Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Clothes Make The Man?


To give you and idea of where my ideas are headed today, here's a picture of what I call my "shirt of many colors." It's not a print. Each of those squares is separate; they've all been sewn together into this incredible shirt. I saw it hanging in some store years ago and stopped dead in my tracks. I had to have it. It's very bulky and not actually suitable to wear as a regular shirt. I wear it as a light jacket.

I usually think of myself as a pretty plain person, without frills. Presentation is not my thing. For instance, we throw an occasional pull-out-all-the-stops dinner party, where I'll cook something really fancy and we'll use all the heirloom china and silverware. The table ends up looking as if set for a royal court, a work of art in itself. Since I'm the cook, guests assume I'm responsible for the decoration, too, and they must always be disabused. I'm not. The look is entirely Steve's doing. I have no eye nor original imagination for such a display. A recurring dream of mine is that I'm driving a car, on my way somewhere. The car, always and still, is an old VW Beetle, bouncing along the road cartoon-style. I'm the Beetle.

And yet you'll find me in getups like this shirt. In public. I guess clothes are different.

My parents had strict rules about clothes for me when I was in elementary school. Even then, a nice pair of bluejeans was acceptable and fairly common for boys, but not for me. No jeans allowed, only "hoods" wore jeans. And I longed to be able to kick my shoes off, sometimes pad around the classroom in my stocking feet like the cool kids did, but you could only do that in loafers. No loafers for me, either. My feet were "still forming" and needed the structure of shoes that tied. (Maybe that's why I can only wear such narrow, hard-to-find B-width shoes now.) One year my folks even had me wearing clip-on bow ties to school. Looking back, I can only shake my head in amazement that I suffered not a single black eye.

I love color. I don't really have a favorite; I like any color as long as it pops. Chinese red, cerulean blue, kelly green, any highly saturated member of the basic color wheel, or interesting mixture thereof. Again, when I was a kid, the combination of pink and black came into vogue for a while. This was something my mother and I could agree on. I got a snazzy short-sleeved pink dress shirt and a pair of black slacks. I loved that outfit.

West Africa is a wonderland for anyone who enjoys color. Skin tones there consort with gold, red, turquoise. In West African Muslim countries such as Senegal or Mali, women's hijab couldn't be more different from the imprisoning burkas worn in the Middle East. Heads are covered with high headdresses of brilliant color, sometimes accented with metallic gold thread, and bright skirts can billow in the breeze like designer parachutes. To stroll in some African cities is to be awash in a riot of color.

I, of course, delighted in all this when I lived in Africa and took it as a given that I could wear those colors, too. When I came home in 1972 I needed to replenish my wardrobe, so I loaded up on colors unusual even for that anything-goes era. Here's a memorable outfit: a pair of lime-green stretch bellbottoms, topped by a raspberry-colored shirt and a wide, brocade tie that combined the green and the red. On my feet were a pair of blond leather boots. I laugh out loud even as I write these words. I wore that outfit once. The boots stayed, as did the shirt. The pants went to the Salvation Army (from which they probably traveled to a used-clothing stall in Africa, where I'm sure they were snapped right up worn to great acclaim).

I may have had that brocade tie, but for many years I despised neckties and avoided them if I could. They are not only uncomfortable. To me they always represented the ultimate sellout to conformity, the suit-and-tie uniform all men were supposed to wear if they meant to be taken seriously in the corporate world. One of the many dispiriting things about the AAA was that a necktie was required for all men, whether they were meeting the public or not. One day I decided to break the rules. I put on a black turtleneck sweater, covered it with a blue flannel Pendleton shirt, and around my neck I put a small leather amulet from Ghana. (If anybody asked me, I'd say that was my "tie.") I wowed 'em, but my poor supervisor had no choice. She pulled me aside and, looking sheepish, said, "Ralph, you couldn't look sharper, but you have to wear a tie." My strike for men's liberation at the AAA went nowhere.

When I finally started working at Peace Corps headquarters, ties were at first an option, but when the corporate-minded Reaganites came in there was very distinct pressure on the men to start wearing ties every day. By then I had refined my strategy and was able to avoid the "uniform" look by wearing colored, non-dress shirts with ties that complemented the look of the shirt. This was something unique (for conservative DC, anyway) for a while, but soon it became common, to the point where dress shirts are now widely available in an array of bright colors. If we boomer men have done anything for the look of our gender, it's been to relax that old strict code of drabness and let some of the rainbow in.

Now, I guess I do wear a uniform of sorts. In the winter I wear jeans and T-shirts and in the summer it's shorts and T-shirts. I have a closet full of very cool clothes that I have virtually no more reason to wear. My stiff leather dress shoes accumulate dust. The occasional lunch with working friends in town gives me a chance to raid my closet and pull out some favorite shirt that hasn't seen the light of day in four years. I really should go through my closet and weed out the things that don't stand much chance of being worn again, and that day will come soon enough, when we start packing to move. But I know I'll be putting it off until the last possible minute. It'll be like tossing out beautiful old friends.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I really love the shirt!

I am the typical NY'er who loves wearing black. My colors are red, purple, blue, pink and yellow.

I see you have a tendency toward the rich, virbrant jewel/gems colors.

I understand the "clothes not worn" in the closet. I think many of us do this and oddly, I was brought up to go through the closets each season. My mother would have me try each item of clothing for the season change. If a hem could come down to get another season, one pile. Outgrown - no salvage, another pile. This went on until 7th grade. I guess my growth slowed down at that time.

Mid-way down the work life, I decided it was too expensive to buy clothes every season etc. etc. so I went for clothes that I could wear in most seasons.

Now, I have a closet full of clothes because I went on a quest to build a months worth of outfits for all-season wear and I am unemployed. I rarely have an opportunity to wear them, yet have to hold on to them - just in case.

Like you, when I move - the closet will finally be weaned.

Linda
SE PA

Ralph said...

Linda, I don't think you're the only one brought up with that seasonal closet thing. We never did it in our family, but I've met plenty of people, mostly women, who still do it. They "take out the summer stuff and put away the winter stuff." Everything I had for work could be worn any time of the year. These days I'll put most of my shorts away for the winter just to make room, but that's about it.

Zoey & Me said...

My wife could not believe I wore "pinky" for 30 years till it literally fell off my back. $7.99 at Ralieghs in downtown deecee. I wonder if Raleighs is even there anymore and I may have mispelled it. I also loved shopping at Brooks Brothers and a specialty tweed store for me in that same area of the old Garfinckel's, forget its name but loved it for all winter clothes. Remember those stores Ralph?

Kat said...

Ralph,
I haven't worn a skirt or dress but once since I retired. I tend toward comfy clothes and love flannel and corduroy.

Give me colors, especially during the winter.

Ralph said...

Sure do remember them, Z&M. I still have a beautiful blazer I bought at Raleighs--God, the thing must be more than 30 years old now. It was so expensive I can't stand the thought of getting rid of it.

Can't think of the tweed shop, either, but all those other stores are gone now, DC's loss: Raleigh's, Garfinkels, Kann's, Woodies. Hechts was the last to go, just last year. Sold to the May conglonmerate, all Hecht Co. stores are now Macys.

(Brooks Brothers, of course, will always have a market in staid DC.)

Ralph said...

Nor I a tie, Kat. I have one suit to my name, which I thought I'd be wearing for a job, and never did. I wore it twice, always felt self-conscious in it, and had to explain to people who knew me who I was. I was unrecognizable in a suit.

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome shirt. I really like it because all of the squares are actually sown on there rather than the shirt just having a lot of colorful squares on it. It really adds character to the shirt and it looks like it is something you would find in a GUESS store, is that where you found it?

Ralph said...

Anon, thanks for commenting on this ancient post. Yes, I do love this shirt. It's warm too. As you can see by the label, it's J. Crew, bought it at a J. Crew outlet in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware 8-10 years ago.