#24: Shirts with epaulettes

Dear Ralph,

One thing that has always made me feel simpatico with you is that you think of yourself as a storyteller. From your ads to your fabrics to your carefully constructed public image, you are creating narratives.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion (no style slouch herself) once famously wrote, but the rest of the paragraph is worth quoting in full:

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

While it may not be as graceful as the Didion formulation, I’ve always thought that we tell ourselves stories in order to dress. You do too. And so does everybody else, even people who think they don’t care about clothes are telling themselves a story. But the stories we tell ourselves aren’t necessarily the ones the world hears.

For example, I went through a brief period where my favourite outfit was a club-collared oxford shirt with a tight-fitting fair-isle vest tucked into loose-fitting pleated wool pants. When I was forced to account for this outfit, I imagined an American boxer, mixed up with organized crime, prowling the streets of Edwardian London, showing up at the country house of a gambling Lord to collect the debt on a fixed fight. People probably just saw someone who should show more restraint in thrift stores.

The best dressers (and you know I count you among them) are the people who are able to overcome this divide, this gaping chasm between content and intent, between reception and calumny.

So this year, when I haven’t had to dress for anything (not working fucks with your sense of clothing in ways I wasn’t quite expecting), when I’ve let my hair grow below my shoulders, when my moustache is more fulsome than my “good taste” tells me it should be, the story I am telling myself about how I should dress is: Greek shipping magnate’s wayward son.

He might be wearing swimming trunks, a double-breasted navy blazer and Greek sandals. He might be wearing rumpled linen pants and a woman’s v-neck sweater vest with floral espadrilles. Hell, he may even wear a tuxedo. The things that are constant are his tan, his long hair and his wild beard.

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He also wears a lot of shirts with epaulettes.

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This probably owes more to John Cassavetes than it does to some imagined offspring of Aristotle Onassis. Cassavetes is more of a lifestyle icon than a style one; his incredible body of work, his work ethic and his visionary persona are endlessly inspiring. He was a man who dressed simply in the clothes of his time and sadly, this means the most mundane haberdashery of the ‘70s and ‘80s. When Cassavetes looks great, and he often does, it is more often than not because of the stories he tells through pure being, not stories he tells through clothes.

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But it was with an image of Cassavetes in mind that I bought this shirt:

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I’ve always resisted epaulettes, still do. To me a contemporary male in a shirt or jacket with epaulettes tells a story: this is a man who cannot distinguish between the essential detail and the unnecessary detail. A tab collar is an essential detail; epaulettes are always unnecessary. It would probably take a few years of psychoanalysis to untangle where this idea comes from and I doubt many analysts focus on neuroses of the shirt.

So why am I wearing so many shirts and jackets with epaulettes? What is lurking in that chasm between content and intent that I cannot see?

The truth is I am waiting for that moment when the force of my personality allows me to wear anything at all and still be me. It is a tough story to tell and there is really no way at all to dress it up or down. Until then, I’ll keep thinking about Cassavetes and shopping. I mean, what else can I do?

With fondness,

S

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