Certainly, at this point in my life, I would have to admit that I am not a slave to fashion anymore. I suppose I never was a true slave, but let’s just say I had an acute sense of it whether I could afford it or not. There is nothing more disgusting to me than seeing a person of a certain age trying to dress au courant. This past summer in Provincetown I enjoyed the parade of young twenty-somethings in their tight, tight summer tees and cute butt-hugging shorts on their way to and from Tea Dance every afternoon. I can fully appreciate the look, but there is no way I would ever insult the masses by accentuating my quasi drooping man tits and five months pregnant belly bump by trying to wear the same outfit, no matter how damn fashionable it might be. But I’m not walking around in grandfatherly polyester trousers and fuchsia Crocs either. I think I am able to dress in a current mode adapted to my age and more importantly my body type. I just wish more of my peers and the American populace in general would follow suit. As delightful a sight it is to watch sweet young men dressed to thrill, I wretch inside seeing some older dude like myself (old enough to know better) attempting to don the same gay apparel. Worse yet, is when you see these same guys inappropriately clothed in leather chaps and vest, exposing their sagging, wrinkled chest and oft times matching ass cheeks, parading as though they are a hot property, ripe for the picking. Do these people have access to mirrors, I ask myself? What aren’t they thinking?
Oh, and I think back to my days when I planned outfits to go to breakfast with friends at diners! And my dancing days going to a place like Le Jardin in NYC in the early 70s in an expensive Quiana shirt and low-slung, hip-hugging dress slacks. An outfit like that was not complete without a pair of towering platform shoes, and I had several pairs of those (which were lovingly referred to at that time as joan-crawford-come-fuck-me-pumps). How I wish I had a color snapshot of one of those outfits. Err, on second thought…
So, when did I first become aware of fashion and style? We have to step into the Way-way Back Machine for that one. I was the second boy in the family and my brother was seven years older than me. We weren’t poor, but every dime certainly counted and absolutely nothing was ever wasted. My parents were raised during the Depression, and they never let us forget about it. I sometimes think they were trying to relive it by their frugality as a sort of reverse “Good Old Days” thing. My mother had kept a series of large cardboard boxes in our attic, each marked with my older brother’s age in one year increments. Every fall I remember going up into the unfinished space to open the next box in the sequence. She did this until my older brother turned thirteen. This would have been age four when I remember opening box 4, my first box and started trying on the contents for a sort of runway show for my mom. Fashion didn’t change very drastically in the 50s, especially for children, but seven years is a helluva’ long time, and to make matters worse, I had an uncle who was only three years older than my brother and some of his hand-me-downs were mixed into the boxes.
The pivotal outfit responsible for my awareness happened to be a brown woolen snowsuit: buttoned, fitted coat, snow pants with suspenders and a matching skull-cap complete with neck strap. It was constructed of the hardest, stiffest brown wool you could ever imagine. I still remember the collar rubbing my tender little four-year-old neck, the trousers instantly chafing my inner thighs and the hat that fit like a metal helmet because this wool was made to last and had no natural “give” at all. AND it was my uncle’s, so this awful thing was new during the Second World War and it certainly looked it. “It fits perfectly”, my mother beamed. I stared into the big mirror on the attic wall and realized that it looked even worse than it felt. It was hate at first wearing. I reminded myself of the pictures in LIFE magazine of the war orphans still wandering around eastern European cities that I was told to feel sorry for. “Somebody should feel sorry for me having to wear this shit-brown outfit”, I reflected to my four-year-old self.
But as mom had remarked, it fit perfectly, which meant it was mine for at least this season, and if I didn’t grow, possibly next winter as well. Of course at age four, where did I think I would have to go? Didn’t matter. I resented having to wear it; not so much for how it looked or felt, but because it wasn’t new. Clothes should be new when you get them and you should have a say-so in choosing them. How or where I learned this, I don’t know, but I know I felt it strongly and I had to find a way to get a new snowsuit of my very own and soon. I just had no idea how I would pull this off.
It got cold early that year. Cleveland winter weather can be brutal due to the lake effect (everything bad comes down from Canada), so I was forced to begin wearing the atrocious thing before Thanksgiving, because I remember going to Grandma’s house for the family dinner and she grinned from ear to ear when seeing me become occupant number three of the snowsuit from hell. We got an early snowstorm soon after, which is when the photo of me was taken. How fortunate to have captured it on film. Then there came a freak thaw and everything melted so it was cold but a brief reprieve from winter. We had a huge dog at the time that used the area behind our garage as his toilet. All that was back there were our garbage cans and lots and lots of big piles of doggy-do. In the weeks before they had been frozen poop piles, but now with the thaw, they were once again nearly as mushy as they day they had plopped out of the dog. I was playing back there in the residue of what a week before had been tall mounds of snow and accidentally stepped on a pile of dung. Suddenly, the answer to my problem came to me as I attempted to clean the mess from my rubber boot.
How easy it would be to slip and fall into this back yard melange of slush and shit. I knew I couldn’t get just a little soiled. I had to make sure I became covered in the stuff. Even the cap had to be made unsalvageable. I actually remember thinking that! Can you imagine the deviousness of me at this young age? But I knew if done right, I could be on my way to Robert Halls for a new snowsuit after supper that night. And so I did that which needed to be done. I first looked around, knowing full well no one could see me behind the garage, (but guilt already had me in its clutches). I threw myself into the nastiest most densely doggy-dunged area I could find, and rolled myself into the mess, making sure to get as much as I possibly could onto the coat, trousers and cap. The only thing I protected was my face. Making sure I was totally disgusting, I ran screaming and crying to the back door where I banged to alert my mother.
Of course I had managed to gross myself out in the process, so the tears were not faked or forced. I had worked myself into a hysteria that only a mother’s love could calm and I prayed it would work. She opened the back door and her face said it all. “OH MY GOD WHAT DID YOU DO? What happened!?!” I told her, between grand sobs, that I had been playing in the snow piles behind the garage and slipped into the dog mess. She immediately started ranting about my lazy older brother whose job it was to clean up after “his dog”, and I knew I was half way there. “Now”, I wondered to myself, “had I done a good enough job to make her want to chuck this shitty outfit”? She told me to stand still as she eyed me up and down and had me turn around to survey the situation. There were actually turds and pieces of turds hanging from a coat sleeve and lodged under the collar. “How did you get it all over” she kept asking? “I slipped and fell down and hurt myself” I cried even more, afraid that it might not have worked. “Take off that coat and put it in the garbage can. We can’t even take it to the dry cleaners like that. It’s ruined”. The magic words had been uttered. And I did as she told me, stuffing the trousers into the can as well. I ran back towards the door as she screamed “the cap-the cap is covered in potty, too”. I almost danced a jig as I pulled it off my head and buried it too with the rest of the ensemble. I had to take off the boots at the back door. They got washed in the stationery tubs in the basement . I don’t think we made it to Robert Halls that night. But no more than a few days later, I chose a navy blue, modern, NEW snowsuit that I wore that winter and the following one as well. Of course, as in most future new clothing purchases, my mother bought it bigger than necessary, “so I could grow into it”. I didn’t mind that at all, for a few years, at least.