Dressed to kill

Russell Baker

October 09, 1991|By Russell Baker

BAGGY CLOTHES are back in fashion. Men's fashion, at least. And fashion, men are always saying, doesn't mean much if you're a man.

So while baggy clothes are back in fashion, you don't really have to wear them unless you want to look conspicuous, or like somebody in the entertainment business.

This kind of men's fashion, which is the kind that changes every year like women's fashion, seems to originate in Italy nowadays. I don't get to Italy nearly enough anymore, so can't tell you whether the men there really go around lost in billowing acres of cloth, as the New York Times Magazine, for instance, would have us believe.

I hope not. All my life I have envied Italian men what I always took to be an elegance of figure and carriage rarely found in the more lumbering men of the North. Italian men seemed aware of this natural asset and, when they dressed expensively, dressed to exploit it. That is, in clothes cut to show off a graceful figure.

Can they have turned fat, sprawling and blowzy during my absence? If not, what explains these vastnesses of fabric turned into suits, jackets, slacks, overcoats? Is it cynical to suspect that these haberdashery excesses are designed not for Italian males but for the great cumbersome Northern hulks that make up so much of America's manhood?

Let me say, before proceeding, that I do not regard it as bigoted stereotyping to suggest that the Italian male form is aesthetically superior to others. Stereotyping that flatters the stereotyped party is widely accepted.

Saying that Germans have a genius for efficiency, for example, is socially respectable everywhere, as is the assertion that the Irish have a gift for using words beautifully. Here are stereotypes of the most obvious sort, yet society approves them because they flatter.

In short, stereotyping people is bad only when it fails to flatter. So no nasty letters, thank you, about my flattering comment on the Italian male figure. (For those of you bored by this digression, I apologize but point out that one must watch his or her every step through the language these days.)

But back to our male clothes horses: Whiskers are also in style. No, I don't mean beards, mustaches, sideburns, ponytails or any of those other beauty accessories of modern male hairdressing. I mean beard stubble. Five o'clock shadow. The old hobo three-day chin growth.

If the men's fashion photographers can be believed, chic gents will let their whiskers grow for three or four days, then burrow into a $1,900 jacket with shoulders big enough to contain two Schwarzeneggers or four 1941 zoot suiters, and stand around looking sour while women swoon and clean-shaven gents in their chintzy old tweeds and blazers eat their hearts out.

For maximum impact, wear your shirt buttoned at the collar but without a necktie. This no-necktie trend is puzzling. Could it be that the necktie industry didn't make its annual baksheesh delivery to directors of men's fashion?

Of course a man with buttoned-up shirt and no necktie tends to look like a bum, especially if he hasn't shaved for several days. People who remember hobos in the 1930's dropping off trains to canvass door-to-door for food say they usually wore a suit and a shirt, usually buttoned at the neck, but no necktie, and a lot of whiskers.

Maybe the philosophers of men's fashion are nostalgic for hobo days. If so, they ought to put their guys in hats. Snap-brim fedora is the correct look. Even the hobos wore hats in the bearded old days.

OK: the five o'clock shadow, the hobo no-necktie look, the billows of cloth -- all this speaks of cunning Italian designers trying to seduce the big, awkward, yet sentimental American male.

(You think any Italian man pays $1,900 for a sports jacket? $450 for a sweater? $2,500 for an off-the-peg suit? Well, maybe Italian fashion designers can afford it.)

To cap it all off, put on a sullen look, the grim pan as it's known in men's fashion circles. This is the inexpensive part of the get-up. Tell yourself you're not going to get to Italy next year either. The look follows automatically.

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