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I’m Turning Back Fellows

Glenn O'Brien has seen fashion's future, and he's not going

I read this morning on a fashion blog that I’m a “renegade traditionalist.” I suppose I might have claimed that once. I like tradition because I’m not easily convinced by innovations. I find the past more reliable. Dan Quisenberry, a great relief pitcher, once said, “I’ve seen the future and it’s much like the present only longer.” I am just not comfortable with the futuristic. My instinct often says, “Um . . . maybe we should turn around.” 

Advanced fashion usually makes me feel like turning around. I see a neon jumpsuit or a button-down shirt with sentences written on it, and I start thinking about fracking, Fukushima, voting machines, the Bilbao Guggenheim. But, reassuringly, a lot of people seem to agree with me: The future is iffy. I guess that explains the boom in what is usually referred to as “retro,” which is manifest lately in a return to tailored clothing, beards, gray flannel, tweeds and waxed-cotton outerwear.

Years ago, I couldn’t find a three-piece suit, so I had one made. I couldn’t find a three-button seersucker suit, so I had one made. I guess I am a fashion leader, but in reverse. Sorry, but I just like reading silver fork novels by candlelight in my smoking jacket.

I have been looking for a nice top hat for some time now. I first got the itch watching Gangs of New York. I thought I found a good one recently, but it turned out to be too small. Now, my twelve-year-old is wearing it, and he looks great, if a bit like a chimney sweep. I hope to find a good restored hat, because, basically, they don’t make them anymore. It’s LBJ’s fault, opting out of topper and white tie at his inaugural. President Obama would look swell in a topper, and I haven’t even seen Lincoln yet. Anyway, I’ve been seriously topper shopping while making a list of steps for dressing in a less contemporary and more elegant way. 

Frock coats are so out, they’ve got to be in soon. Tails are near extinct, rarely called for, even at state dinners, although you shouldn’t pick up a Nobel Prize without them. It used to be that white tie was worn to the inaugural balls, although Mr. Obama thinks that means simply wearing a white tie with his tux. Tsk-tsk. The Dowager Countess of Grantham would have sent him back upstairs to change. I’m assuming that Downton Abbey will revive tails somewhat. André Balazs wore them to celebrate a birthday not long ago, and he looked amazing, although the white socks were perhaps a boo-boo.

The tuxedo is already back. Today a guy in a black suit faking it really sticks out, and not smartly. The creative black-tie set still tries to update it, with notch lapels, flap pockets and long ties, but the best-dressed guys show them up in proper kit. Red carpet photos are an argument for the cummerbund, recently discarded by modernists in black hip-huggers. Look at all that white shirt under their jacket button. Sorry, that’s not even semiformal. Braces or suspenders elevate tux trousers. If they have belt loops or cuffs, they’re not tux trousers. You might consider giving up belts altogether with suits. True, many Wall Street criminals have worn despicable suspenders, but that’s no reason to renounce the superior fit of trousers hung from the shoulders and not tied up at the hips. If you haven’t experienced that kind of suspense, there is a certain kind of freedom you don’t know. Boxers and suspenders are liberators of maleness itself!

Spats, or spatterdashes, still symbolic of wealthy eccentrics like Monopoly’s Mr. Pennybags, were protective shoe coverings made of white, gray or tan cloth, de rigeur among the smart set in horse-and-buggy days, when streets were untidy and manure-strewn. Spats send a message that you’re not mucking about.

Sadly, today’s amateur golfers often disport themselves in the logo-mad mode of touring professionals, resembling a compromise between suburban mall sportswear and a NASCAR vehicle. If regular clothing is not sporty enough, why not wear plus fours, the knickers-like trousers that extend four inches below the knee? They are sportif, comfy in action and really show off fine argyles and golf shoes. (No sneaker models please.) They are not extinct, h aving been smartly revived by André Benjamin. On the course, they were rebooted by the late, lamented Payne Stewart. During his seventeen-year pro career, which ended sadly with his death in a plane crash at forty-two, Stewart had twenty-four wins, including two Opens and the PGA tournament, all in plus fours and a traditional tam. Payne even sported a necktie now and then. With a swing like his, nobody dared say anything.

Pocket watches? Why not? I don’t really like wristwatches. I get a rash from leather bands and snag things on metal bracelets.

They get in the way when you’re doing things manually, like cooking or throwing a punch. The pocket watch is a time-honored solution, and the watch, chain and fob can zhuzh up a three-piece suit, or even a pair of trousers.

I don’t understand people who don’t wear pajamas. I’m all for sensuality, and I suppose sleeping nude is okay, as long as there are no nocturnal interruptions (fire, burglary, midnight hunger), but I sleep better in deluxe jammies. They are also indispensable for houseguests. I’m warmer, cozier and, I’ll admit, more picturesque in pajamas than au naturel. I write in them in the morning when inspiration strikes, accompanied, of course, by a dressing gown (Charvet) and slippers (Loro Piana cashmeres ideally). It’s a bad sign for a civilization when modes meant for luxury home lounging disappear. It means we are mere cogs in the machine. A man should have a smoking jacket, even if he doesn’t smoke. It’s the full-dress version of pajamas.

I used to own a cape. Actually, it was my grandfather’s boat cloak from his naval officer days. It was standard equipment with a dress uniform. It also looked wonderful with a tuxedo. FDR sported one at Yalta, making Stalin and rumpled Churchill look dumpy. I suppose capes are seen as theatrical today, perhaps vampires and operatic phantoms are to blame, but they are really practical garments. They allow full use of your arms, should you need to row a boat, ride a horse, throw a punch or get frisky in a limousine.

If you watch enough black-and-white movies, you will inevitably begin to wonder what that white edge is inside the vest of Clifton Webb, C. Aubrey Smith or Edward Everett Horton. It’s a waistcoat slip, and it was buttoned inside the waistcoat. It is sometimes seen on contemporary royals, and Lord Grantham wears one with his full morning dress at Downton. It’s a nice detail. Apparently nineteenth-century dandies sometimes sported them in colors.

The straw hat is back. I see more Montecristi lids on dapper gents every summer.  I got a roll-up myself last June, thinking it might be the one hat that can survive an overhead bin. I neglected to take the packing tube, however, and now I need a good blocking before Memorial Day. Last summer, I saw several chic older fellows wearing boaters. This flat-topped stiff straw hat, also known as a skimmer, was standard summer wear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a versatile hat that on boats was worn with blazers, around town with lounge suits or with black tie. During the 1960s, it became unhip, due to the propensity of banjo players in shirt garters to wear them, but nothing looks smarter with a seersucker suit. The artist Dash Snow wore a black bowler in winter and a black boater in summer.

I collect walking sticks, but I only had the nerve to employ one when I broke my ankle. Too bad, because it’s nice to go around with a weapon that can’t deploy accidentally. I have a beauty with an ivory head that has a moveable jaw and another beautifully turned flicker made by a Boer War POW at St. Helena. Many nice canes have surprises inside, ranging from swords to flasks, compasses to opium pipes.

The boutonniere is back, as more and more men discover that little thread on the back side of the lapel under the button hole, called the boutonniere latch. It’s there to hold a flower in place. It’s not there to hold a flower arrangement. I hate seeing a rose gussied up with baby’s breath or salad greens, or even a plastic vase, pinned to a lapel. But a simple flower, a small rose, a carnation, a gardenia, a cornflower, small orchid, a daisy or lavender, looks charming. A thistle shows toughness and sensitivity simultaneously.

Hats? I’ve been wearing fedoras since 1978. I have them in black, navy, dark gray, light gray, buff, brown, violet with brown grosgrain trim, and pale green. Icing on the cake! Don’t walk around uncovered outdoors, you’ll look like a wilted lad. I’m now looking at homburgs for my golden years.

Finally, I’m predicting that men will take to galoshes or overshoes again. I can still hear my mother asking if I had my rubbers on. And now you can get chic Italian rubbers in colors. Galoshes are good for rain, but a necessity when it’s icy and there’s salt or worse scattered over the pavement: slow death for leather. And there’s nothing worse stylistically than a man who flouts the weather. No hat, no overcoat, no scarf, no gloves, no rubbers . . . no sense. Other men might look tacky or tasteless, but these guys simply look stupid. What they say about turkeys drowning in a rainstorm*—not true—it was the sales department. BG

Glenn O’Brien considers clothes that deserve a bright future

*A folktale has it that turkeys are so dumb, they look up in surprise at the rain and drown. Industrial turkeys might try suicide that way, but heritage turkeys are too smart.