It caused a sensation in my house when my brother emerged from his preppy teenager chrysalis as a full-fledged dandy. My dad, who once went on TV with a "Purina Dog Chow" tee clearly visible through his shirt, was baffled:
"Why are Charlie's pants so small?" he would ask me, confused. The transformation had occurred, as it so often does, at college. Charlie had left in no-nonsense khakis and a serviceable close-cropped haircut. When he returned for Thanksgiving break, it was in microscopic Levis, vintage chelsea boots and hair that had been carefully hacked by a Brooklyn razor and disarrayed with the aid of a wax produced by none other than Jonathan Antin.
I for one was thrilled, and we quickly bonded over trips to the Salvation Army and earnest discussions of whether his new sartorial direction should be more Antoine Doinel or early Chris Squire. Sometimes we shared pants. His girlfriend, no incidental player in the transformation, looked on benevolently in cowboy boots and a vintage chubby.
My dad, however, was saddened. Charlie was his baseball buddy, his lunch companion, his pal - who was this nascent fop scouring eBay for belt buckles? Not one to look free clothes in the mouth, he inherited Charlie's castaways, and was soon walking the dog in carpenter jeans and an Abercrombie jacket while Charlie lounged and minced in pants that could just barely contain a wallet and soon showed the hipster's telltale back-pocket rectangle, the inevitable result of skin-tight denim and ever-present Camels. My dad, with the exception of a brief period in the 70s when a girlfriend accented his jew-fro with flares, is the sort of man who's never been in step with fashion and went blithely from mom to girlfriend to wife without ever having to worry too much about what he wore. Since my mother shopped exclusively at discount outlets, this was largely a good thing.
What was at play between the men of 10 Euclid Avenue was a conflict as old as time: serious men don't care about clothes, goes the traditional, while the effete, the affected, the decadent, do. Writes Jasper Gerard in the Daily Telegraph, <blockquote<Women have long been trained to understand clothes, whatever one makes of Cheryl Cole's extraordinary wardrobe on The X Factor. Because they have no obvious uniform, they actually have to think about what to wear every morning: how formal should I appear? How much personality should I display? Legs – yes or no? Ditto cleavage. Men just grab the first suit to hand and whatever shirt looks vaguely ironed, or failing that, clean. The only sartorial decision we have faced in a decade has been "tie or no tie?" and we're still trying to get over that trauma. Plant us under a palm tree and it goes hideously wrong, literally. Tabloids take cruel delight in highlighting celebrity cellulite on women, but it is the male tight Speedo/beer belly combo that has readers spitting out skinny lattes in disgust...Men are forgiven for looking boring off duty as long as they have clearly made absolutely no effort. But it is men who have tried that are ridiculed; particularly those who have almost certainly thought not only about their wardrobe but – ugh – about something more generalised, namely their "image".
Meanwhile, the new series "Puts This On" is predicated on the assumption that men don't know how to dress like grownups - and shows them how. This is as we've always understood the world should be. Men - and by this, people always mean straight men - shouldn't care. They can look fine, as long as a girlfriend or wife or gay man has taken them in hand and made them over, Drive Me Crazy-style. (When straight men make each other over, the effect is, instead, The Pick-Up Artist.)
What my dad saw as frippery and frivolity I understood to be something else: the knowledge that you can change the way you are seen and perceived, and express exactly what you want at any time. Charlie's makeover was not in a vacuum, but of a piece with new interests in books and music, and there was nothing wrong with this. Those men I know who are sharpest (and yes, there are goofy exceptions) are not empty-headed Brummels. I have one friend whose love of tailoring mirrors his passion for history. Another, the boyfriend of one of the site's editors and the sharpest dresser in existence, projects a cool confidence at all times that's of a piece with his music and his sense of place in the world. And we're not even touching Arlo Weiner.
My brother, meanwhile, has both grown (physically; he now wears men's pants) and evolved somewhat since those first heady days of New England Liberal Arts nirvana. He is, without question, a dandy: he gets all his thrift store trousers pegged and his hair still bears the hallmark of Williamsburg. But he's also an interesting and well-rounded guy who doesn't see liking outfits as at odds with anything else and is wholly without self-consciousness. He might wear an unfortunate tweed cap where my dad trumpets dog food on live TV. But at the end of the day, it's all a self-confidence that's good - or, at least, is what it is.