Not Suited for High Fashion
Every year about this time, as the weather turns and my favorite ratty moth-eaten sweaters come out of the closet, simply to reassure myself of my proper place in an ever-changing cosmos, I like to spend an idle half-hour with the "Fashion of The Times," the annual men's autumn style magazine of The New York Times.
Last week, in case you failed to notice, was officially "Fashion Week" in America. Mind you, there's not a thing in this glamorous magazine I could wear in public without causing acute spontaneous laughter.
For one thing, the average waist size of the typical male fashion model of The Times appears to be roughly the same as the age of the models themselves, or about 22 inches/years, give or take a belt loop -- basically a large boys' size at Belk. I blew past that benchmark 40 years ago.
Moreover, the featured threads are by top designers like Hermes, Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Falconnable and Prada. I couldn't afford a used watch strap from these barons of les beau monde , much less a full pair of their britches.
And yet I freely admit to an enduring fascination and perhaps even a touch of autumnal nostalgia for the fashions of The Times, in part because I can't imagine who might actually wear such outrageously expensive high-fashion duds, but also because, sartorially speaking, the magazine's annual appearance reminds me of how far I've progressed in life.
Or not. Thirty or so autumns ago, you see, I was the newly arrived staff writer of the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation -- a rube in faded khaki pants, fraying button-down Oxford shirt, and beloved old Bass Weejun loafers, fresh from upland Carolina to the bright lights of Atlanta -- when the longtime fashion editor of the magazine not so gently deposited a copy of the latest Fashion of The Times on my desk
"You're in the big city now, dear," she archly observed. "We must do something about your appearance. You resemble an impoverished fraternity boy I dated back in college. He slept in the back seat of his car most nights. Perhaps this will help."
The Fashion Nazi
Her name was Queen Helen -- or that's what I'll call her since she might still be somewhere around and take pointed exception to my remarks about high fashion. She had been the fashion maven of Atlanta since Rhett Butler no longer gave a damn, regularly attending the seasonal fashion shows of Paris and New York and more or less dictating haute couture in the Sodom of the South.
A cross between Coco Chanel and Margaret Dumont, Queen Helen was my first direct experience with someone who cared so deeply about high fashion that she couldn't have cared who was president as long as he didn't look like he dressed himself in a dark closet.
She knew I'd been assigned to go to Washington to write a story about how Jimmy Carter's "Georgia Mafia" was taking the Washington establishment by storm. This was shortly after the late presidential aides Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan had appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine for spitting Amaretto down the ruffled blouse of a socialite.
I was scheduled to spend a week shadowing Carter's chief image maker, Atlanta ad guru Gerald Rafshoon, as he made the rounds in D.C. repairing the damage and trying to promote the good will of the new administration.
"Just remember, dear boy -- the way a man chooses to dress is a fair measure of his character," Queen Helen declared, paraphrasing Shakespeare's Hamlet. "If you going to be representing this magazine in the salons of power, you'd better get yourself straight over to Lenox Square and do some serious shopping. Otherwise, you simply won't be taken seriously. Feel free, child, to take my Fashion of The Times along as a field guide."
I thanked her, biting back the temptation to note Henry Thoreau's sage advice to avoid any new enterprise that involves buying new clothes. Instead, purely out of respect for her longevity and girth, I accepted Queen Helen's magazine and slunk out the door to shop.
Then as now, for better or worse, the problem with using the Fashion of The Times as a guide to dressing oneself is that nobody I know actually dresses like the models in the magazine, which I've since deduced is the primary point of high-fashion culture. Truly fashionable people are different from you and me. To begin with, they are vastly thinner. Second, they are vastly richer. Thirdly, they haven't the slightest interest in looking remotely like you or me, which is to say completely ordinary.
Many More Soup Stains
Even so, I took Queen Helen's advice and went straight to Lenox Square and looked at designer Italian sport coats that cost more than my car was worth and finally settled on a nice new pair of khaki pants from Stockton's men's shop. Then I drove up to Greensboro and went to a traditional store called Bernard Shepherd's, where my dad always bought his suits, picking up a simple Harris tweed blazer and navy club necktie.
Up in the Washington corridors of power, alas, only one person even bothered to notice my sincere efforts to prove my character and elevate my fashion profile.
I happened to be eating French onion soup at a popular Georgetown hangout with one of Gerry Rafshoon's perky assistants when she remarked, "Oops. You just spilled soup on your tie. Oh, wow -- there goes Gary Hart! Doesn't he look awesome in regimental stripes?"
This became the story of my life, about as far up the high-fashion food chain as I would climb. Soon I went back my old familiar ways, the old frayed Oxfords and well-worn Weejuns.
Queen Helen, as you might expect, never spoke to me again. To this day, all my neckties and half my dress shirts have soup stains on them. But I still have a nice tweed jacket. Time and soup, however, haven't dimmed my nostalgic affection for the Fashion of The Times, which I regard as something like a far-off land of milk and honey I never quite reached.
What's With the Models?
Perhaps owing to the global recession, however, last week's issue was done in dark and troublingly sinister tones. This year's models, for instance, looked like sad young women trying hard to look like angry young men.
They pouted. They glared. They stared moodily into the gloomy distance, perhaps longing for a Snickers bars or Gary Hart in regimental stripes. Several of them wore scruffy patches of Hamlet-like facial hair. High fashion seems, well, a little confused and depressed these days.
I couldn't help but wonder what Queen Helen would make of it all. Take, for instance, the provocative advertisement by Yves Saint Laurent for his latest men's fragrance, La Nuit De L'Homme. The ad shows a slim young chap lounging between a pair of ultra sleek young gals who resemble, well, lady vampires. Everyone's dressed in black. He's holding the calf of one gal and staring at the camera with a look of utter contempt.
As a final daring sortie into the dangerous world of high-fashion adventure, just before going into a departmental meeting last Monday morning, I unsealed the special fragrance strip for La Nuit de L'Homme and wiped a bit of the stuff on my unfashionably bare cheek.
Darlene from circulation sat on my right, a stylish gal I can always count on for a true and honest opinion. Ginny from ad sales was on my left, an adorable 20-something who makes me think of a grownup "Scout" from "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"So what do you think of my provocative new scent?" I asked Darlene, deferring to her mature female opinion first, tilting slightly to starboard to offer a teasing whiff of my exciting autumn fragrance. The Night of the Man, at the end of the day, was the first thing I've actually ever worn from the pages of the Fashion of The Times.
"Earthy," she murmured. "Woodsy. Almost masculine. I sort of like it."
Heartened, I tilted to port for a second opinion. Dear young Ginny thoughtfully sniffed and scrunched her cute button nose.
"Smells a lot like chocolate chip cake batter," she said.
"Are you serious?" I asked, thinking of the poor ego -- not to mention character -- of the snarky calf-clutching chap in the ad, if not some tweedy middle-aged guy with a spreading paunch and soup-stained shirts.
"It makes me want to eat a cookie," Ginny said.
I'm pretty sure this wasn't the response either Yves Saint Laurent or I hoped for. But as Queen Helen might well have said, as another fall fashion week in America has officially come and darkly gone, perhaps that's just the Fashion of The Times.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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