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My Father's Closet

The author reveals why he rejected a wardrobe worthy of the Duke of Windsor.

From The New Yorker
March 16, 1998


When I think about my father's long and eventful life, my mind's eye fills up with his silhouette at different times over the years, as defined by his beautifully tailored Savile Row suits. I see the closet where his suits hang. Viewed from his dressing room, my father's closet appears to be the ordinary, well-appointed closet of a successful businessman. It isn't until you stick your head inside that you become aware of a much larger collection of suits, hanging on a motorized apparatus, the kind you see at a dry cleaner's, extending up through the ceiling of the second floor and looming into the attic, which is filled with a lifetime of his clothes.

As with most bespoke suits, each jacket has the exact day, month, and year it was ordered marked on the inside pocket. You can stand in the doorway, press a button, and watch as the history of my father, in the form of suits from all the different eras of his life, moves slowly past you. Drape suits, lounge suits, and sack suits, in worsted, serge, and gabardine; white linen suits for Palm Beach and Jamaica before the invention of air-conditioning; Glen plaids and knee-length loden coats for brisk Princeton-Harvard football games and a raccoon coat for Princeton-Dartmouth, which was later in the season. Suits for a variety of business occasions, from wowing prospective underwriters with a new offering (flashy pinstripes) to mollifying angry shareholders whose stock was diluted by the offering (humble sharkskin). Then, as the life-is-clothes approach succeeded at the office, suits for increasingly rarefied social events, from weddings at eleven and open-casket "viewings" at seven, to christenings, confirmations, and commencements, culminating in the outfits needed for four-in-hand driving, in which four horses are harnessed to a carriage--a sport that presents one with a daunting range of wardrobe challenges, determined by what time of day the driving event is taking place, whether it's in the country or in town, whether one is a spectator or a participant, or a member or a guest of the club putting it on. Three-quarter-length cutaway coats, striped trousers, fancy waistcoats, top hats: his four-in-hand outfits are the part of his closet that verge on pure costume.

In a nearby closet are his shirts, made by Sulka or Lesserson or Turnbull & Asser; another closet contains a silken waterfall of neckties of every imaginable hue; still another holds shoe racks, starting at the bottom with canvas-and-leather newmarket boots and then rising in layers of elegance, through brown ankle-high turf shoes, reversed calf-quarter brogues, medallion toe-capped shoes with thick crêpe soles, and black wingtips with curved vamp borders, to the patent-leather dancing pumps at the top.

When he wasn't dressed up, my father was either in pajamas (sensible cotton pajamas like the ones Jimmy Stewart wears in "Rear Window") or naked. He was often naked. He embarrassed not a few of my friends by insisting on swimming naked in the pool when they were using it. But his nakedness was also a form of clothes, in the sense that it was a spectacle. Dressing without regard to clothes at all, occupying that great middle ground between dressed and undressed--dressing just to be warm or comfortable, which is the way most people wear clothes--did not seem to make sense to him.


My father's closet was his inheritance from his father. Not the clothes themselves, but the belief that a custom-made English suit, worn properly, was a powerful engine of advancement within the establishment. Without his clothes, my grandfather was an uneducated man who had spent his early years living and working in dirt, more or less. (The expression "dirt farmer" is still used sardonically by farmers in South Jersey to describe their profession: when you're out all day in that loamy clay and sand, you begin to feel as though the dirt itself were your product.) But, dressed in his Savile Row suits, my grandfather was a man of substance, taste, grace.

My father was more of a fashion innovator. He was the Duke of Edinburgh as played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The cut of the clothes was still that of the sensible establishmentarian, but within those controlled contours you'd get flashes of purple and pink in the widespread-collared shirts, polka dots in the ties, and a green chalk stripe of imagination in the suits, signifying the American tycoon. In his youth he experimented with elements of both the Brooks Brothers style, which he encountered as an undergraduate, and his father's Edward, Prince of Wales look, hitting upon his own synthesis around 1950: double-breasted, high-waisted suits with wide lapels, snug in the body but with deep vents in the back.

The gaga-in-my-toga sixties, which threw men's fashion toward the more relaxed, anything-goes mentality that prevails in our time, burst against my father's solid shoulders of English wool and receded, leaving but one very interesting trace behind. This was a blue velvet Nehru smoking jacket, decorated with light-blue-and-navy flower-and-ivy psychedelia, and matched with midnight-blue velvet pants. It was made by Blades of London, and dated April 25, 1968, a period when the Nehru was enjoying a brief vogue among the men my father aspired to dress like, thanks mainly to Lord Snowdon's wearing a Nehru-style dinner jacket in a famous photograph in the sixties. I had never seen my father wear the outfit, but there it hung, among all the sober garments in his closet, a sign that somewhere inside the businessman was an artist.

The attic portion of my father's closet was for me the most alluring part of the house. It had a beauty born of the obsessive pursuit of perfection. Other men wore clothes easily and well, and took good care of them, but my father cared about his wardrobe to a degree that might have alarmed some of the men whose style he emulated, had they set foot in this room. That interested me. However, while a great imagination was evidently at work in here, my father's closet was also oppressive: the chalk lines and pinstripes and windowpane checks had a kind of suffocating effect on me. It became important for me to believe that these were the iron bars through which I would have to squeeze in the struggle for my own authority. My father's ways of making me into the man he wanted me to be were so subtle that they were often hard to notice, much less resist; clothes, however, were a patch of open ground on which I would engage him.


In an early photograph of my brother and me, we're dressed according to my father's Little Lord Fauntleroy ideals, in blue or gray serge short pants, with matching woollen blazers and woollen caps. I look miserable. Somewhere just out of the frame of the picture, Miss Mann, our scary English nanny, lurks.

In the fullness of time--I'm twelve--my father escorts me to Brooks Brothers and buys me my first No. 1 Sack Suit, exclaiming approvingly as I emerge from the fitting room, "John, you look exactly like an investment banker!" Five years later, he takes me to have my first suit of evening clothes made, at Hall Brothers in Oxford; still later I go with him to A-Man Hing Cheong, his Hong Kong tailor, to be "measured up" for a few "country" suits (a Glen plaid and a windowpane check) and, presumably, many others in the future. ("Big men can wear bolder plaids and more details without appearing to be fairies," Dad once advised me.)

My visit to the tailor turns out to be a rite of some kind of passage. "Which side?" he asks; he speaks a bit of English. He is kneeling in front of me, pointing at my crotch and waggling his forefinger back and forth.

"He wants to know which side you wear your pecker on," my father says.

"Yeh yeh, ha ha ha, yar peck-ah!"

In short, I am on my way to acquiring a fabulous closet of my own. And yet all is not well with the little lord. Without intending to, he manages to rip the silk lining in the beautiful camel's-hair coat, lose buttons off a Brooks suit, tear the seams around the pockets of the evening clothes. Inside my scrubbed and Etonian exterior there seems to be a dirt farmer struggling to get out.

"You're so hard on your clothes," my mother would say, and she was right. My boyhood closet was a riot of passive-aggressive behavior exhibited toward innocent garments. Beautiful slacks were bunched up on hangers, never hung along the pleat line. I always forgot to pull out the pocket flaps of my jackets, so that the next time I wore them they'd be full of creases. Shirts had fallen off their hangers and were lying on the floor, with shoes chucked into a pile on top of them. The shoes themselves were a mess--the leather, once soaked, was now flaking off, and the backs had all been crushed by my bad habit of cramming my feet into the shoes while they were still tied.

My brother, on the other hand, seemed effortlessly to acquire my father's ability with clothes. His closet was like an Eagle Scout's version of my father's. Mine was the Anticloset.

When it became clear that I was going to be more or less my father's shape and size, there was rejoicing in my parents' household. Naturally my father was pleased. He had never spent much time with me as a boy, being so busy providing all the amazing advantages that we enjoyed. We never threw a ball together, or went camping--he didn't have the clothes for it. But in the art of dressing for success he would gladly be my adviser and my friend.

My mother was also pleased. Having grown up with little money, she could never reconcile herself to her husband's clothing purchases (a Huntsman suit today costs more than three thousand dollars), to the point where my father had to smuggle new clothes into the house. Now, at least, his reckless extravagance would have a practical outcome: I would never have to buy any clothes of my own. I could just start wearing my father's, beginning with the earliest items in his wardrobe and working my way along the endless mechanical circle.

Not long after I moved to my first apartment in New York, my father took me to his New York tailor, Bernard Weatherill, to have a couple of his old suits refitted on me. The shop was upstairs on a midtown street--just a nameplate on a wall you'd pass every day in the city without giving it a second glance. The man who measured me up was an elderly white-haired Englishman, whose slightly stooped posture seemed like an unparsable synthesis of class-based deference and the physical toll of years of bending down to measure the bodies of young gentlemen like me. His tremendous discretion seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the air.

The jackets fitted almost perfectly. A little big in the body, but the length in the sleeves was beautiful. My father and the tailor beamed with pleasure. The pants, however, needed taking in; the tailor asked me to "stand naturally" as he marked them up. But for some strange reason I had suddenly forgotten how to stand naturally. It was as if I'd lost the concept of posture.

"Why are you standing like that?" my father said. "Knock it off."


During most of the eighties, these suits hung among my so-called wardrobe, like a landing party that had set up a base camp in my closet from which to launch an assault on the rest of my life. Can clothes be a form of destiny? My father had made no secret of his wishes for my career: an investment banker or, failing that (since I seemed to enjoy writing), an investment analyst. These were the clothes for the job.

Among these suits was an inky-blue-black drape suit, double-breasted, with three closely bunched parallel rows of silvery dot stripes, the groups of three about half an inch apart. The peaked lapels extended to the bottom buttons of the jacket, while the cuffed pants had a deep pleat near the fly buttons and a shallower pleat two inches farther out, which was immediately echoed by the almost hidden slash of the pocket. The date inside the jacket pocket said "9/21/61," although in style it was fifties--a suit that Burt Lancaster could have worn in "Sweet Smell of Success." My father was forty-four when he had the suit made and was just starting out on a new career, having been fired from his previous one. He had a new wife and a new family: I was two then, and my little brother, Bruce, had just been born. It was not, perhaps, the best time to order yet another custom-made suit. But if Dad felt at all uncertain about his new responsibilities, or about the future and his title to it, his doubts were not expressed in these dot stripes. It was a highly confident suit.

I wore this suit to certain pre-crash eighties evenings. I was aware of an authority--when I wasn't attempting to undermine it with irony--that I didn't feel in my clothes. Men followed the suit with their eyes as I walked through a restaurant. Women wanted to put their hands on the fabric. Worn properly, a suit like this was clearly capable of incredible things. Perhaps it could attract some of the money, beauty, and power that were in the air in the mid-eighties in New York--guys I had been in college with a few years earlier were making two million dollars a year selling mortgage-backed securities--and redirect that energy into me.

My own choice of a career for myself, writing, did not require much in the way of clothes. (Part of the reason I was first drawn to writing as a profession was that it appeared possible almost never to wear a necktie.) But as I had success at my work, performed in T-shirt and jeans, something unexpected happened. On receiving payment for a writing project, I could think of nothing I wanted more to do with it than spend it on clothes. I may have rebelled against my father's closet, but the fetish for clothes appeared to be deeply implanted in me.

With my check in my pocket, I'd set out for the bank, and then for Barneys, at Seventh Avenue and Seventeenth Street. My behavior on entering the store was eccentric. I appeared calm, standing there pensively fingering some fabric, but inside my head a fashion psychopath was at work. Three hundred dollars for a pair of pants! Then again, they're asking two hundred and thirty for a shirt. And pants are more of a major item than a shirt, so in a way three hundred is cheap for pants. Thus did I gradually reduce the price through rationalization, until I heard myself saying, "O.K., I'll take them." Signing the receipt felt like the moment after an accident, when you can't believe it's happened. Then, to prove that it wasn't that bad to spend three hundred dollars for a pair of pants, I'd go into another part of the store and spend two hundred and ninety dollars for a merino wool turtleneck.

I was drawn to the most expensive brands. Only a famous label had the talismanic power to ward off the Savile Row succubus that lived in my father's clothes. To my father, the whole concept of designer labels in men's fashion was ridiculous, another triumph of the marketers. What did these swishy women's dressmakers know about making clothes for a man? Ralph Lauren has made a fortune imbuing his brand with images of people like my father, but my father would never, ever wear Ralph Lauren.

The first time I wore an expensive Italian suit I had bought with my own money, an Ermenegildo Zegna, was to meet my father at "21" for lunch. He arrived at the restaurant first, and as I walked in I saw that his attention was instantly riveted on the boxy, ventless, close-to-the-hips silhouette of my jacket. P. G. Wodehouse, describing the reaction of Jeeves upon spotting his master wearing a scarlet cummerbund with his evening clothes, wrote that "Jeeves shied like a startled mustang." My father, watching this Italian garment moving toward him around the checked tablecloths, reacted similarly. He recovered in time to greet me cordially; then, plucking the lapel of the Zegna between his thumb and forefinger, he looked at the label.

"Hmp," he said softly. That was all: "Hmp." It was the sound of a world ending.


In recent years, I have sometimes stood before my own closet and tried to work out what's going on inside. Here and there is a glimpse of the kind of madness that animates Dad's wardrobe, albeit diminished. My father can walk into a room and simply by the contours of his clothing take it over. Nothing in my closet, not even the black Prada suit on which I spent a fortune last fall (taking care to conceal the receipt from my wife, just the way Dad used to do), could accomplish that. Nevertheless, some semblance of what might charitably be called a "personal style" seems to be struggling to emerge from the Banana Republic "hacking" pants, the soft-collar shirts from Katharine Hamnett, and a lightweight wool navy-blue blazer with a twill finish by Hugo Boss, which hangs alongside my Patagonia Synchilla vest.

I am grateful for the rise of "technical fabrics" like lycra and spandex, which combine the wrinkle-less properties of wool with the lightness of cotton, and give the garment that little bit of stretch the salesclerks make so much of these days. Though I was hopeless when it came to urban dressing, I was knowledgeable about fabrics for the wilderness, and as the technical fabrics and their styles made inroads into men's fashions, I began to find ways of caring about indoor clothes, too. I had a breakthough during a holiday in Paris a couple of years ago, when, strolling around the Eighth in my usual backpack-like gear, including stretchy black stovepipe trousers that Patagonia calls "guide pants," I realized that I was not too far from the Armani and Prada guys.

While I have only a few of my father's shirts left--I am slowly de-accessioning them to friends my size who have jobs that require dress shirts--I have nostalgically hung on to most of the suits he has given me, although each year I find fewer occasions to wear one. Last week, I took two pairs of his trousers and a sensational plaid suit to the St. Luke's Thrift Shop, in the Village.

The prize of my collection is the blue velvet Nehru smoking jacket, which I inherited six or seven years ago. I began wearing it at Christmas, more or less as a joke, but each year I look for more excuses to put it on. Last Halloween, I went to a party as Austin Powers, but somewhere in the course of the evening the role I was playing blended in with a natural predilection for the costume, until I wasn't wearing the blue Nehru in the spirit of Halloween anymore. Believing myself to have been a slob all these years, I realized I'd turned out to be a fop instead. I would dress like Austin Powers all the time if I could get away with it.

 

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