By All Appearances
by Jerry DeNuccio
Whenever someone compliments me on something I’m wearing on or carrying with me—a belt, a pair of shoes or pants or gloves, a shirt or sweater, a watch, my backpack, my wallet, even my cellphone—I am forced to make an embarrassing admission: “Thanks, my wife Kathy bought it for me,” or “My stepdaughter Alma gave it to me as a birthday present,” or “Kathy’s mom Cora got that for me,” or “My mom sent it to me.” Everything I wear or carry that shows the least bit of the current taste or fashion or style, everything that exhibits the smallest hint of being chic or dapper or Esquired and GQ-ed, was given to me by the women in my life. In the realm of fashion, I must forswear the active voice in favor of the passive: I do not dress and accessorize. I am dressed and accessorized.
One morning I came downstairs wearing a short-sleeved knit shirt that I thought rather becoming, but before I got out the door, Kathy uttered what are perhaps six of the more fearsome words in the English language: “You’re not wearing that, are you?” It was, I knew, the launch sequence of a disquisition that would “chasten me sore.” “Well, yeah,” I said; “what’s wrong with it?” She replied with four more fearsome words: “Where do I begin?” Evidently, the shirt was an eyeball kick to the current style: its colors, collar style, cut, and fabric were, I was informed, hideously antiquated, a relic from a bygone era of fashion. I thought the shirt was a classic look. She thought it was a Jurassic look. I changed the shirt.
How is it that I have watched this planet swing around the sun for more than sixty years and still remain an avatar of fashion ignorance? How is it that what I know of au courant style would fit in a finger bowl with room left over for a cantaloupe? How is it that I find the world of men’s fashion such a terra incognita, its map so filled with white spaces, that, to enter and circumnavigate it, I must rely on the female Magellans and Columbuses related to me by blood or marriage?
Now, I could, I suppose, plausibly defend my fashion blockheadery. I could offer the “maturation fixity thesis.” Having come of age in the 60s, where relevance, authenticity, and nonconformity defined our existential credo, fashion represented irrelevance, inauthenticity, and capitulation to “the man.” I could offer the closely-related “professionalization bias thesis.” As an English professor credentialed to profess literature, ever on the interpretive lookout for the inflections and innuendos of deep meaning, a concern with fashion seems flat-souled and trivial. I could offer the “context-impoverishment thesis.” It quickly became apparent to me, upon a desultory scan of the fashion catalogues that periodically arrived mysteriously, as if by elfin hands, in my mailbox, that the context in which fashionable people moved—the boat parties, the club scene, indeed, any occasion in which the smart set dressed so smartly—was not the context in which the tenor and pulse of my life was situated. Finally, I could trot out the old standby, the “socialization thesis,” and claim that being born male and learning to perform maleness, made my interest in fashion about as likely as witnessing the process of evolution happen right before my eyes.
Rather than defend my fashion ineptitude, I could rectify it. I could read the fashion press; could observe what the celebrities and the glitterati are wearing, could attend to what Thom Browne, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford are showing; could learn the year’s chosen color, could study the catalogues and web sites devoted to male fashion, taking notes, thoroughly metabolizing the latest trends in male garmenting.
But I won’t.
I would hate to be known as a “man of fashion.” Fashions are fads, and I prefer exercise other than jumping onto bandwagons. For me, a “man of fashion” connotes a man not fully present to himself, a man on a pivot, continually monitoring, 360 degrees, the fashion centers and designers of the moment for his marching orders, a man uniformed and uniform, stepping in time to the incantatory music emanating from Paris and Milan and New York and London. A “man of fashion” ignores the 1800-year-old advice of the Greek Stoic Epictetus: “Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.” A “man of fashion” does not really adorn himself according to who he is, but, rather, according to what and how he wants others to think he is. His adornment is an image of an image, a tailored tailoring. He does not really wear clothes; clothes wear him.
I would rather be a man who is never out of fashion, a man for whom self-expression is not a pose, a man who cuts a figure in the world by holding his style in all seasons.