fashion

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?

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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.

Vintage Varsity: Lettering in Style

letterman

Before David Letterman, there was THE Letterman.

My own history with varsity style involves a lot of very un-varsity moments.

I would eventually experience great disappointment in discovering that the only part of this movie that applied to my freshman year at college was the nerdiness.

I would eventually experience great disappointment in discovering that the only part of this movie that applied to my freshman year at college was the nerdiness.

First, when I was a little kid, there was varsity-superhero Letter Man, a favorite regular on the PBS show, Electric Company. His sport: ripping the letter from his sweater and applying it to spoiled words – thus restoring “custard” to those who’d been forced to eat mustard. Kids learned to read. The word/world was saved.

Then there was “Lambda Lambda Lambda,” the fraternity in which a gaggle of outsiders found comradery, legitimacy and pride in Revenge of the Nerds.

Moving on, there was my big opportunity to earn a letter in high school. No, not in football. In the National Speech and Debate Organization. I would go on to win second place in state, but stupidly, I turned down the letter.

That move would go on to haunt me for decades.


varsityusageThe unfortunate mistake I made had nothing to do with the prestige of lettering, seeing as how my award-winning speech about drawing Beatles caricatures afforded me all the prestige I needed. Rather, I lost the opportunity to bag one of those cool sweaters.

Until this year.

The usage infographic on the right testifies to the return of the term “varsity,” in modern parlance. This is especially fortuitous because it coincides with the availability of varsity apparel for style-dorks. The monopoly on this classic piece of Americana, previously held by the sinister jocks (Alpha Betas and their cronies), has been broken.


vintagevarsityBefore I tell you where to nab a great varsity sweater and what to wear it with, a little history. First, the word varsity is derived from the word “university,” and simply reflects an outdated pronunciation. The tradition of the letter goes back to the second half of the 1800s, when Harvard used them to mark uniforms, and would award the lettered jersey to the captain of a successful team at the end of the season.

Ten years before this, a successful British military commander during the Crimean war made popular a button-up woven garment. His name?  James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan.

These historical events, combined with the roaring twenties and the rise of college culture, lead to the proliferation of the varsity sweater across America, and that leads us to today, where I have a few to many of them in my closet, and yet, weirdly, not enough.


kippersweater

Americana Overdrive

How to rock a varsity sweater

While you could wear a varsity sweater as a layer piece over whatever you wanted, I’d like to suggest that the fun multiplies with additional vintage style elements – many of which are as common as a pair of dark, indigo jeans, with a generous cuff, and even a bow-tie or newsboy cap. 

On the other hand, if you’re concerned about looking too costumey, have a peek at my How Much Flair infographic, which will guide you in upping your style-game without going overboard.


Look 1: Americana Overdrive

This look (above) pairs a great varsity sweater by the progressive clothing company Kipper Clothiers with a denim tie and a gingham shirt: Americana layered on Americana. This sweater is beautifully made, soft, and stylish. Grab a pair of incredibly cheap, but incredibly styley PF Flyers to complete the look.

Note: if you want to layer this many patterns, stick to a tried-and-true color palette: red, white and blue.


greensweaterandplaidvintagevarsityLook 2: Two Layers of Vintage

norristhrash

Stay Fly Thrash: Advanced Style Swerves

This sweater lacks the typical letter of a varsity cardigan but hey, notice the stripe on the sleeve? That’s Thom Browne’s nod to the varsity stripes – which, incidentally, stand for how many years you participated in the sport. In this case, the sport of styliness. On the left, the sweater is paired with a gingham shirt, an idea I shamelessly ripped off from StayFlyThrash, who pulls off advanced style swerves that require a PhD in cool. Somehow, the strong colors work, and pull the look off the college campus and push it into post-modern fashion-zone.

On the right, paired with Chuck Taylors, plaid pants and a bow-tie,  I’m ready for a Gatsby party. (On the rare occasion when there isn’t such an event happening in San Francisco, one is happening in my head).


leanonscopeE-bay Pullover

This sweater came from eBay, and it’s a success story in the power of the saved search.

I’m a big fan of Andre 3000s now defunct label, Benjamin Bixby (wherein he combined his middle and last name with vintage prep style).

This sweater probably retailed for the cost of a semester at an ivy-league college, but I paid very little for it.

On eBay, you can ask for an alert if a particular item is posted. 6 months ago, I saved a search for Andre 3000’s finest, received a notification a few weeks ago, and put in a low, low bid.

Here, I pair it with the ubiquitous dark denim, a used newsboy Goorin Brothers cap,  and some PF Flyers, for an old school look. By the way, the whole outfit cost me under $80. Take that, Yale. I learned my economics on the internet.


ragnbonewsuit

fullonsuitSuitable for Anywhere

Here are two ways to pair vintage varsity with a suit. On the left, a vintage tweed suit pairs beautifully with the Kipper Clothiers cardigan.

My advice: make sure the colors compliment each other, and avoid too smooth a suit; you want something with texture to balance the cozy sweater.

On the right, the varsity look lives only in the sleeve of this dress shirt from Gant. I waited until this shirt was languishing on the clearance rack and got it for a third of the price.

Incidentally, buttoning the top button (otherwise known as an “air tie“) helps to keep the look streamlined and casual – even while earning As for awesome.


gabiinstylgram

Letters for the Women’s Team

In case it wasn’t clear how much I love the vintage varsity look, maybe this will convince you, and maybe it will give you some ideas of your own: I poked around online and found a bunch of Rugby by Ralph Lauren cardigans for someone special.

Gabi (said special person) wears a lot of great dresses, often with strong, primary colors. I wondered: how would those dresses pair with a vintage-style varsity sweater? Answer: amazing.

The Rugby label is now defunct, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t available. Head over to your favorite online auction and offer a bid and see if you can’t bag a once-super-expensive sweater for much less.

The sweater lends the outfit a cuddly, sporty aesthetic, and she pairs it beautifully with some Chuck Taylors, Clark’s Boots, or a pair of vintage heels.


troublephoto

Sweater by Ralph Lauren Rugby, socks by Happy Socks, and hat by Goorin Brothers. Pair with a wool tie and a collared shirt and wear it anywhere.

Dress Up, Dress Down

In an earlier post of Dress-Up/Dress-Down mashups, I got pretty nerdy on the subject of mixing formal and informal elements, creating great art, architecture, and style.

Whether you decide to hunt for a varsity cardigan or not, I hope this post gives you some ideas for adding together sporty and dressy elements.

GQ can keep their $400 “sportscore” designer sweatpants. I’d rather pull my influences from a style that never goes out of style.

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.

thombrownegq

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.

measpeewee

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?”

pinkyleehat

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.


3heros

How and When to Roll Up Jacket Sleeves

blazersNo, you won’t look like Don Johnson.

Yes, you can roll up your blazer sleeves.

Just follow these three simple rules.

1. Shoulders

NO: Big shoulder pads.

YES: “Unstructured,” casual jacket.

2. Material

NO: Wool, tweed, “suit material” – essentially, a suit jacket.

YES: Casual materials like cotton, jersey (sweatshirt material), or “sweatery” material.

3. Fit

NO: Boxy, drapey fits.

YES: Slim fit.

Got that? Put it on with a casual, knit tie, and roll ’em up!


Wanna know more about unstructured blazers? Check out my other posts on how, when and why to wear unstructured blazers.