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"You can never be overdressed, or overeducated."

Another delightful old menswear illustration that, I believe, is by an artist other than Laurence Fellows though I could be mistaken.  Apparently, there were quite a few such illustrators who did work in a similar style for Apparel Arts and later Esquire.

The quote above has been attributed to Oscar Wilde.  While it seems to be in direct opposition to the current zeitgeist here in the United States, it of course resonates with yours truly.  Empty-headed popinjay that I am.

On a related note, within the menswear and style blogosphere, some observers lament, now and again, that they have been asked by friends/acquaintances/strangers on the street why they are "dressed up."  A few add that they feel the need to defend themselves and their anti-guttersnipe stylistic choices from this rather childish sort of peer pressure.  

Oddly, I have never run into this other than when a student asked a couple of years ago if I ever wore sweatpants.  No, I don't.  Pajamas, yes.  During the evenings at home and on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Sweatpants and hoodies, no.  

There was one other time, when I was asked about my day to day clothing choices, and I used Gay Talese's line about celebrating being alive, which made the class laugh, and we moved on to whatever I had planned for the day.  Of course, they had no clue about Gay Talese.  And way back in '06, a student in my May Term Film Noir course asked why I dressed the way I do, and I replied that if students were bored by the information I present, then the least I could do was to provide some visual entertainment.  This too garnered laughter before we moved on to discussing films like Double Indemnity (1944), Raw Deal (1948), or Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Otherwise, that's been it.  In 30+ years as an adult, I've never been directly challenged about my attire or felt the need to explain it.  In general, reactions have been favorable as far as I can tell.  Once in a great while, a student, colleague, or supervisor might even offer a quiet compliment about a jacket, suit, or a particular necktie.  More recently, a few students have also made favorable remarks on my Panama hat or wool felt fedora when I've worn them (not everyday).  I have also sometimes enjoyed more attentive service from clerks in stores, while traveling by air, or from waitstaff in restaurants.  But I've never experienced questions to the tune of, "What are you so dressed up for?"  

Even  in my younger, pre-academic days when I was a (usually) denim-clad long-haired metal head working an unskilled, low-paying manual job, I still occasionally pulled my hair back out of my face and donned a blazer, creased pants, a blue OCBD with necktie, and decent leather shoes if an occasion or situation called for it.  It was not something foreign to me.  I was fortunate enough to see my father and maternal grandfather dress similarly -- a few notches above a blazer and odd pants actually -- five and sometimes six days a week for work, church attendance, dinners out, and special occasions.  Even when at home with the immediate family.

Yep.  My father (from The Midwest) and maternal grandfather (from The South) taught me the importance of caring for and maintaining one's wardrobe and appearance, even during the evenings and weekends at home with the front door closed, through things like routine cleanings, pressings, hanging things up when you change clothes, shoe care, etc.  All of the other adult males on both sides of the family kept similar habits, including uncles, cousins, great uncles, et al up and down the eastern seaboard from The Carolinas, to The Capitol Region, to The Mid-Atlantic States, Manhattan, and New England.  

The point is, pulling oneself together for certain things was the practice that was taught, directly or less so.  A one-time preference, on my part, for the music of Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Motorhead, and The Scorpions notwithstanding, the apple doesn't, and never really did, fall far from the tree.  Except when it came to Sinatra.  My father was a huge fan.  I was not.  At one time, the mere sound of Ol' Blue Eyes almost induced apoplectic fits, but that's a story for another time.

Returning to the subject at hand, guess what?  If anyone, a friend, an acquaintance, a teacher, a later boss, or a stranger said anything about the clothes I wore, it was more along the lines of, "You sure clean up nicely!"  or "How come don't you dress like this all of the time?"  My mother and grandmother always said something like, "Boy, you sure look handsome when you put on some nice clothes!"  That observation usually followed the request to put on a pressed shirt, tuck it in, and add a blazer or sports jacket for things like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter dinner, or similar occasions.  It was all slightly embarrassing to a 10, 12, or 20-year-old, sure, but kind of nice to have heard in retrospect.

It took a long time, but it finally dawned on me (at 28, 0r 29) what my parents and grandparents had been saying between the lines for so many years.  Appearance and behavior matter, and they have a direct bearing on how others perceive, relate to, and treat you.  That's just life whatever utopian ideal a lot of people might hold and espouse to the contrary.  

Those who take the belligerent stance that what is on the inside is the only thing that matters are being shortsighted.  It is rather a combination of the two things.  Internal qualities AND a neat, pulled together appearance that is appropriate to a given occasion, situation, event, or religious observance.   Ignoring one or the other is foolish in my view. A well-groomed mien -- which may not always include a suit, tie, and lace-up dress shoes, or even a sports jacket and loafers -- can open a lot of doors, literal and figurative.  In turn, all kinds of unexpected opportunities are more likely to come your way when you present yourself well.  Who in his or her right mind would say no to that?  

Unwittingly, people do.  Every day through their choices and actions, both conscious and unconscious.  I'll wager, and this might ruffle the feathers of some who have read this far, that this is part of the problem in the United States in 2018 where opportunity to get ahead is concerned.  If we believe what we read in the newspapers and online, a vast majority complain about how hard they have it and how impossible it is to succeed.  Maybe part of the answer is closer to home though?  Maybe a greater degree of adaptability is called for?  Rise to the occasion in other words.  Perhaps if more people simply presented themselves just a tiny bit better in appearance -- as well as behavior, speech, and even attitude -- more doors of (legal) socioeconomic opportunity would open? 

My suspicion, simply based on looking around and following the way things have gone the last 30 years or so, is that an awful lot of people lack reasonable examples of how they might better present themselves, in the broadest sense, to the world.  In turn, this limits the opportunities that might otherwise arise, which, in turn, directly affects personal outlook, world view, and aspiration.  As comedienne Bette Midler once lamented in a very funny comedy sketch 35+ years ago, "Why botha?"

Indeed.  But keep that righteous indignation in check for just a bit longer.  The  initial reaction for many might be to sweep aside everything said up to this point with considerable loud, angry flourish.  After all, the tendency for many is to dismiss anything that challenges their way of thinking in an expletive laden cloud, to the tune of "Well, @#$%&*#!!!  So are you!"  Talk to the hand in other words.  But if we can set aside the playground mindset for just a moment and think a bit more calmly about the issue of clothing and appearance, and the messages they send to the rest of the world, a clearer answer emerges. 

Too many people give up too early in the game of pulling themselves together when it comes to appearance and behavior though, making it much harder than it might be to get ahead in a socioeconomic sense.  Much of this is within our power to change however contrary to what lots of people would have you think.  Turning one's life around starts with small things that are very much under a person's control.  For example, attitude, behavior, habit, and personal appearance.  Hell, even a clean solid color t-shirt (that fits), tucked into a pair of jeans (that fits) worn with a belt (just below the waist), and some kind of clean, casual shoe (not sneakers/trainers) look miles better than the alternative. 

None of this is to suggest that a man needs to sit around the house in a three-piece suit during his off hours, waiting for the job offers to pour in, or even put on a sports jacket and necktie now and again (Perish the thought!) before leaving home in mornings for work.  But he can dress somewhat better than the sad norm these days, yet at the same time feel comfortable (an obsessive compulsion if ever there were one in our overstuffed, supersize me era), without resembling something that crawled out from beneath Oscar the Grouch's metal abode on Sesame Street.  

How?  It's not hard.  All that is necessary is to peruse any J. Crew, Land's End, or L.L. Bean catalog or website if a man is at a loss about how he might put together combinations of casual clothing that won't leave him looking like a basket of grimy laundry in need of washing and folding.  Ignore the swimwear, cargo pants/shorts, ski cap"beanies," and hoodies, and virtually everything else shown in these catalogs would look reasonably good on most men for most office environments these days, proper sizing assumed of course, without straying into either Eastern European street thug, or neighborhood meth dealer territory. 

Of course marginally nicer clothing will do nothing for the behavior of many of your fellow passengers in the boarding area of your departure gate the next time you must endure flying anywhere.  But a more pulled together appearance when in public might be a small step in the right direction for an awful lot of people now.   My own feeling is that when we take the trouble to look a bit nicer, we tend to conduct ourselves with a bit more gentility, and we become somewhat more pleasant to rub up against in a figurative sense.  

An oversimplification?  Maybe, but I still think there is something to it, and goodness knows we could use a bit more gentility and civility in our current era where so many are boorish, uncivil, trashy, seem to take great pride in, and are confrontational about all of it.  This way of being seems to hold sway at all levels of society.  If that charming aspect of life and society in the 21st century does not concern you, it should. 

My suggestion is that something as simple as  improving our personal appearance before we shamble out the door in the morning -- plus keeping less savory personal habits in better check -- might help slow down, reduce, or one day even reverse the coarsening of society that columnists and commentators have noticed and written about  during the last quarter century or so.  Sooner or later, the pendulum has got to swing the other way.  Hey, a guy can dream, right?

Returning to the "Why are you so dressed up?" question, I have no clear idea why some people feel the need to open their mouths and, of all the possible things they might say to someone else, blurt out that one to a person who looks pulled together.  Do such people feel poorly about themselves, and this is a passive-aggressive way of compensating for that?  Do they instead feel threatened at some level (as crazy as that sounds)?  Are they reminded of something else about themselves that makes them feel ill at ease when met with a person, male or female, who has taken the time to present him- or herself somewhat better than has become the accepted average?  Are people who pose this sort of question just socially awkward?  Or is it something else entirely?  I just don't know.  For now, I suppose, it must remain one of life's mysteries.  

To wrap up today's internal monologue, I saw a great way to handle the "Why are you so dressed up?" challenge elsewhere online the other day.   It goes like this. . . 

Q: Why are you so dressed up?  

A: It's just what we do.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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