Not to worry you, but if you are currently (a) a man and (b) wearing clothes, you are being judged. Your coworkers notice how you carry off your suits. The lady in your life most likely has a more nuanced understanding of your jeans than you realize. And don’t believe that the Rooney Mara lookalike with the non-dragon tattoo pulling your espresso shots isn’t adjudicating the merits of your brown suede derbies. She is. With ruthless ease.
But ultimately more concerning than the day-to-day won-and-lost column is the big picture, the future: history. What will be our place in the style canon? How will we, as a generation, be judged by the sartorial spirit in the sky? Will our current garb be looked upon as costume fodder for future Theta Chi theme parties, no better than the aberrant leisure suit? Will we be docked points for the deep V-neck T-shirt? Will Thom and Tom bump us up a couple of pegs? Simply put: Have we done enough to distinguish ourselves?
The answer is, of course, it’s impossible to tell in the present. It’s hopeless to attempt to predict whether our current smorgasbord of garb will make the greatest hits album or be relegated to filler status. Hindsight is regrettably twenty-twenty when it comes to style matters. Just consider acid-washed jeans, shoulder pads and the fauxhawk for proof. Recall the scourge of the Humvee-sized wristwatch, the harebrained man-scaping movement, the shirt collar’s absence from the interior of the suit jacket during the years 1974–1979. These mistakes were not outliers, scattered cases, or the M.O. of fashion misfits. These were garments and trends adapted and worn with confidence by men who claimed they cared about their appearance. Yikes!
I often wonder if there was a mirror shortage in the late eighties. If every relief pitcher in the nineties was part of some conspiratorial in-joke regarding goatees. If the polyester lobby ruled the seventies with an iron fist.
Styles change with the cultural mores of the day. Lapel widths advance and retreat across the chest. The tie gains girth and then quickly slims back down, like a method actor preparing for a role. Espadrilles enter our consciousness and then disappear, only to reemerge years later like they’ve just been summering in Cap d’Antibes for a couple of decades.
And that’s fine, all very much natural, totally expected, part of the normal ebb and flow of gentlemanly dress through the ages. But that doesn’t explain saggy jeans as a trend. That doesn’t account for why so many men take the word casual as an opportunity to dress as if they have in fact bottomed out. We get it, there’s a bottle opener on the sole of your flip-flop; you are capital-R relaxed. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, why the concept of black tie is so often mistaken as an opportunity to peacock in red velvet rather than to keep it classic and highlight the beauty of the woman on one’s arm. Looking back on decades of errors, those sepia-toned moments of regret, the saddest part is that they seem so preventable.
But I’m not sure we are really interested in prevention. There will always be some among us who tire of the timeless, get bored with the basics and find their way onto the bleeding edge of fashion, going for broke and often achieving just that, sartorially speaking. But I suspect the bigger pool of culprits are those who, for one reason or another, haven’t yet found their way to tailored enlightenment. These poor lost souls, perhaps not weaned on dog-eared copies of Take Ivy and forced to watch La Dolce Vita at an impressionable age, are most susceptible to the toxic elixir of marketing, ignorance and peer pressure that makes a bad clothing idea stick in our collective craw.
And maybe there is no way to avoid such disasters, and we should just accept that bad trends will always emerge and often reemerge. But I think we shouldn’t go down without a fight. We should speak truth to power, especially if power equals the trucker hat.
Growing up with a father who ran nightclubs in Miami in the fifties, designed his own suits and wore an ascot to my bar mitzvah, I was gifted with a role model with panache and granted certain liberties to find my own footing. But still, as you can imagine, mistakes were made. Looking back at a picture of myself wearing a blousy sky-blue silk shirt and a multicolored vest during a chance encounter with a boyhood idol of mine, I wonder if I wouldn’t have benefited from some sort of early schooling in the classics. Fit 101. Intro to the Blue Oxford. Advanced Blazers. Conversational Sprezzatura. Maybe taught by professors Bogart, Newman and McQueen. Lorded over by Dean Miles Davis. After all, knowledge is power.