“My Father’s Fashion Tips”

Tom Junod writes about his father’s impeccable style and the secrets of a lost generation of men:

They work, my father’s fashion tips. That’s what’s funny about them, besides the fact that they are…well, funny in the first place. They work, or they worked, for him, for my father. They were cohesive and complementary; they spoke in a single voice; they were his manifesto. Take a look, for example, at a picture of my father standing in a group of his fellow salesmen at a Bar Mitzvah circa 1962. Take a look at the one man whose jacket sleeves cover his shirt cuffs, like the sleeves of a cassock. He does not look merely glum or sour; he looks defeated, whipped, _scared_, precancerous—a recessive man, with a receding hairline. Now take a look at my father, holding in one pinkie-ringed hand a drink _and_ a cigarette. He is about 43 years old, and, by God, he is _glistening_, for he is in his prime, and all the elements are in place. He has a fresh [suntan], and he is wearing a shirt with a high collar. He is wearing a suit of midnight blue, single-breasted, with a silver tie and a handkerchief in the pocket (I’ve never heard him call it a “pocket square“), which he does not fold into regimental points but rather simply “throws in there,“ so that what shows is just “a puff.“ He is undoubtedly wearing bikini underwear, for anybody who wears bor shorts is “a square“ or “a farmer,“ as in, “What are you, a farmer?“; and he is undoubtedly wearing socks, or “hose,“ that go “over the calf, knee-high,“ for if there’s anything he hates more than long sleeves on a suit jacket, it’s “ankle socks,“ because “I can’t stand to see someone sitting down with their _ankles_ showing—their white ankles and their black socks.“ His shirt has French cuffs, of course, and he’s showing plenty of them—“at least an inch“—and he looks _sharp_… and by _sharp_ I mean avid, by _sharp_ I mean almost feral, by _sharp_ I mean that if this were not a Bar Mitzvah but rather a meeting of the Five Families, when the _schnorrer_ in the long sleeves and the bor shorts and the ankle socks would be the guy fingered for a rubout, and the guy showing plenty of cuff would be the man commissioned for the kill. 1962: a good time for sharp dressers. 1962: Even the freaking _president_ is a sharp dresser, and he’s just about the same age as my father, and as for him, as for Lou Junod, well, he’s still coming _on_, and if he looks, in this picture, slightly dangerous, in his own proud display, I also have no doubts that on this resplendent day he was one of the most beautiful men in the world.

“I didn’t grow up with any of the disadvantages,“ my father says at the Dune Deck. “I didn’t have any money; I didn’t have any brains—all I had was my looks and my charisma.“ Yes, that’s right: His fashion tips worked because they had to work—because he had nothing else. No education to speak of, and no religion worth naming; no father (his father was a briny, bingeing drunk, and whenever any of us mentioned him, whenever any of us used the words “your father,“ Dad was quick to correct us: “I had no father“); not even any history (to this day, I have no idea when my father’s forebears came to this country or who they were or where they came from). He came out of nowhere, thirteen pounds at bird, born to a great, kindly bawdy woman who played piano in the pits of silent-movie houses. So he was big from the start, Big Lou, but that’s all he was, and so he had to just keep getting bigger—for my father, it was celebrity or bust. His mentors, his teachers, his influences—they weren’t men; they were gorgeous silvered shadows, dancing across movie screens…and by the time he was 16 or 17, he was singing their songs, blanching the Brooklyn from his voice on the way home from the theater, and he was dressing like them, or trying to, anyway, and so was everybody else. That’s the most amazing thing about listening to my father’s stories of his coming of age—the sheer aspiration in them, and how easily it was shared and passed around; the way so many of them begin with my father and one of his rivals squaring off for a fight over a girl and end with the two of them recognizing each other before they ever come to blows and then going off somewhere to talk about clothes, of all things, and about style, and about class, and to argue over who was the better dresser, Fred Astaire or Cary Grant or Walter Pidgeon. My father believed, absolutely, in the old saw, at once terrifying and liberating, that “clothes make the man,“ and so did his friends, and so everything they wore had to tell a story, and the story had to be about them, because otherwise, the world was never going to hear it. That’s really my father’s first fashion tip, come to think of it: that everything you wear has to add up, that everything has to make sense and absolutely f’ing signify. He did not come up in the current culture of corporate individualism, so he could not let himself off the hook by wearing some fucking T-shirt that says NIKE on the front or CHICAGO BULLS; he has never been able to understand the utility of dressing, intentionally, like a slob, nor to discern what preference a heterosexual man is advertising when he wears an earring. “What do they mean?“ he asks of earrings. “I’ve asked, and I’ve never gotten a good answer. Do they mean that you’re a swinger? Do they mean that you’re free? Nobody’s ever been able to tell me….”

Irony? Irony is no answer, because in my father’s view a man is not allowed irony in the wearing of clothes. Irony is for women, because for them clothes are all about play, all about tease and preamble—because for them dressing is all about undressing. For a man, though, clothes both determine and mark his place in the world; they are about coming from nakedness, rather than going to it—and so irony spells diminution, because irony says that you don’t mean it…and you have to mean it. You have to mean what you wear. Hell, my father remembers what he wore at just about every important moment in his life, and even at moments of no importance at all—moments whose only meaning derived from the fact that my father was wearing clothes worth remembering; moments when it might have seemed to my father that the clothes on his back and the sincere force with which he wore them were enough to deliver him where he wanted to go: “You know, I used to walk on a cloud when I walked down Fifth Avenue and went to La Grenouille for lunch. Like I owned it, you know? I remember one day I met [a fellow salesman, named Joel] with his wife. I was wearing a beige glen-plaid suit—beautiful—and a shirt with a white collar, with a silk grenadine tie and a set of nice cuff links, and Joel’s wife said, ‘Joel, I never saw anything like it. Look at the way these women are carrying on over Lou. Every place we go. It’s unbelievable.’ And it was. It really was. And I used to feel so good, I couldn’t believe it—and that was enough to satisfy me. I didn’t have to go any further with it. And whatever aspirations I had of being theatrical, of being in show business, I was—I was.”

Wonderful portrait.