Look into my closet and you will discover a combination of the outworn and the worn out: sport coats no longer sporty, slack slacks, pockets that don't hold change, buttonholes that don't hold buttons. Once, though, in my shining youth, I was the master of my clothes. My shirt collars stood stiff with starch, my trousers were creased and cuffed, my shoes buffed. It may be laughable to those who know me now, but in high school, in the '60s, I knew how to dress.
Not that I dressed beautifully, or expensively, or with flair. I simply had an eye for the conventions and a desire to conform to them. In fact, my senior classmates voted me best dressed, an honor I let pass because I was also voted something that seemed more useful -- most likely to succeed -- and you could only be one or the other. I'm afraid I've let down my classmates on both counts, but nowadays best dressed seems the harder to live up to.
The odd thing about fashion, at least to those of us who are beautiful people only in our dreams, is that its essential ingredient is conformity. It's as much a matter of not wearing the wrong thing as of wearing the right thing. It's a matter of playing it safe. That was especially true in my high school days. I wonder now how it was possible for anyone to be best dressed in such an atmosphere. How do you stand out at something which requires that you not stand out?
Even way back then, before designer this-and-that, we lived by name brands. The centerpiece of the male high schooler's ensemble was the Gant shirt.In those days, the Gant shirt collar buttoned down in three places instead of two, and had a loop of cloth at the top of the double pleat in the back. We called them fruit loops. A junior high mating ritual required that each female collect as many fruit loops as possible by sneaking up on males and ripping them off. By high school this was no longer done, except maybe by a varsity cheerleader.
But the important thing about a Gant shirt was that it be starched. The shirts were cotton, naturally: that cheap dame Polly Esther had not yet hit the hallways. Starched properly, the collars would be more rigid than the cardboard boxes in which they came back from the laundry, and the shirt fronts as unyielding as brass breastplates.
The laundry folded my shirts because my mother -- who recognized the deadly seriousness of high-school fashion -- would pay to have my shirts starched, but would not go the extra nickel apiece to have them put on hangers. Folding a heavily starched shirt left unsightly patterns -- my shirt fronts looked like something by Georges Braque. So at home I would unfold each shirt, and touch it up with a steam iron.
After Gant, the next important name was London Fog. I had three London Fog jackets, which was a respectable number to have. Everyone had at least one: it was yellow and zipped to the waist and was worn with the collar turned up, not just in back but on the sides, too. We never took them off, except during P.E. I had another jacket identical to the yellow one, but a dark tan, and monogrammed in brown. Subtle, don't you think?
Bass was the cobbler of preference; Weejuns became a generic name for shoes. It was the style to be penniless, if not penurious. One fellow who put dimes in the slots of his loafers was never taken seriously again. I risked ostracism by purchasing a pair of Bass lace-ups of brown leather that was stippled, as if the cow from which they were made had died with goosebumps -- and who could blame her? Fifteen years and two soles later, I still own them. They look lousy with the gray suit in which I was married eight years ago, but they're the only semi-respectable shoes I have that are broken in, and so do yeoman's service at weddings, christenings and funerals.
I remember that the pants we wore had legs that were narrow, if not, technically, pegged. Your socks always exactly matched your pants in color, so that it was necessary to own -- in addition to blue socks --gray, charcoal gray, brown, olive and tan. If you owned a pair of yellow socks, it suggested that your pants were an unacceptable color. There was no stigma attached to showing a couple of inches of hairy calf above your socks when seated, but a couple inches of hairless calf could cause embarrassment.
Sweaters were V-nect, virgin wool, and made in Scotland -- brand names be damned. What was important about sweaters was that you didn't wear the same one more than once a week -- tow weeks if you could make it -- so that you had to have them in a lot of shades. The one I can remember being proudest of was shrimp-colored.But wearing a sweater did not eliminate the Georges Braque factor. What if it got hot, at a basketball game, say, and I had to shed my wool before it began to smell like burning rubber?
If dressing is an art, then my mastery so long ago of the conventions should have turned me into a great innovator of men's fashions. The salespeople at Britches should know me as someone above their haughty mix-and-match suggestions. This they would have learned by my dismissive stare and by the evidence of sheer originality before their eyes.It didn't happen. I peaked early as a dresser, and must live now in the ignominious vale, dressed -- it you could call it that -- in what's left of my high-school wardrobe.