A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Of Fashion And Meta-Fashion

I was sitting in the lobby of my office building on my break. I noticed a trim, attractive woman of about thirty-five walk by. She had one of those round faces with a wide naturally smiling mouth, that are more attractive for a little maturity. Not like the high cheekbones and regular features that remain beautiful, in a different way, in every decade, up to late old age. But, rather, a glowing full-moon face, spiced by merry laugh lines around knowing eyes, and a general air that if she were yours and you were hers, life would be full of pleasant and interesting surprises.

Her close cut cap of curls was auburn with a splash of blonde in front. It suited her, and, like a good, deep henna, is an honest, overt, and flattering coloring of hair which will never have the depth of color and sheen that it had at twenty, and looks ridiculous when you try to make it so. She also had an eye for how color in clothes complemented her compexion, which was the darker creaminess that often goes with golden auburn hair. She had, as well, a good sense of how to flatter her figure and her medium-short stature by the way her clothes skimmed her.

Overall she was a lonely middle-aged man's sweet treat, or a younger man's dangerous liason with an older woman, that finally teaches him about life and love.

The only jarring thing about the picture she presented to the public was her gold lame jacket. The color was right, the drape was right, but the crinkly and shiny surface of the cloth itself was unbelievably tacky and cheap.

There is fashion and then there is meta-fashion. There are clothes that flatter and then there are real clothes. A hottie in her early twenties can make you notice her by wearing anything, particularly if it is a little vivid, unusual, or extreme. In such cases, casual cuts and cheaper fabrics set off a smooth and rich young complexion quite fetchingly, finely flattering a twenty-odd air of innocent exhuberance about the future. And that same young hottie, dropped into clothes that are a little too obviously expensive and mature, can look as uncomfortable as a teenager in a prom dress, which is like nothing on earth that she has ever worn before.

But, at a little under or a little over thirty, there is a great divide where a woman truly needs to start wearing real clothes, and wearing them with an air. This is meta-fashion, where the texture, color, and hand of the fabric all need have the depth and quality of the knowledge in her eyes. It is what, in my youth, used to be known as chic. The word is still there, and, maybe, those younger than I have a vague notion of what it means, but you see the fact it describes so seldom that the word itself is now a trifle archaic.

If my observation is representative, few women really understand meta-fashion, at least in office wear. I can't tell you how many attractive, personable women I see every day who wear black skirt suits, or pants suits, that are a virtual advertisment for cost-cutting in the garment trade, no matter how well they fit or how well the women look in them. It is as if, when looking in the mirror, they literally do not see the actual surface of their clothes, but only how well the lines flatter the figure.

Even worse are those who wear the navy blue or prussian blue version of these "office suits"--the fabric of them is usually bulletproof--so stiff and unyielding to the body, particularly in the jacket, where there is just slightly too much shoulder padding, that it is like wearing cardboard. Once again, it can be quite flattering as long as you stand still, in front of the mirror, but away from the mirror, in motion on the street or down the hall, it is as offputting as plate armor.

I know that, in some sense, there is a deliberateness in this, encouraged by the "dress for success and smash the glass ceiling" books, which always tell you that your male office colleagues should be encouraged to look at your face rather than at your legs or your rear. And it is the mannish, here-to-do-business, influence from fine male suiting that is being used to sell such poorly crafted and fabriced female business wear.

At least the fashion, a decade ago, of decorating such ugly suits with large floppy bows on the blouses, in order to look "more feminine", has mercifully faded from sight.

Black is the acid test for expensive looking clothes. To get the pure, true, rich, black, fabric must be dipped in the dye many times. Only the best of fabrics are worth the time and the effort, so truly black clothes--as in the "simple, little, black dress"--are always very good clothes, worth the extra expense even if you can't really afford it. When you see them, which is rarely, it is the difference between velvet and velour, between leather and naugahide, and between goat leather and cowhide. It is a differnce of substantiality, fabric heft, and surface as well as depth of color. And even cheap black generally has the advantage over blue that it must start with better fabric to begin with. Hence the profusion of blue jackets of Kevlar.

Men, of course, have a distinct advantage in office wear. Custom and seven decades of business dressing has made for substantially better clothes. The roots of today's male business dress go all the way back to England in the 1840's, when the three piece suit with vest and trousers the same color as the jacket first appeared. In its infancy, it was known as the "ditto suit". For business, men still wear wool fabrics woven with substantial thread count, hence richer and more interesting surfaces and more responsiveness to the fabric dyes.

We also still have tailoring that leaves sufficient selvage in the seams, and sews with enough stitches to be substantially stronger than most women's clothes. This is a leftover from the dictates of the women's "fashion season" where clothes are supposed to be obsolete within half a year. A man's good suit is supposed to last him a decade, or longer, with decent care.

Finally, the actual ensemble of jacket and pants, with or without vest, always slightly ["natural shoulder"] or more heavily padded, develops realisticly from a male figure built without the evolutionary needs of wide hips for easy childbirth and breasts for suckling. In fact, the women who generally look the least prepossessing in those male-influenced "business suits" are the buxom ones. They were also the most ridiculous when they wore the floppy bows, which merely made clearer how badly the jacket fit.

Meta-fashion is an art, and Americans, at least in my Midwestern town, are artless. The only exception to this are a small segment of the African-American community--generally church-going, and well-established as what used to be called the "black bourgoisie"--who know that the art of wearing clothes consists of having good clothes, choosing them to suit you not only when you are standing in front of a mirror but also when you are in motion, and, finally, of wearing them with a air of conscious self confidence, because you are dressing to be admired.

The women who have the best fashion sense among them are truly chic--my supervisor and one of her supervisors [who has graced these posts before under the pseudonym of "Brandy"] are two of these. It is something that makes my primary job a real pleasure, and it is also a pleasure to be able to admire their stylishness openly because, unlike many caucasian women, they unselfconsciously enjoy having it admired.

And one thing they absolutely never wear are those cardboard fabriced, underdyed, and cheaply made "office suits". They wouldn't have been caught dead with a floppy bow, even a decade ago.

The black men of this particular class level, and I am thinking specifically of one gentleman at work whom I'll call Ted, also dress with the sense that how you dress is, essentially, how you really feel about yourself. Ted also preserves the appreciation and understanding of fine men's haberdashery that only very upwardly mobile, or already wealthy, caucasian men still retain--the same appreciation that was handed down to me by my father, from his grandfather, both of whom sold fine men's clothing in the 1930's and 1940's.

This particular African-American set of class markers has a historical as well as a contemporary dimension. As a state capital, with many state and federal offices, there has been a fairly large number of such relatively well-off African-Americans in Columbus ever since I can remember. Government service was the first racial barrier against hiring blacks to fall, and the first real career avenue, promising genuine professional advancement, that opened up for such African-Americans following World War II.

Unfortunately, the absence of fashion sense and the details of haberdashery that most men carry, makes the great advantage of better made male clothes come to nothing. When you buy an off-the-rack suit, a good clothing shop will offer alterations for a better fit at a fee which is only a fraction of the cost of the suit itself. Most men in my town do not take advantage of it. It costs so little to get the more pertinent details of suiting right: the 3/4 inch that the shirt cuff should display beyond the coat cuff, the proper break of the trousers over the shoes--the trouser cuff just lightly skimming the instep, and the addition of brace buttons and braces so the trousers will drape better if you no longer carry a six-pack.

Nor do men take much trouble to search for the better suit fabrics. I doubt that most of them know the trick of first running your fingers through the rack of coats without looking at them and letting the fingers tell you how good a fabric is by how soft and supple it feels. Men in my town also have no sense of how a slight pattern, a subtle herringbone, say, or a delicate glen plaid, make suiting look richer, and suit fabrics look far more expensive, than the dead plain matte surfaces of most cheap suits. Neither do they take the time to evaluate how suit colors suit the complexion. They merely follow whatever fashion is present in the clothing racks and in the offices this year, whether it suits them well or no.

Lately, suits in Columbus have tended toward the exact same greyed out black of the women's bad office suits. You cannot actually put a name to the colors. When they are grey-green, they are a little too green to be truly grey. When they are grey-brown, they are neither quite grey nor quite brown. And they are never quite black. These colors look awful on about 60% of the men out there. If your complexion has a distinct tint, whether olive, ruddy, or cream, you should avoid these indeterminate colors like the plague. Also, though occasionally I see them in a fabric expensive enough to look well on someone with the proper complexion, in most cases the fabrics used are cheap and look cheaper.

True navy blue suits have also vanished, apparently at the dictates of fashion, but if more men paid attention to how they personally look when dressed for business, they would demand the return of navy blue. For a good, deep navy looks well on almost any man and shows off splendidly the detailing of the properly tailored cuff length and waist drape.

In my people watching I have seen only one hard and fast rule. A man who has the confidence to wear a suit of lighter grey will always be wearing a better suit, and wearing it knowledgeably and well. Not all light greys suit all complexions, but, whether bluish grey, reddish grey, or brownish grey, the grey suit wearer will be wearing only the tint that flatters him.

His shoes will be noticably more expensive than the average man's, will never be too obviously new, and will always show the best of care. He also will walk as if he actually belonged in a good suit and felt comfortably dressed, in addition to being well-dressed, when wearing it. And this sense of comfort and confidence will mean that he wears his clothes as if he means it, and not just because you always have to put on clothes that look more or less like everybody else's.

In other words, he will always be an example of meta-fashion in a dreary world which can hardly even muster up fashion.

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