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.  

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Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York

The Superman Diet: Boys, Body Image, and Balderdash

If you’re active on social media, chances are you’re among the millions who have seen the recent viral video, “Superman with a GoPro Camera”, created by the clever fellows over at Corridor Digital. The Man of Steel in the clip is played by Los Angeles-based actor and comedian William Sterling. Not only do we share a – superb – first name, left-handedness, and a penchant for saving the world while wearing a big red cape, but we both like to write. So I recently interviewed Mr. Sterling about a somewhat touchy subject which we have both written about: the growing number of boys suffering from negative body image.

Regular readers will remember my unpleasant experience of putting on weight to bulk up and better fill out my own Kryptonian suit for Halloween. In his piece, Sterling details how he prepared for a fitness shoot through an even more unpleasant-sounding process, and why the end result was actually somewhat fake, even if he looked good for his turn as Supes. Our respective experiences convinced us both that more needs to be done to counter the contradictory messages being fed to us through advertising and media, particularly when it comes to the impact this balderdash is having on young boys growing up today.

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Newton: So tell me how you came up with the idea for your blog post.

Sterling: I got into the whole fitness thing about three and a half years ago. Growing up I’d always been a HUGE comic book and superhero fan and, much like your article focused on, dreamt of the superhuman physique. So I made a New Year’s resolution to get in the shape I’d always dreamed of, but along with that came the struggle of maintaining it all, and the inevitable body image issues. I’d wake up every day and think I wasn’t fit enough. When I realized how dangerous that was, I decided to blow the lid off of something which most people assume is real, or even possible for the average human body.

 

Newton: I was struck by the picture of Ben Affleck that leaked on Tuesday from the upcoming “Superman vs. Batman” movie. He’s much bulkier than, say, Michael Keaton was – just like Henry Cavill is far heavier than Christopher Reeve was. Did you notice a shift at all in the toys, comics, etc. that you had when you were growing up?

Sterling: Things really changed in the ‘80s when Arnold and Stallone started tearing up the action movie scene with their huge bodies. Before then, they would design a live action suit to mimic that impossible physique, but later the popular thing became so-and-so’s crazy workout plan. It’s scary, because since I never really perceived a shift growing up, it means it’s been like that my entire life – which is what’s causing this spike in eating disorders and body image issues in young boys.

 

Newton: Describe the toll that this project took on you, as you went about doing it. Clearly it must have cost you a fortune, for one thing.

Sterling: Ha, ha – yes! Lots of money in supplements. Physically, all those supplements have your body functioning at a level it’s not really supposed to, all day long. On top of that, I was working out sometimes 2-3 hours a day. I had to sacrifice time with my wife and my friends, follow dietary restrictions that made eating a chore and very boring, and I was sore and tired all the time. It was not a fun 8 weeks.

Newton: A friend commented to me when “Man of Steel” came out that I was going to have to seriously bulk up if I was ever going to be Superman for Halloween again. I pointed out that if someone wanted to pay me to do nothing but eat 5,000 calories a day and work out all the time, I’d be happy to do so, but that’s not what my job is.

Sterling: Exactly. A lot of people think that it’s easier than it seems to achieve, or that someone was just born that way. I worked my ass off to get in shape, and have to do the same to maintain it. People need to understand that greatness, be it physical or otherwise, is earned with hard work and dedication to your principles.

 

Newton: Does your body image from your teens still have an impact on how you believe other people see you?

Sterling: As an actor, you have to embrace and accept your type, but a lot of how critical I am of my body comes from my teen years. Some days I wake up thinking, “Looking where you should be today.” The next day I could look identical, but worry, “People will think my body looks weird.”

I have to constantly remind myself that, no, you’re fine. Relax. Because otherwise, that’s a toxic road to travel down. I fight against giving in to what society or pop culture deems attractive or “right”. It’s so dangerous, that it can lead to too many other issues.

 

Newton: Is there something that we should be doing for our little brothers and cousins, our sons and nephews, to try to share the truth with them before their minds get too warped?

Sterling: Definitely. Even in comic books and fiction, kids are being sold contradictory messages. How does Batman stay in that shape, when he also has to run a billion dollar company? How does Lois Lane stay so skinny, when she’s in the field all day, away from the comforts of organic kale salads?

Magazines, movies, and TV are saying you’re too fat, but that you should drink Coca-Cola and eat Doritos, because that’s what these characters eat. Logic should tell you that someone didn’t get fit by drinking beer and eating burgers. And yet there they are, doing it.

What we should be doing for children is teaching them that good habits lead to fewer problems in the future. And we have to be an example for them about that. I make sure to tell both kids and my peers that I look like this because I worked hard.

We also can’t coddle the next generation by giving everyone a trophy for simply participating. Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win: it’s perfectly okay to do both. But you have to practice both your skills and your principles. When we tell kids that there is no downside to anything, it leads to them not understanding that there are consequences for things like bad eating habits or not exercising, for example. They think they can have their cake and eat it too, because Batman does.

 

Newton: What do you think are the lasting fruits for you, from this experience you’ve written about?

Sterling: I wanted to make a point to the rest of the world, but also to myself, that the physical condition which movies, magazines, and TV want us to believe we can achieve is unnatural for those living a regular, everyday life. When I wake up in the morning, I can say, “Before you go judging yourself, think about what’s real and what’s unreal, here.” And I want other people thinking about the same thing.

A lot of kids and adults are suffering from eating disorders and body image issues. I’m happy to know that, even if only for a handful of people, I told them it was okay to be who they are. They need to take care of themselves, but also to feel comfortable drinking a beer and eating birthday cake and ice cream.

You only live once, so don’t waste it trying to achieve perfection, but at the same time don’t abuse that life and cause it to be cut short, either. Do everything in moderation, including exercise! Life is about both sacrifices AND victories – it’s never entirely about just one or the other.

William Sterling, in a still from the "Superman with a GoPro" video

Actor William Sterling, in a still from the “Superman with a GoPro” video