Through the arc of human existence, most men did not put their pants on one leg at a time for there weren’t any. They put on tunics, robes, slops, kilts and breeches. Then, knickers came along, which seemed a bridge.
Knickers are so close to becoming pants if only they could get past the calves. Still, I could see their utility for certain exercises like hunting, golfing, driving or dangling a pair of goggles. But if one was only to take an evening stroll with a cane, well, pants seemed entirely appropriate.
And with this simple choice to wear pants when walking down a paved street came the harbinger of more idle affairs. No longer were men cutting through thick grass or moving past heavy machinery. Instead they were traversing Berber carpet and tiled floors. Still, there were places where pants didn’t quite work and nobody dressed more appropriately to their surroundings than the Apache.
Togas and Zoot Suits would not have worked well in the high desert plains of Arizona and New Mexico. As a nomadic tribe, the Apache had no use for any type of fashion flourish. After all, they weren’t the nicest neighbors on the block. Their name even comes from the Zuni word “Apachu” meaning enemy. The name was deserved for the Apache preferred to steal instead of borrow. They constantly poached food, women and horses from other tribes and newly arrived settlers. They also adopted a fashion to abet an evolving livelihood. When they hunted buffalo on the Great Plains, they wore buckskin shirts, leggings and breechcloths. When they arrived in Arizona and started fighting the Spanish, they adopted their new enemy’s clothing of cotton tunics and tight vests. And when the US Calvary arrived, they grabbed any military uniforms they could find.
Apaches were survivors and you could see it in their attire. Cloth headbands kept their long hair from fluttering and high leather moccasins kept their clothing from being snagged by the thick underbrush as they silently crept into neighboring camps.
I was born in these harsh surroundings. My dad worked for the Army Corp of Engineers on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Growing up in Crownpoint, New Mexico was as isolating and unforgiving as when the Apaches roamed on stolen horses.
A practical sense of dress followed me to the Great Plains of South Dakota and onto the frozen lands of Minnesota. There have not been too many clothing decisions made that didn’t answer the question: Will this keep me warm? Even today I find myself selecting items from clothing lines that reference remote parts of the world like North Face, Marmot and Patagonia.
For someone who has committed so little thought to fashion, I’m surprised I never gravitated towards professions where a uniform is required: policeman, waiter, doorman, porter, fireman, airline pilot, NBA point guard or barista. After all, a simple sigh of relief must come over those who wake up in a monastery and open the closet to find their one and only option – a robe. Even the color is decided depending on which order you join.
BUDDHIST – saffron
BENEDICTINE – black
CARTHUTHIANS – white
FRANCISCANS – brown
GREY FRIARS –neon green
Another place where a uniform is mandatory is the military. Nowadays, most are designed to blend into the environment. But there was a time when the exact opposite was the case. I’m talking about the British and their red coats.
How cocky do you have to be if you willingly line up your soldiers like dominoes and make them wear a uniform that can be seen from three miles away? The whole point of being a soldier is to remain out of sight. That is why I don’t understand why even today there are armed forces that dress like birds in a South American rain forest: Greek Evzones, Indian Security Force Camel Contingent and the South Korean Royal Guard. But the force that takes the ornamental three-tier cake is The Vatican’s Swiss Guard.
It looks like these outfits were sewn together with the remains of a hot air balloon. And forget about blending in with colors as the Vatican website describes:
The colors, which make up the uniform so attractive, are the traditional Medici blue, red and yellow, which set off the white of the collar and gloves…
That’s great but how do you expect a soldier to fight in a uniform that will lift off the ground with the slightest breeze? And yes, The Vatican Swiss Guard is a fully functioning army, the smallest (less than 150) and the oldest (1506). Its charge: Protecting the Papal State. So why do they dress like clowns?
Fault can be laid at the feet of one man, Swiss Guard Commander, Jules Repond (1910-21). He wanted to celebrate the Guard’s illustrious past by dressing his men from the Renaissance era. But look at this painting.
Although the Swiss Guards of the past wore pansied slops (pumpkin shorts), they look like a pretty sharp crew that could possibly fight off an assault and not be laughed at in the process. But what do I know. I’m not the one being protected by a crew dressed like they are one bad day from joining the circus. In fact, the one and only time I was required to dress in a uniform was grade school.
No colored stripes to offset my wide, white collar, but something is amiss. I look unfocused. Maybe I had a long day. Maybe I wasn’t in motion, pointed in a set direction. It looks like I am in a police lineup with eyes cast down as not to admit I only knew four of the Ten Commandments.
In high school my dark blue and bright white uniform was replaced by earth browns and cream colors. They called it a dress code, but that was like calling a Macintosh an apple. Sure, there were different hues, but wearing the color brown was like having to eat over-cooked wax beans every day for lunch.
It’s surprising that once I entered college and cast off my uniform tradition how I retained its essence. But instead of cardigans and corduroys, my new look was now sweats.
Any picture during this period has me in some form of athletic wear. I don’t know if it was some form of rebellion against good taste or if I was just being lazy. Perhaps, since my clothing options up until this point had been determined by parents and school, I had no idea what to wear. Sweatshirts and jogging pants became the default. Still, it was a practical choice for I could go to class, gym, dinner, back to the dorm without once changing clothes. After all, having one particular outfit can be practical, especially if it looks just right. Consider Robert Duvall’s sartorial selection in Apocalypse Now.
Duvall, who plays Air Calvary Lieutenant Colonel, Bill Kilgore, looks so right in a Stetson he doesn’t even need a shirt. The hat is more than enough for it says everything you need to know about this man: that he is a tough, no-nonsense soldier who could care less about getting stage three melanoma.
When Teo slapped Tyler with his kid gloves during an argument in the novel, Cuba Libre, not only did Teo slap an individual, he was slapping a new world order. See, Teo was a Spanish soldier given the charge to help colonize the Caribbean country. Tyler, on the other hand, was a Stetson wearing cowboy from Arizona. His charge was to bring horses to Cuba to sell to a wealthy plantation owner.
Being from the old country, Teo understood a slap with kid gloves was a challenge to an opponent for a dual at a later date. Tyler, on the other hand, had no knowledge of European tradition. To Tyler a slap across the face was an invitation to punch Teo in the nose. And in that moment of misunderstanding is a lesson to be learned: To better understand someone through his or her wardrobe. For example, what kind of people are these Ioway Tribal leaders?
Here is a look a little more adorned than the Apache, but not as much as the more established tribes like their Ojibwa and Sioux neighbors. The Ioway were a small (less than 2,000) semi-nomadic tribe that settled on the banks of the Missouri River in the state that adopted their name. It was the Sioux who called them Ayuwa, meaning “Sleepy Ones.” (They called themselves Bah Kho-Je which meant “People of Grey Snow”.)
The Ioway did not have much, but they did have access to water for growing crops that could provide vegetable dyes for their faces, turbans and feathered Mohawks. After all, how much of a look does one person need? Do you really need to drown yourself in wool or drape yourself in expensive fabrics? If you can wear one item, like a turban or a Stetson, and wear it well, is that not enough?
I think most guys have one article of clothing they would happily wear every day if society (wife) let them. I still remember my Grandpa Ed and his harvest yellow cardigan. My friend Ron once wore a navy blue cardigan to work every day until it literally fell apart.
I can understand the elemental bond. The first article of clothing I constantly wore was a down-filled vest. I came across it one evening while playing on the same playground with the candy cane tornado slide. It was resting on a bench between the swing set and merry-go-round. At first I gave it a passing glance, but as the evening wore on and kids started to filter home, I moved closer and closer to the sartorial selection.
There wasn’t anything in the pockets; no name written on the collar. It had the same dusky hue as the evening sky.
I looked around; then slipped it on.
Little did I know how many days would pass with me wearing this modern day doublet. I would stuff rubber bands into its pockets when delivering the morning newspaper; I would pull it over my goalie uniform to provide an extra layer of protection when kicked soccer balls would land like fired cannonballs; I would wear it indoors and out, for even though it was a sleeveless jacket, one could say it a vest. It was the best of both worlds. It may have been two sizes two big and gave the appearance that I was wearing a lunar garbage bag, but I didn’t care. I planned to wear it forever.
When it comes to fashion, finding the balance between style, fit and function is a struggle. Maybe wealth does have its advantages if one can retain a tailor, especially if the tailor has his own line of clothes.
Giorgio Armani didn’t start out wanting to be a fashion designer. As a young boy, growing up in post World War II Italy, he found himself interested in the human anatomy. He thought this would lead towards a life of medicine. But he withdrew from the University of Piacenza’s Medical School when he discovered he didn’t much care for the sight of blood.
After a compulsory stint in the Italian Army, Armani landed his first job as a window dresser in a Milan department store. After seven years, he started to design clothes, first for others; then in 1975 he established his own label.
When I think of fashion designers, I think again of those South American tropical birds: loud, unabashed, colorful. If any profession needs to draw attention, certainly it is a fashion designer. Right?
Not Armani. He practically lives the life of a monk. He doesn’t drink or smoke. As a vegetarian, he sticks with salads and pastas. His self-imposed work uniform is a t-shirt and jeans.
I thought I was a slacker wearing sweats through college. But here is a man in charge of a billion dollar industry coming to work like he’s going to sweep the floor. If he was a Roman citizen during the time of Caesar, would he happily don a tunic? But why? With all the wealth and success, why dress like all your outfits are at the dry cleaner?
Not much is known about Armani for he is a private individual. As a child, Armani had an inherent sense when something did not look right. Over the years he was able to craft this sense into a credo that clothes should be natural, subtle and simple.
As stated in the beginning of this essay, I am not a man with any sartorial flair. So what do I think of when I think of men’s fashion? I see these outfits.
Growing up in the bleak surroundings of a defeated country, Armani did not have many escapes from the drudgery of post World War II Europe. He did have the cinema. The lives and movies of Hollywood provided an escape to a dreary existence for a young boy and Armani was able to return the favor by providing outfits and costumes to over 200 movies throughout the years. He even personally designed the above outfits for a rag tag group of untouchables, each costume as unique as the character who wore them.
The naive treasury agent
The over-the-hill beat cop
The bookish accountant
The raw academy recruit
To me these outfits demonstrate what the best of fashion can be, not so much in design, but in a sense that anyone can look his or her best no matter the lot in life.