”
Speaking of album covers, O’Brien is rumored to have been the a model for Warhol’s infamous Sticky Finger’s album design for The Rolling Stones in 1970. Music aficionados will recall that the album cover is of a man’s jean crotch with a real zipper attached to it. The inside is of the same, yet with tight Jockey-type shorts. “Andy photographed many people for it,’ O’Brien confides. “Yes, I am wearing the underwear on the inside of the album. The jeans are worn by Jay Johnson.” Ah, to be a part of the Factory scene.
That auspicious brush with anonymous fame had to have spurred O Brien’s career. Especially with fashion, for which he is known as an industry insider. When I asked where he thought he sort of reckoned he might have a career in style, he shared, “I idolized my grandfather as a kid. I’m named after him. He went to the naval academy and lived a glamorous life. Growing up, I think we all kind of looked up to JFK, Rat Pack and Ocean’s 11 – the whole scene. I also loved jazz. People like Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk were also an influence. When I asked him who his personal style icons have been, he admits, “Cary Grant. Anytime there was a movie of his on I would watch it. I loved William Powell and Fred Astaire.
O’Brien got around in all types of stylish circles, having friends in Austin and recently traveling to Marfa, TX to the CineMarfa film festival to present hightlights from his late 1970’s New York-bsaed cable access show TV Party.
For O’Brien, style has been all encompassing and not just limited to personal dress. In his book he wrote, Evolution is our business. Under the right circumstances and with the right effort a man can be far more than just a man; he can be a gentleman, a sportsman, an inventor, an artist, a philosopher, a bard, a magician, or a hero.” When I ask him to elaborate on that, he was clear. “I believe that a man ideally should pay attention to everything he does and try to do it right. I try to do things well. And, to do the right thing. A hero is a successful maniac – I wrote that, too, but, a hero needs an occasion. Then it comes out.”
He went on to say, “If you look at the world 2000 years ago, or even 400 or 100 years ago, a man could possess most of the knowledge of his culture. Now, we’ve gotten so specialized because I think it’s so important to be multi disciplinarian – a Renaissance Man sounds so pretentious – we should be educated in all areas. One discipline doesn’t feed us completely.”
Throughout his book, O’Brien sprinkled dynamic historical references to help the reader understand a situation’s provenance. to very clever affect. “I am a big history buff and very interested in the ancient world. I’ve read all the Greek and Roman classics and certain periods on French and English history. I think the Restoration period is great, and I love literature from that time, like Baudelaire.
Digging deeper, I was curious what breaches of being a gentleman O’Brien saw today that were not acceptable only a generation ago; the social niceties of a bygone age, as he called them in the book. “It starts with how you talk to other people. I find that being polite and showing consideration gets you farther. Even by using bureaucracy on the telephone, people remember you. It is in all the little things. There’s a lot of people who wear fancy clothes may behave grandly, but it’s the day- to-day thing that makes a difference.” He went on to say, “If you travel, you see places in the world where this happens. In Japan, for instance, people are very considerate and polite in a lot of ways and are much more civilized than Americans. They don’t know how to stand in line, but they are pleasant… generally speaking. They take time to create the art of living. Politicians here say this is the greatest country, but it won’t be forever if Americans continue to become passive drones and if we work all the time and don’t take time for real friendship.”
The casualization of the world, as O’Brien called it, really has gotten out of hand. It seems like people now travel on planes in their pajamas. I asked O’Brien how we can turn the beat around from this homely invisibility, again as he calls it. He was quick to reply, “People have to understand that if they are going to behave and dress in a mediocre fashion they aren’t going to get anywhere. If you want to be passive and watch the word go by, you’re going to lose. We’ve lost a sense of occasion Showing respect for each other is the greatest style of all.”
HOW TO BE A MAN, An excerpt courtesy of Rizzoli USA
Style is in the details, in the nuance. It’s not a fashion statement. At best it’s not even a statement; it’s a phenomenon. It’s a practice, a study, a form of research. How can I wear this shirt the way it’s never been worn before? It can seem arch, if not well done, but it’s a creative process. Some art stinks.
Style is partly innate, but it is also cultivated. Style comes from a combination of personality, study, and work. You’re born with some style tendencies, the way a young baby has personality right out of nowhere, but then you have to develop it; you have to practice it and refine it to have a style worth calling a style. And if you don’t use your gifts, that style will evaporate and you won’t have a style anymore, just a bunch of mashed potatoes.
You cultivate a style through work, even if it sometimes looks like play. You practice the things that you have to do in life until you are contributing something to the way they get done. Your style might even begin as an error that suddenly looks good or sounds good and you know you’re on to something. If you have style, the way you speak contributes to lan- guage—it makes the ineffable effable. If you have style, the way you dress contributes to the landscape of civilization, and the way you bob and weave or shake and bake contributes to the game, taking it to the next level. Sometimes cultivation takes, sometimes it doesn’t. But once style takes hold it becomes part of our being and it grows like a beard.
I believe fervently that we have to get back to the dress code and that bygone sense of ritual and occasion. It is political, in a subliminal but very real sense. We must dare to overdress. We must turn away the shoddy at the door. We must have the courage to look as uniform as a symphony orchestra, in order to give back to individuality its context. And so it is my sworn duty to always dress like I have somewhere better to go later.
Fashion is based on the idea of progress, into which we seem to have been bamboozled by science and modernist art. Fashion people say “Oh, that’s so last season.” And fashion is always a struggle to be up to the moment, if not a millisecond ahead of it. Fashion is based on the idea of forced progress. But unlike science, fashion’s progress is not real. We don’t dress differently today than we did yesterday because we know more or have learned anything at all. It’s novelty for its own sake.