The Theater of Clothing

Lessons learned from the way we dress


You cannot wear purple or mauve or peach or salmon and retain your dignity, no, my grandfather would say. People who wear those colors are announcing and declaring or insisting on something, largely to themselves. People have to convince themselves of things over and over, of course, and clothing is one way to do so. You can still wear cufflinks, yes, but tie-pins, no; the former are useful, while the latter are arrogant. People who wear dungarees are being billboards for ostensible independence, although if everyone proclaiming their independence from cultural expectations wears dungarees, is that then itself a uniform?

This was how Grandfather talked, firmly but musingly, seeming stern and conservative but actually patient and clear-eyed about things; he had seen much in his time—wars and hunger and exile and conspiracies and prevalent fisticuffs, as he said. He had come from Ireland as a boy of 16 on a ship where he lay abed most of the time in the bottom of the boat wondering what the vast green breast of the new land would hold for him and his brother who slept alongside as they crossed the ocean; and when they arrived, and worked as horse grooms and barkeeps and coal-scuttlers and then white-collar men in bookkeeping concerns, and fathered families and grew old and were saddled with inquisitive grandsons at family events in sunny back yards, they would hold forth occasionally, if you could catch them alone for a few minutes, and asked them questions and actually listened to their answers. This was one of Grandfather’s pet peeves, the jackhammer asking of questions and then refusal to pause and contemplate answers; for example on that television show you like so much, in which your inquisitor, tapping his pencil maniacally, peppers his nominal guest with a flurry of queries, not one of which is especially thoughtful or designed to elicit revelation, not that your man the interviewer is at all interested in revelation as much as he is interested in scandal, peccadillo, low humor, scatology, and the impending pause for shrill and tinny commercial advertising designed to sell me better teeth.

Even when sitting in his lawn chair Grandfather sat upright and wore his tie and never once that my brothers and I remember did he loose his top button, and never once that we remember did he roll up the sleeves of his linen shirt even on the hottest days in the City of New York, and never once was his mustache awry or his wispy hair uncombed; he was perhaps the last man on earth to have not one but several mustache combs, in case of grooming emergencies, as he said; and indeed he still had one of the epic brushes that he and his brother had once used on horses when they were ostlers long years before; a brush he brandished at us occasionally when our hair grew over our ears and over our necks and down toward our equators.

If all of you have long hair as a signal of rebellion against the established social order, he would say, is that rebellion, or conformity? And how is it the case that wearing sandals instead of shoes is any kind of articulate statement about politics or social customs? Do your feet not grow cold when the weather is bitter? Are cold feet eloquently political? And in the matter of battered denim jackets, and jackets with dangling shredded tatters of fake deerskin, and leather jackets with jingling bits of shiny metal affixed for no obvious reason, do not all those jackets cost more money than jackets that would do the same job of keeping you warm against the elements? So what statement is it exactly that you are making by spending more money in order to dress as if you are poor? Why is it that so many of your generation wish to seem poor when they are not? There is no pride in being poor, I can attest, and in my experience decent clothing was often the only thing keeping our dignity intact when there was little to eat and no work for us. I suppose we, too, were participating in the theater of clothing, now that I think about it; and perhaps I still am, with my cufflinks and necktie; after all these years perhaps I have become what I dressed to be; but perhaps that is what you and your brothers are doing also, and I have been hard on you. Yet I would ask this last question before your grandmother allows us at the pie; what is it that you are dressing to be? Think about that. Now be a good lad and get me a large slice of the apple and a thin slice of the peach.

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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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