Aesthetics as Performance: Tanner Guzy’s “The Appearance of Power”

I began reading this book some months ago, out of my growing general interest in aesthetics as such. In earlier posts, I’ve lamented how aesthetics became an academic sophistry rather than a practical philosophy, after spotting Tanner Guzy on Twitter, this seemed just the right tonic. I’ve always been a man who dresses himself and buys his own clothes. This struck me as one of the great privileges of adulthood: unless your job requires a uniform, no one gets to tell you what to wear unless you let them. Male professional dress has certain strictures, but within those strictures are variety and expression.

“Expression” is the key word. Style is a performance, and regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re communicating our sense of self and how we expect the world to relate to us. Clothes create expectation. They reflect your perception of your status and role in the world.

Women tend to understand this more easily, as non-verbal communication has always been a female area of comfort (and anxiety). Men tend to regard it with suspicion, as the ambiguity of NVC raises suspicions of deception. The mistrust of the statement “clothes make the man” lies here. The aspirational part of style cannot be discounted. One need only be reminded of the actor George Hamilton arriving in Hollywood without a contract, spending his last penny on a tux and a limousine, and crashing a premiere. It’s the flip side of “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” When dress is communication, it can be a lie.

But again, whenever you put clothes on, you’re already expressing who you are and where you consider that you belong. And once you get past this point, doing so intentionally becomes obvious.

In the sense that clothing is something that is put on and replaced, dressing remains a performance. But dressing well is also an expression, and a specific expression of you, as you are and as you see yourself. Understanding this spares us the worry that dressing well is somehow unmanly. Paradoxically, we can avoid that worry by being even more nonverbal. Giving off the impression that you dress well effortlessly, without giving a second thought to it, certainly without making any noise about it, silently conveys mastery, another word Guzy uses quite seriously. Physical, social, and financial mastery, among others, can be attested to in dress.

None of this is new. Armies and Aristocrats have always known the importance of appearance. Democratic ages have differing styles, but not an absence of style. Therefore, the conscious study of how style works will be to any man’s benefit, without the risk of becoming a false, dandified version of himself (Guzy spends some time varying Rugged, Refined, and Rakish style archetypes).

Drawing back from this, we note something central to Aesthetics: the conveyance of an idea, or more properly, the creation of an effect. The very point of literature, film, and the other arts is how we respond to them. Very often in film the important thing is less what a character is saying or doing than the visual framework under which you observe it. To craft that framework is to create an emotional effect. The great directors are known for how they build their visual frameworks. Many of them have a particular signature – Kubrick’s grand broad shots, Hitchcock’s feverish close-ups, etc. These individuated styles stem from learning and mastering the craft.

If style is an art – and what else would we call it? – then it can be learned, crafted, and mastered. I would recommend reading Guzy’s book to any man, as it has some beginning practical advice as well the argument of this point I have touched upon. Then you can begin the process of mastering your own sense of style, and become in a quiet way an artist of your own life.