Style imitates life imitates style

Red Wing Boots: A Dorky Teenage Dilemma Resolved

pScreenshot 2015-12-29 at 3.02.54 PMHere’s an embarrassing story.

When I was in high-school, I fancied myself a bit of a hippie. I had long hair and listened to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. I was opposed to the Gulf War and I wore paint-splattered Levi’s that had once been my father’s work-pants. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X  and carried a suitcase with my schoolbooks on which I’d written: “The Mighty Quinn.”

One wet, winter day, hanging out with some fellow hippie neophytes, I posed a dilemma: what was truer to the hippie ideal we strove for? A) A pair of Nike high tops thathad been languishing in my closet since I’d discovered Birkenstocks, or B) a pair of my old man’s Red Wing boots, that were too large by two sizes? The sneakers fit, but the boots were so much cooler.

Striving for some sort of authentic hippie identity in early 90s Mequon, Wisconsin was already absurd. Trying to determine the most appropriate footwear for the costume is cringeworthy. And yet, it’s sort of touching. If you haven’t seen this Buzzfeed about the 10 most embarrassing pages from the 1990 JC Penney catalog, check it out. Stylistically, the early 90s were an extension of the 80s: everything was oversized, understyled. Fanny packs, mullets, slouchy-sweaters with big belts, and Zubaz pants. I like to think that at some level, I knew that the Emperor had no clothes, so to speak. All that shit was ugly, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Also, by way of contrast: last week, the Beatles’ music was streamed 50 Million times in 48 hours. Conversely, when I was in high school, I was ribbed for listening to the Beatles. When Waldenbooks added a new book to their meager inventory, it was a given that I would buy it. These days, there’s too much to read, let alone to buy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. When current fashion and classic style align, it’s a good thing. That’s a luxury I didn’t experience as a High School Junior.

At some level, in my teenage groping, I was looking for music that meant something, that spoke to me, that would never age or moulder in the way that Top 40 music seemed to. I was looking for something with substance, with style, with soul. So, too, footwear.


 

 

ginghamnboots

Dapper Americana: paired with denim jacket and gingham shirt/tie.

25 years later, in preparation for spending the holidays in Milwaukee, I decided to splurge on a pair of boots that could handle a type of precipitation we don’t have out in California: “Wintery Mix.” This delightful blend of slush, show, sleet and rain penetrates the seams of boots and transforms your feet into numb stumps. My usual desert boots aren’t cut out for this sort of action.

 

 

DomesticDomestic.com, a website that curates American Made goods, offers Red Wings (made in Minnesota) in a spectacular, StyleForDorks-friendly color: Indigo. I bagged a pair and I’ve worn them every day for the past two weeks. My feet stay dry and warm, I’ve gotten a ton of compliments, and here’s what impresses me the most: no matter what I wear them with, they’re perfect. Jeans and a button up. T-shirt. Cardigan and blazer. Knit tie and flower lapel.

 

 

fedoraandredwing

Vintage hat and jacket. Classic everything else.

They go with everything because they’re a classic-original, a style never that never gets old.

 

I started listening to the Beatles when I was 15. I got my first pair of Red Wings when I was 17. I know I’ll be fans of both for a long, long time.

 

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14 DAYS OF REFLECTION: EPISODE 12 – Context, Context, Context

Why I haven't posted in a month had something to do with my cultural context.

Why I haven’t posted in a month had something to do with my cultural context.

Q: Why have I not written anything for the last month?

A: Long answer. It begins with G.I. Joe.

When I was 14, I rounded up all my action figures, put them into shoe boxes, and hung posters: Lamborghinis, girls in bikinis, and a couple of rock bands.

I know. Super original.

If you had told me, six months earlier, that my beloved G.I. Joe space station would soon be as irrelevant to my life as a Fisher Price barnyard, I’d have said, in the parlance of the day, “bite me.”

And yet, that’s exactly what happened. One spring day, with very little fanfare, I hid the space station, the stealth fighter, and even the awesome Terrordrome under the bed, in the back of the closet, and behind the extra sofa in the attic. (Where they are to this very day).

In my life, I have gone through many phases and fads. I have been, at various times, obsessed with (in no particular order): electric guitar, capoeira, the Best American Short-Fiction series, Indian New-Age kitsch, salsa dance, Chinese tea, Bioshock, Dungeons and Dragons, vintage tube-amp stereo systems, and comic books. With each of these, I threw myself in, feeling a burning passion to understand, learn, do, master. Then, at some point, it no longer seemed relevant, and I put it away.

srugim

A prime sample of Jerusalem’s Fashion Glitteratti.

This summer, I spent three weeks in Jerusalem. Say what you like about the magic and the power and the history of the city, it’s one of the least stylish places imaginable. An image search for “Srugim” (an Israeli TV show, similar to “Friends,” but depicting life in the hub of  Jerusalem’s religious-singles’ scene) can confirm that everyone looks sort of shlumpy.

I’d packed my suitcase with some red, summer chinos, a couple of skinny bow-ties, a light-weight blazer, some Fred Perry polo shirts — all the stuff I wear when I want to look dapper on vacation. But most of it sat, unworn, in my suitcase. Instead, I wore the same three T-shirts, over and over, washing them in my hotel sink. On Shabbat, I wore a white dress shirt.

In the span of three days, I’d lost interest in anything having to do with clothes. And as someone who has been passionate about style for years, I have to admit – I was a little concerned. Would I return home in droopy khakis and billowy, white dress shirts? Would StyleForDorks.com go the way of the G.I. Joe Mobile Command Center?

My main source of inspiration.

My main source of inspiration.

As it turns out, once home, many things returned to normal. I was reunited with my main source of inspiration, and I dove headfirst into a pile of cardigan sweaters, gleeful both for the variety and also for the Bay Area weather, permitting my stylish layering.

Some might credit my fashion-fluctuation with Jerusalem’s inherent spirituality obliterating my interest in all things vain.

I, however, believe it’s about context.


There is nothing very funny about a pirate, per se. But a pirate on an escalator? The misalignment in context makes for a comic spectacle.

Likewise, amidst swimming-suited beachgoers… look at that man in a tuxedo! Awkward and absurd! Let’s go shove him into a sand castle! 

pirate

A seersucker suit belongs in Jerusalem like a pirate belongs on an escalator.

Style is about dressing for the place and the time. In summer, bright colors. Linen. Stylistic nods to Nantucket, Hawaii, Cuba, Southern California, the Mediterranean. In Winter, wool and tweed, sweaters, muted tones, and stylistic nods to the Ivy-League campus, to ski slopes, to the Holidays.

In winter, I lose interest in my summer outfits, and in summer, I lose interest in my winter gear. And in Jerusalem, I focused on other things: teaching. Food. My memories. And my outfits fit that context. Everything was easy to wear, easy to wash, and easy to shove into a suitcase.


Preparing for to shop in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Meah Sha'arim. Wearing ritual fringes for Kosher-Steez credit.

Preparing to shop in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Meah Sha’arim. Wearing ritual fringes for Kosher-Steez credit.

On the other hand, not ironically, cloth and clothes did play a major role for me in Jerusalem.

Future posts will explore how (and why) I spent an impressive amount of time tracking down a wool prayer shawl (tallis) and a white, linen robe (kittel) with a fervor I normally reserve for a Black Fleece suit. I agonized over white kind of white Kippah to purchase for a very significant event next summer. I even wore fringes to blend into the cultural milieux of an ultra-orthodox neighborhood. In other words, I didn’t lose interest in style. But style manifested in other ways.

It was, and is, an expression of who and where I am. The constant is that style is about the Self in context.

Even if that Self moves forward from time to time.

14 Days of Reflection: Weekend Look #3 – The First Day of Vacation

IMG_4440For many people, and understandably so, the second that vacation begins, the care to construct a styley look ends. And truly, I will never fault anyone for taking off the work clothes and slipping on the t-shirt, shorts and flips-flops.

On the other hand, as long as you gotta wear something (assuming you’re vacationing with family in, say, San Diego, and not at “Sea Mountain Nude Hotsprings”) why not wear something well put together?

The trick is this: if you know that you won’t have the headspace to pick out a bunch of vacation outfits as you rush to cram your suitcases, pick them out in advance. Way in advance. In other words, identify a couple of pairs of pants, a few shirts, a pair of shoes, and yes, a classy layer-piece: a sweater or an unconstrcuted blazer or both.

Then, when your plane takes off in three hours and you still haven’t filled your suitcase, you need not panic: you know what you’re packing.


As Gabi and I approach our first week as (and with) future-family, I’m struck by two competing forces at work. First, there is, well, the familiar. Gabi’s family is very tightly knit and meals with them are full of laughter, good-natured ribbing, and decades’ worth of stories. They seem to appreciate and understand my humor, although folks are divided on whether my puns are brilliant or groan-worthy.

IMG_4437On the other hand, there is the unfamiliar. Deeply unfamiliar. People who are dear to me, and have been for years, take on roles of new significance. Future father-in-law. Future mother-in-law. Future brother-in-law. I have never really known these roles in my life, and I’m acutely aware of this, the way a new article of clothing feels very there.

It seems appropriate, in these circumstances, to wear something fitting this odd and beautiful confluence of well-known and never known. Here, on this San Diego beach, what could do that better than comfy sneakers, a soft sweater, my old hat – and a red flower in my lapel?

Blogging Back and Forth Forever: Getting Engaged, and 14 Days of Reflection

 For those in the know, “Blogging back and forth forever” ))<>(( can be a our little inside joke, a little indie-film triviata.

For those not in the know, just take my word for it; It’s weird and sweet and evocative and sort of grody and, well, forever.

Sort of like life.


Yesterday, Gabi and I got engaged. She looked beautiful. I was wearing a fantastic suit. There was a lot of crying and laughing and a guest appearance by local San Francisco celebrity weather pattern, Karl The Fog. 

This engagement was a long time coming. Gabi and I built our bridge towards each other step by step, over a span (no pun intended) of three years. When it was time to take the plunge (eek, definitely no pun intended) it was with eyes wide open — taking in the dazzling sun on the San Francisco Bay (metaphorical for life’s various gifts and treasures) as well as the mirk, the clouds, the unknown. We planned it together, down to the exact day, the exact time of day, but for Gabi, the details were unknown. Sometimes, you need to keep some mystery – to recreate, in my opinion, the true Mystery that we are all faced with: our Existence. Part of it are revealed, from time to time, like the majestic Marin tower of the Golden Gate bridge.

It emerged, as we drove across the bay, as if to guide us on our paths towards eternity.

 Today I am 41. Dear readers, you may have figured out (“Surprise!”) that this project, “14 days of reflection,” was intended to crescendo with my innocent little question to her, but with that now residing nearby as a memory, it’s time for me to celebrate my birthday. Gabi has given me many gifts over the past three years, and while the greatest one, by far, is the gift of our life together, today, we laughed about the way that she guided my path as I crafted my on-line persona (more on the deep power of the persona, here). My fashion style was in place, already, but my communication style is very much a joint project, and I suspect it will be a project that will involve a lot of creativity and a lot of time.

May this be a year of thriving.

May this be a year of growing close together.

And may this be a lifetime of exploration for my fiancee and I, both in person, but also online.

May we blog back and forth forever.

Turning 41 and the Aftermath: 14 Days of Reflection – Episode 6: Holy Shnikeys, I Climbed a Mountain

crimbing

28 and (mostly) fearless.

When I was 28, a friend told me about her solo trip across Africa. Seeing me blanch, she remarked, “Being alone in a strange place scares you? Maybe you need to spend 3 days alone in the desert.”

That was the exact opposite of something I’d wanted to do. Imagining the sun setting over a rocky desert sandscape, the evening winds, the cry of desert-foxes in the distance, and only me, all alone – that terrified me.

And less than a year later, that’s exactly where I found myself.

Once I was there, my backpack loaded with apricots and halva and countless water bottles, I was no longer afraid.


On day two, I climbed a mountain.

I didn’t know it was a mountain until I climbed down. The ascent had been arduous, hot, interminable, but I didn’t know what I was climbing until the other side revealed it to me in its desert splendor.

A mountain.


archiveRecently, I discovered a new feature: the blog archive. It’s a line of code you can install in your blog to create a list that readers can click and browse.

I did, and I clicked, and guess what I saw?

Blog posts. Lots and lots and lots. Way more than I could have imagined.

Some low points: the death of my uncle. High points: a Style Up that close to a thousand people read in a single day. And plenty of normal, day-to-day stuff: when to roll up blazer sleeves.

Without realizing it, I had climbed a mountain, word by word, month by month.


Tomorrow, Gabi and I depart for a weekend together. Towards the end of the weekend, I’m turning 41. And looking back over the three years we’ve been together, and the years I lived before knowing her, it’s a mountain of sorts. I’m proud of how far we’ve come together. And I’m proud of how high I’ve climbed, solo.

And sometimes, it takes looking back to see how high you’ve climbed.

Turning 41 and the Aftermath: 14 Days of Reflection — Episode 5. How do you know when the suit fits?

deansuitMy colleague, Dean, is a dapper dresser.

He’s pretty much a sage in any topic of conversation: how to handle criticism, how to shake off a bad day, how to turn 60 without losing your marbles.

So when Dean asked what I thought of his new, made-to-order suit, well, I was honored.

This lead to a whole conversation about fit; how do you know when you’ve achieved a perfect fit?


Humbly, I offer my thoughts.

1. When it fits, you know.

We spend a lot of time in life toiling over choices. Most of my best decisions in life were not so much something I “decided” as “came to recognize.”

In a shop, looking in the mirror, with a proper-fitting shirt, a great color or pattern, some styley, new kicks, you’ll say: whoa. There it is.

And guess what? That’s it.

coffeeshop2. You get compliments – on the right thing and on the wrong things, too.

Don’t embark on any endeavor with compliments in mind.

On the other hand, when you’re really nailing it, people can’t help themselves. You’ll get compliments on what you’re wearing, sure, but also, people will compliment your new haircut which you got five weeks ago, your new glasses which you’ve had for a year.

What people are picking up on is not your clothes. Rather, they can feel your confidence.

3. Your well-fitting-whatever will live on top of your pile (or at the front of the closet) because you can’t get enough.

Choose your outfits like you should choose your relationships. What sort of shirt/relationship do you want to be with? Something that pushes you out of your comfort zone but leaves you craving the “real you?” Something that is steady and constant – but a but predictable. Maybe even boring?

stripes2How about something that you’re just excited to put on. And when you say goodbye, it’s for a short while, only?

That’s a good fit.

4. It brings you joy.

To be honest, I’m a pretty spiritual guy, and I connect very much to religion, ritual, and all the spiritual stuff in the old books with the yellow pages. 

That said, I know that real joy comes from simple things. Good food. Beer. Music. Hiking. Art. And spending time with someone you love.

If you find a great outfit, it might bring you some joy. Don’t deny it. Embrace it.

It’s a tiny taste of the larger joys that life has to offer, but hey – life is tough. Snatch your joy wherever and however you can.

smoo5. It connects you to others

My friend Luke, who has a Ph.D. and a way with words, once described his feelings about moving away from the community he’d grown close to for several years, and did this by referring to his basketball shoes: “These shoes fit so well, I don’t even feel them. In fact, it’s hard to tell where my foot ends and the world begins. That’s how I feel about you all.”

Yes, indeed. Well fitting clothes, like a well-fitting community, like a great relationship, help you feel united with yourself and connected to the world.

5 Things Mad Men Taught Me About Style

dondraperinstylgramIn many ways in life, I was a late bloomer.

I didn’t feel at ease, socially, until well into college. I started dating in my 20s. And I started watching Mad Men when the rest of the world was on season four.

At that time, I had no place in my life for a TV series, but other things in my life were in already flux. I was in a new relationship. I was approaching the end of my 30s. I was beginning to reinvent my own personal style. And that was the bait and switch.

I was told that the show featured great style, and I was hungry for that, curious what I would get out of it. I had no idea, seven seasons later, how much I would give to it. And I’m not just talking about how much I would invest in the characters, or how many meals would be spent teasing apart the show’s subplots and themes. I’m talking about how I would see and understand my own growth, and the development of my own, personal style, in a kind of partnership with the show.


Took a while to get to this look. Think I'll keep it for a while.

Took a while to get to this look. Think I’ll keep it for a while.

doncasual1. Excellence in style is not about what you wear, it’s about how you wear it.

Naturally, this list must begin with Don, and the most notable thing about what Don wears is how little there is to say about it.

We’re struck by the stack of clean, pressed shirts in his desk drawer. We’re enamoured with the grey suit, the striped tie, the plaid short-sleeve shirts, but in all, what he wears is noteworthy because of the understated nonchalance in a world where the norm for style has become increasingly grabby, self-conscious, ostentatious.

Style, in that sense, is about being at home in space and place. Myself, I lived in 7 cities before the age of 40; I meandered not only geographically, but also academically, religiously, in complex life decisions and in style. All the while, however, I have tried to live with my actions and my identity in alignment – in flux as they may have been. Only now, however, has my sartorial style “become at home.” And while learning to understand Don is learning to understand how lost he is, it’s also to appreciate the journey to be “at home,” where outfit and outlook are in alignment.

That person, no matter what he wears, is in style.

2. Fit is a thousand times more important than fashion

ted60s

60s. Got it.

ted70s

70s. Don’t got it.

As the style of the mid 60s passes and the 70s approach, a strange sacrifice takes place: along with the rise of radical individuality, the invention of global pop-culture and the celebration of personal expression comes the introduction of a generation-long trend in style. As the show closes, proportion and propriety go out the window as fashion conventions (not to mention patterns, colors, and fabrics) give way to the free-for-all of 70s fashion.


60s.

The 60s in their glory, outfits are on-point, and Ginzberg is kooky.

The 60s wane, sleeves get baggy and Ginzberg goes insane.

The 60s wane, sleeves get baggy and Ginzberg goes insane.

On the one hand, I’ve never been one to denigrate the freedom of expression – and more importantly, there was a lot, a lot about 50s and 60s American life that needed to be shed to pave the way for progress. Societal expectations, rigid class, race and gender expectations soften, and the promise of freedom is in the air. On the other hand, and speaking plainly, much of the next phase of style is about statement rather than aesthetic, and the price to pay is that everyone looks plain awful.

In my own exploration of style, I have often found that minimal, understated, and well-tailored rarely goes wrong. And conversely, yearbooks and wedding albums from the 70s and on are full of fashion experiments that might have looked good on a catalog or runway, and bad on everyone else.

And rarely is the issue about pattern or color – as these things fall in and out of favor. But rather, it’s about whether the clothes fit the wearer, or does the wearer wear fit the clothes? Tailored was out. Mass produced was in. Clothes got cheaper, closet sizes expanded, and from a style-perspective, everyone paid the price.

In my own life, as I began to explore the world of style, I bought (and donated) a lot of clothes that made a variety of statements. It took a while to discover what Mad Men’s early seasons knew, and which won every budding sartorialist’s heart: a great fitting suit, a properly tailored shirt, a slender tie, and a clean haircut looks great on any man.

3. There’s a difference between keeping up with the times and having no core-principles

Look at Harry, for example.

Prompting the next question, which Harry?

Every season, he sheds his previous attire and becomes the poster-man-child of the new look. That said, his character is in stark contrast with Stan.


Stan, too, transforms, from on-point, polo-with-blazer, womanizing yuppie of the early seasons to the scruffy, bearded post-hippie who wins Peggy’s heart.

But whereas Stan evolves as a character, being one of few characters to reflect on who he used to be, and who he is now, Harry devolves. He is on-point as he jumps about the TV bandwagon, as he sidles up to the power of computers in the workplace, but he has no honor, no loyalty, culminating in his cringeworthy amorous advances on Joan in season seven.


yuck

Evolution is beautiful.

Evolution is beautiful.

Stan becomes only more trustworthy, more loyal, more sensitive and more honest. His style is a reflection of who he is. As homage to his character, his outfits somehow work, and he is somewhat immune to some of absurdity of the era’s style.

Harry is last shown in a coat we have seen in a hundred thrift-shops, whining about his lunch plans, shoving a cookie in his mouth. Hardly a memorable exit. Stan exits, embraced, loving and in love.

In that sense each shows the light and dark side of style. It can be fickle, a costume, a mask, a way to express power or amass social credit. Or it can be a sincere representation of where someone is, and even an aspiration of where they hope to go.

I hope, dearly, that I am more like Stan.

4. When life takes out an eye, slip on a patch and soldier on

Life kicking Kenny's ass.

Life kicking Kenny’s ass.

Kenny kicks back.

Kenny kicks back.

Kenny could be a tragic character because we know he wants to be a writer and we believe he could do it. However, he is caught up in the corporate world and not only is it consuming him, it takes his eye; he loses it in an account-courting hunting excursion. After losing his job, however, he takes an entirely different path, however, and never looks back. So to speak.

He goes from tragic character to master of his own fate, no longer playing hands but dealing them to others.

We have all picked up our scars in life. Some are visible, many are not. And I am deeply sympathetic to the ways that life can drag people down.

That said, there is something inspiring about Kenny who continues forward, in essence embodying Churchill’s line: success consists of going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

By all means, after loss, we should take time to grieve and mend. And then we should kick ass.

donshortsleeveschilling5. Style is in the office, on vacation, mowing the lawn, at a new-age retreat center, and when alone, drunk in a motel.

I don’t recommend getting drunk, alone in a motel. I don’t recommend making any of the deplorable choices Don makes. One does not have to act like Don, however, to learn from him.

Don teaches us that all things must be done with dignity, and dignity is very closely related to style.

mesuitIn that sense, there is the dignity of a fresh, white shirt after a rough night (whether that rough night involves shady hotel-room or a baby that won’t go back to sleep). There is the dignity of a fresh, well fitting polo shirt while on vacation (whether that vacation involves running away from your crumbling inner world or a weekend in Santa Barbara with your girlfriend). There is the dignity of a short sleeve, button-up shirt when you’re relaxing at home (whether you’re in the garage, opening a can of beer with a metal “churchkey,” or sipping kombucha while trying to figure out what’s wrong with your wifi router).

Even in my worst hours, I don’t want to act like Don, but perhaps I’ve learned something from him about how to hold up my head; perhaps I’ve found some value in his proclamation: sometimes, all I need is “a shower and a shave.”

Pinky Lee, Pee-Wee Herman and Thom Browne

pinkypeekingIf you’re under the age of 60, you probably don’t know the name Pinky Lee, but trust me, you know who he is.

Today, if a man wears a suit and the sleeves end inches from the wrist, if the pants reveal three inches of shin – if he wears a bow tie and clunky shoes – he’s a disciple of designer Thom Browne. The cropped suit, the checkers, the bow-ties: the look has swept the fashion world from haute couture to suburban mall to First Lady Michelle Obama.

30 years ago, if a man wore a suit and the sleeves end inches from the wrist, if the pants revealed three inches of shin – if he wore a bow tie and clunky, white shoes – he was Pee Wee Herman. He won an Emmy for his show, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which was ahead of the curve: gender bending, racially diverse characters taught children (and adults) good lessons without being preachy.

60 years ago, all of these exact elements appeared on-stage in the form of the Pinky-Lee Show, helping pave the way for children’s programming.

One additional crucial element binds three generations and two industries together: the shrunken suit. Pinky didn’t invent it, but maybe he made it famous.


pinkysuitPinky Lee was children’s TV before there was such a thing as children’s TV. Contemporaneous with the Howdy Doody show, The Pinky Lee Show was more spastic, had a lower production value, and lacked the clever marionettes of Howdy-Doody. But The Pinky Lee Show had something Howdy Doody never had: Pinky Lee himself.

Born Pincus Leff in 1907, Pinky Lee became a master of slapstick in the 30s and 40s, borrowing from Burlesque comedy foms – and by “Burlesque,” I refer to the genre of variety show that arose out of Victorian cabarets and clubs: jokes, dance, baudiness, mock irritation at various annoyances, pratfalls, the works. It’s the grandmother of modern comedy and show-biz dance. I’ve watched some, including Pinky Lee’s early performances, and while it isn’t necessarily “LOL” by today’s standards, it’s kind of mesmerizing. That man can dance.

goatAfter a first attempt at a TV comedy series was cancelled, Pinky Lee started a children’s show: there, he pranced around in a shrunken-suit, directing his nasal lisp to the camera:

Come on, everybody – hug each other!

He sings and dances and plays xylophone, little dogs walk on tight-ropes, odd characters join him on a “playground” stage – it’s Burlesque stripped of the sexuality, cleaned up for an innocent audience, and it’s like watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse thirty years before it dropped. Pinky Lee’s “man-child” persona, the androgyny, the lisp, the tone of the show, it’s all there. And what else?

The one thing they all have in common: Short sleeves, short pants, loud colors: the suit.


Thom Browne, Pee Wee Herman and Pinky Lee: what a weird trifecta.

On May 2 is Pinky Lee’s Birthday, and in honor of that, here are 5 things we can learn from the Pinky-Lee and his later “incarnations.”


goggles1. Serious and silly are not polar opposites.

A google search for “Thom Browne” could cause any skeptic to blurt: he can’t be serious.

Behemoth vintage-varsity football players in Grandma-On-Easter colors. Nantucket-meets-aviator-schoolgirl. Androgynous phylactery sci-fi Chassidic.

It’s silly until you look at it, closer. Again. It’s silly and serious. Male and female, weak and strong, future and past, high and low, and every human proportion possible – all these are mashed up, turned on their heads. He turns the fashion runway into a playground, into Alice down the rabbit-hole: curiouser and curiouser.

varsitygrandmaAnd then, there are moments of true elegance. Genius.

All three challenge the audience: when am I serious, and when am I silly?

2. Sometimes, you find your calling after (or even through) setback.

Pinky Lee began his career following a set-back – during a time when Televsion was still forming as a medium, he appeared on a series of show with limited success, and certainly, very little critical success. Said the New York times about one of his projects: “Pinky Lee suffers from a dearth of both material and versatility.”

Thom Browne design: serious or silly?

Thom Browne design: Serious or silly?

Pinky Lee Design: Seriously Silly

Pinky Lee design: Seriously silly.

After his adult show was cut, a TV producer’s children missed him in their lives, and demanded he brought back.

A few years later, he was one of the biggest acts in Children’s TV, and had helped to establish the role of energetic host.

Paul Reuben’s came up with the idea of a children’s show following the disheartening loss of a role on SNL to Gilbert Gottfried.

Long live perfect failures.

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Thom Browne, himself.

Pee Wee Herman, himself

Pee Wee Herman, himself

3. Often, clean lines are best

Pee-Wee comes off as a man-child, but his show (especially early on) was full of adult innuendo (though most of it pretty juvenile in nature). Likewise, some of Pinky Lee’s work (especially in the 70s) is raunchy, and by todays’ standards, offensive.

That said, Pinky Lee once responded to a criticism: “I was the cleanest comedian in burlesque… No violence. There are no gestures, alluding to the derriere or other parts of the anatomy. Words like ‘lousy’ or ‘stinker’ are absolutely verboten… It’s a happy, wholesome show.”

And I have to say, the times I smile, watching Pinky Lee on stage, are when I’m moved by how uncynical, unprocessed, and clean it is.

Styles of excess come and go, but honest and clean is forever.

peeweeleaningpinkyears4. Whatever your passion, do it fully

Newsweek magazine wrote in 1954: “In his show [Pinky Lee] expends more energy than anyone this side of Jerry Lewis.”

Time magazine called him, “One of the hardest working men in TV.”

Indeed, watching him can be exhausting. Sadly, and on that note, his years of greatest success came to an end when he collapsed on-stage. It appeared that he’d danced himself into a heart-attack, though he was later said to have suffered from an acute sinus-infection.

pinkybird3While I never wish anyone to have a breakdown from doing the thing they love, Pinky Lee inspires us to put our fullest selves into our passions:

“I just want to do the thing I love the best – entertain children.”

5. Everyone needs to play

When I first began working in an office-environment, I was captivated by the clothing; I transitioned from the “whatever” of college sweatshirts and jeans to oxford shirts, leather shoes and a tie.

By the time I’d been working for a decade, dress clothes had become de rigeur. Putting on professional garb had become a restriction, rather than a thrilling form of make-believe, wherein I was a kid, duping everyone into thinking I was an adult.

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Portrait of the Author as a Thom Browne / Pee-Wee Herman / Thom Browne disciple

When I stumbled across Thom Browne (literally ran past – as in, I was jogging past a store where a friend was picking something up), I was shaken, inspired by the idea that clothes could be elegant, powerful, classic, and clean — and also totally fantastic. An outfit could be gentlemanly and boyish at the same time. The timing was good; I had already begun to play with style, and with the roles that nostalgia and Americana (both forms of fantasy) could play in my own appearance.

I find it fitting that my style icon is sometimes made fun off by derogatory comparisons to someone shameless, hilarious, and in some ways, timeless. The irony – the insult is a compliment.

“I know you are but what am I?”

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Happy birthday, Pinky Lee

Hats (small and checkered) off to you, Pinky Lee, not only for what you did, but also, for who you inspired.


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