“CLOTHES MAKETH THE MAN”. They maketh this man miserable. My body wasn’t designed for clothes. (The bathroom mirror tells me it wasn’t much designed for nakedness, either). Perhaps if I slimmed down in some areas and bulked up in others, clothes might drape more attractively … but my biggest deficit is a complete absence of a fashion gland. In the way some people can’t read maps or understand written words, I have fashion aphasia.
My fashion sense was stunted in childhood by parents who, raised in The Depression, ensured that most things I wore had already been worn by my three older brothers, and maybe even my sister. Mum also made clothes; skilfully, I am sure, but they all had that ‘Made-by-Mother’ look that never really made one feel on the cutting edge of with-it-ness.
From early adolescence, I wore glasses. Spectacles don’t have to be a social handicap but, as a teen, mine were like a chastity belt that I wore on my face. I suspect my mother used to conspire with the optician to fit me out with the least styley, nerdiest frames available to keep me from getting in trouble with girls. They declared my surrender: “I do not know how to look cool, and I refuse to even try”. At least they matched my acne.
Since we were all imprisoned in the same grey, spirit-sapping school uniform, hair declared our teenage individuality. My class photos from the ’70s show all the guys with huge helmets of hair. The greatest shame was if anyone could see your ears. Scan along the photo to the tall guy in the middle – the bloke with glasses. Lots of hair, true, but instead of hanging down, mine went out, sideways. Like Art Garfunkel caught in the rain. And with very, very prominent ears. I hated my hair. God heard my prayers and removed most of it by my 30s.
University was wonderful for an un-chic lad like me. Looking scruffy, unkempt, and poverty-stricken just came so naturally to me and, by happy chance, that was academic haute couture in the late ’70s. But for my part-time job, I needed neckties, and my first ones were wide enough to land light aircraft on. For some reason, a tie was necessary to film horse races, even though I was hidden in a tiny box up a 20-meter tower. I could have done the job naked, and no one would have seen me. In fact, the boss didn’t actually say I couldn’t be naked, just that I had to wear a tie. Now there’s an idea for my Facebook profile picture …
I needed a new crop of ties when I got a job at a hospital. Even though studies showed half of all doctors’ ties carried bacteria that could be spread from patient to patient, that wasn’t nearly as important as looking important. A tie was as vital as my badge and white coat for conveying a sense of “I know what I am doing”, even if it also conveyed disease at the same time.
During the bell-bottom era, my pants looked like the Eiffel Tower. They had huge turned-up cuffs – ‘change catchers’: drop your keys or anything, and there was a fair chance they would end up swinging around your ankles. This was also the time of platform shoes for men: despite being six foot tall without them, I hobbled around Asia on ridiculous five-centimetre soles, looming over everyone like Godzilla and risking decapitation from roof fans. Men’s shorts shrank from sensible walk shorts to barely decent Stubbies. All the cloth that was saved was then used to make the huge trousers of the ’80s – I had some with legs so wide and roomy I could take three steps inside them before they started to move.
Yes, some fashion is silly, and some people become neurotically enslaved to it. But fashion is so much more than just decoration and maximising sex appeal. It’s a language. I was never fluent in it, but I still spoke it. The glasses I chose said, “I don’t like myself”. The ties I wore said, “Even though these things are uncomfortable and useless, I’m prepared to wear one to fit in with your culture”. The expensive shirt I bought when dating my wife said, “You are worth dressing up for”. And I am pretty sure the nice dress she wore said, “I love you, even though you dress funny”.
Just a thought: rather than seeing what someone is wearing, hear what they are wearing. Those clothes aren’t rustling; they’re whispering.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.