I envy the ape. He comes down the chute of the womb, and once he dries in the sun, he’s ready to go. He’ll need to keep his coat clean of bloodsuckers and duck the dung, but he’ll never have to shop for a shirt, or coordinate colours, or debate the mirror to a draw. His couture is God-given and above reproach.
Man, on the other hand, lofty and superior man, has so much to figure out. Not just his place in the world, his ambitions, his moral bearing. He has to decide what to wear.
Cords or denim? Tank top or T-shirt? Polo or bow tie? Are you a cardigan man? Can you pull off floral? Are you naked behind the trend, or is there some unique thread, an essence of you, expressed by what you choose to wear? Do you have vision?
Because fashion is not just a matter of plaid or paisley, boxers or briefs. What you sport on your back says something, in however oblique and imperfect a way, of what you bear in your heart. Make fashion honest, and the flash gives way to mettle. We’re talking about character. Who you are, what makes you you. Which is why the question of what to wear is no casual matter. It’s fraught, unsettling, existentially turbulent.
Let me tell you about a shirt of mine. I bought it at a high-end men’s boutique not too long ago. It was a pretty baby-blue button-down, delicately patterned with blackbirds. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I’d ever seen. As I approached it on the rack, as I held it skyward and angels sang, it was love at first sight. I said to myself, this shirt’s for me. It is me, vis-à-vis shirts. Elegant. Distinguished. I’ll set a birds-on-shirt trend. Women will tremble, and men will writhe.
I wore that shirt on every special occasion. I hosted things in it. Time passed, and the shirt hung, reverentially, in my closet. A few months later, I took it out and put it on again.
I looked like an asshole! What are those, birds? Who wears birds like that out in public? At enough distance, they didn’t even look like birds. They were more like irregular polka dots, or thumb smudges, or turds free-falling one after another. That baby blue I loved so much now looked effete and childish. And how had I not noticed how long it was? It practically came down to my knees! That bird shirt was like a beautiful sundress!
So, yeah, I have vision. It just happens to be of the hind-sight variety, merciless and without flaw.
My life in fashion is ruled over by the Year-After Effect. A year after I buy something, and wear it frequently, I realise how bad it is. Not always. Just too often for comfort. And when it’s bad, it’s bad. It’s ill-fitting, it’s out-of-style: it’s corny. And an entire year must pass before my eyes resolve into focus, during which time I move blithely through the world in clown suits, bellboy tunics, ahoy-ye hats, dickies, pantaloons, leotards – all while feeling most masculine and proud.
It’s made me paranoid. I can’t trust myself to act in my own best interest. I wander around a shop attracted to extraordinary things, wondering how they will betray me in a year’s time. I freeze up approaching the counter, back away, return everything to the rack, and leave the store empty-handed. And though I might be convinced that by now I’ve learned my lesson, that I can’t possibly make any more fashion gaffes, past experience reminds me that I’m myopic and prone to delusion.
There was a time in college when I wore a beloved wrist-watch until a girlfriend of mine – infinitely more beloved – asked me why I had an attachment to a woman’s watch. It wasn’t a woman’s watch! It just had a really small face. Another woman I dated asked me if I could “not wear those orange jeans anymore”. And I had a pair of blue and grey plaid pants that I wore often, but always with the only shirt I had to complement them – a thrift-store golf shirt. There was nothing wrong with the pants, but the golf shirt was a golf shirt. I wore those two together for an entire year, family members yelling “Fore!” whenever I turned my back.
What was I thinking? And what was I saying about myself? If, as Polonius advises Laertes, the apparel oft proclaims the man, and if I’m removed by a year’s time from any accurate assessment of how my clothes proclaim me, then who am I?
The ape is free of all wonder and doubt. I hate that little bastard. People will tell you, “But isn’t it better to be a man than a beast?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. So what we can laugh? Who cares we can think? We have to dress ourselves. The ape, as the lesser animal, should be saddled with that oppression. I’ve only touched upon the treachery of our so-called evolution. I dress at my peril, knowing that a day of reckoning is ever upon me, when a simple recalibration of personal taste leads to an existential crisis.
But the alternative is to not give a damn. And you know that type. They tuck sweaters into jeans. They accept hand-me-downs from dead uncles. Even their posture suggests the primitive. Maybe they’ve been married too long, or they’re clinically depressed, or they’re just missing a crucial gene. Whatever the cause, they can’t clean up. They are hardwired to unimpress.
That type of man is immune from the Year-After Effect. He is, in fact, more beast than man – unchanging, unseeing. That’s a worse fate than the uncertainty of your present wardrobe. A man, a proper man, a man in full, makes himself vulnerable – vulnerable to revision and regret, to retrospection and reinvention. He knows his future self, looking back, may be mortified by his proudest day. But in the end, he knows, he will discover what works and what doesn’t. By risking, by trying, he’ll improve. He will outpace his lesser self – something the ape can never do.
A man’s evolution along the scale of fashion mimics the species as it climbs to greater heights. Who knows, maybe some day I will know myself in the round, never to err and never to rue. In the meantime, I muddle through, in splashy socks and a smart new blazer, cocksure, uncertain, announcing my hope and my estrangement in equal measure.
Taken from Issue no. 3 of The Big Black Book: our biannual style manual on newstands now.