Ted Medbury, the lanky, rubber-faced lead singer for my old rockabilly band, used to say he loved to play dress-up. In show business, you do that. We used to wear turned up 501 Levis with white box-cut dinner jackets. I had both red and blue suede shoes. In the clubs where we played, we’d find bands of other kinds who changed into flowing silks and codpiece tights.
For costume parties, I used to wear one of two outfits. Khakis, a leather bomber jacket, a vintage 1950s tie, aviator shades, and a military cap, and presto, I was General MacArthur. An old double-breasted pinstripe suit and a violin case, and I was a mobster.
Dressing up like that carries forward the tastes of adolescence, with an ironic or camp twist. I remember, as a young teenager, being fascinated by things like eyeball cufflinks and skull and crossbones rings. Some of my friends wore ruffled pink dress shirts with jeans and what we called “engineer boots.”
THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN dressing and dressing up. Normally, it will take a while for a young man to learn that difference. In the beginning, when he first starts to take an interest in his appearance and his dress, his tastes will run toward the flashy and the obvious. At that age, everything is new to him. He has not yet learned what a cliche is, not in language, not in dress. The obvious appears novel. Although he may well appreciate fine dress, he cannot yet tell the difference between stunning and staggering.
I still make that mistake sometimes. When we first moved to the Boston area, I attended a black tie party with my wife. I rented a tuxedo, and mistakenly rented an unusual one — not some Italian wedding outfit, thank you, but a tux cut rather more like a suit, in a nice gray. When we arrived, I realized that, in a tuxedo, tradition is everything. A tuxedo should look as though it was the best in the world in about 1955. It is a uniform, and every element must be just so.
Some people never learn. On The Golf Channel, it has become a running joke in our house to see what announcer and former pro golfer Frank Nobilo will wear next. His latest outfit was a brown suit with a pink shirt and brown tie with pink dots. He has a garishly pin-striped suit with wide lapels. Lately, he wore it with a black and white plaid tie. Often he wears a purple shirt with it. He has a maroon sports jacket of a shade that screams “tourist” in any big city in the world.
THIS TOPIC COMES UP NOW because my son Bud, 12, has been interviewing at private schools, and has been agonizing over what to wear. He has gone on several shopping trips on his own hook, with his Christmas money, and he has bought a suit (double-breasted pinstripe), several shirts, trousers, and ties. Yes, ties.
I have of course told him to be careful at this stage, that his tastes are likely to run toward the flashy, and that he should automatically tone down every urge. Nonetheless, he is a boy. At his latest interview, he wore (after considering and rejecting many outfits) his new pinstripe suit, a dark shirt, and a white tie.
As my wife got his suit ready, she noticed a couple of tiny spots on the lapels. She tried to scrub them off with a damp paper towel, and then approached me in dismay. In her efforts, she had actually begun to erase a couple of the pinstripes. That’s right. Instead of being woven into the fabric, it appears, the pinstripes are somehow printed on.
Oh, well. He’ll learn, slowly, as we all do. He’s a trim, fit young man, and he looked like an absolute doll.