Go Put Your Pants On

A week or two ago I noticed a rather disturbing trend among men here in the Nation’s Capital, something which I had read about in several publications, but until then I had not noticed on our sidewalks: the trend of wearing a shirt and tie to work…with shorts.

Now let me begin this post with a caveat. As an attorney, I admit that I work in a sartorially buttoned-up profession. I wear a suit most days, and always on days when I have scheduled meetings. On those days when I don’t have to meet anyone in person, I might wear a blazer or sports jacket, but always with a tie, dress shirt, dress shoes, and trousers. It would never occur to me to wear shorts to the office.

I also know that many professions allow for shorts, due to the nature of the work itself. A driver delivering packages, or a waiter serving tables at an outdoor restaurant, no doubt is grateful not to have wear long pants as part of his uniform.  Particularly in this swamp-like city, the ability to wear shorts to work can be a great blessing for those engaged in manual labor in the services and trades.

For those who work in offices however, I find the trend of shorts and ties ridiculous and incomprehensible. It lends an infantile air to someone who ought to know better than to imagine that other adults are going to take them seriously. Because to be frank, if you came into my office wearing shorts and a tie, I would from the get-go think there was something deeply wrong with you, even if I might not say it aloud.

In some ways, this trend is of a piece with the increasingly lackadaisical attitude toward men wearing shorts in cities in general. I am not quite sure when adult males collectively decided that what they wore to the beach was acceptable at the supermarket, as if they were only 11 years old and out shopping with their mommies.  And the overall laxity of standards in this regard is perhaps most irritating when it comes to church.

My Fellow Fisheaters: there is NO excuse for a grown man to wear shorts to Mass. None. If you are old enough to vote, buy cigarettes, and pay taxes, you are too old to wear shorts to Mass. Even then, I would suggest the cut-off date probably lies closer to the age you begin shaving.

I do not care how hot it is. I do not care what you are doing before or after Mass. I do not care that the church has no air conditioning, or that you are on vacation. In fact, the latter is something baffling that I witness at my downtown DC parish all the time, surrounded as it is by hotels. If you’re visiting someone else’s home for the first time for an indoor, sit-down supper – and in this case, the Supper of all suppers – why would you show up dressed for a volleyball tournament? Look at pictures of your grandfather attending Mass fifty years ago, and I guarantee you that there will be not a single one of him inside a church wearing shorts.

How did we get to the point where no one even thinks this is worth criticizing? It occurred largely because people are now deathly afraid to criticize, which of course is part of the reason we have grown a large crop of infantile males who would want to dress like this in the first place, over the last few decades. It is also because we have forgotten the difference between style and fashion.

Style exists in tandem with, but ultimately independently of, fashion. Cuts, colors, and fabrics can change from season to season, as they go in and out of fashion. Yet style changes more slowly, developing as one ages. I could never pull off a leather jacket when I was a fresh-faced kid; now that I’m more weathered, I could never pull off a shirt and tie with shorts – nor would I attempt to. In what I choose to wear, I send a message; if I choose well, the viewer appreciates the clothes, but appreciates me, more.

What’s the message a grown man in shorts and a tie is trying to send as he clomps along in dress shoes without socks – I’ll save that pet peeve for another time – to those who see him on the street? That he may technically be an adult, but he would rather be in Kindergarten? That it’s better in the Bahamas? That he’s a member of a Boyz II Men cover band?

There is certainly a place for shorts in a man’s wardrobe, no one is questioning that. Not everything that is older is better: I would never suggest you play tennis in the summer in white flannels, for example.  Rather, the real point of inquiry is where and when the place for wearing shorts may legitimately be found. The answer will vary based on the activities you perform, and the environment in which you perform them.

However as a general rule, gentlemen, I am going to keep this simple for you. Please do not wear shorts with a tie. Ever. And more to the point, when you’re planning to see your bank manager, your attorney, or most importantly God, please go put your pants on.  


Art and Abercrombie: Lowered Standards for Abysmal Times

The headline, “Royal Academy woos new audience from the Abercrombie and Fitch generation” caught my eye in the Torygraph this morning.  In a move designed to attract younger audiences to its halls, the nearly 250-year-old British institution has decided to take a more ill-mannered approach to increasing patronage.  An upcoming exhibition will encourage visitors to lie down, touch works of art, and otherwise “interact” with the objects on display – all while drinking.  The chief executive of the Royal Academy noted that the wing where this bacchanal will take place is located “opposite Abercrombie and Fitch and I think it has the potential to attract a rather different and younger audience. And we’re programming this building in order to do just that.”

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 by a group of men and women who successfully petitioned King George III for approval to create an institution dedicated to the study and promotion of art and design in Britain.  Charter members included the prominent 18th century painters Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Benjamin West.  Its location on Piccadilly, then and now one of the most famous and fashionable streets in London, ensured that society would come and engage with the membership for exhibitions, lectures, and courses.

However in recent years the Royal Academy has increasingly seemed a bit senile, even downright hostile, with respect to the promotion of standards in art.  There is much artifice and little actual art in the types of shows it mounts.  Perhaps the most well-known example from recent years, the infamous “Sensation” exhibition which first opened in London in 1997 and subsequently traveled to New York back in 1999, featured an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a collage of female genitalia and adorned with a piece of elephant poo.  One wonders at the selection process that determined this rather déclassé object was found to be worthy of examination, let alone exhibition.

Yet the shift away from the encouragement of actual artistic standards to the celebration of a kind of underdeveloped sense of self-worth is not only a critical aspect of the contemporary art world, at least as pushed by the Royal Academy in recent years, it is also reflected in that often most mundane of tasks, purchasing clothes.  The idea of reaching out to an audience of retail shoppers, and encouraging that audience to behave poorly on one’s premises, may at first seem rather odd for an art institution.  Yet if art was once meant to be inspirational, and is now mainly self-referential, then the aforementioned Abercrombie and Fitch is a perfect example of how a parallel lowering of standards has taken place in much of the rag trade.

The customer whom the once-venerable Abercrombie – founded in 1892 – originally hoped to draw in through its doors possessed some degree of education, leisure time, and disposable income.  They wanted to engage in deer hunting, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities, and sought out the very best clothing and equipment for doing so.  It is hard to imagine today, but the company that now sells fake gym jerseys originally fitted out the well-known and well-to-do among the American haute bourgeoisie with the kind of outdoor clothing that would have looked perfectly at home at Downtown Abbey.  U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was a regular customer  for example, and the company outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.  The customer who shopped at Abercombie and Fitch back in its heyday expected that he was going to walk out of the shop properly dressed for any pursuit, and that if needed he could be educated by the staff on hand as to how to engage in that pursuit well.

Today, Abercrombie and Fitch markets its cheaply-made, Asian-import clothing to the young, and to those who want to pretend that they still are young.  There is something decidedly creepy about their shops, which so often seem to speak not to the individuality of the customer, but rather to the fantasies of the proprietor.  Their dark, poorly-lit stores are so heavily perfumed with an atmosphere and odor reminiscent of a high school locker room, that passers-by ought to be issued with gas masks so as not to be overcome by the fumes escaping from the premises.  The print ads, catalogs, and billboards the company creates sexually objectify unknown young models for the delectation of the public, who oftentimes are not actually wearing the clothes they are allegedly trying to sell.  Sometimes not even the models themselves are shown, but rather suggestively cropped images of their body parts are displayed.

Perhaps then the shift to recognize that the Abercrombie and Fitch customer of today is the art patron of tomorrow is a more shrewd move than it first appears.  The Royal Academy has long abandoned any real claim to being a true art academy, after all.  I have often observed in these pages that its celebrated Professor of Drawing, British artist Tracy Emin, cannot actually draw, for example.  And indeed, I am not the only one who thinks so, see, e.g. Harry Mount’s recent post.

If many of the prominent artists running things at the Royal Academy are not actually capable of producing good art, but are given a platform by which to spread their gospel of underachievement, it is hardly surprising that the customer base that institution would seek to draw upon consists of those incapable of understanding why hypersexualization of the young has an equally negative impact on the culture. There is a natural fit between the vapid and the vacuous here, rooted in another “v”: vanity.  Clearly there is no aspiration in either of these institutions, academy or shop, to better oneself in an attempt to rise above one’s more bestial impulses.  Rather, self-expression (whatever that is), baseness and incontinence are celebrated; diligence, modesty, and self-control are banished.

If this seems too sweeping a generalization with respect to either of these bodies, gentle reader, bear in mind that the real issue here is not whether I have been painting with too broad a brush, so to speak, in a single blog post.  Rather, we ought to be asking ourselves whether we have so whitewashed over these types of observations so as to not even bother to consider them.  The last few decades have shown us what the effects of a self-obsessed culture, which imposes few standards of any kind upon its members, will bring to the world at large.  Whether it is in the arts or in commerce, lowering our expectations and our standards has served not to make things better, but rather to encourage a general embrace of mediocrity at best, and the institutionalization of plain ignorance, at worst.


Entrance to Abercrombie and Fitch, across from the Royal Academy, London

Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970’s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930’s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.


Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)