#32: Elbow Patches

Dear Ralph,

If fall isn’t yet in the air it is certainly in my inbox. Barely a day goes by where I don’t get some promotional email teaching me how to wear the most fashion-forward denim trends for the upcoming season or reminding me that now is the time to buy a quilted vest.

Fall is generally a very good time for menswear and specifically a great time if you love dressing like an old man. Ralph, I count myself amongst this odd rabble. It is the time for wide-wale corduroy pants in earth tones, shit-kicking wingtip brogues, sloppy sweaters, chamois shirts, deerskin gloves, tartan scarves and tweeds. It is, in short, the season of elbow patches. It is when I get in touch with my inner septuagenarian. And guess what, Ralph? He looks a lot like you.

But despite the layering and the earth tones, it is a season of sadness. I’ve often wondered just how long the feeling of change that is the sorrowful heart of autumn will remain. After all, I don’t have children and I haven’t gone to school in over 15 years; but Labour Day exerts a strange power. It is a day of new beginnings. And new beginnings, I’m not sure if you know this, can be quite sad if you are living a static life.

So the leaves change colour, flaming for a brief instant before they die and tumble to earth. The light slants. The days careen toward darkness. And try as we might, the consolations of a Henley shirt or flannel cannot assuage the feeling that the earth and time change even if we don’t.

So you’ll forgive me if I use this time to reflect on the rules we make for ourselves and how odd and futile they are. Everyone has a series of rules they dress by, even if they have never been articulated or discussed with friends over drinks. The man in sloppy cargo shorts that fall well below his knee – the man who disdains fashion and clothes because of a whole other series of unexamined rules which govern the way he lives – has a rule about what shorts should look like. He doesn’t know it. He probably doesn’t even realize it when his wife forces him to try on a pair of properly fitting shorts, and he sulks and refuses to buy them. Why? Because he will never wear them. Even this man, who barely thinks about clothes even while he dresses, has rules about fashion.

I have too many to enumerate here, but one rule is never to wear pre-distressed denim. I could go on about what pre-distressing says about our notions of authenticity, the voracious speed of late capitalism and the general durability of the clothes we buy, but I won’t. (I think I have written to you about this before.) Pre-distressed denim is abhorrent.

But as I get ready to transition to fall, I have been asking myself why this specific rule (guided by a general principle) should be so firm, when the principle itself is enforced in my dressing so flippantly. Which brings us to the elbow patch. A suede elbow patch represents a lot of things. If clothing is the written word, a suede elbow patch is the equivalent of quoting Aristotle in Ancient Greek characters and not providing an English translation. Plus, they look fantastic.

But, when we get right down to it, a suede elbow patch on a brand new garment is exactly the same in principle as buying new denim faded and shredded. The truth is, my rule has less to do with late capitalism and more to do with the aesthetic baggage that travels with those awful pants.

A jacket or a sweater with suede elbow patches speaks; it says old money, England, durability, timelessness. If you listen, it also says that the rules that govern how you dress – and probably the rules you think you live by – are a bunch of shit.

Sorry to be so dour, but Labour Day depresses me for more reasons than having to stop wearing white.



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