Proper attire

Sam Smith, 1981 – The father was trying to explain to his son why he shouldn’t button the bottom button of his new man’s style suit.

“But what’s it there for, if it’s not meant to buttoned?” The nine-year-old logic smashed over the net.

“Well it’s, er, decoration. Look at your lapels. They don’t do anything either. They just look nice.”

“Yeah, but the coat would look funny without these. The nine year old fingered his lapels. “This button just hangs out here. It looks stupid.”

“It’s the way people do it. But leave it buttoned if you want.” Some ten or eleven year old dandy would set him straight soon enough.

The father wondered why he had even bothered. He didn’t really care. No one had ever told him why that third button was there.

The only reason he could figure was that maybe it was there for the purpose he had discovered long ago: to move it up a notch or two when the first or second popped and you were too lazy to find a match. He had gone all year with one button on his best blue suit and no one had said anything — to his face. Maybe it didn’t matter. But people said it did.

People say alot of things about clothes. And with them. The other day, with the snow on the ground, I watched a bedizened, agitated gentleman hailing a cab. He had, it appeared, just stepped out of Charles I’s salon; the hair spray was holding in the January wind; the expensive leather jacket and the long leather boots were so spotless I half expected to see the white plastic anti-theft clip from some Georgetown salon still tugging at them. A cab stopped, he rushed in and gave directions, and as he did so he gracefully swung into the taxi his cargo — a glazed bag from E.F. Sly. Was he returning something? Going back for more? Or off to some new place to find something that would look even more elegant in the winter slush? I probably do him wrong; maybe he was only late for work, but I was certain at the moment that his clothes and baggage betrayed his mission in life: the acquisition of apparel. He was the man described by Carlyle “whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.”

I say it with a bit of envy, for if the truth be told, I wouldn’t mind being considered well dressed. I would love to be elegant if there were not other things I loved more which have a peculiar way of interfering with my efforts to put my best side towards the world. As far back as college, a roommate had me pegged: “You’re the only man I know who could make an English tailored suit look as though it came from Robert Hall’s.”

It was not that I was without taste. When my older brother bequeathed his entire set of early fifties bib-width ties ranging from peudo Picassos to a nude reclining on a red field, I accepted them modestly and hung them in my closet where they remained unworn, favoring instead the black knit that those of us who grew up in the fading of “Happy Days” knew was now the only right thing to wear, unless you belonged to A Club or A Fraternity. But I was not able, nor am I now, to adjust my life in such a way that there was adequate time to make endless small decisions that separate the exquisite from the rest of us. I will, in a sudden spurt of reform, buy a new suit, a complementary tie and shirt, and then find myself walking around in shoes that must not be raised on crossed knees less their minimal membrane of the sole spoil the effect.

There was a time when I thought I had solved the problem. Day after day I just wore the same thing. I went through a pink shirt period, a green suit period a black and blue period. One of the happiest moments of my life came upon reading David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” David Ogilvy was the fellow who invented the eye-patched “Man in the Hathaway Shirt.” He designed ad campaigns for Schweppes, Rolls Royce and Pepperidge Farms. He was an English New Yorker, the ultimate elegant ethnic combination. On page 61, this arbiter of excellence declared, “I always use my clients’ products … My shirts are by Hathaway, my candlesticks by Steuben. My car is a Rolls Royce, and its tank is always full of Super Shell. I have my suits made at Sears Roebuck…”

I went through a Sears Roebuck suit period.

It wasn’t a bad idea. Uniforms remove the doubt that fads and fancies inject into dress. They also identify: you are in the army, an Amtrak attendant, an announcer on “Wide World of Sports,” or, in my case,a disciple of Sears chic.

Still uniforms, largely because of the people who decree them, often intrude on good sense as much as Bill Blass. They tend to follow that basic principle: the less useful one’s function in society, the less useful one’s dress.

Check the streets this winter. They are filled with people who have decided that since it is impossible to be both fashionable and warm, they will sacrifice the latter virtue for the former. The same is true in summer. In a city like Washington people dress for the office. We think summer, like polio, has been conquered and we still don’t believe in winter.

The energy crisis may bring some changes. Last summer a local radio station engaged in a radical campaign: to make it acceptable for everyone to unbutton their shirts by declaring a tieless holiday. They broadcast the names of companies that had agreed to go along with their plan as though they were contributors to the United Way of energy conservation. It was an impressive effort, even more impressive to me was the thought that it was necessary.

But then I suffer under the delusion that I work better when I am comfortable. College students, mechanics, farmers all know that. But when you are a respectable urban officebound American it’s not supposed to be true. A friend who is a partner in a law firm here tells me that he caused a mild stir by arriving at the office one day in his normal conservative suit and a turtle neck. He deals in intemational law, his clients live thousands of miles away, but I guess you never know when one might drop in. Can a Washington lawyer be a good Washington lawyer in a turtleneck? The answer here in the better firms seems to be: only on Saturdays. Go to a law firm on a Saturday and you won’t find a pin-striped suit in the house. Slacks, sweaters, or even jeans are the style. What happens between Friday night and Saturday morning?

Now if you go down to the local police station you’ll find a notice listing variations in the dress code, too. But it’s keyed to the climate. In fact, with this directive in hand one can predict the weather for the day merely by looking at the nearest traffic cop. But why the shift in the lawyers’ apparel? Undoubtedly it is in part because on Saturdays there is little danger of the arrival of a client — who of course would be wearing a suit and tie to deal properly with the attorney. And so forth.

I wear a suit or tie so seldom that it often provokes comment. This pleases me, for I see “nice clothes” as a costume, to be worn to a party or event, which is different than working or doing something. I’m one of the few men in my neighborhood who can wear a pinstripe suit and have it look unique. That’s why I bought it. Confused by the choices arrayed before me, my eye drifted towards the grey pin-stripe. For me it was the most daring choice in the store. I’ll take it.

But most of the time I want to be comfortable. I can’t write in a suit. The words come out pin-striped. I can’t stuff newsracks or dig through old records at city hall in a suit. And I don’t like to see well-dressed reporters. The decline of American journalism began when journalists stopped looking seedy. Their copy turned polyester and the worse for it.

I would wear jeans and a sweatshirt everyday if I were not such a coward. Baretta would be on my list of the ten best dressed men in America. And I love the pocket stuffers, like Charlie Mason, husband of the local city councilmember, who makes his clothes work for him. His shirt pocket overflows with pens, pencils, timetables and miscellaneous notes. Charlie is a man of missions, always doing something, and his pockets tell it. Empty pockets, empty mind.

I also admire the advocates of eccentric ornament, like our cartoonist John Wiebenson, who sits in his architectural office with wool cap and scarf, a tweed jacket left by the final guest at the Willard Hotel and sneakers that were the last to leave Dunkirk.

To the conventional, John might be considered badly dressed; to those who know him, he is merely the foremost proponent of the Wiebenson look. If, Haiston stole it, he’d make millions.

But Halston hasn’t sent his scouts up Connecticut Avenue, so John and I remain sartorial outcasts. I would submit, however, our sin is not one of taste but daring to wear what we wish, letting our clothes reflect the oddments of our-minds rather than betraying them. Anyway, since one of the purposes of dress is to attract attention, our way is certainly cheaper. And besides, there’s always someone will look at us and have Jonathan Swift’s reaction: ” I have always had a sacred veneration for anyone I observed to be a little out of repair in his person, as supposing him either a poet or a philsopher.”

So go ahead, kid, button that third button

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