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Outfits of Rage

They say the clothes make the man, but all they make me is irritated.

Outfits of RageFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been wearing clothes. I feel about them the same way I feel about many items and persons of long association—a grudging acceptance of their necessity with the scantest appreciation for their virtues.

Clothes and I got off on the wrong foot when I was 6 years old and my mother dragged me to Beecham’s Menswear on our town square the week before school began. It was a brilliantly sunny day, the weather was idyllic, and I had planned to spend the afternoon playing Cowboys and Indians with Roger Salsman. Roger was the ideal childhood playmate. He never minded being the cowboy and when shot by a rubber-tipped arrow would stay good and dead, not leaping to his feet 10 seconds later, miraculously recovered.

Roger was lying dead next to the lilac bush. I was standing over him, a foot upon his chest, preparing to scalp him, when my mother came out the front door and announced we were going shopping.

“You need to look nice for your first day of school,” she said. “Let’s go.”

She took me by the hand, opened the back door of the car, and pushed me in. This was back in the days before child seats and seatbelts when children roamed free, bouncing around the interior like bowling pins at any sudden stops, sharp turns, or head-on collisions. For much of his childhood, my best friend, Bill Eddy, had the words “Ford Esquire” embossed on his forehead from when his father had jammed on the brakes and sent him flying headfirst into the glove box.

Prisons have it right. No fretting over which pattern or color best flatters the wearer, no salespeople hovering about.

Beecham’s Menswear was on the north side of the square, between the Rexall drugstore and Bob Lawson’s barber shop. It was owned by Bob Beecham, who also owned a red van with the name of his store emblazoned on the side. He loaned the van to townspeople hauling their children to college, in that clever way circulating his name throughout the Midwest.
Prior to our association with Beecham’s, my mother had purchased my clothing at neighborhood garage sales, a task requiring no participation on my part, which was my preference. Then my father landed a new job selling bug spray, our ship came in, and like the rest of the town’s moneyed class, we began shopping at Beecham’s, introducing a complication to my life—shopping for clothes—I have labored to avoid ever since.

The main problem, I have come to think, is unnecessarily complicating the purchase of apparel. Prisons have it right: Arrange the people in a line and dispense to each the requisite shirts and pants, as near to his or her size as possible. No fretting over which pattern or color best flatters the wearer; no salespeople hovering about, offering their unsolicited opinions; no pawing through the racks—all of that replaced with a simple shuffle forward, a quick and practiced sizing-up by the clerk, the handoff of goods, a mumbled thanks, and one is suitably attired for the next year. If such a shop existed here on the outside, I would faithfully frequent it. Indeed, so great is my appreciation for such a system, I would suffer imprisonment to take part.

There is a basic dishonesty to clothing that a man of my moral stature finds repugnant. This is the tendency of apparel companies to play fast and loose with measurements, making it impossible to take them at their word. When a clothier says a pair of pants has a 32-inch waist and a 34-inch inseam, one ought to be able to take a tape measure to the product and verify that to be the case. Instead, one will find those numbers to be approximations, often nowhere near the stated size. In no other field would we tolerate this dissembling. But without protest, we meekly retire to a fitting room, wrestle off our shoes, disrobe, and don the new pants to see if the stated sizes can be trusted. If they don’t fit, we berate ourselves, believing that if we had lost those pounds, the pants would have fit, instead of placing the blame squarely where it belongs: on an industry that has so little regard for truth it will lie about the most fundamental matters.

As a simple experiment, I measured the pants in my closet. For nearly 15 years, I have had a 34-inch waist. Because it is my habit to not try on pants before I buy them, believing I should be able to trust the maker’s word—foolish, I know—all of my pants are marked as 34-inch, though in reality they vary from 32½ to 36 inches. To further demonstrate their callous disregard for the consumer, clothing manufacturers will not even consent to make a pant with a 33-inch inseam, forcing me to wear a too-short 32-inch or a too-long 34. I wonder if the same people who own clothing companies also own lumberyards, where a salesman will look you in the eye and call a board a 2-by-4 that is clearly 1½ inches by 3½ inches.

Each fall and spring in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, clothing designers gather to showcase their offerings for the upcoming seasons. Their fabrications are, without fail, bizarre, impractical, and unsightly. Because their designs are published in the newspaper, I see them twice a year. Where I do not see them is on anyone I know. Indeed, were a model to step off the runway and venture forth in public, he or she would be an object of amusement, if not ridicule. When Detroit holds a car show, we are given a realistic glimpse of our automotive future. The same can’t be said for the garment industry and its wild predictions of fashions to come.

The best article of clothing ever invented was the vest. I would have given up all hope for the garment industry were it not for vests. Six years ago, for Christmas, my wife purchased a wool vest for me from a solid old American company named Filson. I wear it nearly every winter day, except when it is being cleaned. It looks as nice as the day it was made in Seattle, matches nearly everything I own, and has four pockets exactly the right size in exactly the right places. It was designed 25 years ago by a sensible person who intended it to be worn by men, not models. It has never been revised or improved upon, because it was perfect from the outset. Were it not for that vest, I would have given up on clothes altogether and become a nudist.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.