Whenever I'm confused about life, I get my pants altered.
I mention this only so you'll know who you're dealing with here -- a man who knows firsthand the psychosis the subject of clothing can induce.
For me, shopping for clothes is a Rorschach test, a role-playing session, a shock treatment: You go into a little room, stare at yourself in a mirror and decide who you want to be. My wife tells me most men live in a state of clothing denial -- they don't know how to shop, don't like to shop and end up depending on their wives or girlfriends for fashion advice. I think there's a major flaw in that tack: A woman is psychologically programmed to dress her man to look like her father, brother or old boyfriend; then she's disappointed when he doesn't measure up. No wonder men and women are so angry at one another.
Men also get their taste in clothes from clothing salesmen, a tricky business at best. I'm constantly amazed that, whenever I'm waffling about buying a particular item, the salesman claims to own two of it himself -- in blue and black. How reassuring. But to most men, it apparently is: A woman hates to walk into a party and find another woman wearing the same dress; a man panics if he doesn't see 12 other men wearing exactly the same thing he's got on.
Washington is known, of course, for that kind of regimentation in clothing, which leaves the town open to snide potshots from so-called creative types, such as myself. But you're not going to get that from me. I'm savvy enough to see that, while the Washington uniform prevents me from seriously considering a career in public service, we're all regimented in one way or another.
It just depends on which institution we're committed to.
ps8.5THERE ARE TWO MAIN PHILOSOPHIES OF men's style -- the Impersonal Aggressive and the Personal Expressive.
Washington tends to embrace the Impersonal Aggressive, which is the same pin-stripe, no-nonsense look we see in the business world as well. Basically, it's a non-self-conscious self-consciousness symbolized by the unshaped Brooks Brothers suit -- hence the term "straight jacket."
The look I'm more comfortable with is the Personal Expressive, the guiding principle of which is that the unexamined wardrobe isn't worth wearing. We see this style in what is loosely called "the arts," a group broad enough to include most waiters in New York and L.A. Personally, I find the challenge of Personal Expressive to be incredibly stimulating: Each day requires intense self-scrutiny to decide which of two sub-looks, or attitudes, I feel like -- Amusing or Bad.
My guess is that most men, if they had to choose only one attitude of dress for the rest of their lives, would opt for Bad. If you want to be taken seriously, and men always do, then Bad is the ticket. Black is the color of Bad, which is why a pair of black jeans is a requirement for this attitude. Branching out from there, you can slip on a pair of black cowboy boots and maybe a Gap pocket T-shirt -- if not black, then blue or maroon, but never yellow, which is too happy and therefore lacks the essential ingredient of Bad: edge. (If I have to define edge for you, you'd better just skip right to Amusing.) You top this ensemble off with a dark, double-breasted, no-vent jacket (no brass buttons, please -- they're too earnest) and a smoldering stare, and you'll have women eating crudites out of your hand at any cocktail party. This look works best with hair.
The bad thing about Bad is that it can become predictable, which ultimately becomes laughable. So you try to spice it up with Western shirts (one with buttons going diagonally across the chest is good) or bolo ties, or maybe a smattering of leather, like Mad Max wore in "The Road Warrior." You used to be able to get some mileage out of an earring, but that's pretty much an Establishment ornament by now. Somebody needs to create a catalog to help people keep their Bad look surprising. The Sullen Collection, or something like that.
AMUSING IS BOTH EASIER AND HARDER. It's easier because anything goes; it's harder because, where's the line between charm and impotence?
Socks are a staple of the Amusing look -- bright solids like red and yellow and green are good (especially with dark suits), but clever patterns are better. Rule of thumb: Geometrics aren't as Amusing as figures. For example, I've got a pair of socks with video-game characters on them; I've also got some Christmas socks featuring lights and reindeer. The truth is, there are very few days in the year when I feel self-confident enough to enjoy looking that silly.
Ties are another Amusing sure thing, but since I don't like to wear ties, I have to work a little harder. At this very moment I'm wearing a blousy shirt with beach chairs and life preservers on it, and I feel damned Amusing -- though not so much that I undermine my position as an authority figure. Shirts look easy, but you've got to know what you're doing. Last Christmas, my wife gave me a shirt that had little airplanes for buttons: Too Amusing by half, I told her.
For my money, coats and slacks don't offer much opportunity for the Amusing look. You start getting too playful with pants and pretty soon you look like a suburbanite, with one green leg and one red one. My brother-in-law finds pocket handkerchiefs tre`s Amusing, as he might say, and, on him, those little poufs of pattern (they should never match the tie) are indeed charming -- even smart in a nod-to-Vuillard sort of way. Me, I need a pocket to put my glasses in.
I like shoes, though. In fact, right now I'm trying to link Amusing to Bad through strategic use of a pair of blue suede shoes -- you know, like Carl Perkins, and then Elvis, sang about. My theory is that if I can find the right blue suede shoes -- which, so far, I haven't -- they'll evoke that smoky late-night, sex-in-the-air rawness of the blues (Bad) and at the same time be surprising in a delightfully original and lighthearted (Amusing) sort of way.
This could make my mornings a lot less traumatic.
ON SOME OF MY MOST TRYING DAYS, I admit, I envy the Impersonal Aggressive Washington look. Personal Expressive uniforms can be fun, but they're risky; I bare my neuroses every time I open my closet door, much less the door of a clothing store. When getting dressed becomes psychoanalysis, is it any wonder that my tailor is the one who benefits?
Proper Washingtonians chance nothing by comparison. More to the point, neither do improper Washingtonians. No matter what strange predilections are driving them, they get up every morning and slip on that great gray camouflage and pick up that lawyerly briefcase and climb into that gray car and head for another day of affairs both domestic and foreign. And their whole uniform is so shapeless that nobody can tell how bent they may be underneath.
In a way, that's Bad, isn't it? And very, very Amusing.
In fact, it may be every bit as good as a pair of blue suede shoes.
James Morgan is a writer who has worn clothes for most of his life.