In Praise Of Stolid Clothing
Brooks has not always been the exclusive province of the well-heeled. One of my great-aunts was for many years a manager of one of their stores. The first decent shirts I ever owned as a college student were four immaculate white Oxfords in their billowing Traditional fit. Walking into a job interview, I felt confident and relaxed, like a modest but elegant 30-foot sloop setting out for a quiet afternoon cruise rather than a nervous 21-year-old uncertain of whether I would be any good at working in a bank. (As it happens, I was not hired.)
This, I think, gets very near the heart of Brooks Brothers’ appeal. No matter who you are or what you look like, if you wear a Brooks shirt in the right size you will make a good impression. Not flashy or debonaire but buttoned-up and presentable. This is not true of most other quality men’s clothiers, who these days seem to cater exclusively to starving 17-year-old French models who look like pouting Hellenistic busts no matter what they put on. Like the best parts of the WASP ethos with which the brand is rightly associated — politeness, common sense, a cheerful stoicism that makes ample allowance for the eccentricities of others — the virtues of Brooks are capable of export. One need not have ancestors among the first settlers of Plymouth Colony or take an active interest in water sports to look or feel comfortable in their clothing. This is why the sons of, respectively, a poor Kansan laborer, a bootlegging lace-curtain Irish hoodlum, and a Muslim Kenyan immigrant have all worn it effortlessly.
I reflect upon these things with quiet satisfaction when I open my closet and see outnumbering the Tyrwhitts and the casual western shirts, the lone Versace of unknown provenance, in a row of stolid whites and blues, with the occasional pink or orange gingham popping up like an embarrassed spring flower, all the sensible items I have acquired from Brooks Brothers. No matter where I am going — to Mass, to my uncle’s for a few drinks, to my office downstairs for the morning’s work — I know that I will look and feel all right.
I share this view, though I no longer live in a city with a Brooks Brothers, and despite the fact that a friend who worked for Brooks for years left them not long ago, and explained to me at length how the Italian owner is badly mismanaging it. Whether or not you buy from Brooks Brothers, Walther is giving good advice for young men learning how to dress.
Brooks Brothers is not for anyone with aspirations to dandyhood. I own an Armani suit that I haven’t been able to fit into for over a decade. When I was able to wear it, I felt like a million bucks. When I’d wear my Brooks Brothers suits, I felt like $250,000. It turns out that it’s quite enough to feel like $250,000 in most situations. You can wear Brooks with total confidence that you look correct. That’s worth a lot.
I am not much of a dresser, mostly because I have never had occasion to be. Nobody looks to journalists for their style sense. This is partly (but only partly!) because we don’t make enough money to dress expensively. But you can dress well enough, and when the occasion presents itself, you should.
This was something I had to learn on my own. As you know, I come from country folks. Pretty much the only time my father, and any other man, had to dress up was for church and funerals. Everybody looked uncomfortable, because they weren’t used to wearing more formal clothing. This was normal. For me, the upshot of it was that I had to teach myself how to dress once I left college and got out into the world.
My many sartorial mistakes are best forgotten. I made them in part because I entered an adult male culture where traditions of dress were weak and fluid. Maybe it’s a function of where I worked (a newsroom), but it seemed to me that the signals in the broader male culture of how men are supposed to dress were weak and garbled. You couldn’t just learn these things by observing the older men around you.
I don’t know how old I was when I discovered Brooks Brothers, but it was probably the early to mid 1990s, when I moved to DC. Suddenly I found myself living and working in a city where status mattered greatly. I had to pick up my game. It makes sense that I would have put myself in the hands of Brooks, trusting in its reputation to school me in how to dress. Clothes don’t matter to me as much as they should, so my memory is foggy, but I do remember how confident I felt when I bought my first Brooks blazer, with the brass buttons. I’m on my fifth one now, two sizes larger than the first. But the feeling of knowing that you look correct, and the confidence that brings, is immensely valuable to a young man in his twenties, who is trying to make his way in the world.
What’s so good about Brooks is that if you pay attention to what they sell there, you can get an education in basic American male style. It’s not off-the-rack department store clothing. There’s a greater unity of design in Brooks’s offerings. It’s not cheap, but it’s not going to break the bank, either, and you can be confident that your Brookswear is not going to go out of style or fall apart prematurely.
I’ll never outgrow Brooks Brothers. I’m a sedentary middle-aged guy who works from home, and, when he has to dress up, doesn’t need or desire to appear natty. If I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t spend my money on fancy clothes, but on books, wine, and travel. Brooks is reliable. The conservative in me values that. And, when I’m on business travel, I love connecting through airports that have a Brooks outlet, because I know that if I’ve forgotten something at home, they’ve got my back.
However, I haven’t lived in a city with a Brooks Brothers since I left Philadelphia in 2011. What we do have in my city is a branch of the New Orleans menswear store Perlis. A couple of weeks ago, I realized that my older son, who is 18, had outgrown his previous dress clothes, and needed to be outfitted for graduation and for starting college in the fall. He’s 6’4″, and not easy to dress. I took him to Perlis. He bought a blue blazer, a pair of dress grey pants, a very nice no-iron shirt (oh, how I wish those had existed when I was in college!), a tie that fits a man as tall as he, and a pair of dress socks to complete the look.
On the drive home, I explained to him how the blazer is versatile, and can be paired with his khaki trousers as well. We talked about basic rules of dressing like a man (e.g., belt and shoes have to match), and I was slightly chagrined at myself that I hadn’t had this conversation with him earlier. In the past, it had only been from me, “Wear this, don’t wear that.” But now that he was going out into the world on his own, he needed to know in more detail why we do the things we do with our clothing.
I advised him too to develop a relationship with a quality menswear store, wherever he goes in life. You don’t have to buy everything from them, but you need them for the basics of dressing well. You can’t always rely on the guy at the department store, but you can rely on the guidance of the salesman at an established menswear store, like Perlis … or like Brooks Brothers. It’s one of those things that men learn. This is especially important, I told him, if you are like me, and don’t pay a lot of attention to clothes. You may not be particularly interested in how you dress, but the world is, and it is important to show respect to other people, to the occasion, and to yourself by being dressed correctly. Nobody cares how you dress to go to class. But if you show up to a more formal occasion dressed like a clown, people will judge you, no matter what they say. And you will eventually pick up on that, and lose confidence. If a potential employer, customer, or even bride, sees you badly dressed in a context that requires correct dress, it might well affect your future. This stuff matters more than most young men in our informal culture think it does.
I wish I had known that at 18.
A few days after buying his new clothes, my son stood before an audience and defended his senior thesis. He’s a big audiophile, and conceived and built a surprisingly professional home recording studio in his bedroom closet. In his presentation, he talked about the technical aspects of his project, and played some music and spoken-word performances he recorded in the closet, with friends. He answered questions from his examiners and from the audience with ease and mastery. It was a stunning performance. One of the teachers said that he had never seen a better senior thesis defense ever, in the history of the school. We had not known that he had that in him. It was a complete triumph, the glow of which still lingers here in our house.
Here’s the thing: he looked damn good giving that presentation. He looked like a grown man, a man who took himself and the occasion seriously, and dressed for it. There’s no way to tell to what extent the clothes gave him confidence on stage, but sitting in the audience, I can tell you that they projected serious stature. I see this kid walking around most days in shorts and a t-shirt. That night, though he looked like a man in full, carried himself that way, and presented himself to an audience that way. True, his clothes were the least part of his presentation, but honestly, had he given the same presentation badly dressed, he would not have made the same impact. For the first time, I saw this big, broad-shouldered kid and thought: look, he really has grown up.
Clothes really do make the man.
UPDATE: I have an idea. Tell me what you think about it. I don’t know how women’s clothing works, but I’m sure someone could do the same thing for girls.
During the senior year of high school — in all schools (public, private, and parochial) — the school should partner with a local purveyor of affordable quality menswear, and conduct practical classes for all the senior boys on how to dress well. The emphasis should be on basic standards, but also practicality, e.g., how to build a basic wardrobe, how to get the best value for your money (that is, why spending more on a higher quality garment may be the better value), and so forth. The idea would be to teach young men how to dress conservatively and sensibly. The class could also include some basic etiquette instruction, such as how to conduct yourself on a job interview.
The store could offer a discount to members of the class who come outfit themselves there. The salesman (salesmen), having gotten to know the young men a bit over the course of the school year, could guide them into buying the basics they need for the roles they are likely to play. For example, a young man headed off to college will probably have different sartorial needs than one who is going to trade school. But every man will have times when he has to look his best (weddings, funerals, etc.), and if the schools won’t prepare them, who will? Many young men are growing up without fathers in the home, and many who do have fathers don’t have dads who know much about dressing well.
It’s hard to see the downside of this for anybody. The school could offer the classes on a voluntary, after-school basis. The store will probably get significant business out of it, and in some cases develop long-term relationships with these young men. And young men will gain a skill that will be really useful to them, socially and otherwise.
Knowing how to dress is a form of social capital, one that is denied to many poor and working-class men, and more than a few middle-class men who either don’t have dads, or whose dads are not equipped to help them. As a matter of fact, national menswear retailers — like Brooks Brothers — could establish a program to help young men in these situations. People could donate for a kind of scholarship that would help a needy young man get established with a basic coat-tie-slacks-shoes outfit that would help him in job interviews.
It’s very, very easy for a young man who doesn’t know much about dressing well, or dressing sensibly, to blow a bunch of money on flashy clothes that are totally unsuitable for dressier occasions. This is where the guidance of a menswear professional, or of older gentlemen who know how to dress, is invaluable.
One thing I’ve learned from almost 30 years of working life is how much it matters to invest in good clothes. Because my 18-year-old son has grown so much since we last bought him dress clothes, we had to go back to basics. We didn’t have to buy him dress shoes and a matching belt, but if we had, we would have spent around $1,000 that day. Had you told me at 18 that I should spend a thousand dollars (or whatever the 1985 equivalent would have been) on dress clothes, I would have thought you were out of your mind. But I wouldn’t have thought anything of spending that kind of money on any number of other things, like travel, stereo equipment, and so forth.
I would have been quite wrong to have thought that way. There really is no way to measure the cost when you show up at a dressy occasion, especially a job interview, looking sloppy, looking like you don’t have any respect for yourself or anybody else. You might find a charitable person who gives you the benefit of the doubt, but you can’t count on it. Besides, they’re not likely to hire you if they figure they’ve going to have to teach you how to dress appropriately for professional life. This is where the social capital aspect comes in.
Where else are poor, working-class, and even a lot of middle-class young men (and women) going to learn these skills unless we teach them? It might sound fussy and elitist to some, but these things can make a positive, meaningful difference.
Once, when I lived in DC on a college internship (I was 21), I was extremely nervous about what people thought of me. I felt that I didn’t belong. A wise older Southern friend — a hippie socialist, in fact — told me not to worry. “A well-mannered person from the South can go anywhere,” she said. She was right. Clothes are part of one’s manners. They don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be correct.