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Books that go with any outfit

With summer in full swing, the beach is beckoning, the hammock is hovering and the lawn chair looks like the long-lost lap of luxury. If downtime means picking up a good book, we've compiled a list of some recent fashion-focused books and breezy reads to help you kick back in style.

<strong>"A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World's Most Legendary Watch,"</strong> Stacy Perman Atria Books: $26

To the hard-core horological enthusiast, a 352-page book about an early 20th century competition between wealthy watch collectors already sounds like a scintillating read. But for the rest of the book-reading world? Not so much. That Perman has crafted a compelling tale that tells several stories at once and will appeal equally to readers inside and outside of the insular watch-collecting community is a testament to her considerable skills.

The basic story arc of the book is that of the 1900 to 1928 battle between wealthy financier Henry Graves Jr. and entrepreneur James Ward Packard (perhaps best known as the co-founder of the Packard Motor Car Co.) to commission the most advanced and "complicated" watch ever created. (In watch-speak, a "complication" is any feature beyond the display of hours, minutes and seconds. The Graves Supercomplication timepiece that's at the heart of the book had 24.) But the horological arms race is but a springboard to painting a wider picture of the period — especially as it pertained to the luxuries afforded the moneyed class. Along the way the book delves into status, class and the peculiarities of conspicuous consumption that laid the groundwork for the price-is-no-object attitude of the modern-day watch aficionado who wears not his heart on his sleeve, but his entire personal identity on his wrist.

At times, Perman's pacing makes the tale feel downright suspenseful, and some of her descriptions are as complicated — and beautiful — as the watches themselves. For example, she describes the Patek Philippe timepiece this way: "It was as if Merlin captured Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, encased their essence in gold, and then slipped the mechanism inside a man's waistcoat, where their collective genius might tick through eternity."

<strong>"Artist / Rebel / Dandy: Men of Fashion,"</strong> edited by Kate Irvin and Laurie Anne Brewer Yale University Press: $50

This collection of essays and photographs was compiled to accompany an exhibition of the same name (on view through Aug. 18) at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, which has the stated aim of "reconsider(ing), and celebrat(ing) the dandy." Edited by RISD Museum Costume and Textiles curators Irvin and Brewer, it manages to do so right from the preface, with menswear designer Thom Browne offering this take on the rake: "I see the dandy's place in today's fashion culture as one who promotes simplicity and uniformity in men's fashion." That may sound counterintuitive, but most of the essays that follow underscore that point, accompanied by the kind of glossy detail shots of monogrammed shirts, bespoke waistcoats, detachable collars, frilled collars, handkerchiefs, riding jackets, cutaway tailcoats and top hats that make even the most hard-hearted dandy drool with delight.

The 15 essays that celebrate the dandy include musings on some of the patron saints of dandyism — such as Glenn O'Brien on Beau Brummell, Patti Smith on Baudelaire and Merlin Holland on his grandfather Oscar Wilde. Also examined are some more contemporary (and perhaps less obvious) men of the dandy persuasion, such as Andy Warhol, Malcolm McLaren and Waris Ahluwalia. The compilation also includes an extensive piece by Monica L. Miller on the topic of "Black Dandyism and Hip-Hop" (think Andre Benjamin of Outkast, Fonzworth Bentley and Nat King Cole).


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