Written August 2013.
I’m not a person who wears dress clothes very often, and by dress clothes, I mean a nice pair of non-khaki pants with a crease, shiny shoes, a shirt that I didn’t get from Lumberjack ‘R Us, a jacket of some kind and a tie. I know the definition of dressing up has changed dramatically to include jeans that cost close to two hundred dollars but those are still jeans, only one step removed from the pants one wears to plant trees.
We were invited to two weddings this summer, and when I tried on my various Garanimals combinations of dress clothes, nothing fit right or I looked as if I should be ringing doorbells for Jesus. I had a nice sport jacket that fit reasonably well so I started there, saving the black suit for a more funereal occasion. I also had a crisp white shirt that I thought looked nice, so all I needed were pants and probably a tie.
I started out by calling around to a few stores since I have a rather odd size in trousers that is hard to find, and I didn’t have the time or the desire to have a tailor run chalk lines up my butt and pin my pants to my underwear while asking me how that felt. I needed something off the rack.
Of all the stores in Rochester, only Banana Republic had any pants in my size, and they actually had six different pairs of them, so I crossed my fingers and drove out there with a color in mind. I tried them all on and one pair fit as if they were made for me. The color (gray) looked about right from what my memory thought it should be, so I took them up to the cash register.
“Do you have a Banana card?” the young woman asked. I have a long-standing policy that keeps my wallet as uncluttered as possible, which means there are no store cards, no discount cards, no loyalty cards, no punch cards, no coupons, no scratch-off coupons with mystery discounts and certainly no Banana cards. She told me that people with Banana cards get thirty-five percent off, which would have been a significant saving.
I was so happy that I found pants that fit and were the right color that I never looked at the price, so it was only then that I noticed that I could have bought not one, not even two but four pairs of Levi’s for the price of a single pair of dress pants. I was dumbfounded, flabbergasted and probably even a little flummoxed. Maybe even thunderstruck. When did pants begin to cost this much? Now I’m thinking that this is an awful lot of money for a pair of pants that, unless they bury me in them, I probably won’t wear that often. I started to panic, so I asked if they could hold them for me for a few minutes while I checked another store.
I walked out into the mall already knowing that nobody had anything, so I did what any adult, independent man would do. I called my wife and asked permission to buy the Banana pants.
“I’m freaking out here,” I said to Mrs. G.
I told her the price and that even with the Banana card discount, they were still three pairs of Levi’s worth of pants. Mrs. G. remained calm. “I just paid that much for a bra,” she said.
Hold the phone. How long has this been going on? I recently got over the shocking cost of bedding and now I find out that a bra costs as much as a nice pair of pants, which cost as much as several pairs of Levi’s? But I was stuck, so I walked back into the store and handed the phone to the cashier so that my wife could read off the account number on her Banana card. I felt both classy and sophisticated buying these fine woolen trousers yet I also felt like a child having his mommy pay for his dress pants. Still … thirty-five percent off buys a lot of dignity—and a new pair of 501’s.
When I got home, I tried them on again and they fit and looked great, so I buttoned on my snow-white poplin shirt. Nice, and I might add, extra crispy. Next came the jacket and I was surprised that the color was almost a dead-on match for the pants, but not quite. It looked as if I tried to make a suit but missed the mark by a couple of shades. This wasn’t going to work at all.
Milo, our dog, was curled up under the big square Euro pillow with the new square Euro pillow sham and he peeked out at what was going on. He thought I looked fine. “You look good, boss. I’d give that leg a sound humping,” he said before neck-flipping the pillows onto the floor. What does he know? He’s colorblind.
When my wife came home, I explained that I would have to go back and get the same pants in a lighter color and since she welcomes any opportunity to go to the mall, we went out immediately. This was a little quicker than I had planned. One mall trip per day—per year—is well beyond my usual allotment, but it had to be done. I wrapped up the jacket, hung it in the car and decided to let somebody else figure this out.
Once we got to the store, I put myself in the hands of a nice young man with dreadlocks who was dressed in more layers than a wedding cake. From what I could see, there was a T-shirt, a collared shirt, a vest, a jacket, a loosely knotted necktie and several dozen bracelets. He also smelled as if he stored all of these clothes in patchouli and yet somehow this combination worked.
“What do you think of these?” he asked, showing me several splendid pairs of trousers, all in varying shades of gray. I had no idea. I’m not up on men’s fashion at all, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I’d like to look casual yet dressy. Like Matt Lauer on a Friday, only not as garden party in the Hampton’s,” I said, “so here’s the jacket. What do you think?”
He then showed me a pair of pants in a very subtle weave material that was similar to the jacket. I wouldn’t have chosen these in a million years, but apparently, it’s now OK to mix small patterns with other small patterns providing the patterns are from the same pattern family. I tried on the pants and they fit great plus they were fifty bucks cheaper than the first pair. They also looked good with the jacket. Sold. Wrap ‘em up.
When we got home, I put on the whole ensemble (pronounced “on-som” because, you know, I was dressed fancy) but my wife thought the white shirt was a little too white. I thought that was the entire point, but she suggested a new shirt, so off we went again, this time to Men’s Wearhouse.
OK, I want to share what happened next to illustrate that this is how a man buys dress clothes as opposed to the female method of looking at every dress in every store and trying on no fewer than forty-five of them, sometimes twice and in every size that surrounds the true size, and then trying to find the perfect shoes and the perfect purse and just the right toeless stockings (what the heck are those?) and the nails and the hair and the earrings and it goes on forever.
“Hi, welcome to Men’s Wearhouse. What brings you in today?” the salesman asked sincerely. Since this was a Saturday, it must have been jeans, dress shirt and sport coat day because every salesman was dressed in some variation of that theme. I thought for a second that I had stumbled into the cocktail lounge at the Marriott.
“I need a shirt and maybe a tie that’s a little less stodgy than the F.B.I. issued shirt and tie I already have,” I said. I showed him the jacket and pants, told him my oddball size and he immediately started pulling out shirts and coordinating ties and laying them out on a counter. This dazzled my wife since it apparently takes months to organize a woman’s outfit for a wedding. This guy pieced together a dozen perfect combinations in fewer than thirty seconds.
This is how retail service used to be, back before stores had one clerk with a hieroglyphic neck tattoo and a pierced chin who is chained behind a central counter, and whose only training at all in clothing consists of one phrase: “If it’s not on the rack, we don’t have it but you can, like, probably order it online. DING! Yuh-huh, hang on—I have a text coming in.”
Every shirt and tie combination that was presented looked great. “Mixing small patterns with similar patterns is hot right now,” he said, which meant that he and white Bob Marley over at Banana Republic were on the same fashion path. I tried on a blue windowpane checked shirt with a checked tie and it really did look sharp. In an effort to be more professional, I also made an immediate decision to stop writing while wearing pajama pants and a T-shirt and to start wearing dress pants, a shirt, and a tie. (Note: that never happened.)
There was a buy one, get one more for a ridiculously low sale price so I bought two shirts and two ties, which means for each wedding I attend this year, my wife gets to see me in a subtly different outfit. Ten minutes later and I was back in the car.
“That’s amazing,” Mrs. G. said. “You guys have it so easy.”
I guess we do, but it’s not that tricky. I simply had to admit that I knew nothing about how to dress fashionably and age appropriately and to let somebody else dress me. This was not all that different from when I went into Robert Hall with my mom almost fifty years ago to get my First Communion outfit. Here I am, this is what I need, and you have five minutes. Go.
It really doesn’t matter if a guy is eight or fifty-eight. We are all clueless and out of our element when it comes to stuff like this, but deep down inside, don’t we all want to look nice once in a while or at the very least, like a slightly nicer version of ourselves?