In the fall of 2008, I carried my one and only suit jacket on a wire hanger into the men’s department of Bloomingdale’s White Plains. Barry was there, as he always seemed to be, a man of older yet somehow indeterminable age who wore black-rimmed glasses and had seemingly sold every male in my family every suit, shirt and tie they had bought in the last decade.
I was looking for a new shirt and tie to match the suit, I told him. I didn’t know what I was looking for, I said, so my fate and my entire sense of style was, as usual, in his hands. He asked permission to go “a little wild,” which I granted, and he took the jacket that in my limited way I’d describe as gray with hints of purple. Then, with the jacket draped over his left forearm, he floated around the displays as if he were at a salad bar, deciding where to dig in first. It was like watching an artist at work.
“Did I sell you this suit?” he asked me. Indeed he had. It was a Canali suit I had bought about seven years earlier and was at the time the most expensive thing I ever owned that didn’t require a driver’s license to operate.
“You know something?” he said. “This suit was ahead of its time.” That was as dapper as I’ve ever been, at that very moment. (Never mind that I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt as all this was going on.)
Whenever I wore a suit – that suit, of course – I’d mention it was ahead of its time. Then one day, it wasn’t ahead of its time anymore. Recently, only a few months shy of the suit’s 13th birthday, my brother applauded me – no doubt sarcastically – for insisting on wearing a three-button coat despite the consensus no one wears them anymore.
I’d seek Barry out for sympathy, but he retired several years ago. For a man who chose anything I wore when I “dressed up” for about half my life, I wish I would have at least known his last name so I could look him up – although I’m sure wherever he is, my getting in touch with him would be grounds for a restraining order or at least a pretty awkward chat. (“Hi Barry, I bought a suit from you in 2001. It was ahead of its time, if you recall.”)
Barry’s retirement, whenever it was, left me and potentially dozens of other men without any guidance on how to choose what to wear. Barry may have been the last of a breed of passionate department store suit-sellers and perhaps customers like me are the last of the men-who-can’t-dress-themselves set. In the post-metrosexual world, fashion victims like me are becoming style’s 1-percenters, that super-small minority that only buys new jeans when the cuffs of its one existing pair become frayed beyond practicable use.
This is partly Don Draper’s fault. It doesn’t help that my fiancée’s heart races at every episode of “Mad Men.” I wonder how she can admire someone as well-dressed and neatly groomed as Draper yet be engaged to someone like me. I should try to dress better, but I’m not sure I can. My style ineptitude and fashion impotence are both genetic (I come from a family of mechanics, auto-body repairmen and factory workers) and sociological (all those television shows I watched as a kid told me it was cool for guys not to care about how they looked).
For those of us who spent their adolescence growing up in suburbia while reading Hunter S. Thompson, the idea of wearing a suit and becoming a suit was frightening. Suits were what we had to wear at Iona Prep, where to make a statement about our individuality we’d wear Timberlands instead of shoes and pop the collars of our sports jackets while walking through the hall.
We listened to punk rock and emulated the style of The Ramones with their uniform of leather jackets over ripped jeans and Converse All-Stars. We loved The Clash, one of punk’s greatest bands, which should tell you all you need to know about our fashion sense. It didn’t get any better as we aged.
In the summer of 2007, I was a single guy in my 20s out for a night on the town in Fairfield with a young woman with big blue eyes, a bleached pixie haircut and a tattoo of a Salvador Dali painting. She planned to open a women’s clothing boutique and had a way of finding something distasteful about what everyone at every table around us wore. She also didn’t appreciate my decision to wear an un-tucked, button-down striped red shirt with a blue T-shirt visible underneath. I told her colors, like people, shouldn’t be segregated and that having to match colors was a rather limited way to choose an outfit. We always remained “just friends,” her and I.
And yet, as much as men are now supposed to care about clothing and style, we see people who may be “suits” in the business sense of the word rejecting wearing suits. Bill Gates wears jeans, Steve Jobs had his turtlenecks and Mark Zuckerberg looks uncomfortable in a tie. So someone like me can now wear a suit – once we’re able to have our fiancées, wives and people like Barry pick them out for us – and still feel that we are rebelling against the new corporate stereotype.
On the first day of the new, suited me, I came to work and was asked by my editor jokingly if I was going to a wedding or a funeral that day. Later, I ran into Cynthia Lobo, a New Rochelle resident who is an attorney.
“Why didn’t you call me?” she asked. “You’re in a suit, which means you must have a court date.”
No, no court date, just a date with the fashion police.
Follow Mark Lungariello on Twitter, @marklungariello.