Things happen to a man in his life, and among these things is the 100 percent merino wool sweater. Especially the merino wool sweater that has a polo shirt-type collar on it, but also the V-neck or crew neck version, especially when he wears it to holiday dinners or cocktail parties, and it makes him look -- how to put it -- wider? More doughy? Somehow breasty?
Such a simple and popular thing to wear these days -- heaps of them are available right now at Banana Republic, or in Christmas catalogues, or in any sweater-gorged department store. The merino sweater is warm, it is handsome, and it is an affront to fronts. (And sides.) In the first season of "24," the real-time action series on Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, as Special Agent Jack Bauer, spent several episodic hours frantically running around in a grayish-ocher merino-looking sweater, trying to thwart an assassination attempt. Viewers sat riveted as they tried to solve the show's essential, pressing mystery: When did Kiefer Sutherland get manboobs?
Sutherland -- fit, rugged and turning a youthful 36 next month -- does not have manboobs. He just seemed to, even with his Hollywood actor's bod, and this leads us to an awful truth about the male form inside merino sweaters: It flops.
Whether a man has built up his pectoral muscles or ignored them, whether he has crunched his midsection love-grips into toned submission or allowed them robust freedom to grow, the merino sweater does not care. It will do its best to bring him down (and spread him out). By midseason, "24" had plot-twisted itself just enough to require Agent Bauer to change into a slate blue dress shirt -- the show was set, after all, "on the day of the California presidential primary," which means June, in Los Angeles, and not exactly merino sweater weather.
The wardrobe switch was, in a way, symbolic of so many very long days endured by the 21st-century American man in his newfangled, stretchy knitwear.
The clingy, soft, fine-wool sweater -- merino is one textile notch below cashmere, and half a paycheck cheaper -- looks sporty in the morning, when he puts it on. Hours later, he's schlumping toward blechhhlehem. His torso has expanded. The backbone appears to have taken a scoliotic lean. Something is going on, he realizes, something weird.
"I won't wear it," a fortysomething male colleague gravely whispers about the merino sweater in his closet. "Not anymore. I saw myself."
You could stretch one over Michelangelo's David (with some casual trousers on the bottom) and he would get depressed about how he looks.
Men everywhere are sporting merino manboobs: Donny Osmond, and the entire on-air staff of ESPN, and semi-famous magazine editors; also authors on book jackets, Dustin Hoffman, and that brooding young Dawson (yes, he of the Creek, far too young and fit to be looking this odd!); Ray Romano; Steve Case; and -- this one's too obvious -- bosomy non-dirty-book writer Al Gore, the manboob who would be president, a big fan of earth-tone fine wool sweaters.
Despite all this, millions and millions of men will receive a merino sweater as a gift this holiday season. Some men will even purchase another (and then another) for themselves, and each of these guys will, before winter is over, catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror or a plate-glass window, and realize his torso has taken on the shape and width of Colorado (and perhaps the topography). Every man in a merino sweater is sooner or later going to see what he's becoming: his father.
It's the way Matthew Perry somehow acquired the body of John Ritter. Both star in network sitcoms, which require a toxic level of merino-wearing.
All the time a man spends not quite getting it about the ongoing struggle between a woman and her many pairs of unsatisfactory jeans suddenly becomes clear when he sees what's happening to himself in merino.
After his 31st birthday (or so), he may sense the widening thing, the lowering of the chassis -- much like an Impala in East Phoenix. He next becomes haunted by the idea of manboobs, and remembers the fat kid who got teased about them years ago in junior high. Adam Sandler's new Hanukah movie, "Eight Crazy Nights," will include an almost obligatory manboob gag, tapping into a lurking obsession, as Sandler's generation (not as cool as they used to be) waddles into its mid-thirties. (Next stop: Florida, where a man and his manboobs find easy communion, and acceptance.)
The merino sweater demographic overlaps with that broad, casual-Friday sensibility that remains technically up to date but sadly immune to certain fashion truths, such as: Goatees aren't cool anymore, and don't defer any of the hair loss occurring up top; a cell phone looks idiotic clipped to a man's belt; the belt is not supposed to be threaded through the label on his jeans; and the less said about pleated khaki pants, the better.
Men are essentially helpless in the face of a bad trend, because so few articles of clothing get elevated to the iconic, permanent status of pleated khaki pants, or French blue dress shirts, or merino sweaters. Once ensconced, they last forever.
He just wears it. Doopty-do, dum-de-dum -- history's sweaters schlump by: Perry Como in his cardigan, Mister Rogers in his zippered sweater, Arnold Palmer in those Orlon and velour V-necks he's peddled in department stores and golf catalogues. Even the scratchy- itchy days of acrylic blends seem somehow preferable to the problems of a man and his merino.
So something has to be done.
Okay, nothing has to be done.
That's the great thing about the anti-fashion of being a man: He'll think he looks great. Let him.
The rise in the 1990s of the pumped-up, glorified male pectoral comes crashing down when Mr. Xtreme Dot Com tries on his dressy new J. Crew merino sweater. ("A high-quality wool yarn," the company's Web site entices would- be victims: "Fine, strong and elastic. The best of both worlds: thin like silk, warm like wool.")
Somewhere out there, sheep are snickering.
Merino sheep, specifically, who were first bred in the first century and became popular among Europe's royalty.
New strains were bred in the 18th and 19th centuries; merino wool took off in the 1950s.
Merinos now graze pastures throughout Europe, the United States and especially Australia and New Zealand. Popular for its fiber thickness of only 20 or so microns, its cleanness and affordability, merino is now the darling of mass- market sweatering.
But these may not be very nice sheep: "The truth is [the merino] is a dangerous monomaniac," the Australian poet Andrew Barton Patterson once wrote. "His one idea is to ruin the man who owns him."
Yes, ruin. A slow ruin.
Merino Man is sitting on a couch somewhere tonight, crossing his legs, grabbing a fistful of cashews. His midsection and chest are now joining efforts with his sweater to create something that looks like mocha-colored Play-Doh. And now his pant cuffs and socks are conspiring to reveal a pale slice of shin.
It's a picture of a lion in winter, a man coming slightly undone, a voluptuous holiday decline, and yet, cozy and droopy and -- however grossly -- good.