I had a frontier wardrobe when I first moved to New York City. I had hitchhiked down from Alaska after sending my stuff in big boxes to a friend’s house. Another friend’s merciful mother realized I’d need a nice suit and some ties in order to find a job of any sort other than the bussing employment at Burger Palace that had kept me afloat my first few weeks. She kindly put money on account for me at Barney’s, still located in Chelsea at the time.
Family piled on used suit jackets, grey and khaki slacks, Oxford shirts, decent shoes and more ties. I got jobs as an office temp, a paralegal, and eventually a slush reader’s position at a top literary agent.
Everyone dressed up in the city back then. It was the early days of punk, but even would-be music stars based their wardrobes on the same men’s clothing you see people wearing in early photos a century earlier, be it on Broadway, Fifth Avenue or The Bowery. If you needed a nice overcoat, lower Broadway was chock-a-block with vintage stores whose inventory included top labels from the 1960s, 1950s, and even earlier.
Even in the deep Catskills, men wore jackets and tie to town-board meetings, or court. Until quite recently, t-shirts were for kids, or middle-age persons trying to look like kids.
The shift in our approach away from a formal look in public may have been key to the listless American culture these days. Go anywhere outside the U.S., and such sartorial splendor still exists to this day, except in the very young. My son’s been amazed at how formal folks look on European streets, and even in Mexico. Same is true throughout Asia. It’s not that the culture frowns on leisure wear as much as a continuing appreciation for a wider sense of fashion that incorporates the timeless with the timely.
It was only recently that I started to tire at being the best-dressed man in any room. Sure, I was always a bit rumpled – shirt services can be hard to find in mountainous areas. I’d tell people I dressed up because I had a lot of great ties and shoes I liked to show off.
As D.H. Lawrence once said, one can get away with a bit more when properly fashioned.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.