Sorry, case clothed: Russell Smith's style rulings are the law because he says so
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 27 September 2005)

As the world knows too well, power in the wrong hands can turn dangerous. Consider Russell Smith, The Globe and Mail's designated arbiter of male fashion. His collected thoughts, published this week as Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress (McClelland & Stewart), demonstrate that the immense hegemonic authority conferred by a Globe column does not always have entirely happy effects.

Smith has an amiable side, and occasionally it leaks into Men's Style, but it's also clear that he's developed a Stalinesque habit of issuing arbitrary decrees. A line from the summary at the book's end demonstrates his zero-tolerance style: "No moustaches. No fanny packs strapped to the belly. No tinted spectacles."

He's not so much a guide, more the Inspector-General of the Fashion Police. "Greek fishermen's caps," he announces, "don't even look good on Greek fishermen." Casual Fridays in offices were a plague, fortunately now dying out. Sometimes he states rules that no one else (so far as I know) obeys or knows about: "Under no circumstances can you wear socks of any colour -- no, not even white -- with shorts. They make you look like a dork. You got this? No socks with shorts. Period."

He takes a firm anti-sandal position but makes a partial exception for the sandal sometimes called "the fisherman," the one with closed heel and toe worn by French schoolboys. Here, however, Smith gives fair warning: "It is really not very tough-looking, and you must be extremely confident about your masculinity ..."

Reviewers received, along with his book, a list of fall fashion trends ("Flashy shirts are the new ties") and a few more bits of advice. "Be brave!" says one of them. "Express yourself through clothes." Between the lines we can read the rest of that message: "Just as long as you follow orders."

Smith seldom explains his rules. Probably Stalin, once in power, didn't spend a lot of time interpreting his edicts; you either understood or you were cast into outer darkness. A Smith opinion seems to emerge from his mind and nowhere else. It's the law because he says so. This won't surprise Globe readers. Smith's conviction that every Smith thought carries significance has for years been one of the most remarkable belief systems in contemporary Canada.

Last year he went to the trouble of informing his readers, at length, that he does not read articles on health care ("My brain goes into paralysis at the very glimpse of the words"). He was obviously convinced it was essential to share this fact with his fellow citizens. Certainly, it produced excitement across the country.

In Prince George, as I understand it, people interrupted their morning coffee to exclaim, "Well, I'll be damned! What won't Smith ignore next?" In Sherbrooke, it caused a serious exchange between a man and wife. "Should we really care, Maude," said a husband over breakfast, "that Smith won't read about health care?" "I think we should, Fred," his wife replied. "There are some things too important to ignore."

And of course there's no need to report on the furor -- the denunciations from cabinet ministers, the riots outside the Globe building in Toronto -- that greeted Smith's assertion, last month, that he felt more inclined to watch an American film, The Thin Red Line (for the third time!), than continue reading an identified Canadian historical novel that he considered less than compelling.

Smith's self-presentation lacks a certain consistency. "I don't value money all that much," he writes in Men's Style, "which is why I have been able to tolerate living as a freelance writer for fifteen years." Apparently, his novels sell fewer copies than he would wish. He's at the awkward stage where readers who buy his books are too numerous to be called a cult but not numerous enough to constitute an audience.

His writing makes it clear that if he doesn't value money, he certainly thinks about it. Last spring he wrote a column about his tragic financial condition ("this apartment is so shabby, so threadbare and ramshackle and sad"), then remembered he's not supposed to worry about these things and in fact didn't worry about them till he turned 40: "I am embarrassed ... by my need to complain about what I do." This suggests Smith has invented a new way of bemoaning his lot. He whines, then complains because he feels compelled to whine, thus scoring a double-whine. In that case, he went on to say that love for his art outweighs financial embarrassment.

While not much valuing money, he nevertheless declares (in the September issue of Toronto Life) that his perfect Toronto day would include exquisite food, wine, lodging, new clothes (he has his eye on a $345 shirt), commissioned art and music, a privately hired string quartet, etc., all for himself and his family, at a total cost of $37,923.90. Think what he would fantasize about if money mattered.

In Men's Style, Smith says he's defended his ideas at "many a tofu-heavy dinner party." He seems to feel besieged. He refers to "my socialist opposition" and writes that "my detractors from the left are crowing." One would have thought that a socialist worthy of the name wouldn't even be aware that Smith (or anyone else) writes about men's fashion.

If he's defensive, that could be because not all his friends appreciate having an arbiter elegantiarum hanging around. Probably they live in fear of the moment when someone mentions (or dares to wear!) rubber-soled dress shoes. He considers them so dreadful (he never says why) that he doesn't bother to hide his contempt. "A comfy pair of rubber-soled shoes, no matter how shiny the leather uppers," destroys the effect of a business suit. Rockports, with their rubber soles and leather uppers, are second only to casual Fridays on his hit list.

"Your Rockports aren't fooling anyone," he says. "They still look like sneakers to me." Leather soles are grown-up, rubber soles aren't, and there's no arguing with him. It seems tactless to notice that he appears to be a shoe fetishist. He believes your "taste and social background" are neatly summarized by your choice of shoes, the one wardrobe item on which you must spend "a great deal of money." Criticize him as you will, Smith has created for himself a unique niche, as the Imelda Marcos of Canadian literature.

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