Book Review: Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work

“You can be too rich and too thin, but you can never be too well read or too curious about the world.”    Tim Gunn

Edited to add:  This book comes out on Tuesday, September 7, 2010.

Tim Gunn’s latest book Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work is a unique amalgam of etiquette guide, pet peeves, personal memoirs, and dishy tales of the divas and the don’ts of the fashion world.  Says Ada Calhoun, who collaborated with Gunn, “Our operating framework was a trusted teacher’s office hours. Tim tried to think of what he’d tell students who came to him for advice on how to get along in the world,” and this he certainly does, with an abundance of personal anecdotes, so many, in fact, that you will come away from this book feeling as if he had told you his entire life story.

Gunn’s Golden Rules contains 18 ‘rules’, starting with Make it Work and ending with Carry On.  Gunn gives his opinions on a range of social niceties, from holding doors to gift giving, with plenty of real life examples to back them up, including examples of his own social gaffs plus those of others, including many well-known players on the world fashion stage.

Gunn shares his wisdom from the classroom when he tells of many of his experiences as an educator, both at Parsons, where he worked for over 20 years, and at the Corcoran College of Art in Washington DC, where he held his first teaching position, plus his work on the American reality television series, Project Runway, and as Chief Creative Officer for Liz Claiborne, Inc.

One intriguing recurring theme is Gunn’s discussion of what a shy person he is, and how he has been able to Make it Work and live life successfully, despite his shyness. If you are a shy person, withdrawn and reserved, and dreaming of normalcy, I recommend you pick up this book, if only to read of Gunn’s experiences on that topic, so you too can Make it Work.

“I hear this a lot as an excuse for why people don’t take chances or don’t succeed in getting the job they want or the relationship they desire: ‘I’m so shy. I get very nervous.’ ‘I’m shy by nature!’ I say. ‘I’m withdrawn. You have to learn how to engage. If I did, anyone can.’’

This is coming from a man who threw up in the school parking lot on the way to teach his first class (fellow teachers, good story, I assure you).  I was nervous on my first day of teaching, but not that nervous.

On the subject of Project Runway, Gunn certainly dishes, and throughout it all the love and respect he has for each of the designers, the way a teacher loves and respects his students (oddballs included), consistently comes through. This is no mere behind-the-scenes exposé. Gunn shares what did not work in the workroom and on the runway (and what did work), all as examples to back up the rationale behind his Golden Rules.

Woven throughout Golden Rules are intimate stories from Gunn’s personal life, ranging from his childhood as the son of J. Edgar Hoover’s ghostwriter, to a teenage suicide attempt, to his love life in adulthood.  Of the many insights contained in this book, some of my favorites include:

  • How becoming a television personality later in his career has served to keep him grounded in reality, and prevented him from becoming a drama queen.
  • The striking resemblance J. Edgar Hoover bore to Vivian Vance at one point, and the surprise of meeting of Vivian Vance on a visit to Hoover’s office in 1961, while at the same time, Hoover himself was absent.
  • Martha Stewart’s bizarre prohibition on Diet Coke in her television studio. 
  • His experiences and point of view on being closeted, coming out, and being a positive gay role model today.
  • Descriptions of the Vogue offices, and the tale of how he was almost sued by Anna Wintour.

Above all, Gunn’s message is one of kindness and consideration. As he says on the subject of holding doors for people in public places (and not only women), “It has to do with noticing our fellow human beings and saying, ‘I recognize that you’re on this planet, and I don’t want a door hitting you in the face.’”

Ada Calhoun, who helped Gunn write this book sums up her experience working with Gunn quite sweetly, “Friends keep asking me what Tim is like in person. The truth is that he is kindness and generosity personified.” After reading Gunn’s Golden Rules, I believe it.

My two favorite rules?  Rule 8, Physical Comfort is Overrated, and Rule 13, Know What to Get Off Your Chest and What to Take to the Grave.

Before you all click away to order your copy of Golden Rules, take a look at this video of Gunn and Christian Siriano of Project Runway having a walk-off.  The walk-off is amusing, but for me, the real high point of this film is when Heidi Klum has Gunn doubled over in laughter as she tickles him. The man’s laughter is adorable.



Gunn, Tim.  (2010)  Gunn’s Golden Rules:  Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work.  Gallery Books:  New York.

Gunn’s Golden Rules, undated blog post by Ada Calhoun.

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