Monday, December 10, 2007

On Dressing—One: Things My Father Taught Me

“Ascots and tie-bars, and rich foulard cravats,
Cufflinks and watches and high-fashion habits...”

(PART ONE of a two-part essay on fashion and style—inspired by you, the readers.)

It was just a few weeks after my father passed away fifteen years ago. I sat in the attic of my parents house on an unnaturally warm October afternoon, cataloguing his things. The beautiful Penn and Garcia fishing rods and reels...posters and sheet music from years gone by...and of course, his precious, and working vintage stereo equipment—a boomy, old Panasonic four-channel receiver, a heavy, enameled Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder, and those huge, military-grade walkie-talkies.

I moved slowly, putting those things off to the side on their own. Mama wanted it organized...I guess so if she wanted to get at a a piece of “him” she wouldn't have to go scuffling about to find whatever it was she fancied. I came across boxes of shoes...beautiful shoes in felt bags within. A pair of deep chocolate and butter colored summer spectator shoes he'd bought in the seventies. They were impeccable. Lightly creased Gucci-loafer styled, with a brass chain across the vamp. Not a speck of dust on 'em. God, those shoes were beautiful.

I couldn't wear them. There's something about a man's shoes...a father's shoes, and following in them and all that freight, that was simply a red flag to me. And we wore the same size—a 12D, but I couldn't put his shoes on, no. I put them aside, and stacked them with the other superficial pieces of him.

And then, I happened upon a trunk...a large trunk that I opened, and found within— a wooden shoe-shine box with soft, horse-hair brushes and sweet, dye-scented “shammys” he used to buff a shoe to a high shine. But there was a mystery box in the trunk as well. It looked like an odd case for instruments of some sort, with an accordioning hinge—the box itself, wooden and deep butterscotch in color. I flipped open the hasp on it and opened it up.

It folded out like a fishing tackle box with three shelves_a top, a middle, and the bottom.

In the top was a treasure trove of vintage cufflinks, and brass collar stays. There were tie bars and a bunch of watches too—a wind-up watch from the fifties that I hadn't seen him wear since I was maybe five years old, and his trusty Omega Seamasters, the soft gold dress one, and the hefty steel workhorse he wore to work for years. In the middle box was a couple of unopened “safety” razors, with boxes of blades next to them. There was a straight razor there too, with a black marbled horn handle that I couldn't open without fear of accidentally cutting my hand to ribbons.

And then, in the bottom of the box, lay a soft nest of rich fabrics. Big, fat swaths of silk with delicate patterns and pleating at their middles.

What kinds of ties were these?

I picked one up. It was cut like a grossly overweight untied bow tie—what the hell was it? And then I remembered the pattern—the merlot background with raspberry and blueberry-hued diamonds...I remember this!

These were the ascots my father used to sport when I was a small boy. They were leftovers of his show-biz days before settling down with a family, and he wore them occasionally just to freak people out in the late sixties and early seventies. He'd rock a cardigan or a blue blazer with a white Hathaway shirt—button-down of course, and drop an ascot into the mix. This look he'd sport whenever he and Mama were entertaining on weekend nights, or if he was out for a relaxed function with his friends and knew he was going to run into a bunch of particularly annoying idiots while out. Real status hounds. “What the fuck right did this dude who was busting his ass with seven kids have wearing a Goddamned ascot?!”, they'd be thinking.

But they'd ask, “Hey W______, where'd you get that?”

“Place ain't around no more. Phil Kornfeld's on West 57th Street. Duke and Billy used to shop there.”

“Duke and Billy. Duke and...Billy?!

“Yeah...but Kornfeld's is gone now.”, he'd chuckle, and then sigh— “Just like Duke and Billy.”

There were five of 'em in the bottom of that case. Two were worn and frayed at the edges. They might have been eaten at by some sort of bug, as there were faint silky wisps on the case's floor. Gorgeous pieces they were, but too far gone. Three however, were in excellent shape. I put the box aside. I would NOT forget where it was, and what it held—those beautiful pieces I'd never seen sold anywhere else in my life. Cummerbunds and bow ties I'd seen sold here and there. I'd even remembered seeing sock garters sold down on the Lower East Side...but ascots? These were special. Mental note taken.

Later that week, I would find myself in his closet at my mother's request. That stuff she wanted out of the bedroom. Those articles specifically reminded her of all the places they'd been together when he wore them, and frankly, they depressed her. I was put in charge of disbursing the items to my three brothers. I stood there with that door open, looking at the row of suits, and shirts and overcoats. I leaned back on the door and suddenly found myself cradled in a lush blanket of his ties hanging there on the rack—rich, embroidered Bert Pulitzer and Countess Mara cravats.

I leaned there and took in the remnants of his colognes in the ties. “4711” and Kiehl's “Rain”. I closed my eyes, and for a minute...Daddy was back.

I opened my eyes though, and realized that in fact...he was gone. My face flushed and tingled with tears. His fur felt Borsalino hat—a medium-brimmed fedora hung above the ties.

I took it down and smelled it.

Wafts of cologne, and Wildroot tonic, and Royal Crown Pomade drifted off the soft, leather band. It was that odd, comforting blend of smells that was his hair. A tangible sense memory of Daddy. I would keep this hat for myself. I tear up typing about it now. I still have that hat in a box I bought for it. I haven't taken it out in about three years. I'd probably have a “moment”— a deep sense menory that would be very intense and mess me up for a few days. I haven't been able to afford being messed up for a few days for quite some time. Maybe soon.

Until then...I'd rather think about all the things he—the most fashionable man I've ever known—taught me about clothes and style.

A couple of posts on the blog recently got me thinking about all the things he taught me, and my brothers and sisters. The post on Apple Computers where in comments, the discussion turned to the “Mac vs. PC” ads and how those characters presented themselves sartorially and how one presents one's self can change everything—was one reminder. The other was the WGA post where I took the Times' writer to task for a blanket fashionista bit of stereotyping the striking writers—“Arty glasses and fancy scarves”. In both of those comment threads, commenters recounted previous discussions at The News Blog where I'd discussed fashion, and how my father was not a dedicated follower but rather, a style leader, not just for me and my siblings—but his circle of friends. The way we present ourselves physically is a big deal. It creates perceptions—and alters them. It's performance art, and we're the actors...every day.

We dress the roles of “Jock”, or “Nerd”, or Wall Street”, or “Artiste”. Some work so hard at anti-style that it becomes style anyway. My father came from a different time, when there were “rules” you followed for “style” in general. It's a sense of “style” that has seemingly returned in a superficial way, but without attention to the details that hammer it home.

But the devil is in those details of course. It's what makes George Clooney stand out amongst his peers...that easy savoir faire with everything in its place. There are other “pretty faces” out there, but that classic, almost perfect style he exudes? It jumps out at you like a flying knife in a 3-D flick. What are the“rules”? How to pull that off?

My father's voice rings in my ears as he laid down the “Commandments”.

”Your textures, son. Textures.”

“You work the gabardine with your silks and light worsteds. That's your Fall and Spring. Come summer, linen and cotton. Lighter grade silks. In the shirts and ties. Nothin' smoother than a silk shirt when you're goin' out on a summer night. Fuck what you've heard—seersucker works, but it can't be stiff. You've gotta break it in, so it's yours. So it drapes instead of know what I mean?”

“The heavy worsteds, the tweeds and corduroy—that's your late Fall and Winter stuff. Heavier ties...shit, some are like brocade. Work some knits in there. Gotta match weights. Light silk and heavy wool? Uh-uh. Seasonal, son. The jackets you get fitted half a size looser so you can wear a sweater under 'em without bein' all bound up. Fine gauge wool. Cashmere's real expensive, you only need one or maybe two of those. The rest? Light gauge or small ribbed. Merinos. You can live in Merinos. Can't have too many of 'em, either.

“You find a pair of pants that fits you just right—get three of 'em. You'll kick yourself later when you wear that one pair out and that season's run is done. Maybe they won't be out again next year, and then you've got nothin. If it really works— get three of 'em. Two in one color, the third in al alternate. Same with your shirts, 'cept if a style is perfect for you, get five or six. Four white—two colors. make one of the white ones a french cuff—for the day or night you really wanna dress up.”

“Match your leathers. If you're wearing brown shoes, wear a brown belt. Black shoes, black belt. Tan or oxblood (burgundy) shoes? You know the rest. Match your metals too. Gold watch, gold tie bar. Silver watch silver tie bar. You really wanna show somethin'? Match your watch-band leather with your other leathers. Think people won't notice that shit? They do!

“Steam the wrinkles outta your suits. hang 'em in the bathroom over the tub and let the hot water hit the tub from the shower—the wrinkles'll fall out in five minutes from the steam. Store your light colored stuff—your linen stuff in a dark garment bag. Leave 'em in the closet without a bag and the light that hits the exposed part'll turn it a different color than the rest. Trust me on this.”

“And don't scrimp on your suits! Get real good quality stuff. If the sale suit that's quality is $30 more than the cheaper one that's not a good name suit—SPEND THE $30! OR THE $50 MORE. You'll notice the difference when the cheap suit starts bubbling at the lapel seams and break. That's called the fusing. Good suits sew it in. Cheap suits iron it in. Two passes at the dry cleaners and that fucking chemical tears it apart. the air gets in it. Then you got bubbles.”

“Walkin' round lookin' like a piece of bacon...all bubbled and twisted. You don't want that.

“You're better off with three GOOD suits than six cheap ones. Get a black one, a grey one, and a blue one to start. One can be pinstriped—just to break up all that solid color. A gray pinstripe is always nice to have. That “Thin Man” look. Whooooooo! He was always dapp in those grey pinstipes...”

“Get some hankies—white, light blue and gold always work, but get mostly white ones. hankies give people little extras to look at. Pow-pow-pow! That's how you wanna get 'em!

“Now about those sweaters—get a coupla vests. Maybe a gray and a camel. Get a cardigan—black. Simple. Can't go wrong with that—over a white shirt, a blue shirt, any shirt. Works over turtlenecks, too! You can't have enough Merinos. Get a buncha black ones. You wear the same one all winter long and you'll ruin the neck stretching it out. Alternate 'em. And get a brown one, and a grey one too. You can't have too many of 'em. They'll save your ass in a pinch. Throw one on with a suit—black turtleneck/grey suit. Grey suit/black turtleneck. Blue suit/camel get it? Yeeaaaah! See how it works? They're simple, and smooth!

“They look great leading up to your face.”

“Don't wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row. They need to breathe. Switch to a different pair the next day. They'll last longer, and it's better for your feet. You need five pairs minimum. Two black, a brown, a tan and an oxblood. Lace-ups with suits—slip ons with blazes and “outfits”. If fhey get wet in the rain, give 'em two days off if you can. Don't dry 'em near the radiator, it cracks the leather”

“And remember..,'cause I see fellas forget all the time—match your leathers!

We'd stroll the streets of Manhattan—he, my brothers and me, as he pointed out faux pas' and then examples of real style walking down the street or in a store window.

We learned how a supple gabardine wool breathes, while poly-wool blends trap heat. he showed us about pants lined to the knee with a suit marked it as quality, just like a softly rolled jacket lapel did as well—as opposed to a creased, pressed one. Wide wale (warmer...more surface area) and narrow wale (lighter and less thermal) corduroy—we learned about both varieties.

He took me to his tailor, Mr. Mills and his haberdasher, Mr. Sid, or Uncle Sid as we were to call him. Mr. Mills taught Daddy and me about fusing in jackets, as he also ran a dry cleaners. He stood before us and fingered a horribly pucker-lapeled jacket.

“This is a piece of shit.” Mills would say. “And the son-of-a-bitch is gonna blame me for it. Two cleanings, and it's garbage. Now this...”, he'd say while fondling a three-piece glen plaid suit of Daddy's, “...I've handled this piece at least five times...and look at it! Not a single separation. The roll (on the lapel) holds up. But this guy...” He looked at the “bacon strip” suit jacket, “this guy, won't understand about that, and I'm gonna be arguing with him for an hour about me buying him a new coat. Goddamn.”

Now Uncle Sid got Daddy suits for wholesale—which is the only way he could afford 'em. Seven kids'll do that. Plus, Daddy was getting a discount on top because he brought all his friends—a floating posse of ten to fifteen guys to Sid's for clothes. Daddy got badass Hart, Schaffner & Marx, Three G's and Kuppenheimer gear—not to mention the occasional Pierre Cardin and Burberry pieces for cheap, cheap, super-cheap when they came in.

Sid knew Daddy from his days when he supplied show biz gear to the old shop Academy Clothiers that used to be next to the Ed Sullivan Theatre on 54th and Broadway. We'd drive by there and my father would look at that old rheumy neon sigh, and always tell me the same, crazy story about the cream-colored dinner jacket Sid had made for him when he was up at Academy.

“It was a beautiful piece”, Daddy would always say, following up with what he always said. “And it nearly got my ass killed.”

Seems Daddy was performing with his group somewhere in the mid-south in a still-segregated theatre in a still-segregated town. White folks rockin' and rollin' in the orchestra—Black folks up in the high balcony. The group was working the hell out of a song when Daddy, along with his fellow group members dipped low in unison along the lip of the stage for a dance move. Either Daddy dipped too low, or the crowd was too close at his area, but either way, a young girl had managed to grab the lapel of that cream-colored dinner jacket. of his, in a classic case of rock-and-roll proximity ecstasy.

Daddy moved up on the two with the group, keeping in step—but the girl held fast, and r-i-i-i-i-i-ippppp!—the lapel tore away from that prized jacket. Of course, him being a clothes horse, he had a natural reaction...

“What the FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?!!!”, he screamed in the ruined coat as the stunned crowd fell silent.

He had leaned down into the orchestra area...where the White folks sat, and where his jacket had just gotten totaled. And...he had just cursed a young White girl in front of hundreds of people.

The last thing he always said he remembered seeing was the balcony emptying as those Black folks were fleeing for their lives—because every Black face in the place was now a target, based on Daddy's vanity-fueled outburst. A fellow group member grabbed him and rushed him from the stage as chairs and pop bottles filled the air. The group bolted from the stage, and right through the dressing room— leaving amps and anything that couldn't be grabbed easily in about 25 seconds as they leaped into their little caravan of Cadillacs and Chrysler 300s and drove out of town like bats out of a potential flaming-cross hell.

All for want of a precious cream-colored dinner jacket.

I'd laugh every time he told it, picturing my otherwise “on-the-ball”/“everything in its time” dad just lose it when it came down to someone messing with his clothes.

Little thoughts now. Him teaching us boys how to iron a shirt, or shine our shoes. The tie tying primer—“Stick with the half-windsor. I doubt any of you are gonna be great, big monsters like Lewis (His man-mountain friend). Big man, big head, big knot. But you won't be schoolboys (what he called the more common “four-in-hand” knot) forever either, this is a man's knot.” His passion for outerwear—“different jackets for different times”. He had long overcoats, dressy “car” coats and three-quarter jackets. And a trench. “The trenchcoat is your linebacker”, he'd say. “Stuffs the run, doing the dirty work when the weather's bad, but it's got cool written all over it when you sport it on a day with a nip in it. With a turtleneck? It steps out of coverage for 'the pick' and scores.”

I leaned back against that closet door and held the sleeve of the plush cashmere and wool blend Pierre Cardin car coat he used to let me wear when I started really wanting to dress. It was the color of sand. with a double stitch at the cuffs and 'round the lapels which sat up in “mod” style. Slash pockets with the same double stitch. I remembered the night at Studio 54 when an older man in a tuxedo and white scarf saw me getting it out of the coat check and breathlessly asked me “Where did you get that coat? It's beautiful! Cardin?”

“Yes sir.”, I answered.


“My father gave it to me.”

“What is your Ambassador?”

And in that moment, I felt as if I was on a cloud. “My father...the Ambassador.”

“No”, I replied—and then feinted, “He knows a diplomat or two, though.”

And I walked away, laughing to myself. A coat...a coat Daddy'd gotten from Uncle Sid down on Ludlow Street, for way less than wholesale. Daddy, a father of seven, just getting by due to all those kids who he lavished love, and a love of looking good on. He worked with his hands—a chef, a baker/struggling entrepreneur to whom looking good was a little bit of living, breathing art every day. An expression of pride.

Whatever you think of me as a man, you're gonna remember me from how I presented myself. I'm gonna make you think.

“What is your Ambassador?”

He laughed his ass off when I told him about that. “Whooooo-hooooo! Shit, and not have to worry about a parking ticket ever again?!”

He laughed long and loud. And the echoes shook me from my reverie there leaned against that closet door. I let the coat sleeve fall, and looked again upon all the raiments. Opulent. Stately. Beautiful armor, all. But armor nonetheless. The outer shell of a man—a helluva man who suited up every day to ride into the battle that is life, and won far more battles than he lost, often aided by how people reacted to that armor.

He taught four boys. And a group of grown men—James, Clarence, Cleophas, Benjamin, and Barry. Lewis and Joseph too.—they looked to him as well. A son of Carolina sharecroppers had refashioned himself as a little fashion guru—small in his reach, but powerful in his knowledge.

I learned so much from him. About life. About work. Women and survival in the world, too. I learned all of that. But it was that simple, bursting pleasure he shared—that of how to put yourself together—and how it all held up, that makes me smile whenever I see a well-turned out guy like a Clooney.

That's what daddy was getting at. Confidence. Cool. The hell with what they think. Not only do you belong...but baby, you lead.


This is but part one of the conversation. Part two will go into the basics of a solid men's wardrobe—the building blocks and defining a style that works for you. (And yes, I'm in contact with a female friend of mine of 25 years who is a fashion industry professional to get her thoughts for a follow-up on Women's fashion as well!)

And if you want to read a brilliant piece on the same subject—a father's lessons on “style” to his son, this piece from GQ in 1996 is a wonder. I thought for years that I was alone in that odd and thorough handing down of the sword and kingdom keys from my father. I was not. Tom Junod's father was also an inveterate sharer of the secrets of the armor.

Armor...supple, .yet strong. Plush and powerful.

Clothes don't make the man. They just make him look special. And who doesn't want to be special? :)