Last week I wrote to you about the feeling I have of having said so much, and yet not having said anything at all. Let me give you an example.
For last week’s letter I had a wonderful digression about “Western” belts and belt buckles. Here! I said to myself, is a place where the irrational contradictions of my personal taste take flight. How is it, I asked of my own personal style, that a belt buckle seems like an affectation to be avoided, but a beaded, braided or otherwise Western adorned belt just seemed like looking good?
A chunky belt buckle is one of the more aggressively masculine items a man can wear, crowning the junk with an announcement of fealty towards any number of ur-macho pursuits ranging from bourbon drinking to horse riding to cussing. A beaded, braided or eagle-branded belt might suggest that the wearer has recently purchased an anthology of Native American trickster tales. (I did. I haven’t read it yet. My aspirational purchases, as you know, extend far beyond clothes. See my Complete Works of Franz Joseph Haydn 150 CD set for more information.)
This is, without a doubt, a singular reading of the Western belt/belt buckle conundrum. Last week, writing to you about those petrified prejudices I have against Western shirts, I had wanted to use this example as further elucidation of the conclusion I was trying to draw. But when I tried to put it all together, I realized that the point I was trying to make was no point at all. It was a lame mix of sartorial autobiography with some glib one-liners about the “meaning” of the West and a couple of potshots thrown at Jack White and Ken Burns for good measure.
So I guess my point is, even if we spend hours agonizing over style (and not just on looking good, not just on the origins of the sartorial canon, but really getting right down to where our notions of style – good and bad – come from) we find ourselves, truly, in the great unknown.
Since I got back from Greece, I’ve been reading some of the surviving tragedies and thinking about how clear certain things were back then, none more than the stark contest between Dionysius and Apollo; between frenzy and order; between passion and reason. And I think this sort of, in a typically round about way, gets to what I’m trying to talk about when I talk about clothes. Menswear is an easy, well-ordered universe. A man can survive, hell he can even look fantastic, with very few clothes grabbed from the racks of an Apollonian world of proportion and order. Tie and lapel widths change, but people aren’t running wild through the Peloponnese with branches on their heads. The rise of a pair of slacks fluctuates but wild bands of Maenads don’t end up tearing the flesh from King Pentheus.
But this just isn’t me. It isn’t the way I process wanting clothes. It isn’t the way my mind works when I want to look a certain way. In the struggle between order and chaos this old formulation encompasses, I think you know I’m more satyr-minded than sartorial. And I think you are, too.
When you are talked about as a style legend, you are often talked about as embodying the classic mode of American dress. Like everything that is a ‘classic American mode’ this is hard to define. A few pictures should do the trick. Despite the diversity of these outfits, all of them are hardcore fucking Ralph:
And they are all, in their own way, very Apollonian. Classic eastern elite. Classic rugged West. Classic high tech American sport.
But what about these:
It looks like most of these outfits have been drinking the sweet wine of Dionysius. But I’m not writing you to criticize your outfits (I’m not even criticizing, the satyr deep within me loves all these looks) but about belts that I’ve bought that don’t fit.
Could there be any purchase more frenzied and less rational than a belt that doesn’t fit?* When I look at the pictures above, I see a man who has put his faith in the irrational power of a belt to make or break an outfit. It’s the same belief that has me scouring belt racks at sale season, looking for any belt cheap enough that I could be justified buying it three or four sizes too big.
When you spend too much time looking at and thinking about clothes, the effect is intoxicating. There is the very Apollonian formulation that your belt should match your shoes. Then there is the very Dionysian idea that a massive statement belt can turn a striped T-shirt, a denim western shirt, super baggy faded jeans and high tech runners into a cohesive outfit.
I was at a thrift store once with a friend of mine. He was being a good sport. He isn’t interested in clothes. He asked one of the staff where they keep their belts.
“What kind of belt are you looking for?” the clerk asked.
“The kind that keeps your pants from falling down,” my friend answered.
Behold Apollonian simplicity in all its glory, my friend, and go back to constructing outfits of madness with belts meant to do anything other than hide your ass. Is it weird that the Ralph I like the most is the one in these outfits that fail and fail so gloriously?
* It isn’t that crazy. Most of these purchases make sense with little more than a leather punch and the sprezz to fold and tuck the excess length over the belt. But what am I telling you this for? You know it.