I’ve always been known as the guy in the gray T-shirt. Then one evening,
I decided to play dress-up
It was my amazing technicolor dream shirt: a crazy-hued patchwork of fabric remnants that my mom sewed into a long-sleeved testament to one teenager’s desire for attention. As far as I’m aware, no pictures of it exist — Mom, if I’m wrong, hide the scrapbook — but I remember it as a freak-show of reds, yellows and oranges, several non-matching patterns, maybe a few panels of blue or white ...
I loved it, of course. For a while there, in my late middle-school and early high-school years, I wore that shirt out into the real world with a frequency that makes me cringe for my younger self. Nooooo!, I want to shout across the years when I remember me at 14, slipping on the most effective girl-repellent a sly mother could have devised. But that didn’t bother me much then; it’s not like I was a chick magnet. Indeed, I wasn’t anything. I wasn’t jocky enough, or affluent enough, or poor enough, or stoner enough, or gawky enough to absorb into any existing social structure larger than my two or three goofy friends. Plus, I was shy. So what I wanted wasn’t strictly attention, which implies having to talk to people, but rather distinction, which allows for distance. I wanted to stand out from the dull blur of designer jeans and Angels Flight pants around me. (Although, sigh, I owned Angels Flights myself.)
These days we’d say I was managing my brand. Trying to control my message: There’s something different about this kid. Because at some level I intuited then what I lost sight of later, which is that identity isn’t simply a natural projection of your innate character, it’s also something you construct, piece by piece, using all kinds of building blocks, including what you wear.
Thirty-some years went by.
* * *
Our closet is jam-packed, but not with my stuff. I need just a few feet of hanger space, and my clothes fall into three very specific categories: jeans (four pairs, three that fit), plain gray T-shirts (13, three of them long-sleeved) and a third grouping I pretend doesn’t exist (two dress shirts and an old suit jacket). Been that way for a lot of years, though the T-shirts used to be black. Every day, and I mean every day — weekday or weekend, summer or winter — I dress myself from the first two categories. Gonna rain? Gray T-shirt. Vacation in Ireland? Gray T-shirt. Big meeting? Long-sleeved gray T-shirt. If people know anything about me, they know the shirt.
You oughta get a tie, my wife occasionally suggests. “Having a tie inevitably results in wearing a tie,” I harrumph, and for years I’ve lived by that simple, profound wisdom.
As should anyone locked into a jeans-and-one-shirt regimen, I have to acknowledge Steve Jobs. His shtick was brilliantly efficient: “the choice to deprive himself of choices,” as Esquire once put it. Genius! I don’t waste a single brain cell deciding what to wear in the morning — a savings of 365 cognitive functions every year. That’s huge for me. And I’ve happily opted out of the whole cool-hunting, color-matching, does-this-look-good-on-me process of building a wardrobe.
Also, it could be that I’m lazy or, more accurately, massively impatient with inessential tasks like selecting clothes.
However, unlike my ugly-shirted teen self, what I most assuredly have not been doing is making any kind of “statement” about “who I am.” I mean, that kid is gone. My irreducibly basic getup is definitely not about projecting an image of myself as more authentic or real than people trapped in suits. Nope. Indeed, had I thought about it, which I didn’t, I would have scoffed that projecting an image at all was itself an inauthentic act, violating my firm belief that my identity is a natural projection of my innate character. No, I’m just being pragmatic about my total, unyielding need for comfort.
Some years ago, I got a job at a place that had a dress code — slacks, dress shirt. But I’m simply not comfortable straitjacketed like that; in those clothes, I become clumsy, spazzy, uncoordinated. My limbs felt constricted, struggling against the terrible material — wearing such duds, I became a dud. Productive? Not even. So every day I made an elaborate spectacle of showing up in jeans and T-shirt, work clothes slung over my shoulder. Sighing and grumbling, I changed in the men’s room. Four months later, the boss relented. Jeans were okay. My wife shook her head: “You’ve lowered the dress code at every job you’ve ever had,” she marveled. Point being, it was purely an issue of comfort, not about insisting that my version of me — the authentic me — trump everyone else’s, including my employer’s.
So when did it occur to me that I was full of it?
Only a few months ago, sad to say. I read an interview with a writer named Mark Dery, who complained about the poor dress of younger writers, as if untucked shirts equal an aesthetic and moral realness, a virtuous absence of artifice. A way of messaging that they have so much going on upstairs they don’t have time to worry about ironing their flannel shirts. Citing Oscar Wilde’s habit of wearing a velvet suit in public, Dery argued, “Surface is depth, Wilde is saying ... the way a man wears his hat is a many-layered signifier, articulating his aesthetic philosophy. And aesthetics is profoundly political. Style is politics, Wilde argues; form can be its own content.”
Which, loosely translated, means: Scott, you’re full of it.
I won’t say that arrived as an epiphany — we are just talking clothes here — but it did prompt a bout of self-reflection. What was the content of my form?
It occurred to me that comfort is as much psychological as physical. That perhaps much of my discomfort when I wear dressy clothes comes from perceiving myself as clumsy, dorky, uncoordinated … just like, oh, I dunno … say, the hapless corporate drones and cubicle schlubs whose shapeless slacks and button-downs symbolize the way they’ve abdicated their own version of themselves to their employers’ … indeed, I began to wonder, did a large part of the comfort of jeans and T-shirts derive from the way they reassured my anxious subconscious that I wasn’t one of those guys?
Aw, hell, I have been making a statement, an awfully judgmental one, at that; turns out my determined lack of style has been a style, as much a uniform as the clip-on tie the dude at the DMV wears.
Scholar Anne Hollander, quoted by Virginia Postrel in “The Substance of Style”: “All choices of clothing, especially the quick and simple ones, involve allying oneself in the eyes of spectators with others who have made the same kind of choices, usually for the same reason.”
Style is politics, all right. And while I haven’t worn the freaky shirt for three decades, and in fact have done my shopping at the opposite end of the color chart, the identity politics behind my choices — being adamant about my individuality; not being the sort of person fussy about trivial matters — obviously hasn’t changed much since I was 14.
* * *
Not long ago, waiting for the monorail in Seattle, I glimpsed a surprisingly different sartorial future. A guy in line had paired jeans and sneakers with a white, button-down Oxford shirt and blue blazer. Sure, I’d seen men wear similar outfits a thousand times, but I’d never made (or even tried to make) the imaginative leap of picturing myself in their place. Really, it’s amazing how an ironclad habit shrivels your ability to see options. This time, for some reason — the Dery interview; the expansive frame of mind you have on vacation; a jolt of late-onset maturity — it seemed possible. More than that, perhaps even … desirable?
“I could see me dressing like that,” I told my wife. [Insert open-mouthed emoticon here.]
So in mid-July, to attend a big evening of performance art at Henderson’s Pop Up Art House, I decided to bust out a new look. Venturing deep into that part of the closet I normally shun, I found a blue button-down and a black suit jacket with a very becoming layer of dust across the shoulders. Topping my jeans and sneakers with those items — no tie, because hell no — I approximated Seattle Guy’s look the best I could.
I’ll level with you, though: I was more than a bit apprehensive. “Butterflies?” my wife asked that night. I nodded. I know, I know, it’s only clothes. Normal people do this every day, fella. But not me. I go through this anxiety spiral every time some special occasion requires a fashion ramp-up on my part. No exaggeration: I sweat, I mutter, I growl at children and small animals. Years ago, I was offered a job at Esquire, a bible of men’s style, and while the requirement to dress up wasn’t the reason I turned it down, I have always wondered if it would’ve dramatically shortened my career there.
For a fair number of the people who’d be at the art event, one of the primary things they knew about me was my unremitting gray. (Clearly, that’s a lot of what I know about me!) Its long-unchanging nature would only highlight the suddenness of the change. If, as Postrel postulates in “The Substance of Style,” “Identity is the meaning of surface,” I had no idea what my unfamiliar surface meant, except that I wished I’d read more Oscar Wilde.
Arriving at the Pop Up Art House, I crossed the hot parking lot, wishing it were darker. Right away, I saw an artist I know. “Jesus, you’re not wearing a gray T-shirt!” he said, shaking his head. “What are we gonna do?”
“It’s my form of performance art,” I joked.
Another friend approached as I milled in a small crowd; when she realized it was my face emerging from the shirt and jacket, her features went through three distinct phases of incomprehension. “Are you going somewhere after this?” she asked.
“It’s my form of performance art,” I joked.
I ran into a co-worker, who asked, “You look nice?”
And so on. It kinda did help to think of my getup as a variety of performance art. That was a pretty wild night; one guy drank his own urine, and another dressed up in a monkey suit — brother, I feel ya! — and perhaps the outsized nature of the event kept my fluster in check, but cell by cell, I relaxed. My limbs felt slightly less constricted. After a while, I was just another unself-conscious guy in the crowd, watching someone drink his own urine, no more awkward, dorky or uncoordinated than anyone else.
It was a petite revelation, and the next morning, I went to the store and bought some fresh dress shirts — ha! Kidding. You’re a sucker for performance art, aren’t you? I did no such thing. Sometimes, sartorial advancement is a game of inches, except with me, when it’s a game of centimeters. But now I keep the blue button-down and black jacket in a part of the closet where I can see them. That’s huge for me.