Classic Fit

Because I live in the outer orbit of Washington, D.C., I don’t know anyone who isn’t effected by the change of national administrations. Regardless of who you voted for, or if you failed to vote, we can all agree that the transition has not been smooth.

I believe men over 50 will find something to enjoy in so much turmoil, and that is a return to clothing that we can actually wear. While I am not a fashion fiend, I can’t help but notice that “slim fit” suits, slacks, shirts and sweaters are gradually migrating to the clearance racks, to make room for roomier versions.

I can’t say for sure if men’s clothing designers were influenced by President Obama. Contemporary “slim fit” suits can be traced back to the puny Duke of Windsor, who, as Edward, Prince of Wales, became the male fashion trend setter of the 20th Century. Fred Astaire, the balding, big-eared, funny nosed actor who made ballroom dancing–and life during the Great Depression– seem effortless on the screen, had special suits cut so he could do those incredible routines which, you should know, he practiced ten hours a day for three months before doing them in front of the camera (Ginger Rogers complained that her feet bled after a day of rehearsals).

Thin, trim and athletic, Barack Obama looked good in slim fit suits. He chose dark blues and grays in muted patterns. He wasn’t quite as skillful as good as Astaire at gliding over the political potholes that await any elected leader, but he definitely dressed for the part.

The current President has never worn slim fit suits and, with the exception of a few photos of him in white slacks on golf courses, it’s hard to think of him in anything but dark blue business wear. Back in the 1980s,  as a journalist covering Atlantic City (where, we must never forget, he made his national reputation by turning his name into a branded cult, beginning with his books, then extending to a board game and bottled water, which you would get for free if you gambled heavily at one of his  four eponymous casino hotels)  I learned he favored Brioni ready-to-wear suits and that he never, ever exercised. When one of us asked him how he keeps in shape, he said, when in restaurants, he ate “small portions.” A rumor floated about that his favorite food was canned Spaghetti-O’s.

This was during the 1980s, when the only thing that mattered was making money. Men’s fashion ballooned to outlandish proportions with padded shoulders, billowing trousers,  top coats so wide they filled an entire door frame, shiny “power” ties and, for the office crowd, suspenders that clung to fitted shirts like racing stripes. The celebrity spotlight had shifted from the artists and New Age health gurus of the 1970s to the CEOs who swaggered down the corridors of frivolously decorated office buildings. If you, as I did, ever interviewed the real estate developer who is now sits in the White House, you would remember him assuring you that he wasn’t worried about what you wrote, because any publicity was good publicity.

Back then I didn’t have much to spend on clothing (the print “media” pays its truth seekers very little, which is probably why reporters of real news, like public school teachers, are so proud of what they do, and take umbrage when the chronically uninformed suggest that anyone could do their jobs). My father bought most of what I wore to dress up occasions. He enjoyed going to the dark and dusty Stanley Blacker warehouse in North Philadelphia, where he’d pull suits off the racks for himself,  my brother and me. Later, he introduced me to the joys of used clothing. I’ll never forget finding a dark, billowy Brioni suit in Cocoanut Grove thrift shop–for TEN DOLLARS! Unfortunately, it had been made to fit a taller man. Cutting it down to fit me would cost more than I could afford.

Clothing designers tried, and failed to change men’s fashion when they added a third and fourth button to the suit jackets and rolled the shoulders downward. The “buttoned up” look worked for men who worked out. Everyone else appeared as if they couldn’t breathe, much less sit down to dinner without undoing every button, which made the jacket hang like twin slabs over their trousers. When suits became so tight they restricted movement, men discovered the tyranny of fashion designers whose clothing looked great on swaggering models who did little more than starve themselves and practice their snarls.

Though some women are accustomed to wearing clothing that makes them physically uncomfortable, I am not, and I was grateful that the three-button jacket (with that little notch at the front where the end of the necktie tie would hangs out) became a staple of used clothing stores. I could try them on, laugh, and put them right back.

But I’d see the stuff worn in newspapers and magazines and, though I never had the physique of an action move star, I’d wander into shops and want to try some stuff on. It did not fit. Not even a little. Not even with tailoring. I felt awful, I looked worse and left the shops pleased that, as a writer, I could churn out words in blue jeans and knit shirts.

Another mens fashion mistake was causal business attire. It arrived, not as an antidote to male clothing anxiety, but as a complication. I began to see lots of polo shirts cluttering the used clothing store racks adored with corporate logos. Across the front were little rips and scratches where the metal clip on the lanyard scraped against the fabric. The few times I had to go into office buildings, I saw that the workers with real status didn’t have to wear corporate logoed clothing. No, they wore Banana Republic, J Crew, Orvis, LL Bean, and–for that corporate retreat–Tommy Bahama–perhaps so their status would be immediately recognized.

The tech companies did away with that, as if clothing was unessential, just a thing you grabbed so you could go out in public and NOT look like anyone over 30. Think of Steve Jobs in carefully faded jeans and dark, French intellectual turtlenecks. Did he do that because celebrated Harvard drop out Bill Gates wore suits and shirts with ties? Jobs is the tortured saint of the 21st century, a visionary who had temper tantrums over typefaces but was smart enough to understand that if you alternatively inspired and bullied other people into creating things that made others lives more fun, interesting, efficient, imaginative and less cluttered, you might make up for deep feelings of inadequacy relating to your childhood and failure to graduate from California’s most exclusive university. Then another celebrated Harvard drop out, Mark Zuckerberg, made a T-shirt and hoodie a corporate uniform, as if he were still going to classes and eating breakfast cereal from a box after that billion dollar stock sale.

Washington, D.C. will never be Cambridge, MA., or Palo Alto. It isn’t merely because everything Jimmy Carter wore looked as if it didn’t fit that Republicans are nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, who, well aware of how costumes can make or break a movie, was good in everything he wore: suits, tuxedos, flannels and gabardine trousers while chopping wood. Like Robert Mitchum, Reagan never let his clothes wear him.

President Bill Clinton went to Oxford, the world’s most famous academic institution, but he liked to be the guy everybody wants to invite to the barbeque.  He wore basic tailored sack suits, but he was more often seen in plaid shirts, shorts and faded jeans. President George W. Bush, a taciturn man who liked to go on long runs, looked small in suits, in the same way his father, H.R., looked narrow. Both favored baseball caps, polo shirts and military flight jackets prominently featuring with the presidential logo. Unlike his father, whose image was that of an amiable Kennebunkport squire palling around with the yachting types, rather than a steely, severe CIA chief, George W. played the Texas ranch owner, in jeans, cowboy shirts and a ten gallon hat.

Then, faster than the financial crisis of 2007, the White House was home to a skinny guy with big ears who could make really great speeches. Was “slim fit” a hope we could believe in?

Among the more obvious unbelievers was former House Speaker John Boehner, a rugged, Republican whose suits emphasized the massively contentious defiance he brought to the job. You just wanted to see the son of an Ohio saloon owner challenge the Democrats to a donnybrook.

His replacement, Paul Ryan, who is up early every morning taking calls while on a treadmill, has his suits cut closer, almost, but not quite the slim fit of the former President. The effect is not equivalent. Ryan is photographed in dark solids. Obama liked muted blue and gray patterns.  Only once, when he was being prepped as the new steward of Republicanism, did you see him in jeans and a flannel shirt, and that was with the family that he said he’d rather spend his time with than go to fundraisers for party causes.

When Ryan is speaking, he is the quieter,  his face is a mask hardened from being the “grown up” in the room, always holding back about what he’d really like to say and do.

The new president, with most of the Republican establishment, has not changed his “look” in years. He  seems to have retained a taste for dark, padded suits, with bright red or blue striped ties that draw all attention to his face, and his hair.

My son just bought two “extra skinny” suits. He and his girlfriend go for long runs. He looks good in them.

But, sooner or later, the bell-shaped figure may toll for him. Fashion designers have already adjusted the cut and sizes of shirts and jackets–“classic fit” has returned for those, like myself, who can’t, or, if I’m to be charitable, choose not to display a snug silhouette. There’s something to be said for being able to sit down without popping a button, or raising your arms without the shirt tail riding up over your belly.

Perhaps the fashion world hasn’t been influenced by the political broom sweeping through D.C., but more because apparel sales have been down for many years and it’s really difficult to charge $500 for a hoodie. The few people who might buy a suit or sport jacket would rather not have it wrap their arms so tightly that you an see if they’re wearing a short-sleeve shirt underneath. Some of them may be like me, men “of a certain age” who have a few years to go before retirement forces them to count every penny, and, they either have a job where a Costco polo shirt won’t cut it, or they may want to dress up once or twice and not wear a jacket that looked just fine when Johnny Carson wore while doing his monologue.

We’ve been spoiled by jeans and polo shirts. We like the fact that cargo shorts make our butt and legs disappear, ending in your calves and forelegs, which tend to put on muscle, and not fat, in our later years. Some of us go into clothing stores, not because we need the clothes, but because we wonder if putting on a new jacket or suit might…change everything.

We may not buy anything when we’re browsing the racks, but maybe, just maybe, this time we can put the jacket on, and it will fit.


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