I should confess straightaway that I don’t know much about fashion, but I know a whole lot about clothes. I have been wearing them almost daily for as long as I can remember.
At the beginning, of course, my mother dressed me. I was dressed like most boys are, and I came to appreciate the practical functionality of clothing — how it keeps your body warm in winter and that long pants (even in summer) protect the skin against stickers and bug bites and sliding into second. I learned, too, that certain body parts are to remain covered at all times — at least when walking around in public — and about the difference between play clothes and school clothes and Sunday clothes and that clothing without holes is essential in certain social situations.
Clothes are important, I ascertained, and we dress in different outfits for the roles we play, the places we go, the company we keep. As a boy growing up in Louisiana with a bias for bare feet, I was taught you can judge the character of a man by the shoes he wears.
I learned other things as well from my mother, who believed in the importance of good grooming and physical appearances and making the proper impression on people who would judge my character by the clothes I wore. Some teachings I shed like last year’s color palette and yet other lessons echo in my brain to this day — for example, when to put away the white pants, shoes and belt (after Labor Day) and how a gentleman always carries a handkerchief and always travels with a suit and tie (to be ready for any occasion).
The handkerchief rule I amended in adulthood, opting instead to carry a durable bandanna in my back pocket. The uses are surprisingly numerous (like the pocketknife my father carried), and this accessory is intended not as a fashion statement but as a personal reminder. Pulling a bandanna from my pocket connects me to my cowboyish childhood and to backpacking trips that keep me grounded in the earthy authenticity of enduring, elemental creation. Seriously. When I am faced with frightening prospects — boarding an airplane, speaking in public, my father’s funeral — I steady myself by wiping my leaking palms and brow with that talisman rag that evokes dusty trails, cold rock and star-filled skies.
My mother, who would squirm in her grave to hear that news, didn’t deserve the rumply son she got. She is innocent of any blame that I look and dress the way I do. She tried her darndest to refine my tastes and attire, giving me modish shirts, an argyle sweater vest and a seersucker suit for summers in the South. The stuff just wasn’t me, and what we wear usually fits best when it’s a reflection of who we are.
The good woman even dragged me along with my aunt and older sister when they pilgrimaged to Dallas for a day of shopping at Neiman Marcus, ignoring my pouty disdain for the marketplace of elegance and show. We would lunch at The Zodiac, the iconic store’s haute tea room, gorgeous, sinewy models going table to table showing off their chic drapings and adornments — a miserably withering scenario for a budding boy immersed in puissant femininity.
The mortification was only amplified by the fact I would be wearing the on-loan, periwinkle-blue blazer assigned any male who had failed the dress code by daring to dine without a sports jacket. Each trip I belligerently refused to dress up for this exhibition of good taste, and each trip I sulkily put on the scarlet-letter cape that announced “chump.” I suspect the discomfort I feel today at dinner tables requiring a coat and tie can be traced to these stifling luncheons of dainty food and high fashion. Thank God the nation has adopted a more casual stance toward restaurant wear.
The weird thing is this: Whenever I strap on a jacket and tie, I feel like that same little boy dragged before the grown-ups, dressed up for church or a wedding, totally and awkwardly out of my comfort zone. Still. Today. Old enough to know better. Flushed out of my element by the clothes I put on. All twitchy, bound and constricuted. What’s with that?
An invitation imposes itself on me and the immediate thought is whether or not it’s a coat-and-tie affair. It can be a real dilemma. You want to be comfortable, but if you’re not dressed properly, you feel even more uncomfortable — like an outcast at a private club, a galoot at the ball. But if you dress up and everyone else dresses less formally, you feel out of it, like a clueless, tweedy stuffed-shirt lost in time. Totally unhip.
One of the profound humiliations of my life was attending a New Year’s Eve party as a high school freshman at the cute girl’s house with all the popular kids, me wearing a wool three-piece suit because my mother — wrongly, very wrongly — insisted everyone would be dressed up, after all, everyone dresses up for a New Year’s Eve party. I never recovered from this embarrassment.
I don’t typically spend much time anymore weighing wardrobe options. My big decision each day is which shirt to wear with my khakis. I suppose my discomfort would be different if my day job required a coat and tie. I did that in high school. Through four years at an all-male, Catholic high school, I wore the standard-issue vestments: gray slacks, blue blazer, regimental-striped tie and an oxford-cloth shirt in white or blue.
So I’ve done my time in a coat and tie, and felt very grown up doing so. Mature at 16. Superior to my public-school friends shuffling to school in denim, flannel and leather, their shirttails hanging out. Maybe I got that out of my system. Or maybe I OD’ed at an impressionable stage. Maybe, given the Woodstockian era in which I came of age, the coat and tie came to symbolize the costume conformity of corporate sameness, The Man and Babbitt’s America. The necktie as individuality’s noose.
Adventuring off to college, I set out to create my own distinct look by dressing like most everyone else around me — blue jeans, plaid flannel shirts, desert boots and a blue jean jacket I wore throughout the South Bend winters, eschewing any sense of the practical functionality of clothing I had learned as a toddler. I shivered — ruggedly, stoically — from building to building, but am confident I looked pretty cool once inside — perhaps could be mistaken for a Creedence Clearwater Revival roadie or (on a blue workshirt day) a slouchy, soulful, enigmatic philosopher-poet.
That was the persona I sought to present to the world back then. And we all — even those who brush aside couture or rebel against conventional fashion — dress for a part, choose a style, a look, a get-up that makes a statement about us. Even when we dress to blend in, our clothing speaks of our identity, expresses the inner self. Dapper, grungy, preppy, countercultural? Stylin’, J. Crew, goth or walking billboard for a brand? Aeropostale. North Face. Gap. Old Navy. If we dress to make a personal statement public, to show who we are, what does it say about us when we put a corporate logo across our chest?
I am standing by the window, talking to a student from Alaska. She is artsy: spiky, hennaed hair, facial piercings, tattoos and lots of black — banded in thick leather, accented with silver studs. Out the window I spy a team of corporate interviewers exiting the University’s career center. They are dressed — both male and female — in assorted shades of gray. Uniformly monochromatic. Sharply tailored, snappily pressed, white shirts and ties. Seniors — similarly attired, hoping to make a favorable professional impression — accompany them. Some wear trenchcoats, still crisp with newness and belted smartly at the waist.
I see what we all see when a politician removes his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and loosens his tie when he courts voters in a Pennsylvania steel town or Iowa diner. “See, I am one of you.”
Other students hurry by. They are dressed like students — baggy, disheveled, wired, Ugg booted, Coach bagged, Abercrombie and Fitched. They belong to the team. They’ve joined the club. They wear the uniform.
There are many reasons we dress as we do, but none is more important than associating with a tribe. Call it Tribal Wear. From Amish elder to ghetto rapper, from football fan to fashionista, from bohemian nonconformist to Versace-toting social climber, we dress with our clan, wear the team colors, align with the tribe we want to be part of — association by the clothes we wear, the things we carry.
These loyalties can often outstrip comfort and common sense . . . or why else would one wear 6-inch heels, pantyhose, a denim jacket in winter or blue jeans with holes in them?
I am a college freshman home for Christmas. I have a favorite old pair of jeans riddled with holes. So I have gathered scraps from other jeans, a favorite shirt, a peace sign snared from a head shop like a merit badge or military patch. I am sewing these onto the jeans, proud of my dexterity with needle and thread, my anti-materialistic frugality and my intimacy with the character of fondly worn things. But my mother (probably still miffed that I seemed only politely lukewarm toward the pine-green corduroy slacks she gave me for Christmas) wants to know what I’m doing. I explain what must certainly be obvious: I’m patching the holes in my jeans.
“You’re doing what?” She rockets from puzzled to pissed in a heartbeat.
It’s not that big a deal, I say. I love these old jeans. Besides, everybody I know has old jeans they’ve patched. But my appeal to her Tribal Wear sensibilities, to dress like my friends up north, is holding no traction with her. The eruption is now full force.
She and my father sweated and sacrificed for a lifetime so their children wouldn’t have to wear clothes with holes in them. Why even in the Depression, when they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, they didn’t go out in public looking like some ragamuffin, wearing clothes with holes in them. No child of mine, she went on, is going to walk around town with patches on their clothes like some old hobo or bum. What would your father say, having worked all his life to provide you and your sister good, nice clothes so you’d fit in with the right kind of people? And now you sewing patches on your clothes. . . .
Her tirade only got worse when she learned the jeans I was patching (I regrettably revealed this for its sentimental value, thinking — mistakenly — that establishing a bond with family friends would help bail me out of this verbal shelling) were actually hand-me-downs from Jimmy Walker — “MY GOD, Margaret Walker’s son!” — getting worse yet again, when I said, yes, Jimmy didn’t want them anymore because of the holes. “Margaret WALKER!”
We clearly stood on opposite sides of the chasm. She only cared about what other people thought, and I grasped the principle at stake here, a self-defining generational statement about mass consumption and materialism and conformity and a cultural ethos being transformed by my generation — a cohort to which I demonstrated allegiance by wearing my authentically patched jeans to validate my tribal standing.
As I say, she and I had many such disagreements until she mellowed, outgrowing her intolerant attitude toward wardrobe and lifestyle. It was she, after all, who gave me the blue-jean jacket I wore like a monk’s robe till it grew tattered and threadbare over time. It hurt to let it go.
That is something else important about clothing. A jacket, a shirt or sweater, a pair of jeans or boots acquires character over time, or is meaningful because of its history. I believe in the souls of inanimate objects, in spirits coming to inhabit the things we love. So it has been hard at times to part with an article of clothing, a pair of hiking boots, a sweater that’s been worn into shabbiness.
I bond with the things I wear. We go through life together, loyal and constant companions; they are what I walk around in, work in, play in. I dress for comfort, I say — like everyone else — pulling on what feels right, the way it feels on my shoulders or skin when I move around in it. It’s an intuitive thing. And I am sad when the soles wear out, the collar frays, the jeans get ragged. I miss them like I miss an old friend who’s going away. If that sounds weird, so be it. By now I know what a romantic I am, how sentimental I can be. And I know which clothes in my closet help me feel like me, keep me true to myself, make me feel right. That’s worth something in the world today.
My father wore a white shirt to work every day. A fedora and a tie and one of several sports jackets. He had a closet full of suits. I would follow him to his bedroom when he came home from work each day. He would undress — a man of deliberate ritual, a keeper of details — folding and hanging, his shoes lined up neatly in his closet. He was an accountant. He worked for a large corporation and he wore a lapel pin announcing his years of service with the company.
When he retired, he continued to wear a jacket and tie most days, dressing that way even when visiting me on vacation in South Bend. It was who he was, how he identified himself, how he presented himself to the world. That’s what the men of his generation and profession did, what they wore. He felt secure in that, felt right.
As time went on and the years went by, he loosened up some (sports jacket, no tie), dressing more casually day to day — into his 70s then deep into his 80s, into frail and bedridden times and back out again, then eventually into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. And yet, when he was 89 and my mother was in the hospital for an extended stay, with me taking my sister’s place caring for him at home for a couple of weeks and taking him to the hospital to sit with his wife, he returned to old habits.
He was stepping out again, going to see my mom, wanting to look his best for her and the doctors and hospital staff who just might judge a man by his shoes, his style, by the clothes he wore. She was the woman, after all, who had sent the country boy home when he arrived for their first date because he showed up in cowboy boots.
Dressing for our hospital visits, I steered him toward more casual attire. He was now a man who needed help dressing himself, adjusting the undergarments, making sure he wore pants — and a shirt (not a pajama top). But sometimes, even when I’d gotten a sports shirt on him, I’d find him with a clean white dress shirt on top of it all, and him looping a tie around his neck.
He still remembered how to tie a tie. And fingers that fumbled over zippers, shoelaces and buttons worked with supple precision when working a tie into the crease of the collar, measuring out the balance between its wide and narrow end, then deftly tying the knot, cinching it to his throat, snugly tugging the bow on the package he had just wrapped for his bride of 50 years, the woman who never got over how handsome he looked in uniform on his wedding day, a GI just home from the war. “How’s it look?” he asked.
“You look great,” I said. And meant it.
That’s the other important thing about clothes. We wear them to look good. And often — but surely not always — we dress to be physically attractive, or at least appeal to those whose eye and heart we’d like to catch. We’d like to turn heads, come across as good-looking or handsome, interesting or fetching. We dress to make the right impression, to enhance the appearances nature provided.
The strategies may differ between male and female, but the desired effect — beneficial to the human race — is a drawing together, a mutual attraction, a kind of subliminal magnetism. Sex appeal, to be blunt, helps make the world go ’round.
There’s a great deal of truth, I think, in the theories of sociobiology and the writings of anthropologist Desmond Morris. It’s fun — and fascinating — to interpret the social behaviors of the human species through such a lens, watching how we dress as predator and prey, mimicking the ritual displays of plumage and prowess.
It was a woman who first told me that women dress mainly as a statement to other women but also to exert power over men. Though startled by the candor, I knew immediately what she meant . . . because I’m well aware of the mysterious power of female beauty and the surprising allure in the cut of a skirt, the fit of a dress, the flagrant yet basic charm of a T-shirt with jeans. If women dress to accentuate the lure of visual cues, I suppose men dress to exude strength and success, to declare their status among peers, perhaps to signal a sense of being in control. A man who looks like he knows what he’s doing has a nice head start when auditioning as a good catch to those seeking a mate. At least that’s what I surmise from the glaring models in men’s fashion magazines.
My life in clothes, though, is proof that I am much less aware of what looks good on a man than a woman. At this point in life I have given up wanting to be noticed; my fashion sense these days says just try to look nice. But I am grateful to all who help beautify the world, or make it more interesting, more fun, more tasteful or zesty — by the way they have come dressed for the party.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine, where coat and tie is optional.