Now that the phone is working properly again, I can turn my attention to other things. Over the long weekend, in between a vet visit for the dog (ear problem, since resolved), having drinks to celebrate the end of a friend's unpleasant tenure at a job, going to the movies, and driving to Rhode Island for clam cakes and Del's frozen lemonade, I've been catching up on some sections of the newspaper that I hadn't had time to read.
The New York Times's Thursday Style section usually has at least one article that interests me. Sometimes I read things just to make a pretense of keeping up with what some editor thinks is culturally significant--last week's article about steampunk, for example. I've been aware of this fashion/style movement for some time, and I really couldn't care less about people's neo-Edwardian hot-air balloon fantasies, but you never know when someone might mention it at a party and, having read the article, I might manage to say something halfway intelligent about it.
This past Thursday's lead Style article was about the contrasting visions of menswear designers Tom Ford (formerly of Gucci, now running his own label) and Thom Browne (formerly a design director at Club Monaco, now running his own label and also designing a line for Brooks Brothers), though really it was mostly about Browne. Browne's clothing follows what might charitably be described as the Pee-Wee Herman aesthetic: very tight-fitting suits with shrunken jackets that fail to cover one's bottom, and pants that stop a couple of inches above one's shoes.
The author of the article raises a question that has been on my mind since I first saw some of Browne's designs in GQ a few years back: who exactly wears these clothes? Very few men could pull off such a mannered look to begin with, and if you were to wear such a suit in a traditional business environment, say a law firm or a brokerage where men are still expected to dress in suits, I suspect your colleagues would laugh you out of the office.
I suppose it could work for men who work in the fashion industry, and that clever catch-all, "creative types" (art directors, movie producers). But it's far, far removed from the average man's reality. Say you need a new suit to attend a wedding. Even if you're willing and able to drop $4,000 for one of Browne's suits, do you think your significant other is going to let you show up at such an event looking like you raided your nephew's closet at the last minute? And if you have that kind of money to spend, wouldn't you be more likely to have something custom-made for you? I certainly would.
I don't mean to knock Browne personally; for all I know he's a super-nice guy, and obviously he's a pretty sharp businessman, and I give him credit for trying to get American men to start dressing up again. But if he presented his ideas in clothing that was just a bit less extreme (see Ralph Lauren's Black Label line), I bet he would attract a wider audience. I predict that we're going to be seeing a lot of clothing designs influenced by last summer's retro-tastic TV show Mad Men. Set in 1960, the men all wear snappy Rat Pack suits with narrow lapels and narrow trouser legs, but the suit jackets are still the proper butt-covering length (which helps shorter men look taller, by the way) and their pants still manage to properly reach their shoes.
Even so, Browne's influence is being felt in men's fashion. Take a look around next time you go shopping; mainstream men's clothing retailers have slimmed down their patterns, or at least started offering a choice of fits. Slimmer-fit clothing is swell for younger guys, but when you get into your 40s, even if you are fit and trim, comfort is synonymous with freedom of movement, and an extra inch or two of fabric in a shirt or a pair of khakis can make a big difference in terms of everyday comfort.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ford's designs are meant to evoke an image of old Hollywood glamor blended with old English nattiness. I have less of an issue with this sort of style, although once again it is distant from the reality of how most men dress, though perhaps less so than Browne's. Men who like to dress up even when they are not working can probably find clothing they will appreciate in Ford's line. The rest of us will keep looking, and when it's time for that wedding suit, we'll probably just go to the nearest midrange department store and hope the clerk has a clue.